Song Deconstructed: ‘The Water’ by Gabriella Cilmi
The Australian singer-songwriter explains how The Doors, Scientology documentaries and two chords went into the making of her latest release
Signed to Island Records and working with the powerhouse production team Xenomania, Gabriella Cilmi’s debut album was a hit all around the world. Propelled by the smash single Sweet About Me (the most-played song in the UK in 2009), Cilmi went on to earn nominations at the Brits and Q Awards, and picked up a hatful of ARIA Music Awards.
Yet something didn’t sit well with Cilmi and after the release of her second album, she split from both her label and management company. Cilmi’s latest release The Water suggests that she may well now be out the other side – ready to blossom into the classic singer-songwriter that she always wanted to be. Here, in her own words, she explains how the new song was pieced together…
It was a sunny day when my brother picked up his acoustic and played the blues in my lounge-room/kitchen/studio. No one was in a particularly bad mood, but I’ve been a sucker for a blues riff ever since I heard my uncle playing Morrison Hotel by The Doors and Roadhouse Blues for the first time. So I started to sing a little melody and I think the chorus came first. The blues features quite discretely in the completed recording of The Water but it forms the foundation of the song and provided inspiration for the melody and other instrumentation.
At the time we were writing the song I was staying up late binge-watching Wild, Wild Country on Netflix and quite a few different docs on Scientology… I think we’ve all fallen down that rabbit hole on YouTube. I had some weird dreams! Characters like Osho and L. Ron Hubbard were firmly planted inside my subconscious.
The idea of a self-proclaimed messiah luring followers and promising them peace of mind and you know, the answers to life, the universe and everything whilst taking all their cash and making them bankrupt at the same… was the main inspiration behind the lyrics. It really made me think of how desperate we can be, myself included, to believe in someone or something that sometimes we put all our faith, time, energy and cash into something dodgy. Whether it be a bad romance or phoning up the psychic hotline at 2am on a Monday night…
The whole track is based on only two chords, G to A, so it’s pretty straightforward in that sense. When we were writing the track we recorded it on my mobile with two guitars, one fingerpicking and one playing the blues. It was just about getting a nice grove going and creating a nice bed of texture to support the melody. I could definitely hear some slide guitar action and knew that I wanted to play around with Harmonica when I got into the studio (with Eliot James, who produced the track).
In The Studio
When I got into the studio with Eliot the first thing we did was lay down the acoustic and main vocal. We recorded both simultaneously to help establish the groove of the song and keep some “live” spontaneity. Eliot was pretty firm about not doing too many takes of anything as the aim of the entire EP was to keep it feeling as live as possible without it actually being a live recording. Its really easy to get bogged down in a vocal take so this required a lot of restraint on my end, but it definitely paid off. Eliot laid down the piano, with some sneaky chord inversions to keep things moving along then came the bass, drums and electric guitars. We added some sprinkles to the cupcake with some atmospheric slide and harmonica.
I think this song, in many ways, was a good exercise in self-restraint. From the basic blues bed that birthed it to the no-nonsense recording, everything was free to fall into its place without too much fuss. Overall, it was quite a cathartic experience, which I thoroughly enjoyed.