With the release on Friday of Tug Of War, singer Gina Sicilia is upping her game. Labeled as a blues singer early on, she has continually strived to add more of the musical genres she loves into her music. And on her seventh recording, it all comes together in a nicely wrapped package of eleven songs.
Born and raised near Philadelphia, the former university student who thought she might be a Broadcast Journalist, found her true calling was letting her voice carry her creativity, just in a more melodic way. It was while Sicilia was still at college that she began attending blues jams, building her confidence with the help of some very encouraging people. Her debut album, 2007’s Allow Me To Confess, made a mark on blues charts and she was nominated as Best New Artist at the Blues Music Awards.
Tug Of War finds Sicilia maneuvering through emotions stemming from a traumatic time in her life. Preferring to write very close to the wound as it opens, Sicilia’s anger and heartbreak feels real and unsoothed yet by the healing of time. Wrapping her voice around originals and covers that encompass what was going on in her psyche, Sicilia comes out on top with “Damaging Me,” “They Never Pay Me,” “I Don’t Want To Be In Love” and “Abandoned.”
Glide spoke with Sicilia recently about her new songs and why writing at the moment of emotional impact works best for her.
Tug Of War is your seventh recording. What was the main inspiration behind this group of songs?
The main inspiration isn’t something necessarily something that I’m happy I had but it was definitely difficult times that I went through, difficult moments that I went through over the past three years since I moved from Philadelphia down to Nashville. It was the kind of back and forth of something good happens and then something horrible would happen. That’s why I called it Tug Of War cause life is a tug of war between good and bad. Over the past few years it just seemed like a lot of stuff happened. I never go into specifics really but that was the inspiration. A lot of raw emotions going into the studio and sad things that happened but also good things that happened too so it’s a mix of emotions.
Was it harder to record the more sad songs with them so fresh?
I actually kind of liked it (laughs). I like to write songs from experience. I kind of look at it as something good came out of these bad experiences so at least I got something out of it. It really was a good thing going into the studio having these raw emotions from coming out of these experiences. For one of the songs, I was really angry and still feeling that when I was recording the song and it comes through. Another one of the songs I wrote shortly before I went in the studio and it’s called “I Cried” and I literally wrote it while I was crying. So it’s like a true story, a little bit dark, but it’s actually a good thing cause I think it really comes through in the singing and the lyrics for sure. That’s how I like to do it, sort of last minute and not practice things too much, not be too rehearsed and be a little rawer going in.
Are you happy now?
I am very happy (laughs). There has definitely been a lot of ups and downs and that’s just life but maybe I’m dramatic cause I like to write good songs (laughs). Maybe I like bad things to happen cause I know I’m going to get a song out of it. It’s always in the back of my mind, Well, I can write a song about this (laughs).
That’s a good release though
Yeah and I have these songs that I am really proud of.
What was the angry song you were talking about?
It’s called “They Never Pay Me” and it’s about feeling like you’ve worked so hard for something and you’re not getting what you deserve. It was kind of inspired by some friends I know who’ve gone through similar things with their work and their careers and also by my own personal experiences. I was just really feeling it when I recorded it. It was pretty new, I had just recently written it.
What was the first song that you wrote that started the whole process for the new album?
The first one that I wrote probably was a song called “Abandoned.” I wrote it a couple of years ago and that really kind of inspired me to get a little bit more personal for this album with my songwriting. I’ve always written personal songs but I wanted to not be afraid to write something sad. So that kind of started it. A few of them I wrote were pretty fast going into the studio. I had just come out of that bad experience, and I won’t go into specifics, but some of them were pretty fresh.
When you first started writing songs you were really young. Was that an outlet for getting out emotions at the time or were they just the simple act of creating music?
It was probably more the simple act of creating music early on. I started writing songs when I was like twelve and I think the first song was called “Angel” or something cheesy like that. It was a poem that I put a melody to and set it to music. But then as I got into my teens, there was a little bit more angst I think. I don’t know what I was going through but it became a little bit more dramatic and I started writing blues songs. One was called like “I Got Troubles.” I was like sixteen so I don’t know what I thought I was going through! (laughs) But they became a little bit more dramatic and I definitely started writing more personal things. That happened pretty quickly.
Oh it changes all the time and it’s always evolving. I’m all over the place. I love listening to all kinds of music and I try to get inspired by whatever I hear. I try to keep an open mind and not limit myself to one genre, not limit myself to one style of singing or songwriting. I try to stay open, whether I’m listening to doo wop or country or rock or whatever I’m listening to, I try to keep an open mind and draw inspiration from different things and different people and different voices. It’s always changing.
You are labeled most of the time as a blues singer but I hear country and I hear soul in your songs as well.
Definitely. I’ve kind of been labeled as blues and I’ve been touring in the blues circuit since I put out my first album in 2007. But there’s a country song on my first album. I’ve kind of been bouncing around between different genres. I love soul music and I love R&B and I love blues and I love country and I love pop music too, so it’s really kind of hard for me to settle into one style. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to do that because I love too many different kinds of music. And it feels natural for me to sing different kinds of music. I don’t think I could be happy if I was just sticking to one genre.
Who was the first person who told you seriously that you had a voice and you could sing?
I don’t know if anyone really did. I just had been singing since I learned how to talk. It’s just something I’ve always done since I was a baby. I don’t remember a time where I really decided, okay, I’m going to be a singer. It’s something I always wanted to do, something I always thought I could do even if other people didn’t think I could do it. So it was usually mostly me believing in myself and sticking with it.
What were the first steps you took to becoming a professional?
I didn’t really start performing out too much. I’d do like talent shows here and there and things like that, a county fair, but I didn’t really start performing out until I was like eighteen or nineteen years old and I started going to blues jams. I was in college at Temple University in Philadelphia and every Tuesday I would go to a blues jam at a blues club. People there were really encouraging and I had someone there who helped me record my first EP and got my first experience performing with a band there and that was really good for me. So I just kept going back and then I formed my first band through musicians that I met there. So that was kind of my first experience performing out with a band in front of an audience.
Were you nervous or did it feel natural?
I was very nervous. Performing did not come naturally to me. I was always very nervous when I first started out but I knew that I loved singing and I knew that it was something that I was going to have to do if I wanted to be a singer. So I just forced myself to keep going back and then it got easier and easier and people were very encouraging and I just went for it even though it was nerve-wracking in the beginning.
I was studying Journalism, Broadcast Journalism. I considered it for a little bit. I wrote for the Temple newspaper and I worked at a couple of radio stations and I also worked at NBC in Philadelphia for one semester. I interned. But it was cool and interesting and met some interesting people and I learned a lot so I’m glad that I did it.
On your new record, which song changed the most from it’s original composition to it’s final recorded version?
That’s a good question but I don’t know. I really feel like both producers I worked with really captured the vision I had for the songs. I kind of went in there and the musicians did such a great job, an amazing job. The producers, Glenn Barratt and Dave Darling, they really helped my vision come to life, they really did. I went in and I played the songs for them and I kind of described to them what I was going for. And they really did an amazing job at making it the best version that it could be.
Tell us about tackling the Beatles song “All My Loving.” Was that intimidating or totally natural, cause you changed it up a bit?
I did. You know, I really loved recording that. It’s such a beautiful song, such a pretty melody, and I wanted to do my own version of it. I was listening to it and I was thinking, I bet it would be really cool if it was slowed down and kind of done as a soul ballad, with a soul kind of vibe. That’s what I wanted to do and Dave Darling really captured that. It’s just me and he plays guitar on it and I’m really proud of how it came out. I’m really looking forward to doing that one live on the road this summer. It’s just so much fun to sing.
Speaking of your tour, it looks like you’ve got a lot of dates coming up.
Yeah, I think we’ve got about fifty dates coming up and more are going to be added to the schedule. I’m going to be really busy for the next few months.
What can we expect at one of your shows?
I do a lot of my original material and also a few cover songs. I’m going to be adding some new R&B and soul covers this summer, some songs that the audience might be familiar with. I have a really great band that’s really passionate about music and has fun up there. I do a mixture of Americana and soul and blues and it’s really soulful material and it’s really good for a listening crowd and you can also dance to it. It’s a wide range of things. It’s a cool show.
Are you comfortable writing on the road?
You know, I write in all places. I don’t normally sit down with the intention of writing a song. I actually prefer to just kind of record little song ideas into my phone when I’m inspired and that’s how most of my songs are born. I get little melody ideas most of the time and lyric ideas and I record them into my phone and then I build the song from there. That’s usually how I do it. Like, I’m driving in the van on the road and we’re listening to music and I start to hum a melody and I put it into my phone and then it’s on an album. That happens a lot. I do like writing when I’m on the road or if I’m in the hotel room. It’s definitely more inspiring than sitting at home and picking up a guitar and strumming and trying to get something that’s inspired. That usually doesn’t work for me.
Can you over nit-pick a song if you have too much time?
Definitely and I try not to do that. I have a very short attention span and I like to get things done fast. I feel like my favorite songs and my best songs I’ve written very quickly. There aren’t many songs I have recorded that I spent a lot of time on. They come out very quickly, I write verses and a bridge and the lyrics, and I just like to get them done and get them out. If I spend too much time on it, I kind of get bored with it and start to overthink it and it doesn’t feel fresh and new anymore. I think I work best under pressure.
What was the first song you totally obsessed over as a kid?
Oh so many songs. There’s a song called “Tell Him” that’s on the album. It’s an old song from the sixties that was performed by a girl group called the Exciters and I used to sing that song in the bathtub when I was really, really little. I was probably like five or six years old. I’ve always loved it so I decided finally to record it. That song brings back a lot of memories for me. I loved a lot of the girl group stuff and music that my parents were playing, doo wop and that kind of stuff.
Who was the first real rock star you ever met?
Well, I saw him at a mall and he was signing autographs in Toronto – Meatloaf. He was the first one I ever saw in person and I was really young, like eight years old, and I was definitely watching him from a far. I don’t know who I met first but he was the first one I saw.
When was your first big I can’t believe I’m here moment?
I got nominated for a Blues Music Award in 2007 and I was so brand new to the blues scene. I had just released my first album, I had barely toured and I got nominated for Best New Artist. It was so exciting and I got to go to the awards and there were just so many people there who I knew and that I was inspired by and I was performing for these people and that was really nerve-wracking. I have never been so nervous. I was performing for so many people that I respected. I was so new and so young, twenty-two or twenty-three, and it was a really big moment for me, a huge honor to be nominated and it felt really good to be recognized so early on and that really gave me a lot of confidence to keep going.
What was the best advice you were given when you decided this was what you wanted to do with your life?
I wish I was given some better advice. I had to figure out a lot of things on my own. When I wanted to be a singer, I never knew how much I was going to end up doing on my own, my own booking and handling so much of the business aspect of it. That part can be very overwhelming. But it’s something I’ve always done so I guess I kind of was prepared for that. But what advice would I have liked? Be very careful how you label your music cause once you start out labeling it a certain way it’s very difficult to change it.