If you ever hear anyone talking about Liverpool’s musical output being one dimensional, not only should you disagree vehemently, but the only proof you need to point to is the work of LIMF Academy. The development platform has an excellent track record in highlighting and nurturing talents from a range of backgrounds, helping to set them on the road to stardom. The range and diversity of musical ability they have unearthed is testament to the wide array of styles fermenting just below the surface. And through the Academy’s Elite Talent Development Programme, we’ve already seen a clutch of artists who are capable of threatening the upper echelons of the charts. MiC Lowry and XamVolo are two of the most high profile of these – and the latest name to add to that list is GAZELLE.
Inspired by artists ranging from Nina Simone to Jamie Woon, Gazelle’s music sees the worlds of jazz, soul and hip hop collide. The result is a smooth transition between often very traditional genres, transforming them into a natural fit. Gazelle (real name Helen Gaskell) succinctly describes her songs as having “a hip hop beat, with some really nice, jazzy guitar chords or piano over the top,” adding, “It’s all kind of very underground music that I’m into. I’m not a very rock or indie girl at all – it’s all soul and funk. Even house, techno, drum n bass, jazz. All that heavily bass-driven stuff is what I’m into.”
Even though jazz is going through a phase of fusion with music’s more modern genres, it’s hard to shake the view of it as the preserve of an older generation. Gaskell politely disagrees with the assessment of jazz as being ‘traditional’, though: when discussing jazz in contemporary music, she says, “There’s a lot of jazz out there at the moment, but people just don’t think of it as jazz. People usually just think of really traditional jazz. There’s loads of music with influences of jazz that you wouldn’t actually notice.”
Music has been something important to Gaskell throughout her life, providing her with an outlet for the ideas that come thick and fast into her head. She got the bug from her parents, who introduced music to her at an early age. “My mum went through all different sorts of stages. She used to be a punk for a while. She used to go to all the Northern Soul nights for a while. They introduced me to Nina Simone when I was eight years old, so that’s where I got the jazz inspiration from.”
This musical upbringing led to her learning to play jazz piano, as well as the clarinet when she was younger. However, her passion and talent for music was discouraged by her school. “I went to a private school and they didn’t encourage the arts or anything that wouldn’t guarantee you a really good job at the end of it. I was good at singing my whole life, but wasn’t encouraged whatsoever because it’s a really competitive path to follow.”
This led her down the path of studying for a Chemistry degree at Newcastle University, following the prospect of a high paying job at the end. It was only when she went to Versailles for a year to do her research project that she realised what she really wanted to do. Gaskell says the reason behind this change of heart was that “I’d rather do something I enjoy than just something I’m good at.”
She promptly quit and moved to Paris, a time which she speaks of fondly. “I moved into this underground art commune, which had about 20 people living there. It was actually illegal, so you had to pretend that you were an art student because the landlord wasn’t paying any taxes. So, we had to pretend it was all an art school where people went in and out every day, when, really, we lived there. There were a lot of really creative people there. I started singing. I learned to play the guitar. We made a band, and started from there.”
Two years have passed since then, and Gaskell has quickly made an impact, having already put out two confident EPs under her Gazelle moniker – Undiscovered Love and How Many Ways – with latest single, Mad About You, being released in August. Skipping in off the crackle of needle hitting vinyl in the intro, Mad About You is a bluesy jazz-pop number that has all the hallmarks of her influences in its structure. The pace at which she puts out material is impressive, with sessions to record her third EP also about to begin.
Gaskell is modest about the way she goes about songwriting. “Usually, it’s just finding nice chords on the guitar, then singing over the top of them and then producing them in a completely different way. But, I’ve also written lyrics on their own and then put music to them. I did that with my track Undiscovered Love. I wrote that on a train – just the lyrics and then went back and put chords to them. And then there is also just producers making backing tracks and then me singing over the top of them, so there’s quite a few different ways of going about it really.”
Yet, her writing is very much influenced by her background and her own experiences; her switch from a Chemistry degree to a music career has fed into this, leading to the sentiments of ‘following your heart and doing what you want’ becoming lyrical touchstones.
Her songwriting has also, naturally, improved after two years of working as Gazelle, although this wasn’t all smooth sailing. “At the start, because I was new to the guitar, my songs were very basic, but because they were so basic, they ended up being very catchy. I went through a phase of struggling, but I’ve got a lot of motivation back recently. Now, I’m able to do it with more interesting chords, but still be catchy. So, I definitely got better. I do think [creativity] comes in phases with me.”
During her time at school, Gaskell was discouraged from pursuing a career in music in part because of how competitive the industry is. Yet, it’s this competitiveness that has also inspired her music. She elaborates, saying “The fact that there is so much competition in Liverpool and the talent is so amazing, I think that helps you and drives you because you’ve got so much music surrounding you.”
Her development as an artist can also be seen in the use of her stage name, Gazelle. Initially, the reason behind having an alter ego was to help perform with more confidence. “I’m not that kind of outgoing person; well, maybe I am, but, when I was on stage, I used to be quite shy, but now I take over as this alter ego. So, performing as Gazelle does help. There’s a joke I have between friends where they refer to me as two different people. When I’m being really nice, they’ll be like, ‘Where’s Gazelle gone?’ If I’m being a bit of a diva, it’ll be ‘Oh, here’s Gazelle.’ That kind of thing.”
Regarding her future, Gaskell says, “At the moment, I’m just going to write a lot of songs, so me and a guy called Tom Anderson are going to be working on my next EP together. Instead of releasing a track one at a time, we’re going to work for two or three months solidly on my next EP. I’m gonna have a little bit of a different image. The music’s gonna be slightly more modern. A little bit more hip hop-infused, but still jazzy – just a little bit more modern.”
All this goes to show that, in the two years that Gaskell has been performing, she has become a confident and talented performer. Her passion for jazz and soul radiates through her music, with her passion to improve always moving her forwards. You get a sense that this is just the beginning.
Gazelle’s latest single, Mad About You, is available now on Monotone Records.