At 17, intoxicated by her mother’s Maria Callas records, Gabby Young set her sights on following in the diva’s footsteps. A few years of training, though, gave her second thoughts. “Opera singers have to put their lives on hold – for them, it’s all opera. They have to make it their full life, their discipline, everything.”
Now, however, she finds herself in the same position, her career in one of those curious transitional moments. Over the summer’s festival dates she coaxed huge crowds to sing along to her and her band of brass players and accordionists, twirling an Op Art umbrella her hair sculpted into a cherry gelato. But she can still occasionally be found putting the same energy into singing in an upstairs room at a pub for an audience of 20. She charts meticulously the progress from £5 a ticket to £15. Next year she will perform at the Barbican and tour Asia, North America and Europe before settling into another festival season so crowded that her first day off will be in September 2011.
Young took a while to reach this velocity. After giving up on opera, she moved to Manchester. “I joined a funk covers band and tried to make them do my songs, but they only did it funky-style,” she says. “I moved back home to live with my parents. I found likely lads from Marlborough who only did rock. I compromised for a while. I tried to make my music something it wasn’t.”
Then she was knocked sideways by thyroid cancer. “I was told that I might lose my voice because the operation was so close to my voice box, and that was the worst thing – it was a fate worse than death for me.” But during treatment, she had a moment of clarity. Too tired to write actual songs, she made notes for an album and planned a decisive move.
“I was with a band who didn’t do the sort of music I wanted to do. I knew I could do something more special. Every time I was up on stage I knew this was where I wanted to be but I didn’t want to be doing this.”
She decamped to London, and set about singing in earnest. At one of her first gigs she met musician Stephen Ellis, who was playing with his band Revere. “We were friends for a while and then got together”, both professionally and romantically
Ellis’s arrangements mixed up her folk songs with everything from dashes of gypsy and klezmer music to wild flamenco strumming: she describes the style as “circus swing”.
“He’s changed my music, he’s really added to it, his arrangement and his ideas and the whole gypsy side of the band. It’s something I’ve always been interested in but never known how to make happen. Then suddenly he comes along and it was exactly what I wanted it to be.”
The brightest song in her set at the moment is “Male Version Of Me”, a tribute to Ellis, as yet unrecorded. “He’s such a big asset to my music. He’s like my soulmate.” Their interlinked and parallel musical lives are not uncomplicated. “For some ridiculous reason we ended up booking our big London shows two days apart in the same venue. I was thinking, if either of these doesn’t go well, the other person is going to be so depressed and angry.
“But whenever something big happens to one of us, we both feel part of it.”
Her songs work equally well in full and stripped-down arrangements. “We’re All In This Together”, her calling card, casts a cool glance at death in all its aspects. “It’s a song about how we’re all going to die, but we should celebrate and use our life as much as we possibly can.” She sings, low and cool, over a nagging banjo figure from Ellis. Dark verses give way to an optimistic chorus, before a muted brass band marches in at the end in a proxy for salvation.
Another song comes from bitter personal experience. When she performs it, Young invites the audience to chant in a crescendo of nursery-rhyme accusation, but she concedes that “there were so many songs from that relationship; I got an album out of it.”
Young’s ethos is resolutely do-it-yourself, down to establishing her own record label, Gift Of The Gab. But as she hastens to point out, what this means in practice is a wide web of collaboration. “I started to realise that if I was going to do this, I was going to have to collaborate like hell. I say that I’m doing this DIY, but I have such a great support system that it’s all of us doing it together.”
She trades as Gabby Young And Other Animals, and the Animals include everyone from whoever happens to be in her band at the time to her make-up artist and costumiers, to her fans, whose subscriptions financed the recording of her album.
“If your fans love you so much that they’re prepared to fund your album, that’s good all round. It’s beyond the money, it’s about the whole community spirit.”
Part of what brings the fans is her extravagantly theatrical costumes: twisted Bohemian Victoriana. “I just always loved dressing up, so it made sense. The bigger the stages get, the bigger the dress I want to wear.
“I’ve always wanted to be really extravagant and theatrical. It’s about wanting to put on as big a show as possible and wanting people to think, ‘wow’, that’s colourful and inspirational.”
She works with a range of designers. “It’s important to me that I’m always promoting people. If I’m wearing someone’s dress, I hope that someone in the audience is thinking, ‘I want her to make my wedding dress’.”
Her shows now include a pop-up boutique, Gabbadashery. “I put the word out on Twitter: does anyone want to have a stall? So that’s started to become a bit of a staple at our gigs, that there are stalls with people selling their own wares. I always chose stalls that would go with our music. We weren’t going to sell leather catsuits.”
‘We’re All In This Together’ is released on World Connection. For dates go to www.gabbyyoungandotheranimals.com