Gabrielle Aplin’s music trajectory can be seen most vividly on the screen. There she is in 2010, blurry in her Wiltshire bedroom on YouTube, chatting 19-to-the-dozen like a typical teenage girl and playing acoustic covers of Adele, Katy Perry, Ed Sheeran and more. In 2012, a John Lewis Christmas ad, the one with the snowman travelling across white wastes to get his snow-wife a present, earned the singer her first number one for a softly-softly take on Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s The Power of Love. Today, in the video for her tremendous new single Sweet Nothing, she’s dancing boldly around a warehouse in a sparkly gold catsuit – a pop star at last.
“I don’t feel like a pop star,” the 22-year-old insists over coffee near her central Brighton home. “I like being able to live my life the same as my mates. I don’t get recognised much.” That may change with a second album, out today, that pushes sensitive acoustic balladry into the corner in favour of bright, energetic pop rock. The girl you might previously have filed as a lightweight Laura Marling now sounds like Mary J Blige on the sharp R&B of Skeleton, or a 10-foot-tall rocker on Anybody Out There. It’s a welcome development.
She’s as pleased with the transformation as anybody, admitting that her debut release, English Rain from 2013, is a “coffee table album”. “I thought it was the best thing in the world at the time, but I wouldn’t make that album now,” she tells me. “Feedback has been really positive on the whole. No one has gone, ‘Oh God you’ve picked up an electric guitar – ugh.’ It’s been more like, ‘I wasn’t expecting you to do this, but I was kind of hoping that you would.’”
The new music is an apt reflection of the confidence she displays in person. Breezing in with a leather jacket, feathery hair and no shortage of eye makeup, she talks so rapidly that I start expecting my dictaphone to shout, “She cannae take it Captain!” and hurl itself off the table. When writing the new material, she wasn’t shuttled between the usual big name co-writers, as you might expect of a pretty young ingenue with a major label record deal. Instead she holed up in the Stoke Newington home studio of Luke Potashnick, far from well known guitarist with blues rock band The Temperance Movement. “The record company just left me to it. I barely spoke to them for about a year. I think they knew that was the only way it was going to work.”
She and Potashnick had a strong work ethic, going through a period of meeting for breakfast, writing a song in the morning, breaking for lunch and recording it in the afternoon. “I’d say to him, ‘I heard this really cool Crosby, Stills and Nash song and I’d love to do something like that,’ and he wouldn’t say, ‘But what about Radio 1?’ He’d just say, ‘Cool, let’s go.’ Because it was his house it just felt like we were hanging out. I didn’t have album two pressure.”
Wide-ranging and free-spirited, Light Up the Dark doesn’t sound like someone trying too hard for another hit. There’s no play-it-safe cover version – though she did do a mash-up of Sam Smith and Clean Bandit on Radio 1’s Live Lounge last week. She says she doesn’t even play The Power of Love in concert sometimes, despite it being by far the song for which she’s best known. Not only did the John Lewis ad make it a hit here, but its employment on an Australian drama called Resurrection made her a star over there too. “They had me performing on their X Factor. That was mental. I hadn’t done any huge TV like that over here.”
She’s not bothered about her music being used for advertising as long as it’s a good one. As yet there are no signs of Light Up the Dark appearing on promotional material for EDF Energy or Npower. “I was already a massive fan of the John Lewis adverts. I really wanted to do it,” she says. “I didn’t really think it was going to blow up in the way that it did, because sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t.”
She’s right that despite the high profile, the department store connection is no guarantee of long-term success. Slow Moving Millie, who did Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want by The Smiths the previous year, has not as yet become a superstar. Lily Allen’s Keane cover in 2013 didn’t prevent her accompanying album from being met with an underwhelmed response. “It’s never hindered me or defined me,” says Aplin. “I think John Lewis need a year off from it now, though, or it’s going to end up becoming cheesy. I will put The Power of Love back in my live set, but I want to arrange it in a way that makes it new for me again and lets other people still enjoy it.”
She’s confident in the abilities of her current live band, which currently includes both members of Irish folk-rock brothers Hudson Taylor. Alfie Hudson-Taylor is her boyfriend, who lives with her in their Brighton house, while his brother Harry Hudson-Taylor occupies the upstairs quarters. “They’re amazing songwriters and ridiculously good live,” she says, as well she might. “They’re doing all right here, but if you go to Ireland you can’t walk down the street with them. I’ve had my hair pulled and been pushed out of the way by girls.”
Now she’ll be the one in demand again, with strong, impressive new songs that make that little girl from the YouTube clips barely recognisable. “I look at them now and think, ‘Oh God I’m so much better now than I was then.’ But people still go and watch those videos and say nice things. I won’t remove anything that makes me a bit embarrassed. It’s cool to have that timeline and see the progression.” She’s come a long way, and with plenty of gigs on the horizon, she won’t be back in her bedroom much for the forseeable future.
Light Up the Dark is released today on Parlophone. Sept 30, Village Underground, EC2 (020 7422 7505, villageunderground.co.uk)