Gina Sicilia’s stunning new album, It Wasn’t Real, is a watershed in the already extraordinary career of the young singer-songwriter whose 2007 debut, Allow Me to Confess, rocketed her to the upper echelon of the blues world. Its 10 songs showcase her evolution as a lyricist, arranger and performer as they essay the mysteries of love and fate, effortlessly glide between genres — often within the same tune — and elicit deeply emotional performances that expose the full range of her vocal abilities.
Teaming with Grammy-winning producer Glenn Barratt, Sicilia recorded It Wasn’t Real at his Morningstar Studios in Philadelphia, near Gina’s native Newtown, Pennsylvania, with an A-team of local session players. The sparkling results make songs like the title track, the emotionally wrenching “Don’t Wanna Be No Mother (Don’t Wanna Be No Wife)” and her gilded interpretation of Etta James’ 1961 hit, “Don’t Cry Baby,” soaring new entries in a canon of recordings and performances that have won Sicilia multiple Blues Music Awards nominations — including “Best New Artist” — and raves from fans and critics alike.
“These songs mean a lot to me,” Sicilia explains. “My goal is to write in a way that’s observant and soulful, and to get at the pleasures and the pressures of love, joy, family, responsibility…all the complexities that are part of living. And with Glenn’s help and the support of the great band he put together, I think I’ve made my best album.”
The evidence is in the tracks. The set opens with a driving peal of drums, bass, guitar and organ, giving an undertow of strength to the vulnerability that drenches Sicilia’s warm contralto voice on “It Wasn’t Real,” a story of betrayal that’s slated to be the disc’s first video. She employs her flexible vibrato to convey the layers of regret and desire in the lyrics to the poignantly insightful “Don’t Wanna Be No Mother (Don’t Wanna Be No Wife),” a portrait of a woman feeling trapped in her own life – even if that feeling is just temporary.
“I’m a people watcher, and I wrote that song sitting in an airport waiting for a flight to Orlando,” Sicilia says. “All around me there were children running wild and their exhausted parents, and I really connected with the look of resignation on one woman’s face. So I decided to write what I imagined to be her thoughts. All of us feel like we’d like to trade our life for another occasionally, and that’s what she seemed to be living at that moment.”
Sicilia’s take on Etta James’ “Don’t Cry Baby,” with upright bass and wailing horn playing foil to her voice, goes to a place where molten blues and protean rock ‘n’ roll meet. “Please Don’t Stop” ups the percolating ante. “I wanted to write a twist, so I envisioned that rhythm before I started to write the lyrics, and then — since I really love doo-wop, too — I incorporated a doo-wop style ‘oh-oh-oh’ flourish in the vocal melody.” The breezy romp is a perfect romantic summertime anthem.
“Walking Down the Avenue” straddles the realms of jazz and blues, recalling the sophistication of such classic chanteuses as Lil Green, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Peggy Lee in Sicilia’s elegant delivery. In the sweetly chipper “I Wanna Write a Little Song With You,” she bends her vocal melody into soulful filigrees around a country arrangement replete with faux steel guitar bends, and “Walking Shoes” is a flat-out Texas honky-tonk roadhouse shuffle.
“Even though I’m mostly known in the blues world, I love and I’ve absorbed all kinds of music — R&B, country, doo-wop, jazz, soul, pop and blues. So when I get inspired to write a song, it’s likely to go anywhere and even combine those styles,” Sicilia explains. Tendrils of those genres can also be heard in her previous three albums, including 2008’s Hey Sugar and 2011’s Can’t Control Myself. Those were all produced by Sicilia’s bandleader and guitarist Dave Gross, a rising blues star in his own right. But this time, she was interested in pursuing fresh energy in her material, arrangements and vocal performances.
“Working with Glenn took me out of the comfort zone Dave and I have together, and that made me a little nervous and forced me to push myself,” Sicilia relates. “That gave me the edge and the encouragement I needed to explore the entire breadth of my vocal range, which I think people get to hear for the first time on this album.”
Of course, fans have loved Sicilia’s bold dark-honey voice since her earliest days on stage — in weekly jams at Philadelphia blues and jazz club Warmdaddy’s starting in 2005, when she was just 19. She’d already acquired her eclectic musical taste from her parents, who played all kinds of music on their home stereo, including pop tunes from her father’s native Italy. But after she ordered a packaged-for-TV compilation album called Solid Gold Soul that featured Bobby Bland, Etta James, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin and others, she become hooked on old-school soul, blues and R&B.
Still, Sicilia was too shy to sing in public. She had planned a career in journalism despite the encouragement of her musical mentor, Russell Faith. Faith was an important composer and musician on the Philly scene who’d written songs for Frank Sinatra. His death in 2004 galvanized Sicilia into action. “I started taking the subway by myself to the jams at Warmdaddy’s,” she says. “From the first time I got the courage to go onstage, the musicians there encouraged me.”
Sicilia and Gross met at Warmdaddy’s. They started dating and performing together. Gross encouraged her to record, and Allow Me to Confess was released just after Sicilia graduated from college and was free to begin touring. The album was soon picked up for distribution by the VizzTone Label Group and Sicilia rapidly signed with a national roots music booking agency.
“At that point I’d only done a one-week tour of the Midwest,” Sicilia recalls. “Suddenly, within months of my first album being released, I was playing major festivals, touring the world and got nominated for a Blues Music Award. It was amazing.
“Things were happening so fast that for a while I thought it was going to be easy,” she adds, laughing. “But I’ve learned that there are no short cuts for hard work and experience, which is what it takes to become a better artist.”
Despite her acclaim and her estimable talent, Sicilia considers her music a restless work in progress. “I see myself as always evolving, reaching for a new place where I want my music to be and a way I want it to sound,” she says. “I don’t know if I’ll find that place, but I’ll never stop searching.”