june 2009

Gina Sicilia
Photo by Grudnick

Good Years Comin' On

Gina Sicilia comes from an ethereal point and does to blues and country what few artists know how to do. At 24, she's barely getting started.

By David McGee

The Dubliner is a friendly, three-story Irish pub on River Street in Hoboken, NJ, a couple of blocks from the PATH train station for those coming across the Hudson from Manhattan and located in the heart of an area teeming with other restaurants and bars. On its Website the Dubliner claims to pride itself "on our authentic Irish bar serving one of the finest pints of Guinness in town." It most definitely serves a good burger and fries. What is less obvious, to the point of being a near afterthought, is what can happen on the second floor on Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday nights, listed on the aforementioned Website respectively as "Singer-Songwriter Open Mike," "Unplugged Sessions" and "Acoustic Night." See, the music at the Dubliner is booked by one of America's finest blues and country singer-songwriters, Christine Santelli, and her standards tend to be high. You pay nothing to get in, so you are assured of getting more than your money's worth. On some nights, such largesse borders on the criminal.

So it was on the first Tuesday in May—Cinco de Mayo, it was—that Santelli's Vizztone labelmate Gina Sicilia pulls into town from her native Philadelphia, with a new album, Hey Sugar, that is nothing less than an overwhelming tour de force of blues and country vocalizing on songs mostly original buttressed spectacularly by a couple of choice cover appropriations, and an exceptional and versatile four-piece band along with her, including her producer/guitarist/beau Dave Gross—a young man who seems destined to make a major mark in his time, whether it be with his inspired, intelligent instrumental work, or his unerring instincts behind the board, or as a solo artist in his own right, which brings together all of his artistry in one dynamic presentation—and Dennis Gruenling, a stone-cold harmonica virtuoso who is simply one of the best at honking, wailing, moaning, shimmering and whatever else is humanly possible to do on a harmonica. It may say "unplugged" on the website, but Gross is plugged in, and Gruenling might as well be, for all the electricity surging through his solos. And when band and singer kick off the night's festivities with a swinging, uptempo version of "Fine and Mellow," immortalized in 1944 by Billie Holiday, the band's kick and Gina's sturdy belting—such a big voice from so diminutive a gal—engulf the room in a propulsive surge of energy and emotion. Led by Gross, the band makes Gina work—she's a reticent performer but responds to a challenge—and she keeps on belting, undeterred, until the whole affair comes to a cheery halt and everyone relaxes.

She breathes the rareified air of one who experiences music on a fundamental, metaphysical level and makes sense of it when she gives voice to lyrics.

Even one song into the set, a few facts become apparent: an unusual chemistry exists between Gina and Dave, the unspoken communication of artists who know where they're going, instinctively, and can turn on a dime; Gross is an exceptional guitarist, not merely hitting the notes or playing with flair, but attendant to tone and texture, subtlety and nuance; the rhythm section is supple and unobtrusive, right where it needs to be; Gruenling is an absolute monster on the harp—and too many in the Cinco de Mayo crowd have not a clue as to what they could be witnessing. A few up near where the band is set up are tuned into the music, but there's a dart game going on in the middle of the room and all the tomfoolery that goes with it; in one corner friends are clustered around a table chatting, oblivious to the music; customers at the bar are gabbing, inattentive; and one young fellow whose attire might kindly be described as "jock deluxe"—everything visible boasts a sports team or sports apparel logo—is issuing an insistent appeal to bartender Mike Frensley (himself a pretty fair harp player) to switch the big-screen TV to a New York Mets' game.

"You know, that was the Cinco de Mayo crowd," Christine Santelli says later. "It wasn't the usual gang that would show up to listen to the music. It was a completely different bunch, and you saw what they're like."

What the usual gang missed was an admirable exercise in subtlety. Yes, there were moments of unbridled cutting loose-a sputtering, dipsy-doodle exploration of "Hound Dog" in the spirit of Big Mama Thornton as invoked by little mama Gina; a righteously rocking rendition of Fats Domino's 1957 Imperial single, "The Big Beat"; her own swaggering original blues, "Cherry Tree"—but for the most part the set wasn't about heated emotional outbursts. It was cool, deliberate, incrementally moving-its power built up as the musicians went deeper into the repertoire until they arrived at the transcendent set closer, a deeply gospelized take on Sam Cooke's "Bring It On Home to Me." On songs such as "Allow Me To Confess," the title track of her independently released 2007 debut album, and another song off that long player, "Try Me," the band cooks at a medium-cool heat behind Gina's emotional delivery. Gross will offer a tasty, minimalist, quiet solo over barely audible brush drums and a constrained bass line, until Gruenling's fluttering harp lines suddenly command the room with their triumphant sortie over his mates' conversation. The tension between the instruments and the release in Gina's voice is the stuff of mesmerizing musical drama. And this is without the benefit of the powerhouse horn section she roars over on Hey Sugar, or even a single one of the country songs she owns as easily as she owns the blues. She's not the only 24-year-old with a big voice in the world, but she breathes the rareified air of one who experiences music on a fundamental, metaphysical level and makes sense of it when she gives voice to lyrics, whether they be about heartache ("What the Moon Could Never Do"), outright lust ("I'm So Attracted to You"), impending self-destruction ("Bad Years Comin' On") or smoldering desire ("Hey Sugar").

On the CD Baby website, where Allow Me To Confess can be purchased, a fan, Dave Slovak, notes, "Ms. Sicilia seems to come out from an ethereal point in the mix." Touché. She has that kind of presence on record-as real as she is-and there's no mistaking the feeling in that big voice for anything but real—Gina Sicilia's emotional investment in her songs seems nigh on to otherworldly.


'I'm always aiming to be a better performer, put on a better show, I would like to improve in everything I do—better singer, better performer, I want to be better at everything.' (Photo by Grudnick)

The basic Gina Sicilia biography doesn't offer a lot of clues as to the mystery of her artistry. Sometimes the depth of the art obviates the need for further explanation.

"I grew up outside Philadelphia, north of Philadelphia. That's where I was born and raised and where I still live. Newtown, Pennsylvania. I graduated college in 2007, went to Temple University. Majored in journalism, got my degree. I wrote a column for a publication called Riveting Riffs.com."

Surely, then, there's a musical heritage in the family. This gift has been handed down from...

"Actually, my family is not musical; they love music but they're not musicians. The only one who's musical is my brother, he's a great piano player, my older brother. My sister, my parents, they love music but are not musicians."

On your own you've studied music. You must have had some vocal lessons to be able to...

"I never took any voice lessons. In my teenage years I would sing constantly, sing 24/7, from the minute I got home from school, from the minute I woke up, until the minute I went to bed, I was constantly singing and trying to get better. Singing along with records, imitating certain singers I heard and just constantly singing. When I was a teenager I did a lot of singing along with Aretha Franklin's blues records. She was a big one for me. Etta James. Lot of great female singers. Just tried to listen to a lot of music, every kind of music, and tried to get better. I want to keep getting better. I'm not where I want to be yet; I'm very far from where I want to be singing, songwriting. I'm always aiming to be a better performer, put on a better show, I would like to improve in everything I do—better singer, better performer, I want to be better at everything."

About the songwriting, Sicilia says she began writing tunes when she was 12 years old, long before she could ever play an instrument, which she's only begun to do recently, with guitar and expert instruction from Dave Gross. But a dozen years ago, it was all in her head, the melodies, the lyrics, with the latter eventually transferred to notebooks. "I have all these notebooks still. Notebooks filled with lyrics. Even in school, middle school and high school, I would not be paying attention because I was writing songs. I would skip class and write songs. That's what I did a lot. I wrote a lot in college too—a few of the songs on my first album I wrote while sitting in class."

As for songwriter models, a la Aretha as a vocal model, she says there are too many to name, but admits to a special admiration for Dolly Parton—"Recently I've been listening a lot to Dolly Parton. She's a great storyteller. She's someone I admire a lot."—and Sam Cooke, whom she paid tribute to at the Dubliner. "I've always loved Sam Cooke. I admire him in so many ways, as a singer, songwriter, performer. He's someone who, towards the end of his life, was becoming involved in the business side of music, and that's something I would like to do. There's so many great songwriters out there. So many people—Christine Santelli is someone I admire."

In case anyone detects a bit of an attitude in these black-and-white quotes, rest assured there is none. Sicilia's big singing voice is conversationally subdued but chirpy. She answers questions directly and thoroughly, often in complete, simple declarative sentences, and if determination and ambition can be construed as attitude, then she has one. Gina Sicilia is a young woman with big dreams, as one might have deduced from the "I want to be better at everything" remark.

For all her thoroughly modern embrace of the possibilities open to her now, her musical sensibility is rooted in a time well before her own. She's not aiming for the pop charts, she's not looking to be the next big thing in hip hop, or a hard rock chick. The sweep of time represented in the songs on Hey Sugar more or less runs from the 1940s through the 1960s.

"I don't want to be too contemporary," she says. "I never want to be too contemporary. I don't like writing music that's too contemporary and I don't like performing music that's too contemporary. That's not really who I am. I love more traditional things. I've always loved older music—'Hey Sugar' was inspired by doo-wop. I love doo-wop and I listened to a lot of that growing up, and country music."

Ah, country music. Now here's the rub about Gina Sicilia. As powerful as her blues performances are on Hey Sugar-and they most certainly are, from the brawny big band blues of "Goin' Home Baby" to the lowdown, mean mistreatin' grind of "Lowest of the Low"—a handful of country numbers, including her original aching ballad "What the Moon Could Never Do," are truly arresting performances. The tunes that will nail your head to the wall and leave it hanging their like an empty paper bag are both covers: to the atmospheric, muted accompaniment of piano, guitar, bass and brush drums, she immerses herself in Jimmie Davis's elegantly simple (and oft covered) country heart-tugger from 1934, "Nobody's Darling But Mine," her voice now soaring, now subdued, as she plumbs the depth of feeling and even finds a note of desperation in Davis's forthright plea to a woman to be true to him, which becomes more understandable when the last verse reveals it to be sung by a dying man to the woman he loves. The subtlety with which Sicilia approaches this tale, how she moves from sounding in the early verses like someone terminally insecure in asking for total commitment to the mournful, bottomless sadness she probes in her huskier register at the end, when we learn he is, literally, terminal, is a marvel of interpretive singing, rooted in the kind of experience you don't expect a 24-year-old to be able to deliver.

The sequencing of "Nobody's Darling But Mine" before the album's penultimate song was a brilliant stroke on somebody's part, because it establishes a pensive mood that allows Sicilia to go in for the kill on "Coat of Many Colors." Yes, Dolly Parton's "Coat of Many Colors," a country monument penned by Parton at the outset of her career, when the life and lore of her family's hardscrabble life in the hills of Tennessee, where unassailable virtues and values were born of deprivation, formed the foundation for one of the most important bodies of work in country music history. Dolly owns this song; for another artist to take it on, as few have over the years, is impressively, maybe foolishly, daring. Listen to Sicilia's version, then try not to hit "Repeat" and listen again. And again. And again. She doesn't attempt to stand toe-to-toe with Dolly, but rather finds her own place in it. Where Dolly sang with bracing—and brazen—defiance, articulating the pride she felt in her mother making something so valuable out of so little, which in turn becomes a metaphor for Dolly's own career, Gina comes at it with a profound love for the miracle of the coat, and the blues singer in her cries out the lyrics and makes you feel the pain still wounding her from being the butt of her peers' jokes. Dolly was more about muting the hurt and making hay of her pride in her mother's enterprise and unqualified love for her child; Gina enhances the hurt, even wallows in it so that there's no doubt how the other kids' insensitivity and callousness scarred her. But in the end, she stands with Dolly triumphant, her prized, handmade treasure literally more than the sum of its many parts. It's an astonishing performance from first note to the last, and when it's over you feel you have heard one of the greatest country singers of her generation claiming her turf.

Maybe the most telling fact about Gina Sicilia comes in her account of how she reacted to hearing "Coat of Many Colors" for the first time—"it made me cry"—and then retained that memory when she stepped in front of the mic, bringing all the inarticulate hurt she felt to her stunning reading. "I love that song. I love the story in that song; it's a really special song. I didn't really think about that I was recording this monster hit of Dolly's and do I have the guts to do it. I didn't think about it; I just did it. For me it's about being very passionate about a song and I'm very passionate about that song—I love it."

As stirring as this is, there's an even darker, far more disturbing—but ultimately heartening—blues ballad about midway through, the likes of which is rare indeed in music, and, tragically, more so in real life. "Bad Years Comin' On," funereal in style, with a churchy piano and a deathly grim B3 backdrop, finds Sicilia confessing to a suicidal bent-her voice trembling, she opens with "After years of slowly fading away/I might not be here to see another day," and proceeds to articulate her vision of "bad times comin' on" for her momma/daddy/brother if she carries on as she has been—"If I keep doing what I'm doing/Eventually I won't live through it/After I'm dead and gone, bad years will be comin' on." There it ends, with a final chord resolving to silence, and the full emotional and moral consequences of someone talking themselves out of self-destruction are left for the listener to ruminate on. The song is chilling, and maybe a genre unto itself in its narrative centered not on someone halting the suicide express to consider the devastation ensuing from her nightmare rendezvous with mortality.

The song came about so simply—"I was inspired to write it because I heard a piano player playing 'Hard Times,' and it inspired me to write that song. It's not anything like 'Hard Times,' but that's what inspired me to write it."-but goes to a place so profound it is impossible to ignore or to not contemplate. The logic behind it is pragmatic to the hilt, but rarely considered in the crucible of pain a person on the edge experiences.

"If you're doing something to harm yourself in a way or that's putting your life at risk, it's about not thinking about yourself but instead thinking about your loved ones, your family and those around you, what effect it's going to have on them if something happens to you," she says. "If something happens to you, what will their lives be like? How it's going to affect them, what you're doing? I know it's a sad song."


Gina with monster harmonica player Dennis Gruenling: 'I don't like writing music that's too contemporary and I don't like performing music that's too contemporary. That's not really who I am. I love more traditional things.' (Photo by Grudnick)

In typical Gina Sicilia fashion, she's taken up the guitar, and now writes daily on the instrument, "a whole song or just ideas," and as she does, "it's changed my songwriting a lot. It's added something different to it. And I've been writing some songs that are different than anything I've recorded or written before. So I'm really excited. I think I'm coming pretty close to my next record, so I'm going to keep on writing until I'm happy with the material, then I'll start recording. On Hey Sugar I wanted to incorporate more roots Americana music; that's what my writing became and that's what my songwriting is now. I think my next record is going to be an Americana record, with a touch of blues and soul."

That sound you hear is of the great wailing and gnashing of blues purists feeling they've been abandoned by one of their own. Per Gina, not to worry.

"I'm not abandoning the blues," she insists in that determined tone of finality that is hers alone. "I don't want to alienate anyone, but that's just where I'm going. It's not so much intentional as that's where my heart is. Of course I love the blues and I'm still going to have a touch of that on the next album. It's where I'm going, but not where I'm going to be staying forever. For all I know the record after that will be a traditional blues record."

Could you envision yourself recording a solo acoustic, almost cabaret-like album?

"Definitely. I see myself doing a lot of things. As I learn more I want to be more involved in the making of my records. I'm very hands-on in everything that I do. I like to have a say in what my music sounds like; I'm not someone who can sit back and let somebody do something entirely for me. I like to be involved.

"So who knows?"

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