When I was 12, I got up in the school canteen and sang a song I’d written called Teenage Love. A few years later, as I left school, everyone went: “Hope we you see on Top of the Pops, ha ha!” As if that would ever happen. A woman wasn’t allowed to look imperfect on TV, and I had a lazy eyelid. People would say: “Stop winking at me.” Singers on Top of the Pops all had long hair and beautiful clothing. I didn’t. I’d sing in my brother’s suits because I didn’t have the figure or the clothing.
One night after I’d sung Luther Vandross covers in a London club called Moonlighting, a woman there told me: “This is as good as it’s going to get for you.” I was so disheartened I went home and wrote the first lines of Dreams in my diary: “Move a step closer / You know that I want you.” This was my way of saying that every time I got closer to my dream of being a singer, someone would pull the rug from under my feet.
Shortly after that, I went to a recording studio in Byfleet, Surrey, with a singer called Jackie King, who I knew from Moonlighting. Our boyfriends had paid for us to make a record. The producer, Tim Laws, said to my boyfriend: “We really like her voice. Can she come back later on her own?” I felt I had to grasp the opportunity, so sang the lyrics to Dreams over Tim’s music. They seemed to fit, but it was just my little poem. I’d never imagined it would become a hit.
The first version went down really well in nightclubs. Underground DJs played it and it and sold a few thousand copies, so I signed to Go! Beat. However, the first version used a tiny sample of Tracy Chapman’s Fast Car, which we couldn’t get cleared. So another producer, Richie Fermie, rerecorded a version without the sample. It sounded great.
After that, everything went crazy. It went straight in at No 2, the highest-charting debut single ever. Then it went to No 1. I just couldn’t comprehend that someone like me could have a No 1 record, but that song is my story. Today, I love being who I am and relish my imperfections. It’s good to be different and stand out from the crowd. When I sing “Dreams can come true”, I’m testament to that.
Tim Laws, songwriter, original producer
I was living with my parents, doing happy house/rave music in a studio my dad had put together in his potting shed. I wasn’t making any cash, so for beer money I’d record demos with other people. As soon as Gabrielle started singing, I thought: “Hang on, she sounds pretty good.” I had various bits of music and starting points for tracks, so I just got her to sing over a backing track I had. I used a Korg M1 synthesiser for most of the parts – piano, bass, string line – with an Akai S900 firing off drum loops and hits. And that was it. Everything was recorded and programmed into an Atari computer in the potting shed.
I don’t think Gabs had been in a studio before and I’m pretty sure Dreams was only her second ever recorded vocal, after the duet she did earlier with the other girl. I didn’t have a vast amount of experience with singers then, but Gabs was awesome. She sang Dreams twice. I took the best bits and that was that. She didn’t need fancy production techniques. She had the voice.
Gabs was very shy at that point and not aware of her talent. When we were recording in the potting shed, I never thought of Dreams as a hit record. I just cracked on then forgot all about it. Eighteen months later, I got a call from Ferdy Unger-Hamilton at Go! Beat and he basically said: “We’ve signed Gabrielle and your song is heading to No 1.” My version eventually came out later as a B-side without the sample. I’m glad it saw the light of day. I still think the vocal on it is better.
• Gabrielle’s new album, Do It Again, is released on 5 March. Her postponed Rise Again tour starts at the Lowry, Salford, on 7 November.