Interview & Portraits Etienne Gilfillan
Photographer’s assistant Paolo Navarino
Weaving her way through London’s early morning traffic, guitar in hand, Ciinderella Balthazar joined Journal in the Georgian splendour of Blacks Club, serenading us with one of her recent compositions and telling us about her musical journey…
Tell us about your early life in Belgium.
I was born in Brussels, but my father came from Morocco and my mother was from Chile. I grew up in the capital, in Antwerp and in the French-speaking countryside. I’m the eldest of nine children – three boys and six girls – and we were poor. My parents were both on benefits and I received scholarships and food from shelters and got by with second hand clothes. H&M was a luxury for me! But it meant that I was really driven to be a role model for my younger siblings. I went to the music academy and studied music theory and piano for almost 10 years. Music was a passion from very early on. Because I was a very introverted child, it was my way of communicating my feelings.
Why did you leave Belgium?
In the end, I left because I felt I was living my life for the sake of other people. My parents didn’t consider music as a possible livelihood and I realised that even if I went to university to please them, I would never be happy myself.
And what drew you to London?
Belgium is also a very small country, so opportunities were limited. As a mixed-raced woman, I was expected to sing R&B – but I wanted to be exposed to a more open-minded music industry and to discover new cultures and meet new people. London was perfect: not too far, not too close and with many labels around the city. I left Belgium with less than €200, and so for the first three months I was couch-surfing. My first week here, I asked the person whose sofa I was sleeping on to help me with my CV, then I went to a local Internet café and printed it 20 times. I googled music venues to find bar work and walked in off the street, asking if they needed anyone. I’d leave my CV there whether they did or not! I worked as a bartender for two years while jamming at every open mic I could attend and entering a singer-songwriter contest. I got to the last five finalists in Open Mic UK, and went on to have meetings with labels until l found the right fit.
And now you’re preparing your first album…
I signed a publishing deal in 2015 with Last Ten, an independent London label owned by Noah Francis Johnson, a former boxer and dance champion with an incredible soul voice. The first two years were about my development as a songwriter, and starting work on recording the album, which will potentially be released in January 2021. I’ll be releasing my debut single on 21 January 2020. I got the opportunity to record at Abbey Road Studios and Eastcote Studios and met and worked with some incredible people in the industry.
What sort of venues in London do you feel are best for the kind of music you play?
I love churches. It’s hard not to feel reflective when you enter a church. It’s hard not to listen to the beautiful silence. The acoustic of is usually phenomenal, too, and it’s so much easier to connect with a crowd in a space which encourages a feeling of shared humility. I did a lot of open mic nights when I moved to London. They’re a great way to test out new material, but the crowd is usually there for a cheap pint or to support a mate who’s playing rather than to listen to music. Now, I prefer nights with rules, where they stop serving at the bar when the acts are playing and where the MC makes sure the crowd stays quiet. It’s hard for an artist to play when the people at the tables in front of you don’t give a shit the music – but it’s a wonderful feeling when you connect. Play where you are celebrated, not tolerated!
What was the last great gig you saw in London?
During London Fashion Week at the Richard Quinn show in February, Freya Ridings was playing the piano and singing while the models were running the catwalk. She was accompanied by a trio of violinists and her voice was extraordinary. Her dress and the outfits of the models were magical too – I absolutely loved it!
Tell us about some of the artists you’ve loved and who’ve inspired you…
Because of my cultural heritage, I love the Argentine singer Mercedes Sosa, the voice of Latin America, and Oum Keltoum, the great Egyptian diva. I also love Jacques Brel, Nina Simone, Janis Joplin and Etta James. For a more contemporary artist, I’d choose Ben Howard.
How would you describe your album?
It is very melancholic and soulful with a twist of experimental deep house. Parts of it will have an acoustic feel, other parts will more produced. An artist should never be defined by one genre! The album is called “Tough Journey”. It comes from a song I wrote with the same title, which is about the journey of an individual trying to find her way through the trials of life. The songs are all autobiographical – they’re about love, friendship, painful family memories, loss, struggle, respect. But also, they bring hope because at the end of the journey I am alive, I am healthy, and I’m making a living from something I truly love – music.