“Gina is an incredible singer and a phenomenal songwriter. It’s very simple, she is a force of nature.”
—Cody Dickinson (North Mississippi Allstars)
Gritty soul and blues singer, Gina Sicilia, always stays one step ahead in her songwriting and music. The Newtown, Pennsylvania-native, who now calls Nashville home, has never been one to sit still musically. On her new album, Love Me Madly, Sicilia slides fervently and warmly into a wide range of soul music, from pop-inflected, hooky tunes, like “Love Me Madly”, to horn-drenched heart-stoppers. Produced by Cody Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars, with Luther Dickinson performing guitar on tracks including “Misery With You”, Gina Sicilia’s ninth studio album showcases her ability to get inside a song and inhabit it, so that the lyrics and music flow effortlessly from her body, heart, and soul.
Songwriting and singing are second nature to Sicilia. She was singing and performing at local talent shows when she was 6, and started writing songs when she was 12. “I got into blues and soul when I was a young teenager,” she says, “and by the time I was 18 or 19, I was singing in a blues band. In my early years in college, you could find me at the weekly blues jams at Warmdaddy’s in Philadelphia.”
Sicilia met a group of musicians at those jams who helped her record her first demo. “In 2007,” Sicilia says, “I recorded and released my first album, an EP titled Allow Me to Confess.” Those eight songs caught many people’s ears; she developed a following, and she was nominated for a Blues Music Award as Best New Artist in 2008. That same year, she released her second album, Hey Sugar, which shot to #10 on the Living Blues Radio chart, and Sicilia was nominated for a Blues Blast Music Award for Best New Artist Debut Recording.
Love Me Madly arrives hard on the heels of 2018’s Heard the Lie, which debuted on the Billboard blues charts at #10. That album showcased Sicilia’s canny songwriting and her ability to find the grooves in all styles of roots music; it featured gospel-inflected tunes, good old school R&B, and steel guitar-drenched Americana. Sicilia plucked the seeds for Love Me Madly from Heard the Lie, for she let no lyrical fields lie fallow, and she was writing songs for this new project almost immediately. “I have a lot of ideas and like to put albums out fairly quickly,” she says. “I had decided to do this album in May and spent the summer writing songs and making frequent trips out to Southaven, Mississippi where we would continue to write and develop songs and track at (producer) Cody’s home studio, The Checkerboard Lounge. I’m so passionate about the process of making an album and being in the studio. It’s my absolute favorite thing to do.”
True to her vision of making albums, Sicilia wanted Love Me Madly to be different from the other albums she’s put out. “I wanted something a little grittier and not too sweet,” she remarks. “I wanted to record a soul album. That’s what this album is,” says Sicilia. For Love Me Madly she found a producer, Cody Dickinson, whose middle name is “soul,” who together with his brother Luther are part of the soul blues roots band the North Mississippi Allstars. As Dickinson recalls, “Gina and I found each other on social media. We had been in touch via Facebook, but it was my brother Luther who introduced us. We met in person in Nashville. Had a meeting of the minds, a clear vision for Love Me Madly, and decided to make the record right then and there.”
“Cody played about all the instruments on the album. Luther played on three songs; Rev. Charles Hodges played the organ. One thing that I think is great about Cody is that he’s a really big fan of female singers; and he gives 100% to whatever he’s doing and working on. His energy is just tremendous and infectious and was a huge inspiration in motivating me to rise to the occasion and do the best work I’ve ever done. He really sets the bar.”
Sicilia approaches any new album by immersing herself in music and then going off and writing. “What I tend to do before making an album is listen to music for 24 hours a day and this is always followed by a writing binge. I ultimately wrote about 50 songs with this album in mind. While I’m in this process, writing becomes my obsession. The first thing I think about when I wake up and go to sleep. It’s a compulsion and my only priority, that is until I’m satisfied with the amount of work I’ve written for that album.”
“She is incredibly prolific and talented,” says Dickinson. “It is all I can do to keep up with the music and chord progressions. She sends me voice memos, I write the chords under her melodies, and we’re off to another record.” For this album, Sicilia says, “I listened to a lot of R&B and soul to try and get that inspiration going; one of my newest inspirations is Michael Kiwanuka, a British soul singer/songwriter; he was the impetus to do the album.”
Love Me Madly features all the elements of soul-shaking, heart-rending, body-moving soul music. Every song carries its listeners out of themselves and reaches down to their emotional core. Sometimes Sicilia achieves an aching, poignant atmosphere with her spare vocals, supported only by background vocals and piano, as she does on the languorous “Answer the Phone.” “It’s about really wanting to talk to someone who doesn’t want to stay in touch, about missing that old comfort of telling them everything.” she says. At other times, on songs like “Hey Love,” which is a Stax-flavored soul stirrer, she enlists soaring, swinging horns and crunchy guitars and funky slide guitars. “Hey Love” is the perfect soul anthem. “’Hey Love’ is a few songs pieced together,” she says, “and it reflects my listening to artists like Lisa Lisa, Robyn, and Cult Jam.” Inspired by a friend’s relationship, “Misery with You” floats along a solid river of Luther Dickinson’s slide guitar and reaches sonic heights as Sicilia’s vocals blend with the soaring chorus of background singers. “Give It Up” features Sicilia at her sultry best; it’s a slow-burning lounge song that echoes with a gypsy rhythm. “This is the only song I recorded as I was writing and singing it. It’s on the album just the way it was done,” Sicilia remarks. “Lose My Head” delivers a Lesley Gore-meets-‘80s-pop vibe. According to Sicilia, it’s “kind of a pop-inspired soul song; I wanted to write something innocent from the perspective of a teenage girl with a crush.” The title track, “Love Me Madly,” shimmers with a ‘90s soul vibe and finally, the aching, soaring “Fall in Love” would be right at home in the Stax catalog. As Cody Dickinson says, “Our visions matched wonderfully. Philly soul meets Memphis soul with some country blues for good measure. While writing, the pop music was unexpected and totally organic. We went where the music led us.”
In addition to Rev. Charles Hodges (Al Green, Boz Scaggs, Tom Jones among others) who played organ on the album, the horns, strings and trumpet were arranged by Marc Franklin (Aretha Franklin, BB King, Solomon Burke, Cyndi Lauper, the Gregg Allman Band among others) and tracked at Royal Studios in Memphis, owned by the legendary Lawrence “Boo” Mitchell, who has worked with Al Green, Soloman Burke, Lamont Dozier, Rod Stewart, among many other greats.
Although most people know Gina Sicilia as a singer, she’s passionate about songwriting, and her brilliant ways with words and music have evolved over nine albums. Her embrace of various musical styles, and her adventurousness in seeking out new corners in a variety of musical rooms, has opened the door for her and her listeners. “I would love to work with Gina again,” says Dickinson. “I feel like we have so much more to do; we are just getting started.”