Nicki Gillis – songstress, producer, TV host, performer – an interview with All Things Entertainment
We talk to Sydney based songstress and all round powerhouse Nicki Gillis on her shows Carole King’s Tapestry The Concert and Herstory as well as her prolific music career as an independent artiste in Australia.
“Wing it, baby! Get in there and get it done!”
It’s the stuff good country songs are made of… Young girl grows up in a musical family and discovers the piano at the age of five, then turns her back on music as a teenager. But then: a U-turn! She goes on to create a magical musical career. It’s probably hereditary: singer, songwriter and performer Nicki Gillis does have two parents that worked in the entertainment industry, after all. But we’d like to think it was fate: a voice like Nicki’s cannot be denied. Especially when combined with her indomitable spirit and work ethic!
Where everyone sang…
Consider the picture: a tiny Nicki hanging on to a doorframe, adamantly refusing the chance for her first solo performance. She laughs. “I was about 5 or 6 years old, and I remember that I was supposed to sing a solo song at my uncle’s 21st, but I chickened out!” Nicki reminisces: “I grew up in a big family where everyone sang. My voice was just one small part of many others, so I never really discovered it. It was just there all the time.”
Her life was filled with diverse musical influences. “Mum and Dad were in a band together. My Dad played drums and Mum played the piano and sang. I was influenced by whatever the band was practicing in the lounge room…” This included music from the 50s, 60s, 70s. Fleetwood Mac, The Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, country, pop, rock – and even some Croatian and Italian folk music, given her parents’ cultural heritage.
“My mum was a piano teacher, so classical music was also in the mix. Music was our life growing up. My mum also ran the church choir! I have no idea how she did it all, really, with three kids in tow!”
By the age of 15, Nicki turned her back on music, deciding that she didn’t want to perform or sing anymore. She quit all dance and piano lessons, too – but her rebellion was short lived. Nicki became involved in school musicals, worked as a backing vocalist outside of school for touring Cabaret acts and sang in the school choir. “By the time I was 17 I had joined a rock cover band [the seven-piece Perth-based band The Power Station] as a backing vocalist, and the rest is history!”
A storied career
It’s impressive – and exhausting – to read about Nicki’s musical history. … Nicki has played in numerous bands, taken part in (and won) talent competitions, written songs and released albums, won numerous awards (“It takes a lot of hard work and often tears to push through and be heard – it’s nice to be acknowledged by your peers!”), toured all over Australia, the US, UK, South Pacific, Middle East, Germany and South East Asia, conceived and created musical theatre productions… She’s even found time to become the general manager of popular radio station Vintage FM!
There’s some interesting TV work in her career, too: In 2016 she started presenting alongside 60s pop legend, Frank Ifield, in her own television program, “Australian Country Showcase”, which she still currently presents in and which is broadcast across Europe and the UK on Keep it Country TV. Working as a TV presenter was something quite unusual for the songstress: “It’s something I never saw myself doing… I’ve always felt awkward in front of a camera! However, I’ve warmed to it. I’ve always loved being on stage singing, acting and performing; but talking to a camera is a whole other experience. You have to get your head around the fact that there are real people watching down the camera. Once I did that I started to enjoy it. Now I love it and would like to do more of it.”
Nicki has collaborated with many iconic musicians, including Frank Ifield, Bob Howe, and Keith Potger. She’s also one half of Lockhouse Productions – the production company she runs with business partner Tracy Dann. What has she learned from working with these formidable musos? She smiles. “To be very patient! To be truly honest, all of them have pushed me past my comfort zone in some way and taught me so much about the industry and performing. They still continue to do so. They are all true gentlemen whom I admire. I’m always treated well and respected even though I feel like I am the one learning the most. It is kind of strange. I love their stories. What they have been through to get to where they are.”
Working with Tracy at Lockhouse Productions is a source of creative and professional fulfillment. “There’s never a dull moment at Lockhouse! Theatre, tours, TV, festivals, radio… so much variety. Also, that feeling at the end of a show. When we walk out of the theatre after the audience has left happy and fulfilled: the show has worked, and we know that all the hard work, arguments and hurdles were worth it.”
When genius burns
Luckily for us, Nicki still finds time to write and record original music in between her numerous other projects – and her work makes for critically acclaimed albums and songs.
After all this time and all the goals she has reached, can she still remember the very first time she heard one of her songs on the radio? Yes. “I had to move my car in the middle of a gig (due to parking restrictions) and my song came on the radio… It took me a full verse to realise that I was listening to my own song! It is kind of surreal, yet rewarding, as the journey from writing the song to recording it is quite long and anxiety driven. You always hope that someone out there is going to love the song as much as you do. And yes, it is always still a thrilling moment for every song released, as you have to hope that the radio stations are going to pick it up!”
Nicki’s work as the GM of Vintage FM has given her insight into why “older” music still enchants so many people, young and old. “The catch phrase for Vintage FM says it all: most of the time it’s the ‘Music You Grew Up With’. The music is programmed into the soundtrack of our lives and triggers so many memories. However, the younger generation might also hook into the music mostly for its simplicity and lyrics… Catchy tunes, great music arrangements and production. There is something real about it. And a good song is a good song! We all love to sing along. Singing from your heart is the best feeling!”
Channeling the power of women
There’s no doubt that Nicki’s a powerful woman – and her work often focuses on women, too. Her albums “Lucy’s Daughter” (2007) and “Woman of Substance” (2011) are examples of this.
“Lucy’s Daughter” is a collection of songs that “highlight the problems many women have when juggling a husband, children, a mortgage and a career”. “Woman of Substance”, again, is a cover album of songs from 1965 to 1975 that were made famous by strong women with a message. The album includes hits by the likes of Tina Turner, Carly Simon and Dusty Springfield. It’s a good snapshot of the songs and women that have inspired Nicki from a young age. As a female musician herself, Nicki identifies strongly with the stories of these women. These days, her biggest challenge “has been and still is fighting my own lack of confidence and fear”.
There are always more battles to fight as a woman in music. Stereotypes abound, and Nicki has experienced plenty of them in her career. “Oh boy, some of the experiences I’ve had would make your mother’s toes curl… I learnt very early and probably from my Mum not to listen to or take any nonsense or any notice of low-level comments from men. The music industry in general is still a very male dominated work place.”
But things are changing, and Nicki is one of the tough women working towards change. “There are plenty of very inspiring women that have their own voice. They have generally worked hard at it and have had to fight many negative experiences to get there! When you focus and believe in your work and build the right team around you the sky is the limit. But if you are looking for a nice fluffy environment where everyone is going to help and applaud you all the time – this isn’t it!”
In general, Nicki feels that women working in the Australian music industry face similar challenges to those in the worldwide music industry – and in life in general. “Stereotypes make it difficult to break through and be recognised as a serious artist. There is a balance and at the end of the day it is about entertaining people.”
Women aren’t represented enough, but this can change. It’s an important process that should start at ground level, and in spaces similar to the music schools Nicki has developed and run through the years. “I’ve owned music schools and taught music for the last 25 years, and I don’t see many young girls coming in saying I want to play guitar, bass or drums. There are thousands upon thousands of girls who want to be pop stars and divas, though. On the other hand, I also know so many very capable and amazing and successful females in the industry, from on stage to management and publicity. What I do know is that walking around saying ‘it’s not fair’ does not work. The ones that succeed are the ones that have true passion and push through all the BS to get to where they are!”
Nicki is currently working with singer and musician Suzy Leigh on “Herstory”. The show was created by Nicki and business partner Tracy and fine-tuned over the past few years. It’s designed to pay tribute to the women who have influenced us over time, starting from 1960 to now.
“The women who rocked our world!” explains Nicki. “We originally toured the show in the UK under the name ‘Ladies Rock’, and it proved very popular with audiences. We decided to take some of the lessons learned from that tour and adapt the show – this included a name change to ‘Herstory’.”
Nicki and Suzy first met when Suzy fronted the band Stellar with Mitch Hutchinson. The two women then worked together on stage with Doc Neeson at a corporate fundraising event for Miracle Babies and they just clicked. “There is a magic that happens when Suzy and I work together. Our voices blend and I admire her talent and spunk”, explains Nicki.
The “Carole King’s Tapestry – The Concert” is another popular production built around the songs and music of an iconic female figure, and it’s proved to be incredibly popular in Australia and in England where the show has toured twice since it started in Nov 2016. Why does Nicki think it continues to appeal to audiences? “I guess for the same reason it appealed to me when I first started talking it through with Trace. My eyes lit up and I couldn’t wait to sing and perform the show! The music speaks for itself and the audiences are taken on a journey from the first music that Carole King and Jerry Goffin wrote for artists in the 60s to the full “Tapestry” album, which I absolutely still love.”
On being independent
Nicki has remained an independent musician throughout her career, dealing with the good and the bad that comes with forging your own path.
“It wasn’t really by choice, in the beginning everyone has to be an independent artist in some form to get your music out there.”
There have been opportunities for her to sign to a label, but her gut told her not to: “It just seemed that on these occasions something just wasn’t right with the offer and I walked away from them. Making that decision wasn’t easy, it was just how it was at the time. There seemed to always be some underlying feeling that didn’t sit right. One was that I wasn’t comfortable with the image that the label wanted me to portray.”
There’s been much to learn from being independent, of course: “All I ever really wanted to do was to sing and perform on stage, and writing songs was something that happened in my head. I’ve learned that you have to be everything all at once and that it takes a team of people (not just you) to make things work. You are a business owner, bookkeeper, juggler, bandleader, publicist, manager, sales person… Releasing music is an ever-changing platform!”
There have been times where the journey seemed too tough, the price too high: “On many occasions I lost myself. Trying to please the industry and other people makes it easy to lose focus on who you really are and why you started doing it in the first place.”
Ultimately, Nicki has survived, grown and evolved – and she’s done so in remarkable fashion, creating a legacy that should make her proud. She’s not done by a long shot, either, approaching life with characteristic verve: “Wing it, baby! Get in there and get it done!”
Why did you choose All Things Entertainment as your booking agency?
Nicki: One word – Passion!
What do you enjoy most about working with Nancy and her team?
Nicki: The ease of working with Nancy: nothing is too big for her!
You’ve toured and performed extensively, from small clubs to huge festivals – what’s been your favourite performance so far?
Nicki: They are all so different. I think that in itself is my favourite thing: no one performance is the same. The variety, the audiences, the people I get to work with and perform with. They are all my favourites!
What kind of gig do you enjoy the most?
Nicki: I love them all! However, there is nothing better than standing in front of 10 000 people and knowing you are being televised across the world… It is also extremely nerve wracking!
You often do full-on tours: how do you survive them?
Nicki: Eat well, sleep well, exercise and drink lots of water… Something I have not done this weekend and I am feeling it!
What are some of the unique touring challenges you’ve faced?
Nicki: Running your own tours is sometimes super challenging in the logistics department… Getting the band and equipment to places that are a little unusual and having to constantly adapt the show to suit a venue.
What are the three elements that make for an epic live show?
Nicki: Good sound, good lighting, and great energy!
What would you still love to create in future?
Nicki: A beautiful album that I feel is truly me… I would love to co-produce it with someone who gets me. Who gets my voice. And the sky’s the limit in regard to budget and time so that I can be free to produce what I truly hear in my head. There are always big production pieces in there…
What is the core of your approach to entertainment?
Nicki: Entertain your audience. Take them on a journey. Let them escape from the daily grind of life.
How do you refill your creative reservoirs?
Nicki: Tough question… It’s not always easy. But nine times out of ten someone or some experience kicks it back in.
What gets you into trouble?
Nicki: Bright and shiny things. Oh, and a bottle of wine!
Best band/performance you’ve ever seen live?
Nicki: Paul McCartney – Now that, ladies and gentlemen, is how it’s done!
Person you wish you could meet – and why?
Nicki: Adele, I just want to say thank you! The music, the lyrics, she is quirky yet real and the fact that she did it all without showing her cleavage in this oversexed current market makes her my hero!
What is the best advice you ever got?
Nicki: Talk to the audience like they are your best friend.
Text: Donnay Torr from Torr Collective https://www.facebook.com/TorrCollective
Nicki Gillis performs in Carole King’s Tapestry – The Concert, Herstory – The History of Women In Rock and in Nicki Gillis and the Rainmakers. To book Nicki or any of these shows, please contact Nancy@allthingsentertainment.com.au . Available for band bookings, show bookings, private, corporate or club performances.