The World of Gabriella Swallow: A Musical Portrait
In January, we visited Gabriella Swallows at home in North London. Gabriella Swallows is a celebrated cellist known for her versatility and talent. Trained at The Royal College of Music, she won the prestigious Tagore Gold Medal. Gabriella's career highlights include premiering works by renowned composers like Mark-Anthony Turnage and Paul Max Edlin, establishing her as a leading figure in contemporary music.
1. How has being a mother influenced your approach to music, and vice versa?
I have been a parent of some kind since the age of 22! Firstly as a step-parent, and then at 28, I had my first child; shortly after having my second, I became a single parent. Parenthood has shaped and enriched my relationship with music as I always had to balance my career with my children, who gave my life a huge perspective I didn't have so much of before them.
The balance hasn't always been easy, especially when I became single. I worked incredibly hard early on to establish my career to support my children and work towards financial independence. Logistically, when they were very young, life was challenging but enormously empowering. Playing the cello has always been at the centre of my identity since I was a child. It has always given me so much pleasure, but being a young mother early on gave me a deep, unconditional love, which I'm very grateful and lucky to have experienced.
My career has inspired my children as they have seen me doing what I love and know how hard I work, but they should always be the centre of my life.
2. London is known for its diverse cultural scene. How does the city inspire and impact your musical journey?
As well as my own musical life, which sees me bombing around the city playing in all the fabulous venues London has to offer, I go to as many different concerts as I can for pleasure. Diversity is the key for me and always has been; it's now much more acceptable for classical music to be heard in other venues than just the regular concert halls. This is something that I felt very passionately about since I was a young student when I collaborated with the artist Idris Khan. We made a film together in 2006 where he overlayed the visuals and sound of me playing all the Bach Cello Suites! I played at his private views at the Victoria Miro Gallery for a completely different audience than I was used to. I was encouraged to play very abstract music, which the audience just lapped up!
Gabriel Prokofiev's creation of the Non-classical Club Nights became a big part of my musical life. I played contemporary music in East End pubs with sticky carpets to an open-minded and attentive audience.
We are so lucky to have this mixture of venues in this city; the concert halls, such as King's Place, are exciting hubs of creativity as many more artists are curating programmes there. The London jazz scene is my favourite in the world. Many of us still congregate at Ronnie Scott's or the 606 club in Chelsea and hang out together after our gigs finish. That's my favourite thing to do!
3. Can you share a favourite musical piece that holds a special place in your heart and tell us why it's meaningful to you?
If I'm allowed two from two different genres, Elgar's Cello Concerto, especially the slow 2nd Movement. The concerto probably inspired me to pick up the cello in 1987 when I heard Jacqueline Du Pre play it on the radio, particularly the slow Movement, as the organist played it at my Dad's funeral. I was incredibly close to my Dad and was a young mother when he died. He was very popular with my friends as he was such a character and cared about them deeply. I didn't think I could ask anyone to play it on the cello as it was too emotional and a big ask, but when they were taking Dad's coffin out of the church, my best friend, the cellist Guy Johnston, started joining with the organist from the back of the church. It was heartbreaking but such a beautiful moment of friendship and love.
From my non-classical world, Joni Mitchell's Blue Album reminds me of touring around America on a sleeper bus. We had an amazing rhythm section of Russ Kunkel and Leland Sklar, and apart from playing with Joni herself, they worked with all my idols, including Carol King, James Taylor and Jackson Browne. They would sit on the back of the bus with me, play me songs, and tell me stories about working with them all. It became my soundtrack to these tours and suited the American landscape perfectly.
4. As a cellist, you've likely performed in various settings. Do you prefer intimate, small venues or grand concert halls, and why?
I love playing both for very different reasons. I recently played a sold-out show at the Barbican with an incredible artist, the jazz pianist Hiromi. I had toured with her for most of 2022, but it was all in Europe, and when she got a date in London in November 2023, she wanted us to play a one-off show as a homecoming as we hadn't played in the UK. The audience's noise when we came out on stage was deafening, but the concert was incredibly intimate. She draws that from the audience, and I love the juxtaposition. Equally, though, when you can play for a smaller audience and see everyone's faces, there is a different energy, and more often than not, I find these environments more nerve-wracking!
Acoustics and sound have so much to do with my experience, especially in a large venue like the 02 arena, for example, when you're amplified. You immediately have to put your trust in the sound team, which can be daunting. Playing acoustically in a smaller venue allows you to enjoy and control the dynamic range of your instrument, which is what we are trained for.
5. What's your go-to routine to unwind and relax after a demanding day, balancing your musical and parental responsibilities?
As a musician, I start work later and finish later than most people; my days are back to front. Now my children are older, life is very different, and I'm no longer on the clock with babysitters. This has changed the dynamic of my get-out and run-home routine after a big show! I hang out a bit more now after work and enjoy the post-show glow! I love meeting audiences and catching up with my colleagues as generally they are my dearest friends, so it gives me the feeling I have some social life too!
When I'm home, however, it's straight back to being a mum, organising the kids for school, putting a wash on and cooking. It's very grounding, and I wouldn't have it any other way!
Exercise is also essential. Running in Highgate Woods and doing hot Pilates most mornings in the Good Rooms Studio in Muswell Hill is crucial for my physical and mental health.
Time with my kids is always when I'm the most relaxed off the stage, and we have started to travel together quite a bit, especially after my busy work patches. We recently went to Australia and LA. I love returning to countries where I toured and showing them around without a cello! It restores our balance as a family.
6. How do you introduce the world of classical music to your children, and do they share your passion for it?
It isn't easy for children of professional musicians as there is a natural expectation they are good at music. I'm the daughter of two dentists, so I didn't feel this pressure, so I have been keen that My kids don't feel the pressure, too. I've always been passionate that their life experiences and choices differ from my childhood. I want them to find their own path with my full support. They have naturally been to many concerts as this was the environment they grew up in, and many musicians and creative people have surrounded them since birth; I remember when they were little, they thought everyone played an instrument!
My son played cello when he was little and then lost interest, but he has always been interested in rap and musicians like Dangelo, for which we share a passion. His equivalent of my musical passion and obsession is now firmly with Arsenal Football Club, which has been an excellent education for me. He will likely go into sports journalism or football statistics, and I am so happy he has found something he cares deeply about.
My daughter has always had a good voice ever since we can remember. She joined choirs young and enjoyed the social aspect, which was important when she struggled socially at school.
Last year, she was bullied and decided she wanted a change of life and applied to music schools. She did incredibly well in her auditions and was accepted everywhere; she fell in love with Chetham School of Music in Manchester, which happens to be my old school, so she started there this September. She is now thriving and has found 'her people' as she calls them.
I miss her terribly, but I am pleased she has a healthy relationship with music and is now a very happy kid. It was important to me that she made the choice herself at nearly 13 and has had an experience of mainstream school, which she knows wasn't for her.
7. In the fast-paced world of the music industry, what strategies do you use to stay creatively inspired and motivated?
I listen obsessively to music all the time. I am constantly discovering new artists and keeping up with emerging musicians as much as possible. This inspires me to keep creating and being involved with every kind of music I can. Part of my career, especially as a session musician, is working on new songs or compositions, and I have always loved being part of that process. Since I was a kid, I've been drawn to the creative process even more than the reinterpretation of existing works.
I always take something away from every project I do, whether it's the music I enjoy playing, how my colleagues play or how something is managed; this hopefully feeds into what I do even if I don't know it's happening at the time!
I've always been interested in fashion, film, nature, and the visual arts and looking outside, music has always been hugely important to me and informs me.
Another hugely important thing is collaborating with younger musicians. I joined the Jess Gillam Ensemble in 2020, and Jess is one of the most inspirational musicians and people I have ever met. She is only 25, and most of the ensemble is a similar age; this keeps me on to the current scene and different ways of working. It's such a joy to work with them, and I find their outlook and positive energy infectious! Younger people are more prepared to take risks, which may happen less as you age.
8. Are there specific rituals or habits you follow before a performance that contribute to your stage presence and confidence?
I always try to see the performance in the eyes of an audience and have learnt that over the years, sometimes musicians get so wrapped in their own experience of music-making that this can get in the way of remembering that an audience wants to have a good time and escape! My duty as a performer is to leave my concerns or troubles at the door. Nerves can be positive when channelled in the right direction; they show that you still care!
Many of us suffer from imposter syndrome and have a strong inner critic; I try to keep this in check on stage.
In terms of practical rituals, I make sure I eat well, stretch and try not to look at my phone just before I go on stage so I can focus.
9. Being in the public eye, how do you balance sharing your life on social media and maintaining personal privacy?
Social media has become very important in our industry, and I have mixed feelings about it. Rehearsals used to be a private, sacred space where mistakes could happen, but more often than not, even our rehearsals and dress rehearsals are filmed and documented. You have to see it as a positive tool for promotion, but only if you get the balance right. Ultimately, it's about the moment and not posting about it.
Regarding how social media impacts my personal life, sharing some aspects of children's lives was comforting early on, especially as I was on my own, and it was nice to share their milestones when they were younger. I have a private and public Instagram, which I separate things on, and anything regarding romantic relationships; nothing ever goes on!
I have always ensured that my content would be comfortable for my kids to read. That rule works well for me.
10. If you could time travel and give your younger self one piece of advice, what would it be?
Be your validation in every aspect of your life!
You can connect with Gabriella on Instagram.
Her website is here
Photograph by Jim Marsden
Make-up Yuliia Liushenko
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