Chess (real name Francesca Galea) has been living and studying music in the UK since last September. Without a doubt, one of last year’s more popular pop tunes from the local scene was a slinky R’n’B number called Stilettos by a new artist calling herself Chess.Urban music, however, isn’t the only groove this young lady is good at, as we found out later when she popped up again on the airwaves as the voice on Jo Micali and U-Bahn’s Making You Mine, a massive club hit.
Pop music is something Chess has been interested in from a very young age, although her first taste of music was of a more classical nature. “My mother is a pianist and I grew up surrounded by classical music,” she explains, “but I was also into pop music at the time.” The charts at the time were dominated by the likes of the Spice Girls, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, and the one major effect all of these had on Chess was that she wanted to sing. “I had been taking dance and acting lessons, and I started ballet when I was two, so I’ve basically been performing all my life, but what I really wanted to do more than anything was sing.”
Being inspired by manufactured pop stars may seem a tad embarrassing now, but Chess was, after all, only about five years old at the time. “I remember being really impressed by the whole hype: the colours, the clothes, the dance routines and, of course, those catchy songs,” she admits. Her musical tastes changed as she grew older and explored her mother’s record collection. Apart from classical music, Galea also started to develop a taste for Ray Charles, for soul music and for bands like Queen. “I was impressed by the variety of sounds and was interested in how, despite coming from different genres, they all had a certain pop sensibility,” she says.
She applied this diversity when, aged 13, she started taking singing lessons with Gillian Zammit; classical at first, then musical theatre. While she enjoyed all of this, she still felt like she wasn’t using her ‘best’ voice. “My ‘best’ voice is the one that came out when I used to sing pop music in my room, which brought out my full chest voice,” she explains.From then on, she decided she would focus on this aspect of her voice. She started taking SLS singing lessons that were more geared towards pop music.
Besides singing, Chess can also play the piano, which she had also started playing at a young age. “I certainly played it better when I was younger. I stopped studying at some point, but I’ve fallen in love with its sound all over again,” she says. Surely, knowing how to play the piano is a valuable tool for any aspiring artist? “Of course – I still remember the chords, which come in handy when I’m writing a song.”
Before doing her own thing, Chess had already had a taste of pop music as part of an aspiring all-girl vocal group. She was just 15 at the time and the experience gave her a taste of both the upside and the downside of the industry. When it ended, however, she was even more determined that this was what she wanted to do.
Rather than hanging about and doing it here, Chess decided that she needed a fresh perspective and, as of last September, has been living and studying music in the UK. “The idea had been on my mind for a while, so I worked hard for a year and a half and saved up so I could move to the UK and study music.” It wasn’t an easy decision, but despite some opposition, she pushed ahead with her plans and is currently studying at the Academy of Contemporary Music in Surrey.
Galea thanks her mother for raising her to be independent, something which helped her cope when she first moved to the UK. She feels even more settled in now that she has made friends there. How does she feel the move has helped her as an artist? “Apart from the fact that I’ve had to give up dancing – which I love – for the time being, I’m still in my developing stage,” she says.
The majority of the students at ACM are into guitar music which, given her pop background, must make her stand out a bit. “I didn’t really want to be conspicuous, but I’ve learnt that perhaps it can be a good thing. But it doesn’t make it any easier to find soul or jazz musicians to play with,” she laughs.
One person she shares common musical interests with is producer Luke Southwell, who is a music business student at ACM but also a producer. “He liked my voice and I liked his music, so we decided to work together. Our first single is called Can’t Get Enough and will be released on January 24.” Further to her initial success with the Muxu-penned Stilettos (which has since also been remixed by Jo Micali), and her role in giving Micali/U-Bahn’s Making You Mine its vocal hook, the new single marks another step forward in Chess’s pop adventure.
“There’s still a long way to go, but all I really want is for my music to be appreciated and for it to have a positive effect on the people listening to it.” It may still be early days to expect definite results, but the young singer has a strong-willed ambition and is adamant that she made the right move. “Some days are harder than others”, she concedes. “But I firmly believe that if I hadn’t gone ahead with my plan, I would have probably regretted not doing it for the rest of my life. The important thing is I’ve wanted to sing since I was five and I’m glad to be doing something I believe will help me get there.”
This article was firsrt published on The Sunday Times of Malta (17 January, 2011)