Words by:
Photography: Hannah Cosgrove
Styling: Malcolm Yaeng
Hair and Makeup: Blessing Kambanga

In 2014, Fabiana Palladino opened her inbox to a surprise email. When she read the message – a request to collaborate from the elusive and revered Jai Paul – she assumed it was a prank. The songwriter and multi-instrumentalist had been sporadically releasing demos online while working as a session musician for artists including SBTRKT and Jessie Ware, but she was yet to really grab the industry’s attention. Meanwhile, Paul was still famously incognito. “I was just working at my job full time, and I thought, ‘What? Why is this guy emailing me?’” Palladino recalls, laughing. “I was completely shocked, like, is this for real?”

The email turned out to be legit and a long and fruitful creative relationship ensued, with Palladino releasing a string of tracks via the typically mysterious Paul Institute, a label and collective set up by Paul and his brother A.K. Though unexpected, the pairing makes sense: both have an ear for off-beat pop that is at once intimate and uncanny. Palladino’s music caught on in a curious way, much like Paul’s did. Despite only having four songs available online, each released at several-year intervals, she is lauded by critics and Reddit users alike. She’s sustained this air of secrecy for the best part of ten years, though not deliberately, she insists. Next month, she’ll perform her first-ever headline shows, in London and Paris, before releasing her self-titled debut album in April.

FABIANA PALLADINO wears: Black Jacket: Les Benjamins, Black Tight Top: Roberta Einer, Leather Trousers: YOOX, Black Skirt: Les Benjamins, Gloves: Stylist’s own

We meet for lunch at Panella, an understated yet beloved Sicilian restaurant under west London’s Trellick Tower, where Palladino runs me through her connections to the area. A little further down the road is Laylow, the venue where Paul Institute artists took up residency in 2019. We’re also a stone’s throw from Paul Institute HQ and the home of XL Recordings, where she wrote most of her album over the first lockdown. She’s currently in the throes of her first fully fledged promo campaign and has spent the morning selecting press photos. After years of lurking in the shadows for so long, it’s something she finds discomfiting. “We just made a music video, which was great, but I had to psych myself up for two days just to watch the edit back,” she says, wincing, before letting out a self-deprecating laugh. “It’s hard.”

Palladino never wanted to be a musician, which is surprising when you consider her upbringing. The daughter of a backing vocalist and legendary session musician Pino Palladino, she grew up in a richly musical household. She shares memories of artists visiting the family home, as well as trips to her dad’s studio and overseas tour dates. Instruments were always readily available to her and her siblings; from the age of seven, she played piano and also took on the drums. But at that point, her industry ambitions were minimal. “I just wasn’t naturally someone who wanted to get on the stage and perform,” she says, candidly. “I think I was deep down, but I was nervous and scared.”

FABIANA PALLADINO wears: Full Look: Craig Green

Her childhood was soundtracked by her parents’ soul and Motown records, and she’s grateful for this informal early education by Aretha Franklin and Donny Hathaway. But it was the music on the radio that captured her attention. “I mean, I was very uncool in terms of current music,” she says, perhaps a little too earnestly. “I was into pop music, whatever was mainstream, like Craig David and Spice Girls.”

That interest in pop and R&B laid the foundations for her own material, which is built around traditional song structures and a silky falsetto, and polished off with sleek yet subtly experimental production. She’s still drawn to the superstars of those genres, most notably Kate Bush, Brandy and Janet Jackson. “I always loved everything Janet represents,” Palladino explains, wide-eyed. “She is obviously super feminine sometimes, but that 80s period was so androgynous and, musically, the production is quite hard. That feeling of strength about her was interesting and exciting to me.”

While at university, Palladino started to pursue music-making, but only tentatively. She remembers feeling nervous as coursemates began to clock on to who her dad – famous for his work with The Who, Gary Numan and D’Angelo – was. “I remember suddenly feeling very aware that people knew and then had an idea of me,” she explains. “I used to have an idea that if my dad played on anything [I wrote] people would just see me as what you now call a ‘nepo baby’.”

FABIANA PALLADINO wears: Full Look: Craig Green

It would be easy to feel sorry for Palladino at this point. She’s sweet, self-aware, and extremely talented; it must be frustrating to live in the shadow of a (male) relative. But at the same time, nepotism is deeply entrenched within British music and arts. So I remember the instruments hanging around the house, the studio visits, the industry family friends. A week later, when I ask how she feels about her advantaged position, she explains further. “There are many ways in which having musician parents has benefitted me, [such as] instruments and recording equipment. In a practical sense, it was easy for me to explore music, and I know for most people that is definitely not the case,” she admits. “I can acknowledge the leg up I had and still be able to feel like what I do is valid and worthy on its own terms.”

It was around 2007 when Palladino started uploading her early demos to MySpace. Though it didn’t stir up much interest at the time, she says, it’s where she connected with like-minded artists such as Ghostpoet and Sampha, who she collaborated with for the former’s Survive It (2011) and her own, since-deleted track, For You (2014). Soon after, she began working as a session musician for some of London’s most talked about indie and electronic acts: SBTRKT, The Maccabees and Jessie Ware.

Between tours, Palladino would fervently write her own music. “I’d come back and be like, ‘Right, I’ve got a week.’ I’d just be locked in my bedroom making songs,” she tells me. One such song was Shimmer, a sparkling synth-pop ballad she would later tidy up and release officially in 2018. It was an important period for Palladino and she looks back on the time fondly, but after several years, she found that session work was no longer creatively satisfying. She enjoyed supporting artists she loved but lacked the time to focus on her own projects. “I could’ve carried on making individual tracks, but there’s no way I would’ve had the time or focus to make an album,” she adds.

FABIANA PALLADINO wears: Jacket: Les Benjamins

It was a risky move to give up the opportunities and income, but the decision proved fateful; it was around this time she began working with Paul. Last year, after many years of writing and producing together, she played in Paul’s band for his much-anticipated debut live show at Coachella, alongside her brother and fellow session musician Rocco Palladino. This tour was also where she was able to road test some of her own material  as a support act. “Seeing [Jai’s] progression from not having done any show whatsoever to the way he was performing [at the end of the tour] in Australia was a whole different thing,” Palladino says, like a proud family member. “The speed at which he’s grown has been amazing to see.”

This idea of self-progression and being at ease with yourself resonates with Palladino’s own story. Now, aged 36, she finally feels ready to release her first full-length project. The album was written after the breakdown of a significant relationship in 2019, which forced her to move back in with her parents in the suburbs and confront life’s big questions all over again. “I thought, ‘Wow, how did this happen? I’m in my early thirties and single again, and what does that mean for me?’” she recalls, more quietly now. With people around her getting married and having children “left, right and centre”, she began to ask herself, ‘How can I take ownership of that and for it not to be this sad, tragic thing? Do I want that traditional life or not? And if I don’t, what does that look like?’

FABIANA PALLADINO wears: Jacket: Patrick McDowell, Skirt: Les Benjamins, Tights: Stylist’s own, Shoes: YOOX, Earrings: Louise Konrad

Palladino navigates these questions of loneliness and independence throughout her self-titled album. The lyrics are frank and unabashed, like on the low-lit groover Stay with Me Through the Night, in which Palladino confesses that she “never could make up ‘cos I’m bad at admitting that I’m wrong”, and pleads for “one more try”. She finds strength in being direct, she says: “I didn’t want to obscure anything. Yeah, I feel very vulnerable, but I chose to be.”

Fabiana Palladino is her most ambitious sounding release yet, drawing on the production techniques of big studio projects she has long admired to embellish her earlier, more DIY approach. With its tight, syncopated drums and steely attitude, Can You Look in the Mirror? nods to early 2000s releases by Darkchild and Rich Harrison, while the spectral slowburner I Care (featuring Jai Paul) has a cinematic sheen. “When you look back at the budgets and time these people had, you know, we had very little of that,” Palladino smiles. “It was almost a challenge of, how shiny can I make it sound?”

Taking her time to build up to the album is something Palladino is grateful for. But it’s taken a long time to reach this state of mind; though there are traces of her all over the music world, from her session appearances to recording credits in liner notes, for years she was concerned that the lapses between her releases would make her look unproductive, or unsuccessful.

"It's so much cooler to be an overnight success, isn't it? But the fact of the matter is, for some artists, it just takes ages to get to the stage where they're able to make a record"

“There’s so much focus on your digital footprint, how it looks when people scroll through your Instagram or releases,” Palladino says, sighing. “I have these long gaps where I was off on tour, doing other things or just distracted,” she shrugs. “It’s so much cooler to be an overnight success, isn’t it? Or just to be the person of the moment. But the fact of the matter is, for some artists, it just takes ages to get to the stage where they’re able to make a record.”

She also worried that she’d missed the boat altogether. As we finish eating, she recalls an interaction with an industry figure who said he would never sign an artist over the age of 25. Palladino was 20 years old at the time and the comment stuck. “I had that in my head for years. Years,” she emphasises, pulling on her sleeves.

It’s part of a wider culture of ageism and misogyny in the music business, Palladino acknowledges now. “I bought into it because it’s just so insidious,” she says, frankly. “But now there’s Jessie, Kylie, Robyn – people who are older than me. I’d be delighted to be making that kind of music. Why is there a limit on age? It makes zero sense.” She’s still figuring it all out, Palladino admits earnestly, but she’s finally learning to enjoy the process: “It’ll only get better, I think.”

Fabiana Palladino is out on 5 April via Paul Institute/XL Recordings