Although she'd been singing since childhood and writing songs since her tweens, it wasn't until Gina Sicilia saw Susan Tedeschi open up for B.B. King that she discovered her own destiny.
"I remember leaving the show and I told my mom, 'This is what I want to do, exactly what she's doing,'" says Sicilia of her Tedeschi-inspired epiphany. "Before her, I was listening to blues, but I never really knew how to pursue it or exactly what I wanted to do. It made me realize it was possible to have a female role model."
These days Sicilia's riding high, supporting a fourth album, It Wasn't Real, which finds her smoky, voluptuous alto caressing a blend of American roots styles. While primarily a blues singer, Sicilia has demonstrated broad tastes ever since her gospel-and-country-tinged 2007 debut, Allow Me to Confess.
"She's going to get even better with age," wrote the Philadelphia Inquirer, her hometown daily. For a 22-year-old artist who'd only begun singing in front of people three years prior, it was all a heady experience.
"I signed with a label, signed with a [booking] agency, and was touring doing festivals when I had no experience at all," says the artist, who was one of 2008's Blues Under the Bridge Festival headliners. "I had no right to be doing that. But when they take you to Manhattan, what, you're going to pass that up?"
Eventually, though, the whirlwind began to subside. "Things didn't continue to progress as quickly as I thought they would. It didn't stay that way."
By the time of her third disc, 2011's Can't Control Myself, she had struggled through agent difficulties and personal doubts. She was rewarded with her most fêted release, and some of her first major radio airplay for the sultry opening cut, "Addicted."
Having recorded three albums with her band's guitarist Dave Gross, Sicilia opted to bring in someone new to produce It Wasn't Real. Producer Glenn Barratt (Teddy Pendergrass, Eileen Ivers) has won four Grammys and helped switch things up for Sicilia. Session players were recruited in place of her band, and while the whole process was nerve-racking, it also proved rewarding.
"Sometimes you get that adrenaline rush when you get anxious," says Sicilia, "and that brings out the best in me. It makes me do things that I wouldn't normally do if I was too comfortable."
The album, which was released last month, feels remarkably assured even as it pushes the artist into new territory. Highlights include the horn-laden folk-blues of "Wake Up Next to You," the rockabilly-tinged rave-up "Please Don't Stop," and the country-waltz "Write a Little Song With You." And then, of course, there are blues numbers like the title track and "Don't Cry Baby."
"I'm really excited by the response it's been getting," says Sicilia. "I think people are really appreciating vocal music after people like Adele and Amy Winehouse helped reintroduce it into the mainstream. Things come and go, but I think now is a really good time for this kind of music."
At 28, Sicilia's now dedicated to making the transition from acclaimed upstart to valued legacy artist.
"Especially I think on the blues scene, there's no shortcut for hard work," she says. "It was a great start that I had, but there's no getting around experience, hard work and making things happen for yourself."