Like many teenagers, Tampa native Gabriella Valdes was bored at home during quarantine last year. She started posting videos to TikTok, singing covers of songs by musicians ranging from Lady Gaga and Rihanna to the Beatles and Led Zeppelin.
Now, the 17-year-old is signed to a record label, has gained millions of followers on social media and is on a national tour, with an upcoming performance at the Gasparilla Music Festival in Tampa on Oct. 3.
She captures the essence of rock, soul and blues singers of past eras with her sound and her look. Los Angeles-based L3V3L (Level) Music discovered Valdes singing an Amy Winehouse cover online. After she signed with them in 2020, she adopted the stage name “Vella” and has been releasing original singles and videos since.
“The rest is history,” she said. The video for her song Rumors, released in April, has more than 1 million views on YouTube.
Likewise for Pull the Trigger, which premiered in June.
Fans enjoy her covers too; her rendition of Everybody Loves an Outlaw’s song I See Red also blew up online.
She moved to Los Angeles to work with her label, leaving Tampa Catholic High School to be homeschooled and focus on her career. Valdes is back in Tampa now, having performed at the NFL 2021 Kickoff Experience earlier this month ahead of her performance at the Gasparilla Music Festival. After that, she’s back on tour.
The Tampa Bay Times caught up with Vella to talk about her influences and success. This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
When did you start performing?
When I was seven, I realized that I wanted to do singing for a career. And so my parents introduced me to this group called Entertainment Revue, it’s an all-girl singing and dance group. I was a part of that basically all my life, and what we do was sing medleys. For example we would do a ’50, ’60s and ’70s medley ... we would perform around Tampa. It was really a big part of my childhood and helped me a lot as an artist and as a performer.
You have called yourself the love child of Janis Joplin and Amy Winehouse. Why do you gravitate toward classic rock and blues?
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My dad was a very big influence on me listening to classic rock. I had a major obsession with the Beatles in fourth grade. I grew up with rock. It was always a part of my childhood, and I’m super grateful that my dad introduced me to that type of music because it would end up being a part of me today.
I have a bunch of influences. I love the Beatles, Elton John, Led Zeppelin, Etta James, Aretha Franklin. It wasn’t me at first that said the Janis Joplin thing, people kept saying that and I was like, oh might as well. I was like, dang, that’s a huge compliment.
It seems like you can credit social media for your success.
Definitely. I got a record deal by it and millions of followers. It’s crazy how social media works ... the I See Red cover started really trending on TikTok ... I gained a million followers by that one video. Right there and then my whole life changed.
Along with your musical style, your fashion and videos have a retro vibe, too. How much input do you have when it comes to that?
Well, (the video concepts) are thanks to our photographer and video editor. But I focus on the wardrobe ... I have an amazing team of stylists and wardrobe people ... I just started appreciating more like the ‘70s aesthetic. I decided, you know what, this is my style and I’m not going to change it.
You’ve been performing with your band in festivals this year, including Summerfest (in Milwaukee). What has that experience been like?
They’ve been so much fun. I’ve been having a blast. Because I always love to sing and perform. It’s always been a dream of mine, so being able to do it is like a dream come true ... I meet so many new fans ... We’ll do one on Oct. 15 in San Diego where the Chainsmokers are the main act.
Are you excited for Gasparilla Music Festival? What acts are you looking forward to seeing?
Oh yeah, it’s my favorite thing ever to do when I come over here. To be able to do the Gasparilla Music Festival is, like, the best ... I’m super excited and stoked about it. It’s going to be really cool. I’m excited to see Gov’t Mule and Matt and Kim.
If you go
The Gasparilla Music Festival runs Oct. 1-3. Vella performs at 3 p.m. Oct. 3 on the Morgan Automotive Stage. Curtis Hixon Park, 600 N Ashley Drive, Tampa. $40-$250. gasparillamusic.com.