Closest thing to Katie?
Singer Katie Melua, who grew up in Belfast, tells Peter Robertson how as a girl she was oblivious to the Troubles, but won't say a word about that rumoured gay relationship
Katie Melua had only been famous for a few weeks when she ran into trouble. Trouble over the Troubles.
It was late 2003 and the then 19-year-old singer/songwriter, who was enjoying a first hit single with The Closest Thing To Crazy, included a self-penned track on her Top 5 debut album Call Off The Search which was intended as a tribute to the Northern Ireland capital and entitled Belfast (Penguins And Cats). Katie lived in the city from the age of eight to 13, so it seemed apt that she should portray the political situation in simple, childlike, terms. But referring to Protestants and Catholics as Penguins and Cats did not go down too well.
"It was claimed I was describing those people as animals, and that's not what I meant. The use of Penguins and Cats was just symbolism; it doesn't actually mean they're fighting for religion. They're just names; I could have called them anything. I tried to make it clever. When a person hears a song, I like them to listen carefully and think about the words."
Although this sounds like a slap on the wrists for her critics, Katie clearly doesn't mean that either. There's no doubt the gal's got only good intentions, but unfortunately it's easy for Miss Melua, who turns 23 on Sunday, to be misinterpreted. From the outset she admitted disliking the compulsory promotional aspect of her work, claiming that "as an artist I'd rather let my music speak for itself". But she's also aware of being young, still relatively new to 'the business' and, one suspects, prone to putting her foot in it occasionally. After all, even her melodic claim that 'There are Nine Million Bicycles in Beijing' was ridiculed.
When explaining how her father's job as a heart surgeon at the Royal Victoria Hospital took the family from their native Georgia (the tiny country bordering Russia and Turkey, which was then a Soviet state), where they often went without water and electricity during the freezing winters, to the uncertain streets of Ulster, Katie's compliment is accidentally backhanded: " Coming from Georgia, you're glad to go to the UK, even if it's a place like Belfast. Even though, at that time, Belfast was probably more dangerous than Georgia, it was still a better-off place. You had a better quality of life ? if you didn't get into trouble." In an effort to keep Katie out of difficulties during interviews, her PR Sue Harris positions herself close by and (to her credit, only very) occasionally interjects.
But face-to-face encounters with Katie are increasingly rare these days - most interviews are conducted by email through Sue, and the responses are often as bland as Katie's music is accused of being. Questions about Katie's love life are strictly prohibited, probably because of rumours she's been in a gay relationship since her 2005 break-up from long-term boyfriend Luke Pritchard, lead singer of The Kooks.
Katie's most personal revelation is that she still lives with her parents - "in a north London flat", though one suspects it's a pretty plush one as Katie was the biggest-selling female artist in the UK in 2004 and 2005, and the biggest-selling British female artist in the World in 2006. Before buying this flat, the Meluas spent seven years living in leafy Surrey, two of which Katie spent in a girls' high school. Her accent is mainly reflective of that, with touches of street lingo thrown in. There's no hint of Georgia, or Belfast where she arrived in the early 90s able to literally only speak a few words of English. Which may also explain Katie's reluctance at having so much of what she says analysed now.
"For a while in Belfast I communicated through sign language, but then I picked the (spoken) language up quite easily y'know. You do when you're that young."
It's a measure of Katie's innocence growing up in Belfast that her fondest memory is of the friendly lollipop man who eased her way along the Falls Road to St Catherine's Primary School. Katie went on to attend the Catholic all-girls Dominican College, Fortwilliam, while her younger brother Zurab went to Protestant infant school.
"That was by accident - I think because the Catholic schools are really nice and good for girls, and my parents wanted Zurab to go to a mixed school," she explains. "But I always found it strange that Protestants and Catholics were just labels that were given to the two sides - it was never actually about religion. People on one side didn't go 'Oh, Mary was this holy person ? ' and people on the other side weren't saying 'No, Mary was just the mother of Jesus'. That wasn't what the fight was about; it was who's going to rule Northern Ireland - Catholics wanted to be part of Ireland and Protestants wanted to be part of England.
"I wasn't frightened by the Troubles, though. As a kid I was protected from that. There were always tanks going around, and people with guns, but that was the norm and you kinda got used to it. Even walking to school on Falls Road, I guess the most lethal road in Belfast, I was fine and very kinda oblivious to it. I just concentrated on being a kid really."
Ironically, the only hostility Katie ever experienced was directed towards her appearance, and mistakenly too.
"Once or twice in Belfast I was called a Paki, when I'm not. Not that there's anything wrong with people from Pakistan," swiftly adds Katie, whose dark curly hair, when down, is reminiscent of the Stuart Kings of England, and when tied back makes her face look like that of an angel aged about 15.
"I was a bit of a geek at school," she says. "If, when I was at college five years ago, somebody had asked the teacher who out of all the class would make it big, I would have been like No 50 down the list.
"I was certainly never the best singer or performer in class, and I never got the best parts in plays and stuff. We did The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe and I really wanted to be the main kid, but I got to be the grandad and dress up as a man. In primary school our last production was The Sound Of Music and I really wanted to be Maria, but I had to be one of the other nuns, which sucked." Even though Katie's albums (her third, Pictures, is due out on October 1) are arranged, produced and largely written by Mike Batt - the man behind The Wombles music and the Art Garfunkel hit Bright Eyes who spotted her at The Brit School near Croydon - he only releases them on his own label, Dramatico.
"Initially it was very frustrating for both of us because we went round a lot of record companies and they all felt my first album wasn't quite commercial enough and wouldn't sell," Katie recalls.
As with the music of her idol Eva Cassidy, Katie's album was 'discovered' and championed by Limerick-born broadcaster Terry Wogan on his BBC Radio 2 show. And there's been no turning back since.
"His (late) producer Paul Walters was a fan of Mike (Batt) and introduced my album to Terry. They played it, people kept calling in and requesting it, so they kept playing it. I'm really grateful to Terry and Paul."
Call Off The Search and Katie's second album Piece By Piece have so far sold well over 7.5 million copies. Not surprisingly Mike Batt has signed Katie up on a five-album recording and management deal, leaving other labels severely kicking themselves.
She must surely be tempted to lick her index finger and chalk up a figure 1 in the air ... ? "It's nice that the record labels which turned down my debut album later came back to us and were interested, but I don't go like that," she replies, referring to the suggested gesture. "It was just flattering that they'd finally 'seen'. But I do wonder how many other artists they've turned down who weren't as lucky as I was."
Katie emphatically denies being motivated by a desire for revenge or acceptance.
"Singing and writing songs was just a hobby" she argues. "When I was living in Belfast, I thought I would go into politics after leaving school. That was mainly because of the political situation there. Y'know you kinda wanna make a difference when you're young. Now I think, if I wanna make a difference, the career I've chosen is more influential than politics. I think songs have such power."
Predictably for someone so young, gifted and gorgeous, Katie's getting global attention and appreciation by the bucketload now. No surprise then that it appears three nations are claiming Katie as their own.
" Newspapers in Ireland say the fact that I lived there for five years makes me Irish, the Georgians say I'm Georgian, and, of course, I live in England and sound English. But I'm definitely Georgian - both my parents are Georgian, although my father is half-Russian which makes me a quarter Russian. I think I probably belong in England, but my heart is in Georgia."
However, whenever Katie tours she invariably includes Belfast in her itinerary and does more than just perform in the city.
"I tend to go quite a few times every year for work," she says. "I've performed at the Waterfront a few times now and I love going back. Last time I was in Belfast I went back to the hospital accommodation that we lived in when I was young. It's a block of flats and I was really horrified to see the state that they are in now. There is graffiti in the lift and generally it feels run down, which is such a shame
"But I am amazed at, generally, how much better Belfast is and how built up it is. The atmosphere seems completely different ? more peaceful and so much better. I remember walking to school along Falls Road and I remember the soldiers and guns ? that's not there now.
"I've been back to my school and that was amazing. Everything was smaller than I remembered it. I saw my old teachers, which was nice - a good trip down memory lane.
"I keep up-to-date with what's going on in Belfast as much as I can really. It's difficult with travelling to be aware of things on a day-to-day basis as I am reliant on newspapers from around the world. But I am so happy with the progress over the last few years, with the treaty being signed and the final disarmament of the IRA. Having grown up there for a period of time it has, of course, moved me. I am sure that there are many people who doubted it would ever happen."
So, since her controversial track Belfast, has Katie been inspired to write or record any other songs about the area?
"No, I haven't. But Belfast continues to stay with me as a place where I spent my early years."
Katie Melua's latest single If You Were A Sailboat is out on September 24, and her album Pictures on October 1