Katie Melua: 'Singing with a choir is just like surfing on a wave of voices'
Hailed as one of the UK's leading singers, Northern Ireland-raised Katie Melua's decision to shake things up and go it alone could have been described as risky. But the choice paid off, as her startling new album proves, says Andy Welch
After just a few seconds listening to Katie Melua's new album, In Winter, it's immediately clear she's changed. Since releasing her debut album, Call Off The Search, in 2003, she's carved a niche as the UK's premier singer of jazz-tinged ballads. By 2006, thanks to heavy championing by the likes of Radio 2, she was one of the country's biggest-selling solo artists, and she has shifted somewhere in the region of 12 million albums.
In Winter, however, sees the singer go it alone, having parted ways with long-time writing partner Mike Batt after six hugely successful albums.
"I'm just happy to still have a job after all these years," says the 32-year-old singer. "It's a record that's quite different to the ones I've done before."
Katie knew she wanted to try something new this time around and that it was time to work on her own. There was a period of adjustment and, initially, Batt didn't take her decision particularly well, but eventually he understood why she'd felt the need to make the change.
However, the process was "a bit of culture shock", Melua says, and only when it came to writing an album completely on her own did she realise the weight that had been on Batt's shoulders for all those years.
"I wasn't sure the world needed another Katie Melua album," she adds. "But the artistic goals between Mike and I were drifting and had been for some time."
Eventually, she focused and realised that away from the politics, thinking about her career and "all that self-obsessed stuff", she was still fascinated by music, writing songs and making records, so she began working out where she wanted to go next.
Originally, she began working on a score for a ballet, which led her to discover the Gori Women's Choir in her native Georgia. The Melua family left the war-torn country (then part of the Soviet Union) and arrived in Belfast when Katie was eight.
Northern Ireland became her home for the next five years. She attended St Catherine's Primary School on the Falls Road, then Fortwilliam Grammar School in the north of the city, while her father took up a post as a heart specialist at the Royal Victoria.
Having left Georgia at such a young age, Katie was instantly captivated by the idea of working with the women's choir.
"I met with them without making any promises and saw them rehearsing in a small town in Georgia," she says.
"They sounded exquisite, but I know that I make Western pop music and they make Georgian classical music, so in order to work with them, I needed to educate myself. I was fascinated by that style of singing and very interested in getting better as a singer myself."
As winter rolled around and they sang together a few times, Melua realised it wasn't a ballet she should write, but the record missing from her collection - an album all about winter and the complexities of the season, particularly the romanticism of the Russian forest versus the harsh reality of the country's past.
"It was easy for them to get started, but I did everything slowly," she explains. "There were no language or cultural barriers to negotiate, so I'm not sure if it would have worked so well if I couldn't speak Georgian.
"They were very open to trying things out. I had a clear idea in my head of what I wanted it to sound like, but I needed their help and an insight into their way of working to make it come true."
The resulting album hears Melua's glass-like voice and virtuoso guitar, backed by the haunting sound of the choir. It's a startling combination, and Melua's idea of making an album about winter - specifically one that the listener can enjoy while wrapped up indoors, preferably in front of an open fire - is tangible.
"I wanted to really capture that nostalgia for my past, looking back at my homeland and my family," she says. "There's a mythical notion of the Russian forests covered in snow, cultivated by shows filmed in Moscow, but there are also the stories my granddad would tell us about escaping from Siberian labour camps.
"I wanted to dive into that, and pitch it against the reality of 21st century life in London and that feeling of needing a break over the winter to get away from the madness of living in the city, and the desire we have for things to be still."
As for working with someone else, which was a new experience for both parties, Melua says communication in the studio was paramount, noting: "As we got going, they said they would be open to the idea of collaborating with other artists, but only if they had a clear idea, as I did".
"In the West, we have this romantic notion that artists are constantly inspired by the heavens, and just pluck it from somewhere," she adds. "Developing the skills and tools to make you better at your craft isn't seen as cool, or even necessary.
"In Georgia, they don't have that, and complete perfectionism is what they strive for. They really think about everything, deconstruct everything and refine and refine."
Though working with the choir started out as a bit of "an experiment", the 24 women and the sound they made became something of an inspiration.
"The UK is worried about disrespecting other cultures, and we have a big thing about cultural appropriation, or borrowing from a culture for our own gain," says Melua.
"The thing we forget is that culture from the UK and the US rules the world. For the choir to work with an artist that can release music in the UK was a thrill for them, and it reminded me what a privilege it is to be able to release music."
The end result far exceeded Melua's initial ideas - she says the more she got going, the more ambitious she became - and now, she's excited about what she may be able to do next.
As for follow-up albums about spring and summer, she's not so sure, believing there to be something special, more evocative, about the winter.
Before any new album, though, there's this month's tour, which will see her joined in the UK and Europe by the Gori Women's Choir.
"I thought singing on the stage with an orchestra was the most majestic thing, but singing with a choir, I can't really describe what it's like," she says. "It's an orchestra of voices, really, and to me it's a bit like surfing on a wave of voices. It's a very special thing to watch them perform. I think they actually affect the air in the room. And when there are that many women singing at once, it's a very serious force."
Katie Melua's In Winter is out now. She begins a UK tour this week. Visit katiemelua.com