What Katie Melua did next (marries biker ace James Toseland, nets £12m fortune, releases sixth album)
Katie Melua has come a long way since leaving war-torn Georgia as a child for Belfast, a city which then had its own Troubles. But, she tells Edwin Gilson, it will always have a special place in her heart
Published 16/09/2013 | 01:30
In the nicest possible way, it feels like Katie Melua has been around for ages. Indeed, as is often the case with celebrities who emphatically burst on to the scene in their teens, the singer is often thought of as being older than she actually is.
In fact, she is still only 28. The confusion, however, is easy to understand. With six albums to her name – the most recent out today – Melua possesses the sort of back catalogue typical of a much older artist. But then she has packed rather a lot in, leading a far from ordinary existence long before she ever became a hugely successful pop star.
Having been born in war-torn Georgia (then part of the Soviet Union), she fled to the UK to "sample the wonders of Belfast and the lovely Northern Irish accent" with her family at the age of eight. Five years later she settled in Surrey, England, eventually going on to study at the prestigious Brit School for the Performing Arts & Technology in London.
She sums it up: "That's all a bit of a mishmash isn't it? It can be hard to pinpoint an identity for myself, but I love that I've got all these different backgrounds and lifestyles to choose from."
In 2003 she released The Closest Thing to Crazy, written by long-time collaborator Mike Batt, a (now classic) song she's apparently "still completely enchanted by and in love with ... but there are some days when I'm like: 'Urrrgh, this one again'."
Melua's second album, Piece by Piece, has gone platinum four times and this year she was placed third in The Sunday Times Rich List of young musicians, behind only Adele and Cheryl Cole. If you're vaguely interested in that kind of thing (and, as much as we all might try to deny it, who isn't?) Melua's fortune is today estimated at £12m. Still, she's always worked hard for her considerable income. With the release of her new record, Ketevan, her rate of output has risen to better than one album every two years since her breakthrough effort, Call off the Search.
"I don't have any plans to slow down," she insists. She's in the middle of a busy but not unbearable Press run when I speak to her, having apparently decided to filter her media contact a little more since the days when she was regularly subjected to tabloid speculation – most notably questions over her sexuality.
"A few years ago I couldn't really say no to Press things, but now I try to be sensible and only speak to the good people," she says, coyly. Such suggestions were firmly put to bed when she married former motorcycle racer James Toseland last year. We'll come to their relationship later though. First, to Melua's Georgian childhood.
Her formative years in Kutaisi, then the capital Tbilisi, then Ajaria, seem to be at the forefront of her mind at the moment, mirrored by the title of the new record; Ketevan is a rough translation of Katie in Georgian.
While it's easy to envisage the cynics queuing up to lament the 'gimmicky' nature of this move, at least it shows Melua hasn't forgotten her heritage or the fact that at one time, her life was a million miles away from what it is now.
"The country was in the grip of a civil war when I was there," she reflects solemnly.
"We didn't have any electricity at night. There'd be these massive blackouts and the schools would frequently be forced to close. Despite all that, the capacity for a young kid to have fun there was huge and I had a brilliant childhood.
"That's why, first and foremost, I tend to think of myself as Georgian. I have a younger brother who was born when I was eight, so there was a bit of a gap between us, but we played together all the time. Before that, I was alone a lot of the time."
Upon moving to Northern Ireland the potential for alienation was great, as Melua "didn't speak a word of English".
Contrary to some reports, she didn't learn the lingo via pop music lyrics: "We were all listening to Queen back then and if you've listened to the words in Bohemian Rhapsody, you'll know that's not really proper English language at all!"
So Melua "struggled for a while" at St Catherine's Primary School on Belfast's Falls Road, before a kindly soul offered her encouragement.
"I'll always be grateful to Mrs McDonald, my lovely teacher, who gave me a really important role in the school play," she recalls fondly. "It may not sound much but things were tough and that part in the Christmas production gave my self-esteem a big boost. It was one of the nicest things to happen when I was there."
The Melua family may have left one conflicted country for another (albeit slightly less dangerous) one, but on the whole young Katie picked up a predominantly positive vibe from Belfast.
If our city has occasionally found the derogatory and undeserved term 'grey' attached to it, it was a land of astounding vibrancy to impressionable new eyes accustomed to Soviet Eastern Europe.
"One of the first things I noticed about Belfast were the completely different colours to Georgia; I found Belfast so much more colourful," enthuses Melua. "What I mean is the colour of the toys, the buildings, the cars. Just the colour of 'things'.
"Georgian nature is stunning in its own way, but everything there was just thoroughly derelict. That was normal to me though. I never noticed that really until I moved to Northern Ireland and everything seemed so vibrant due to its intense colour; I'm talking road signs and small things like that.
"I didn't know why this was initially, but it was eventually explained to me by my friend, Florian Henckel von Donnersmark, who directed the film The Lives of Others, which was set in Berlin during its communist era.
"He said that during the Sixties in the West they started to use very bold, bright colours in manufacturing, but obviously the Eastern communist world never went through that process.
"That's why there was such a difference between the communist land I had left and the new country I arrived in. Overall, given the civil war in Georgia, it was just nice to see buildings in Belfast that didn't have bomb holes in them!"
Melua admits that the politics of Northern Ireland took some getting used to though as, despite the fact she went to a Catholic school, her "family was neither Protestant nor Catholic".
Indeed, seemingly just for the sake of balance, her brother attended a Protestant school. Melua adds: "We were aware of the Troubles of course, but we weren't directly involved in it all. My dad was especially aware, as he worked as a heart specialist at the Royal Victoria Hospital, but you must remember I was only about 10 or 11, so I wasn't old enough to be going out at night when I might, perhaps, have seen some things.
"For us, it was always more a thing that existed in the atmosphere; you could sense it, you could feel in the air the things that had happened in the past. Thankfully we never saw any fighting."
Melua is keen to credit Belfast, and especially Mrs McDonald, for influencing her musical progression, including her decision at the age of 16 to apply for a place at the Brit School which turned her "hobby into a dream".
There is occasional scorn poured on the London centre, with some claiming it gives students an unfair advantage point into the music industry.
While undeniably its alumni pages contain some massive names (Adele, Leona Lewis and Amy Winehouse are just a few) Melua points out that it's not a private, fee-paying school and entry relies wholly on the musical ability of the applicant.
"Teachers didn't pressure you or anything, like some make out," she says. "It was completely up to you how much you got from it. Some people perhaps went in too relaxed and didn't do as well as they could, but I was one of the few that went to every single class and all of the auditions that the music industry people used to come to.
"I know it's not very rock 'n' roll, but coming from the background I had come from, I was determined to make the most of every opportunity. In fact, ever since I arrived in the UK, a land with so much possibility, I've tried to put 110% into everything I've done."
All very commendable indeed, but with so many gifted musicians drifting around the corridors of the school, were there ever any cliques? Did envy ever set in?
Melua laughs: "Well, we were all teenagers don't forget so of course there was some jealousy around. It was just like any other school really, but the obsession with music was amazing; there were constant arguments about whether The Beatles were better than The Rolling Stones or Joni Mitchell better than Kate Bush."
It was at a showcase here that Melua was spotted by Mike Batt, who was to become her producer and manager.
"He's one of the reasons I've been able to put out a record every two years," says the singer. "He's an incredibly prolific songwriter, whereas I can only write when I get really inspired."
Going against the popular notion that every artist who tinkles the ivories must be speaking directly from the heart, Melua claims she's "never been a massively autobiographical writer".
She explains: "I don't want to be like: 'Oh my God my dog's just died, I must write about it!' I just find that a bit simplistic; it almost shows disregard for the songwriting craft. It's not very professional.
"Those old songwriters like Elvis; they weren't feeling intensely heartbroken all the time, were they? They just got on with it!"
On new album Ketevan it's unlikely then that Melua will dish the dirt on personal matters, namely her recent marriage. Anyway, judging by her account of life with husband Toseland, it seems all is rosy in that regard. That is unless you count Melua's failure to recognise her famous (at least in the motorcycle racing realm) future partner when he turned up at one of her gigs with his mum.
"After that show James was at in Sheffield, my piano player turned to me and said 'You'll never believe who was in the audience tonight, he's the biggest legend!' When he said James' name, I was like; 'Who's that?' I didn't have a clue he was a superbike champion.
"Apparently it was pretty well known that James played piano at that point, so my piano player emailed him letting him know he played in my band and James came to the next gig.
"So I met him backstage, and yeah ... I kinda liked him! Then we went on a few dates and that was it really."
Since those clueless early days, Melua has since been "completely immersed in the motorcycle world" through Toseland.
"It's fascinating and crazy what those guys do," she gushes. "It's been a tough few years for James, since he had to retire from riding. As a wife I would have struggled with that though, if he'd continued to ride, as it's such a dangerous profession.
"There are always those who lose their lives and it's heart-breaking. I used to ask him if he was scared about something terrible happening to him and he used to reply 'No, the thing I'm most scared about is coming second.' I was like: 'What?! Alright then ... '"
The couple went skydiving the other day, as Melua has always been a self-confessed adrenaline junkie. "Things like that are all about setting yourself up for the challenge and then conquering your fears," she says.
"With the skydive, I was all giddy and adrenaline-fuelled, whereas James wasn't scared at all. So in the end he didn't enjoy it anywhere near as much as I did. Our levels of enjoyment in that sense are completely different, if that makes sense."
Melua and Toseland are a rare celebrity pair – they're rich, good-looking, evidently very much in love and yet it's impossible to feel spiteful envy towards them, as they appear so genuine. Indeed the same could very much be said of Melua independently and her music. Drawn in by her bubbly, warm personality, you very much wish her to succeed which, clearly, she is doing and has always done. Ketevan should be another string in her considerable bow and who knows, maybe a return trip to that colourful, vibrant city of her youth could be on the cards? No date has been announced in Northern Ireland yet but surely she'll be back to grace Belfast sometime soon.
"I don't get back there enough," she sighs. "But I will never lose my love for the city."