Katie Melua's back in a happy place
Ahead of her UK tour, the singer who grew up in Belfast tells Andy Welsh how she’s got life back on track after a breakdown
Since her 2003 debut album Call Off The Search, the unassuming Georgian-born songwriter Katie Melua — who spent six years in Northern Ireland after moving here aged eight — has sold over 10 million albums.
That's about double the tally of fellow Brit-school graduate Adele, yet it's difficult to open a newspaper or magazine without reading a glowing feature on that particular rising star.
“You think I've gone about it quietly?” ponders Melua, the country's biggest-selling female artist of 2006, who has won a clutch of awards all over the continent.
“I suppose I have,” she continues, sitting cross-legged on a sofa in her dressing room at Berlin's O2 arena, an industrial-looking enormo-dome on the Bohemian eastern outskirts of the city.
The 26-year-old brings her current tour to the UK on April 22. By the time she kicks things off in Sheffield, she will have already performed 20 shows in Germany, Portugal, Spain and France.
In support of The House, Melua's fourth album released last May, the tour should have taken place last December but, due to personal reasons, it was postponed until now.
She doesn't want to go into details, but does admit to having had “a bit of a breakdown” and being very unwell. It's difficult to gauge the full extent of the problem from her brief statement, and while not wanting to speculate about something so serious, there are signs something significant may have been going on.
Her tour has been rescheduled with more days off in between gigs than virtually any other touring act I've come across and she has a vastly reduced interview schedule. It's not entirely surprising that someone who's been flat out since they left school might suffer from low spells.
“Last year was time to cool off a bit. I think what happened was a culmination of everything that's gone over the past seven years. Pretty much,” she says, carefully.
“I'm doing things differently since I've come back, trying to keep a lot more chilled and making sure I've got my family around,” she adds, referring to her mum, who is joining her for the entire tour and her brother who, for the few days I’m here, is also in tow.
“I need to realise it's just a job, and it doesn't have to eat you alive. Yes, it's a great position to be in, but it doesn't mean you have to drive yourself crazy with hard work. I need to just enjoy it a bit more.”
In the next breath, she's explaining how, when on her break, she never thought of stopping.
“My perceptions have changed, but I can't think of doing anything else,” she explains. “Music and performing is everything I am, I love it.
“Saying that, I realise it's not just a job, but you can take it to an extreme level by combining it with a lot of physical activity like constant flying and travelling, constant jetlag and the feeling of always having to be somewhere.”
We move on to fame and celebrity, which Melua made a conscious decision to steer clear of from day one.
“It's not difficult to do that,” she says. “It stems from the fact I always wanted to be known for my music, and the people I work with completely understood that, never pushed me to go to every film premiere and all of that stuff.
“The invites can be pretty constant, and it's an easy trap to fall into, but I'd rather hang out with my mates down the pub.
“I think there's a rush from it, being in newspapers and being famous. I've felt it a few times and then thought, ‘Oh s**t'.
“It's addictive, and I can see that, and then don't go there again. But people think being a celebrity is exciting and glamorous.”
While Melua used to be an extreme sports enthusiast, these days she finds most of her excitement on stage. Watching her perform to a spellbound audience in Berlin later that night, any hint of frailty suggested in our interview has completely vanished.
Her voice is utterly flawless throughout, and whether performing alone with her guitar or covering Canned Heat's 1968 classic Going Up The Country, the effect is rarely less than mesmerising. Melua might summon up images of Radio 2 and Michael Parkinson's endorsement, but there's something edgier underneath the jazz vinaigrette. Her last album The House, the first written and produced without mentor and manager Mike Batt, saw her collaborate with Robbie Williams's former songwriter Guy Chambers and Madonna cohort William Orbit.
The album didn't break the mould, but it did move Melua in a slightly different, more experimental direction. She hints the next album, which she plans to start work on soon, will go even further but won't say any more.
“I don't want to say what it's going to be yet, it's so early days,” she says.
“For the first time, with the last album, it felt like I wasn't working to expectations.
“There was a bit of that with the second and third albums, because we knew there was an audience out there and we made them so quickly, but then I think that's how you become successful, not thinking too much.
“At the moment, I just want to get the tour done. I really felt like I had to do this. It's a testament to myself to get it over and done with because it was so harrowing having to postpone the gigs last year.
“Yes, I had to take some time off, but it's good to be back.”
Katie Melua’s UK tour starts in Sheffield City Hall on April 22. For tour dates, www.katiemelua.com