Divorce and breakdown behind her, singer Katie Melua, who spent much of her childhood in Belfast, has discovered a less sentimental style. She talks to Helen Brown.
Katie Melua is probably still best known for her sentimental ballads she released in her teens but she is 36 now, and her world view is a little different.
“I’ve been guilty of singing about romantic love as though it’s all meant to last for ever,” she says. “But it’s not. And it’s okay that it’s not.”
In August, Melua split up with her husband of eight years, World Superbike racer James Toseland, then 39. “We are both perfectionists,” she says. “So we both really wanted to ‘get it right’. But in the end, I think we both accepted it was over and decided to perfect the art of letting go. I looked to nature for support and saw the falling leaves as part of a beautiful cycle.”
Consequently, Melua’s eighth release carries none of the raw hurt of the classic “divorce album”. It is, instead, a richly autumnal affair, on which Melua’s clear, sweet vocals are wrapped in conker-brown strings and retro-jazz bass grooves. Twisting flute phrases and glowing embers of brass complete the audio hygge. The sound, it transpires, was inspired by Melua’s love of lush easy-listening records from the Sixties and Seventies, such as Ramsey Lewis’s jazzy Mother Nature’s Son (1968) and Antonio Carlos Jobim and Elis Regina’s 1974 bossa nova classic Elis & Tom.
Melua’s brand of doe-eyed jazz-lite made her a star when she released her chart-topping debut album, Call Off the Search, back in 2003. But, although I have been sniffy about her music in the past, the briskly titled Album No 8 has forced me to re-evaluate her, and I confess as much a few minutes into our Zoom interview, her beaming in from west London.
“That’s completely fine,” she laughs. “I knew it would be a challenge, getting the audience to see how I’ve matured and follow the narrative. When I started out I was only 18. Lots of the people who bought my records were over three times my age. My audience has probably got younger with every album, which is quite unusual.”
Today Melua says she understands why she wasn’t considered cool when she first broke through. While her contemporaries such as Amy Winehouse — who famously said she’d “rather have cat Aids” than collaborate with Melua — were writing their own material, mellow Melua was singing songs by novelty pop-maker and “chief Womble” Mike Batt.
“What people didn’t understand,” she says, “is that I was raised in a Georgian culture, where we are taught to respect our elders. I saw music as a craft, and as a teenager I was really honoured to be apprenticed to an experienced songwriter like Mike Batt. Songs he wrote like The Closest Thing to Crazy and Nine Million Bicycles sounded like classics to me.”
Although her metropolitan teenage peers had their radios locked to pirate stations, she was honoured to be playlisted by middlebrow Radio 2.
“The support from Terry Wogan was also wonderful — he’s a legend,” she says. “I learned so much from the people at Radio 2, and I’m proud of how they encouraged me to mature. Now I’m writing my own lyrics and working with musicians I’ve put together myself. My new work represents the woman I am and what I’ve seen of life, and I’m grateful to anybody who’s followed me this far.”
The daughter of a heart surgeon, Melua was born in Kutaisi, Georgia’s second-largest city, in 1984. She spent her early years with her grandparents in the capital, Tbilisi, where she would carry buckets of water up five flights of stairs to the family flat. But, despite the material hardships, she lights up as she describes the city, to which she returned to record parts of Album No 8. “Tbilisi sparkles with electric possibilities,” she says.
“I always feel very alive there. There are the boy gangs who guard their friendships utterly uncompromisingly.
“The women gossiping late into the night and playing backgammon and card games. The warm air in the summer always mixes with fresh lavash bread, baked on every street corner. The streets are cobbled and impossibly steep in the old town, which is full of wooden houses with bending balconies with grapevines growing around them.”
Over the past few years, Melua has been returning regularly to Georgia and making music there now that the quality of the region’s recording studios have improved. “My grandad is a chef,” she continues, “and when I was a child he’d have huge feasts — even in the Nineties, when the electricity was off and hot water and gas were hard to come by. I remember the tables overrun with food and the wine-drinking ceremony in which there are lots of toasts. I hardly ever drink so I’ve never actually tasted the traditional amber wine which you down from a ram’s horn. But I always love listening to the poems during the toast-making. Sometimes those nights would end with granddad and his friends shooting guns into the night sky, as a celebration. I guess my parents did a good job of making sure the six-year-old me wasn’t too afraid!”
Little Melua learnt to sing with her family during the power outages that were prevalent across the city, developing the pristine voice that, today, she refuses to be big-headed about and simply attributes to “the anatomy of my nose and throat — as a doctor’s daughter I like that un-puffed description”.
She was just eight when her parents moved to the UK. They lived first in Belfast, near the Falls Road, and Melua’s father worked at the Royal Victoria Hospital. She attended St Katherine’s primary school and Fortwilliam Dominican College, and has spoken of her “soft spot” for the people of Northern Ireland, saying that the country has “a really special place in my heart”.
The family then moved to Surrey, followed by London — and the shy Georgian girl was “fascinated” by British culture. “In Georgia people are very loud, explosive, like Italians,” she explains. “All the big emotions are on the surface. In England, I was curious about the reserve and the orderliness. All the wild feelings were underneath.”
She was also baffled by the English ambivalence around hard work and success. “In Georgia, everybody wants to achieve as much as possible.
“In England, people aren’t all like that. Or they hide it. I wanted to be a singer. My parents knew I could sing. They thought that by getting me to the land of The Beatles and Queen, they’d done 90% of the work. Against all the odds, it turned out they were right and things just worked out for me.”
As a teenager, Melua, like her early-2000s peers Adele and Amy Winehouse, attended the BRIT School, where Mike Batt spotted her singing a song she had written about the death of her idol, Eva Cassidy. Batt signed her to his Dramatico label and produced her first three albums. Her first sold 11 million copies and enabled her to buy her parents a house in leafy Holland Park. By her mid-20s, Melua was reported to have amassed an £18m fortune, making her the seventh-richest British musician under the age of 30.
By the following decade, however, success didn’t come so easy. In May 2010 she released her fourth album, The House, produced by techno-whizz William Orbit, who had done Madonna’s Ray of Light, and co-written by Guy Chambers, best known for his work with Robbie Williams. While the critics praised her decision to “swap a Womble for a wonk... relocating the old-fashioned girl in the 21st century”, sales were slipping and Melua was beginning to buckle under the pressure.
She has said she was overwhelmed by marketing meetings in which she was shown pictures of her “average fan”: a man in his 40s or a 50s who drove a Volvo and shopped at Asda. Melua had no idea how to “target herself” at this imaginary audience and suffered an acute psychotic breakdown in September 2010, which led to her being in hospital for six months.
She doesn’t want to go back into it today, but in interviews over the past few years, she’s been frank about the experience. In 2018, Melua told The Daily Telegraph: “I was completely out of it. Not unconscious, but having really terrible paranoia. I couldn’t sleep for I don’t know how many days and was having really chronic nightmares, like you’re in an apocalyptic film.”
She was put on antipsychotic medication for four months and antidepressants for two years.
Although she feared returning to the music industry might trigger a relapse, Melua was back making albums with Batt in 2012 and 2013. In 2016, she parted ways with her former mentor and made an album without his help. In Winter was recorded with Georgia’s Gori Women’s Choir. A grown-up seasonal treasure, the record featured crystalline covers of Joni Mitchell’s River and the Ukrainian carol The Little Swallow alongside new self-penned songs such as Dreams On Fire, on which she asked: “If all your dreams were on fire, which one would you save?”
Ever the eager student, Melua took a writing course at Faber & Faber before writing the songs for Album No 8. “I read Bob Dylan’s Chronicles and essays by Flannery O’Connor. I read Virginia Woolf’s diaries, and loved how she described her changing emotions.”
Reading Woolf plugged Melua into “the Englishness I wanted to celebrate on this album. On a song like English Manner’ I wanted to show the awkwardness of expressing love in this quiet and reserved culture. I thought a lot about the characters’ backstories and the southern English seaside, where the story of the song takes place. The sea, the freshness of the wind, the yellow clifftops, the surfers and the smoking is all hinted at in the lyrics.”
While English Manner describes an ambiguous love triangle with painterly grace (“his wife’s hair had golden ripples/she’s in a painting with a mulberry tree”), several songs show Melua calling for more realistic expectations of romance.
“I think we’ve given love a little too much airtime,” she sighs against the bluesy shuffle of Airtime. A Love Like That, meanwhile, asks how it’s possible to maintain the early intensity of new love against a melody that blooms from the stems of Minnie Riperton’s psychedelic 1970 single Les Fleurs. Melua says that using the Riperton tune was an idea that came from the producer/arranger Leo Abrahams, who positioned the strings around her “like a Greek chorus”.
Though she drops the rose-tinted glasses in Album No 8, every song offers hope. “I had a beautiful marriage,” says Melua, who is still friends with her ex-husband. “So these songs about readjusting our attitudes to love aren’t angry or bitter. The hope is that, if we take the pressure off, we can learn to be more accepting of ourselves and each other.”
“Now I’m older,” she grins — still looking 22 — “I’ve stopped being afraid to depict life truthfully. But I will always acknowledge the greatness of the human spirit in its capability to handle that reality. Because I do believe that life is good. Even this year, I believe we can find joy.”
Album No 8 is out now