Thursday 18 July 2019

How Melua found her voice

Joe Jackson

PIECE by Piece isn't simply the title of Katie Melua's latest CD. It's also the soul of that album, and a song that faithfully captures the fragmentary fashion in which most of us probably tend to let go a love thathas died.

"First of all must go/Your scent upon my pillow/And then I'll say goodbye/To your whisper in my dreams," Melua writes in the opening verse. Yet when I ask if the lyric was inspired by the recent break-up of her three-year love affair with Luke Pritchard - lead singer with Brighton band The Kooks whose hit single She Moves in her Own Way is said to be about Melua - the singer-songwriter herself is circumspect at first, and in fact rarely discusses that relationship in public.

"I wouldn't want to give thesong that particular accent,"she responds.

Why wouldn't she?

Purely because Melua doesn't think Piece By Piece or any of her songs should be reduced to "just one meaning", and would prefer instead that they "mean whatever they mean to individual listeners" - and quite rightly. Indeed, that's one of the reasons some of her favourite songwriters such as Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and James Taylor have always refused to say which songs they wrote about former wives and/or lovers - for instance, Sarah Lowndes, Graham Nash or Carly Simon, respectively. Melua first encountered the likes of Dylan and Mitchell after moving to the West in 1992. She had been born eight years earlier in Georgia, when it was part of the Soviet Union and clearly still has Georgia on her mind, in her voice and in her soul. Particularly its folk music.

"My earliest memories of music are of my mother playing classical music on the piano and my uncle playing records by Queen and Led Zeppelin, but there also was the folk music from Georgia that I still carry with me, literally, on tapes, and which transports me back and is a huge influence on my singing - though no one has ever noticed that before," she says, sitting inJurys Montrose Hotel in Dublin.

"But my parents took me to a singing teacher when I was seven and I loved - but didn't sing - the Queen song I Want To Break Free. Yet its theme does relate to my life in Georgia, because one thing that . . . not depressed . . . but maybe suppressed and made me sad about Georgia, was the treatment of women and the lack of equality. Women still play very traditional roles in Georgia, and most of my best mates there are now married with kids and no serious prospects of a career. There also is that thing of not being allowed to have sex before marriage. So to me, after I left Georgia and first heard the Spice Girls message of Girl Power that, to a girl of 10, was a form of feminism. It also was what I now see as an assertion of sexuality, one's own sexual politics and something that made me feel I really could do and be whatever I wanted and, basically, break free."

Melua and her family, including a younger brother, originally moved to Northern Ireland, the Falls Road in Belfast, after her father got a job as a surgeon. But back in the USSR it wasn't just pop singers from the West that had influenced Melua. Hollywood movies also manufactured their own form of mythical images of family life which, not surprisingly, weren't exactly what Katie found when she moved from a war-ravaged Georgia to a Troubles-torn Northern Ireland.

"Georgia, when I left, had just gone through a Civil War and broken away from Communism and had a corrupt government in power so all that affected the mood of how we lived," she says. "Health care was pretty much non-existent, we didn't have electricity, schools closed for three months in the winter - and all that gave me an over-abiding sense of grey. So even though our home life was quite secure I'd see, say, Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone and that gave me a magical, romantic image of the West because it was set at Christmas-time and we didn't celebrate Christmas in Georgia. So that really left a deep impression and Northern Ireland was bound to be a disappointment to me, if only because it wasn't Hollywood! But we did celebrate Christmas and my parents did give me my first Christmas present, and overall I loved my life in Belfast, and loved going to a Catholic school, even though we did live in a war zone and at first I couldn't speak a word of English. Yet in time, we settled in."

At least as 'settled' as anyone could have been during theTroubles?

"Exactly, but you have to remember that the sight of tanks and so on was something I was used to," says Katie who also "loved living in Ireland so much it was harder to move to London at the age of 13 than it was leaving Georgia" - partly because Melua feels she "came of age, emotionally" in this country. Yet despite those coded messages projected by the Spice Girls - "we're not talking about their music here!" - Katie came of age artistically, as both a singer and a songwriter, after she began attending the Brit School for the Performing Arts in Croydon in the London suburbs.

It was there in 2002 she was discovered by songwriter/producer-arranger Mike Batt who still works in those capacities for Melua. But even more influentially, courtesy of her fellow students at that Brit School, she discovered some of rock's greatest songwriters and has since said: "Joni makes me cry, Dylan makes me angry and CatStevens makes me want to do some thing about the world." But why did such older artists strike Katie at such a primal level?

"Because even though, from the time I heard Queen right through the early Nineties when Britney Spears and R'n'B and hip-hop came along for me - and I loved all that - none of it inspired me to think of music as a career, it was more a hobby," she responds.

"Yet something drew me to music school and that's where my mates would say, 'Have you listened to Bob Dylan's Desire or Joni's first album?' So at 16 I did, and was blown away. Then I got into Cat Stevens and Tom Petty and that's really when music became my life."

EVEN so, it was Eva Cassidy who inspired Katie to write her first song, which makes it so fitting that her latest concert DVD ends with that song in praise of Cassidy, Faraway Voice.

"I discovered those older artists and got very depressed, thinking, 'Shit, I don't have any artists around like this in my time'," she explains. "But then I heard Eva and she was amazing and I said to my friends 'We have to go see her' and they told me she had died and that's where Faraway Voice came from. I just had to write that song about her."

Meaning Melua's first song came out of a true pain?

"It did." So too, I suggest, do the best songs on her latest CD. Sure, Batt - who penned Katie's breakthrough hit The Closest Thing To Crazy - provides similar Melua classics like her most recent hit Nine Million Bicycles and Blue Shoes but better still are tracks such as the self-penned Piece By Piece, Spider's Web and, above all, I Cried For You. But if Piece by Piece, for example, was influenced even tangentially by Katie's break-up with Pritchard was that her first great love affair and did it live up to the romantic expectations she'd formed, maybe from songs she heard when growing up?

"Well, my first kiss was at 14 and it was at one of those cheesy, under-15 school dances so it was far from romantic, though he was a nice boy!" she recalls, smiling. "But, when it came to sex, there were friends of mine who did far more than I did because I was shy and didn't have my first boyfriend until I was 15 and then I didn't fall in love until I was 19. Yet, yes, it did live up to my expectations. Gradually. Once I went there, it absolutely met my romantic expectations in relation to the drama of the heartache and those really bad days where you just don't want to get out of bed.

"And, yes, songs like Piece By Piece are about the end of love and capture how I was a mess inside even though I didn't want to show that. So the point of the song is to somehow show how we can, at least, try to manage that distress and that feeling of loss, make sense of it and, eventually, rise above it all. And I do now feel I have risen above that shit place you're in after a break-up and that has helped make the pain go away."

But is Katie alluding here to Luke Pritchard?

"In a sense, yeah, but I don't want to give the song that particular accent so, even more so, it's about men in general."

Maybe, but Melua did once say she hoped to marry Luke Pritchard.

"That was when I was 17, at an age when every girl says something like that about her boyfriend, don't they?" she responds. "And I did say that even though I was of the Spice Girls' generation and definitely not planning on marriage. But we did, after all, grow up together, then we grew apart and now we are friends again, which is great."

That said, Katie rejects reports that her pretty phenomenal rise to fame over the past three years - Melua's last album outsold U2 in Britain - was partly responsible for the break-up with Pritchard.

"It is tough to get a balance between building up a career and sustaining a relationship and I think I'm too young yet to know if I can get that balance right. But the break-up wasn't because of my career; a lot of it was because of his. I was successful for a long time and we were able to manage that and what was great was that we were both selfless about it in the sense that we knew we loved each other but loved music more. And we were lucky to find that in a partner so we'd say, 'You go do that and I'll do whatever I have to do.' The cracks were there with my success yet they really opened up when he became successful."

The final track on Piece By Piece is I Do Still Believe In Love, with its punchline "Though I should never rely on love' - and that, in essence, is still Katie Melua's philosophy. Right now, she is not in a relationship but trying instead to "get her bearings, emotionally" after the break-up.

"Though I'm not taking any strong anti-relationship stances, and nor do I have any 'anti' feelings in general," she muses. "They were there a few months ago. Whereas now I feel content and I love the way my career is going so let's see where life takes me from here."

© Joe Jackson

Piece By Piece, with three extra songs and a bonus concert/interview DVD is now available

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Also in this section