Katie Melua tells Niall O’Sullivan about her breakdown, finding her voice as a songwriter and how Ireland changed her life
THERE was a moment when everything changed for Katie Melua.
Life even began to feel “luxurious”, she recalls with powerful enthusiasm. Everything felt like less of a struggle. Suddenly, she had entered a world of exciting opportunities.
Sitting opposite me, the petite brunette isn’t speaking about the moment she burst onto the music scene a decade ago. That was “nothing” compared to the joy she felt after moving to west Belfast at the age of eight.
It was the early ’90s and the city’s life was punctuated by moments of incredible sectarian violence. But Belfast was better than Georgia, her parents judged, as they boarded a plane from their homeland to flee an increasingly vicious civil war.
“I hope this does not come across like I am diminishing the Troubles,” she offers in a hesitant tone. “But with where we had come from, it was like…” She pauses to think for a second.
“It felt like there were no Troubles.”
It would be unfair to say Melua is speaking without thought, in the bar of an anodyne London hotel. She meant what she said.
But, sensing the implications of such a striking soundbite, she quickly proceeds to a hurried mitigation.
“I think that is because obviously we were outsiders, so we were not part of either side. We did not have the history knowledge, the full contextual knowledge.
“But stepping into Belfast in the ’90s, what I experienced…”
Again Melua stops.
This time she decides against finishing her thought.
“Remember I was a kid, so I would not have been out at night coming across anything, and I only ever saw the positives of getting an education, having a path of possible careers open up in front of me, which I would not have had in Georgia.”
That path has led Melua to a pretty good place. With the exception of a notable bump in the road, the breakdown that temporarily derailed her career in 2010, she looks back on the last decade from a great height.
At 28, the stunning singer is now preparing to launch her sixth record, having accumulated 11million sales, as well as a small fortune, from the first five. She is also happily married — to motorbike-riding and piano-playing hunk James Toseland.
Perhaps there is more to the good life than that — a point Melua herself stresses — but it’s not a bad start.
Yet even though her path left the North 15 years ago, when she moved to London, the singer says she has always felt a strong connection with Belfast.
The first hint of that was clear in the song named after the city on her breakthrough debut album.
“I wrote that when I was 17 or 18 and I was really missing Northern Ireland and Belfast because I really had felt like I had gotten so much from my time there,” she says.
“I had learned a whole language in Northern Ireland. Everything changed.”
Edging forward in her chair, she continues: “I think that lifestyle change was far greater than the change of becoming an artist and touring the world.
“People ask what that lifestyle change was like and I am like ‘Nothing compared to Georgia to Belfast. That was a big change.’”
In Georgia the electricity would go out every night and hot water was non-existent, Melua remembers.
Her voice quickens as she runs through other memories of home and her lucidity seems increased with each one. She remembers freezing baths being warmed with a kettle, queuing up for bread and having to leave school in winter when it was too cold to heat.
By contrast her memories of the west Belfast apartment provided for her family by the local hospital, where Melua’s father worked as a doctor, are warm.
It didn’t matter that it was close to the Falls Road. The eight-year-old Melua had her first bedroom and although she missed the proximity of living 10-to-a-home in Georgia, the hot water ran and schools were open all year.
Now, as an adult, she is pained by the violent images of the city that are broadcast across Britain — and around the world — several times a year. Just two weeks before our meeting, dozens of police were injured trying to contain loyalist riots over a restricted Twelfth parade and emergency courts had to be set up to charge the perpetrators.
It’s not all a violent remake of Groundhog Day in Melua’s eyes, though.
Just as when she was a child, she says the outside world’s perception of her one-time home clashes with her own, even if she will never again be able to see Belfast from the point of view of her younger self.
“When I have gone back over the years — for work predominantly — I have been really touched with how much better it looks,” she explains. “And that there is a more positive vibe.”
“But me and mum were a bit shocked when we actually went back to the apartments we used to live in and they were looking really derelict.
“We could not figure out whether it was our perception, because obviously over the years we have come to live in this area [inner West London], which is as good as it gets, or it had actually just gone down.”
It was an “odd” experience, she adds.
TODAY Melua finds herself working back slowly from the breakdown she suffered in 2010.
When the news first broke, the reaction was one of unanimous incredulity.
Sure, the likes of Amy Winehouse could have problems. But Katie Melua? That pretty girl who sang about the bicycles? No way!
Well it happened. Suddenly the singer was pulling out of a worldwide tour of The House, her fourth record.
“Katie Melua is suffering from exhaustion and has been ordered by her doctors not to work for a few months,” read a statement from her management.
Ever since, the language used by Melua to describe the affair, its causes and its effects, has been similarly evasive.
The most she has said is that she found herself immobilised and “staring into space” before being admitted to hospital, where she was kept on anti-depressants for several months.
But the fact is that when Katie set out to record The House, she took a big risk. She decided to make it without Mike Batt, the producer who discovered her at the Brit School and worked tirelessly on her first three albums. It was Batt who wrote most of the songs - and he produced them all.
But now Melua wanted to “experiment with myself as a human being”. So for the first time, she was the one doing most of the writing. Every single track on The House, bar a cover of Bill Monroe’s The One I Love is Gone, was crafted at least in part by the then 25-year-old.
It looked like an attempt to blossom from singer into singer-songwriter.
Was that a clue as to what went wrong?
“I think a little bit,” she confesses in a refreshingly honest tone that allays any fears she is bored of talking about this by now.
“I think I did not realise how much of a backbone Mike was by really bringing the material.”
Melua won’t say she was not up for the challenge, but adds that “suddenly it did feel like I was holding up the fort by myself”.
Burnout played a part as well — “it had been seven years non-stop and then the schedule was just crazy as usual”.
But it wasn’t quite that simple.
Melua agrees that the pressure of writing itself was another factor and admits she was “obsessively chasing that song”.
“There was a very odd way of doing the introspective writing that I was doing,” she explains. “I was doing a bit of meditation.
“It got a bit weird for about a year.”
And when a personal tragedy hit home, the breakdown struck.
“It is kind of like it hit me out of nowhere,” she says.
“But then when you look back there were about three huge elements and they all came together.
“I suffered a friend’s suicide and everything suddenly went…
Her delicate hands rise as one, clasped together tightly, and her beautiful hazel eyes widen. Then the right hand spits out the left and she lets it fall to the table like a felled tree.
That is as much as she will say.
But if Melua was fully recovered when she returned to the studio in 2011, it was clear that she had learned some lessons.
Claiming she wanted to make her fifth record an “effortless” one, she returned to Batt’s welcoming arms. The result was Secret Symphony, a “singer’s album” for which the producer did the lion’s share of the writing.
On her impending offering — Ketevan — Melua has once again taken on a larger role, helping to write five of its 11 tracks. And she says she has no fear of relapsing.
“It would be so easy for both of us for him [Batt] to write all of the songs, all of the hits and I just put my feet up and sing the songs,” she smiles.
“But he really encouraged me to write and I feel like I am taking small steps towards getting into that process again, that self-analysis, really looking deep inside to write.
“So it just felt right to call it Ketevan.”
That, for the uninitiated, is the Georgian version of ‘Katie’.
The way she describes Ketevan makes it sound like a transition record, one which will bring her one step closer to writing freely again. She immediately resists that suggestion though and offers a tautology instead — “I think it is what it is”.
That, Melua elaborates, is a richly varied offering that brings together elements of blues and jazz, evoking a spectrum of sentiments from romance to melancholia.
Her fear is not that it will be perceived as a transition, but that it simply won’t be perceived at all, that Ketevan won’t get enough airtime for people to discover “all the different sides of it”.
In an unlikely way, the record also seems to be a return to the kind of artist Melua was before she decided she fell into an obsession with finding the perfect song-writer’s song on The House. In her eyes, that wasn’t for her anyway.
“Am I a perfectionist? Some people…” She seems stumped and raises an eyebrow before turning her attention to the window at her side.
“You could say that. But…” She pauses again, before interrupting her own thoughts with what seems to be the answer she wanted to give in the first instance.
“You know, no, I do not actually think that I am (a perfectionist).
“I’m more of a risk taker. For example there are certain songs that I will sing or cover and I won’t have any fear trying them out, like What a Wonderful World. I’m probably mad to sing it.
“If I was a perfectionist I would worry about it. So no I do not think I am a perfectionist. I think I am pretty determined and pretty much never give up.”
Shortly after Ketevan’s September release, Melua will take to the stage of London’s Roundhouse for a special show marking her first decade in the industry.
With all of that experience, is there any advice she would give the young 18-year-old Katie as she sat strumming a guitar, preparing for the release of Call off the Search and the worldwide fame that would follow?
“I would probably say to her ‘Keep doing what you are doing’ because I have not really got any regrets,” she says with a shrug.
Melua pauses for thought again and smiles before finishing her answer.
“Even though there was that difficult time [in 2010], it was definitely a lesson I had to learn. I was thinking I was superhuman and I am not, just like everybody else.
“I would just say keep doing what you are doing and just follow your instincts, because that is how I work.”
Katie Melua will be at The Roundhouse, London, on October 2. Ketevan is out now on Dramatico. See www.katiemelua.com for more details.