“I’m in my old apartment, which I need to rent out, so I had estate agents coming around today,” says singer-songwriter Katie Melua during a Zoom call from London. As she talks about her life and her latest release, Album No. 8 (our review), she smiles often, seeming relaxed and content — even though some of her new songs are about the sorrow she has experienced in recent years.
In particular, Melua wants to highlight “Remind Me to Forget,” a poignant ballad. “This is a song where I actually talked about my own personal story of separating from a seven-year marriage,” she says. “This song taught me how to sensitively talk about the drama of something that happens in your life, and not to over-exaggerate it, not to overdramatize it, not to make it a melodrama, but to accept it. I like that I was able to get the story weaved into it with the right level of facts and sensitivity, and also the beauty of how I view the life that I’m blessed to have.”
For this album specifically, Melua says she focused on writing “a lot of different angles of talking about love.”
“I’ve sung a lot of love songs where I was much younger as an artist and it was about the fairytale version of love,” she says. “But I’ve come to realize love and relationships are really complicated — and I really believe songs can handle it. I really believe people want the truth and all the kind of experiences that I might have as an artist.”
As she works, she says, she seeks to capture “the actual real nuances of human existence.”
“I think that’s what fascinates me,” she adds.
Melua’s maturity and insight came out of her new approach to songwriting. “It’s the first record for me where I spent the last three or four years deep diving into lyric writing, and I did that because it was something that I felt a very strong connection to,” she says. “The words have always mattered to me a great deal. For me, what the words say, what the character of the song is, is really important.”
Melua admits that it took her some time and experience to learn to work in this way, though. “The first few records I released, I was teamed up with a very famous songwriter called Mike Batt, and so he wrote the early hits that I had,” she says. She was just 19 years old when her 2003 debut album, Call Off the Search, was released; it became the biggest-selling album in the U.K. the following year, thanks to Batt-penned singles like the title track and “Closest Thing to Crazy.” He also wrote the single “Nine Million Bicycles” for her equally successful second album, 2005’s Piece by Piece.
With outcomes like these, many artists might have been content to continue performing other people’s songs. Instead, Melua began taking an increasingly prominent role in the writing process. In 2010, she released her fourth album, The House (produced by William Orbit), which contained the hit single “The Flood,” written by Melua with Guy Chambers and Lauren Christy.
“I spent my time growing up with these brilliant musicians that I’ve been in the studio with and I’ve toured with,” Melua says. “I actually really took the time to study and become the best I could be in writing lyrics for songs. I wanted to see how much I could stretch my ability as a storyteller, as a lyricist.”
Melua is continuing this process with Album No. 8. Her co-composers this time were her brother Zurab Melua, bassist Tim Harries, Sam Dixon (Christina Aguilera, Adele) and the album’s producer, Leo Abrahams (Brian Eno, Jon Hopkins, David Holmes). “I would go to them with words and ideas and concepts of songs and musical sketches,” Melua says. She’d spend two or three days co-writing with each collaborator and then “would come away with a final demo and a structure, musically speaking.”
“I (then) would do what I’ve been told is very unusual, which is, I would then go away and spend months working on the words,” Melua says of the next steps in her process. To eliminate outside distractions, she would do things like stay in a countryside cottage for weeks while writing “to really dive deep into what was possible with this record.”
“I realized how much the space and the place where I write matters, so I’ve actually rented an office in Kensington, in an office block,” Melua says. “I have my private office where I go in and I spend my days working on lyrics and the top-line melody.”
In truth, though, other locations have played a formative role in Melua’s artistic development right from the start. She was born in the former republic of Georgia, then part of the Soviet Union. Her family immigrated to the U.K. when she was 8 years old, first settling in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and later London when she was a teenager. These major moves, she says, have massively influenced her writing.
Melua can trace her interest in music back to her days as a young girl in Georgia. “My grandma on my dad’s side, she would always get me to sing for her, alone in the kitchen, when I was 6 or 7 years old,” Melua says. “She’d always give me critical feedback — it was always incredibly serious. Gran never looked at me like I was a kid after a performance. She’d give me feedback as if I was Frank Sinatra or something, so she instilled this seriousness around creating the imaginary temple of the song.”
Although Melua has happy memories like this from her childhood in Georgia, she also remembers it being a hard place to live. The country gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, but it was not a smooth transition.
“Its infrastructure had completely fallen down,” she says. “There were blackouts all the time in terms of electricity, there was no hot water.
“But,” Melua is quick to add, “there was always the art and the music. There was always this great spirit in the country.”
Unfortunately, all the upheaval in Georgia meant that Melua’s father, a doctor, could no longer find work. When he got a job in Belfast, she recalls that “we literally thought that we’d won the lottery … and to some extent, we did, because of where we were coming from.”
At this point, Northern Ireland was still going through conflict of its own, with Irish paramilitary groups like the Irish Republican Army (IRA) violently opposing British rule in Northern Ireland. Still, Melua says that she had a positive experience living there.
“The Northern Irish are very truthful,” she says. “They have this beautiful love of life. I think it probably comes from the troubles that they had there not so long ago.”
Melua and her family also kept a positive attitude when they relocated to London. “It was difficult but we were also incredibly optimistic,” Melua says of the move. “One of the reasons why we were so unafraid to move was because of the culture that we saw of England — and America, too.” In particular, she recalls watching “all these Western films like Pretty Woman and Eddie Murphy films, and life just looked so glamorous and beautiful.”
“It gave my family the courage to move without really worrying about it,” she says.
In England, Melua and her family eagerly embraced all of their new home’s artistic offerings. “We were like, ‘Well, The Beatles are from here, and Led Zeppelin and Queen.’”
Melua also discovered American musicians, particularly singer/guitarist Eva Cassidy as well as legendary artists such as Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Lou Reed. “Those singer-songwriters from America, I’ve always been completely obsessed with them,” she says.
Even though Melua was an ardent music fan and she knew she could sing well herself, she began seriously pursuing a music career almost by accident. “After doing my last exams when I was 16, I was walking in the school corridor and a friend was coming toward me and I asked her what her plans were for the year after. She said that she was going to a performing arts college called The BRIT School.”
Intrigued, Melua looked into the school, applied and was accepted. “I got lucky in finding this school that I could go to which was free where I could study music,” she says.
At The BRIT School, Melua undertook intensive coursework in music theory, technology and production as well as performance. (Other notable alumni include Adele, Kate Nash and Amy Winehouse.) It was while she was attending this school that she met Mike Batt, thus launching her professional career while she was yet a teenager.
Despite finding fame at such a young age, Melua has remained down to earth by remembering her roots. She still returns to Georgia frequently to visit family members. She recorded her last album, 2016’s In Winter, with the Gori Women’s Choir, based in Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital city. On Album No. 8, she worked with the Georgian Philharmonic Orchestra.
“Georgia is a very artistic country,” Melua says. “When you travel to Georgia, you will come across so many artists on every street corner. So much singing at every single gathering.
Going back to Georgia to work has really completely opened my mind up to what’s possible.”
Melua knows that her journey from Georgia to international superstardom has been a remarkable one, but she is level-headed as she looks back on her career. “I got so lucky and I was literally thrust right in this heritage of the English record-making tradition,” she says. “But it was also very goal-oriented, so the focus to sell and get No. 1 in the charts was a big priority.”
Now that she has accomplished that feat on several occasions, Melua has certainly earned the artistic freedom that she’s enjoying with Album No. 8. “The No. 1 priority (now),” she says, “is to do something really good — true and of great quality.”
She smiles again.
“I just love what I do, and I’m still so inspired by this job.”
Photo Credit: Rosie Matheson