International pop star Katie Melua wrote a song in response to a poem by bestselling author Joyce Carol Oates in the new episode of SongWriter. Below is an edited version of our conversation about songwriting, artistic sustainability, and Katie’s song “Forever Sunlit.”
Ben Arthur: Katie, you’ve always been a big reader—how do literature and poetry relate to your songwriting process?
Katie Melua: I’ve always been utterly obsessed with books, diving deep inside them and being sent on labyrinthian explorations. Writers like Fiona Samson, Elizabeth Bishop, Ann Carson, T.S. Elliot have all inspired me in different ways. And I’ve found a lot of what they’ve written about to be incredibly helpful when it comes to songwriting. I find songwriting to be quite different to the other creative forms because there’s this crazy notion that suddenly you can write a hit song and it could be like winning the lottery. Of course, that is possible. But I find that that creates a certain atmosphere in the process. And so turning to the more literary writers…I find that they have helped me in terms of grounding myself.
BA: I imagine that atmosphere, and the pressure that comes with it, must be something you’ve faced for a long time.
KM: I’m one of those lucky people who “made it” as an artist very early. My first record came out when I was nineteen, and it just catapulted up the European music charts. And it meant that I was just all over the place. Our industry does have this kind of buzzy energy. And that can suddenly wash over all your normal sensibilities and your awareness of your own energy levels. I definitely learned that the hard way when at 26 I actually suffered from a mental breakdown.
BA: Wow, that’s intense. What did you learn from that experience?
KM: I think suffering a mental breakdown, and a fai- [she pauses]. I was going to say a failure of that nature but you realize it’s not a failure on your part. It’s just some things sort of get on top of you. You’re no longer able to function. I guess what I learned most of all was to really pay attention to myself, and to my energy, and to the sort of, inner voices. Also, to be truthful about what I’m capable of. So things, like getting on a plane every single week, going from Japan to America, to all across Europe, for many, many years…that’s going to catch up with you at some point.
BA: How did your experience change the ways you think about success?
KM: The way I actually see success is through the idea of sustainability. Am I living a life every day where I am creative and as productive as I can be? And yet am I having moments to relax? Am I able to switch off?
SongWriter is a podcast of stories and “answer songs” featuring David Gilmour of Pink Floyd, Amanda Shires, Mary Gauthier, Roxane Gay, and Michael Ian Black.
Photo by Rosie Matheson