Nothing lasts forever / When it all falls down, gotta build it better, Natalie Imbruglia surveys the wreckage her life had become. “Build It Better,” the roaring lead-in to Firebird, her first album in six years, burns everything to the ground, metaphorically speaking, with Imbruglia reemerging a little more self-possessed and unbreakable.
A co-write with Fiona Bevan and Luke Fitton, “Build It Better” reworks the classic empowerment anthem into a testament of her drive and bravery to defy all odds, as stacked as they were. “There’s something that happens that I’ve learned over the years. When you don’t rush into starting to try and write a song, if you just kind of chat, it’s marinating,” she tells American Songwriter over a Zoom call. “The more you can relax with each other, the better melodies come out, and the better musical ideas come out because they get inside your head.”
“Build It Better” exemplifies the forthcoming record’s taut themes of strength and fragility, two strands knotted together with prickly stems and lush, fragrant blossoms. How those concepts arose, well, that’s a matter of personal transformation. “It became apparent to me that there’s been so much of my life, looking back, where I’ve been really fragile, and then there’s been other things [where] I look back at my life and go, ‘Oh, my God, you’re a soldier. How have you managed to keep all that together?’ It’s been a lifelong journey of trying to find the balance between those things and ultimately finding out that allowing yourself to be fragile is where true strength lies.”
The “penny didn’t really drop,” so to speak, until she wrote the title track “Firebird,” the last song penned for the record. When she stepped back, an overarching theme glistened on the page, outlining “things that I had to overcome or get through or realize 一whether that’s my journey to becoming a single parent or overcoming my writer’s block,” she muses. “All of these things were amazing life tools and juices for creativity to write, and I’m kind of sitting here, proof that you can write the best work of your career at the back end of all of that.
“Roadblocks are just temporary things. I wouldn’t have known a year ago that I could sit and write in such flow and have such a great time,” she continues, in deep reflection. “I was literally terrified to even sing a note or try and come up with an idea for a long time. I don’t think it would ever be that bad again, because I’ve proved the theory wrong. Just keep showing up. Keep trying.”
Imbruglia had been experiencing writer’s block as far back as the lead-up to her 2015 covers album, Male, on which she flipped Damien Rice, Death Cab for Cutie, Tom Petty, and Neil Young songs on their head. “It was not something I was even probably being honest with myself about. Before I dove into that covers album, I was struggling a bit to express myself after some hard times in the music industry,” she says, referencing the rocky release of her previous record, Come to Life in 2009, which saw release only in Australia and New Zealand. “That was a lot of hard work that I felt didn’t really get to be appreciated by my fans,” she adds.
Regarding the mishandled album cycle (it was first shelved before its limited release), she says she received “some excuse about the bad financial quarter” from the label. “I don’t know what reason they came up with. But all I know is that I certainly thought the music that I’d created warranted more respect and a proper release at that point in my career. But I don’t live in regret. I feel like everything happens for a reason. Although that was a very difficult period for me, where I am standing today, and the creativity I’m in at the moment, I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Perhaps, if she were a man, things would have been much different. “It’s a sexist industry, yes. There are elements, for sure. Females tend to get called difficult where men get called something else for knowing what they want. I’ve come across that a lot in my career,” she says. “I don’t spend a lot of time complaining. I feel like I’ve got a blessed life. Even when bad things happen, I just try and figure out what am I supposed to do and how I can learn from it. If that means writing about overcoming obstacles through creativity, then it’s great.”
Amidst personal and professional uncertainty in the music scene, Imbruglia was, naturally, quite busy doing other things一like studying acting, and making her stage debut in the 2014 production of Things We Do For Love at the Theatre Royal in Bath. Then, she landed a record deal with Sony Masterworks with the full intention of writing a new album一which swiftly morphed into a collection of covers. “I threw myself into it and had an incredible experience,” she says. The silver lining became her reconnection with her fans through an acoustic tour across Europe. “I started to think about the fact that, although I don’t mind singing other people’s songs, there’s something really special about singing your own stories,” she says.
Nashville, a city vital to her work since writing “Smoke” with Matt Bronleewe under a tree in the late ‘90s, came back into the picture in just the right moment. In 2018, Imbruglia mounted a writing trip to recharge and perhaps dismantle her writer’s block, once and for all. “Once you’re an established artist, I think going away from home can be a really good thing to spark creativity. Constantly changing my environment has always been something that has worked well for me. I thought if I lined up with the support of my management and contacts out there, then I would just fill my days with writing, and surely at the end of that process, I would have a breakthrough.”
The breakthrough happened in a writing session with Caroline Watkins when the duo struck gold to pen “When You Love Too Much,” the very last song written on that particular trip. “It doesn’t mean I didn’t write good songs in Nashville,” she corrects, sharing that “Invisible Things” was also born from those sessions.
“There was just something that happened inside of me writing that particular song. Caroline and I took the time to get to know each other and share quite intimately about stuff we’ve been through. There was something about that that we had in common,” she says. “That’s in the theme of that song that we were able to express, mutually. That’s really magical一when it’s something that you both struggle with or feel passionate about, and you’re able to make a song out of it. It’s such a high.”
While the two tracks didn’t necessarily become the template for the record, the Nashville trip, in general, “clarified some boundaries for me about the direction that I wanted to take,” she offers. “I learned a lot. I think every song that I write I learned from and there were a lot of sessions that were a little too R&B for what I can really do. That was something that I realized was not working for me.”
And if her long-overdue breakthrough had never come in that room, well, she would have simply “kept going,” she says. “I believe that you have to show up for yourself. If you’re passionate about something and let’s face it, I know that I’d done it before, it’s not like I’d never written a song in my life. I’d written some things I’d been really proud of. I think it’s more the critic in our mind.
“Life being the school of hard knocks, I think that we just can lose our confidence, and anyone can become susceptible to having that happen to them. It’s also about remembering that something like songwriting is a discipline and not putting so much pressure on yourself to write a perfect song every time. Sometimes, I think I’m too hard on myself, and that gets in the way of flow. That’s not going to help you write a song. When you write something that you don’t love, you can laugh about it later.”
With “Maybe It’s Great,” the second album taste test, Imbruglia returns to the flashing neons of ‘80s pop music, a gloriously wondrous display of colorful synth work. In Byron Bay, a coastal town in Australia, the singer-songwriter teamed with Albert Hammod Jr. after years of wanting to work together. “But I was too scared,” she remembers. “After I got over my writer’s block, I had the confidence to ask him again and he said yes. And it just felt really easy. My friend gave us a space in the incredible Rockinghorse Studio to use so we had the whole place to ourselves. There are two different studio rooms and a pool, and we were immersed in nature, so there was a rainforest and crickets everywhere.
“It was a perfect environment for writing, and we had a slightly different [approach] to the way I normally do it,” she adds. “There was like a live mic in the room while we were writing which I normally find a bit intimidating but I went with it. And we just jammed. Albert’s guitar is so melodic.”
Lyrically, “Maybe It’s Great” depicts a “long-term relationship,” placed against a sparkling backdrop. “I love doing that, you know,” she remarks about such sharp juxtaposition. “When other artists have songs where the story is quite intense, and the music’s quite bright, it takes a little bit of pressure off what the lyric is actually saying. It’s like ‘Every Breath You Take’ by The Police. People who don’t really dive into lyrics can just enjoy the vibe of the music.”
Firebird, out September 24, also serves as Imbruglia’s very first co-production. “I think that maybe I know what I’m doing,” she laughs. “There’s been a long time where I’ve been trying to find my feet. It was a wonderful thing to work with Natalie and My Riot [album co-producers] and have them give me that respect and share that responsibility. I’m very detail-oriented, and because of lockdown, we were afforded the time to really hone in on things and go back. They were so patient with me.”
“My takeaway from it was also that a slower pace of life is a great thing. Because we’re in lockdown, I did everything from my house, and I realized I don’t need that much to be happy,” she continues. “I’ve always been sort of an isolate, so this was normal for me. It’s actually a great quality to have; whereas maybe in the past, I was embarrassed about that. It’s quite nice to be self-sufficient. I think it was a lot harder for people who really rely on the social stimulation of seeing people and being around people. Of course, we need that; we’re human beings. But it was nice to know that I can survive in the world in a very simple way and take pleasure in the simple things.”
A previous session with Romeo Stodart of The Magic Numbers, who also lends his production talents to Firebird, proved monumental, now that she thinks about it. “I’d already written a bunch of songs with him that I was really proud of, but I was having this weird feeling that day. We hadn’t written in a while, and I was having a total panic attack,” she remembers. “When you’re a creative person, and you go to sit down to write and it’s not coming, you panic about that. He was just so relaxed. He’s like, ‘We don’t need to write today. Just chill.’ So we chatted, and we ended up going for a drink. We came back, and I was like, ‘You know what, I’m just going to go to bed.’”
“So I went up to bed, and I remember in the morning, I was just like, ‘Today is going to be a different day.’ You can have the complete opposite day the very next day. I wrote ‘Firebird’ and the melodies and words were flying out of me so fast,” she continues. “It was a completely different day to the day before. It was just that reminder that that’s just the process. It’s quite a magical thing to write a song. You’re pulling things out of the ether. So you have to go easy, and you have to trust the process, and let there be days where not that much happens, and know that it could pour out on the next writing session. We put so much stress and pressure on ourselves, and the industry puts pressure on you to deliver.”