Sunday Interview Katie Melua is one of Europe's most successful recording artists. The young singer talks about her latest album, her childhood in Georgia and her quiet approach to fame.
Katie Melua earned success on her own terms
A pair of well worn black jewelled flip flops carelessly discarded on the floor, a simple six string acoustic guitar and a barely perceptible dent in the luxuriously upholstered sofa cushions are the only clues as to the occupant of the vast Presidential Suite of The Westin Mina Seyahi Hotel.
Judging by the shallowness of the dent and the size five flip flops the person is very small and female. The fact that the hotel put her in their most glamorous suite suggests that she's a Very Important Person. The simplicity of the guitar and the rest of her entourage - a make-up lady and a representative of her management team from London - suggests that she doesn't take herself too seriously. Katie Melua is in Dubai to promote her latest CD, Pictures, just released in the Middle East. She appears politely and punctually from another room, all black curls and amber eyes, just 23 years old and already one of the most successful female recording artists in Europe. She is tiny, one and a half metres of elfin beauty.
"I should have brought a few friends with me. It seems such a waste that it's just me racketing around in this huge suite," she says apologetically. The suite normally costs Dh22,000 a night and boasts three bedrooms, an enormous dining and living area and a terrace overlooking The Palm. Melua has had plenty of opportunity to enjoy the finer things in life since she exploded on to the UK music scene at the age of 19, but she takes nothing for granted. She travelled business class rather than first, thinking that was expensive enough, and although the outfit she picked for our photo shoot - a soft beige frilled blouse from Topshop, topped by a waistcoat over jeans tucked into a pair of cowboy boots from Office - was young and fresh, it was very much High Street rather than designer fashion.
"It seems a bit anti my morals to go into high fashion. I used to be into not making an effort at all so this is definitely a step up," she laughs. It's hard not to be charmed by this enchanting young woman who has shunned the publicity-hungry ways of some of her contemporaries and in a quiet determined style has done it her way. No Hello! or OK! shoots for her or carefully arranged so-called "snatched" shots of her tumbling out of night clubs propped up by a famous footballer. From the moment the record producer Mike Batt spotted her at the Brit School of Performing Arts and signed her to his record label Dramatico, she knew how she wanted to play it. But instead of packing in her studies and leaving immediately, she stayed on till her graduation with distinction in July 2003.
"That's the basis of how it all works. I never wanted to be a celebrity. There are all these tests that are done on young kids and they all say they want to be famous but I just always felt that for my generation being famous was kind of corny and cheesy. Maybe because fame isn't something that proves you're good at something. I've never viewed it as a great aspiration but I won't lie and say it doesn't feel good when my albums sell."
Articulate as she is, her conversation is peppered with the obligatory mantras of youth. The words "like" and "kind of" and "wicked" (meaning "good") feature strongly along with the occasional swear word that has a slightly shocking effect, as it is emitted from such angelic features. "At the beginning I had nice healthy arguments with my record company about the kind of perception I wanted there to be out there of me. They didn't try and push me into anything but they were like kind of 'ultimately you need publicity to get your music heard'. There was never anything like getting me photographed with someone. I don't mind doing publicity but I want to make sure it's the right type and it's about promoting my music and not me. To do that you can't do interviews with Hello! and OK! and tabloids and magazines."
Her determination to avoid the Amy Winehouse route to notoriety has meant freedom to move around without being noticed or followed everywhere by paparazzi. She doesn't need or want that kind of recognition. "In the last five years it has probably happened maybe six times. The negative of it is that people do think you're boring because you haven't got a personality in the media." Not that she has anything against the flamboyant Winehouse, despite the fact that Amy was quoted as describing Melua's music as "s***". If people are trying to stir up a public spat between the two they will be disappointed. That's not Melua's way, although it did cross her mind to confront the troubled star.
"I bumped into her. I didn't face her up, though. It was weird. There wasn't a confrontation. We were doing the same Christmas carols gig. It was quite bizarre. The weirdest thing was that she was totally nice. I thought in my head if she was going to be horrible she should do it up front, but at the same time knowing what it's like, things can get out of context." She paused for a minute then added: "But I would imagine she probably did say what they said she said."
"I think her music is very good. I think it's good to be totally open and very frank and not mystify it, which is maybe my problem. I do tend to drape my real feelings with pretty words and different layers and stuff." So why isn't she falling out of nightclubs every night? "How do you know I'm not? I'm 23. I love to party. You just don't party where there are photographers. I haven't got that kind of profile."
Pictures was released in the UK earlier this year. It's her third album in collaboration with the highly successful songwriter Mike Batt, who became a household name in the Seventies with his Wombles records and went on to write scores of top ten hits like Bright Eyes for Art Garfunkel and It Was Only a Winter's Tale for Cliff Richard. Melua, who writes many of her own songs, acknowledges that most of her top singles were written by Batt, including The Closest Thing to Crazy and Nine Million Bicycles.
When Pictures was released, the pair announced that it would be the last time they wrote and produced together. Batt wants to work with other artists and Melua feels it's time she stepped out on her own, although she is staying with Batt's independent Dramatico label. "Of course I will stay with the label. Mike is still my manager. I think people assume that when it came out that we were making the last record together it meant the end of the whole relationship, but it didn't. It's just the creative side of things. What next? God knows. I'd like to go into writing more myself."
The new album opens with one of Melua's trademark quirky songs, this one about the silent movie star Mary Pickford, who "used to eat roses" because she thought it made her beautiful. It also includes the romantic If You Were a Sailboat and If the Lights Go Out, a love song in which the singer declares her determination to be with her loved one even at the end of the world. In some ways it echoes Melua's unsettled past and explains her need to put down solid roots. In 2005 her family, who hail from Georgia, became official citizens of the United Kingdom. It was partly for practical reasons but it also underlined the subliminal fear they all felt that their life in the West was tenuous.
"We did it partly because it was much easier to travel on a British passport than a Georgian one, but primarily it was the final step towards stability, although we did have permanent residency before. But still it feels 'the deal' I suppose," she says. Melua was born in Tbilisi, Georgia in 1984 and grew up under the communist regime. "I was eight when I left but I remember a lot. Swimming in the Black Sea - I'm absolutely obsessed with the sea. Having a very active childhood - you would always be outside making mud pies and climbing trees, picking raspberries on my grandparents' land.
"My first language was Georgian. It's totally different with a different alphabet. I stopped learning it at the age of eight. I went through two years of school in Georgia. I can read it and write it but not as well as English. My Georgian writing is secondary," she said, grabbing my notebook and scribbling her name in Georgian to prove she still could. Her father, Alex, a heart surgeon, was determined to give his young family a better life in the West and applied for jobs in hospitals all over the world, including South Africa and Northern Ireland. The Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast offered him a job and so the Meluas found themselves living near the notorious Falls Road, although the worst of the troubles were over by then.
"Of course it was a wrench to leave Georgia but frankly we were getting away from a very unstable country that had just split from the Soviet Union. There was civil war. The economy went down. There was hardly any hot water or electricity. I am painting a really bleak picture but it was and it wasn't. In terms of education and job opportunities, it was pretty bleak, but people always found happiness in some form.
"We went to Belfast because my father was offered a job there. He spoke fairly good English but none of us did. My brother Zurab was one year old. Most of my education was Catholic. I made wonderful friends, although I haven't kept up with them as much as I would have liked. I used to e-mail them but I lost touch with them long before my music career took off." Katie, who was baptised as a Christian Orthodox, was enrolled in the Roman Catholic St Catherine's Primary School and soon developed a strong Belfast accent. Her vowels are now more Estuary English with no trace of Ireland, but she can still reproduce it on request. "May neem es Keeyadee," she grins mischievously.
A song she wrote for her second album is a childlike memory of her time there. Called Belfast, it's about cats and penguins, her own analogy for Catholics and Protestants. When Alex's five year contract came to an end, the family moved to southeast London. After her GCSEs Katie enrolled in the Brit School. Under the guidance of Batt, Melua's career has blossomed. Her first two albums have sold more than eight million copies, she has had a Dutch tulip named after her, she has played for Nelson Mandela's Aids charity in South Africa, become an ambassador for Save the Children and won a clutch of awards, including a World Music Award, a Golden Camera Award and two German Echo Awards. Her first number one single was a duet with her idol, the late Eva Cassidy, and proceeds from the single What a Wonderful World went to help the UK work of the Red Cross.
"They were big occasions but I never felt daunted. I probably should have felt more daunted than I was. Maybe it's being young and having the attitude that it's really wicked and not a big deal. I think you get more frightened as you get older." Along the way she has managed to pursue the slightly dangerous outdoor sports like sky-diving that give her managers heart failure. She says simply that she just doesn't tell them.
"My parents and my managers don't like me doing things like bungee jumping or sky diving. They know that I do it but they can't stop it. There's more danger of an accident on the motorway," she says. She planned to go dune bashing during her packed Dubai visit. Melua has recently moved into her own apartment in Notting Hill, furnished in her distinctive offbeat style with a Victorian doll's house here and an old birdcage and pieces of antique glass there. She loves to scour markets like Spitalfields in east London. Portobello and Notting Hill are "too touristy and give me a headache," she says.
Her parents live not far away. Her father has since retrained as a general practitioner, but both he and Katie's mother, Tamara, hanker after their homeland and may return one day. "It would give me an excuse to go there more often. Things are much better there now. There was a big overthrow of power four years ago and it has finally become properly democratic." Her ethnic and cultural background is clearly important to Melua and she credits the country where she was born for her interest in music. "The thing is Georgia is a very arty culture. I think maybe it's because of its history. Being conquered by the Russians and the Turks, they held on very strongly to their culture like the music, the dancing, the traditional costume. Everyone in the family plays the piano at an amateur level, everyone sings. It's different to, say, England, where there isn't the same sort of interest in the national dance or music, or at least it's not promoted. Families don't go to national dances whereas in Ireland or Georgia they do."
Many of her songs, like Dirty Dice, echo themes of loss and danger and the dark side of life. On reflection, she reckons that, too, is because of the environments in which she grew up. "Often people in the most privileged backgrounds let their spirits and minds wander into the dark side more than people who actually live it. I'm not saying that I specifically do. I think ultimately it does stem from my background. It wasn't very conventional. My earliest memories of Georgia were of an unstable environment and then there was Belfast, which was politically unstable. It makes you aware of politics at an early age and also what's wrong with the world. I wasn't cushioned as a kid. There was always the fear if being sent back to Georgia if my dad lost his job. I was always aware of my parents' concerns.
"I don't want to paint Georgia negatively. But it was a communist regime then and also, as a female, it was even more important because it's still quite a macho society. Most of my best mates over there are married with a couple of children. There's not a lot of career going on, although funnily enough nowadays there are more women at universities than there are men. "Communism was good in one way in that it supposedly gives equal rights to men and to women, but Georgia itself was more eastern minded. I'm not trying to put down the East. There are different things that you get from those cultures. Sometimes from a materialistic point of view and from a success-based point of view the West might seem better, but from a spiritual point of view the East definitely wins over the West because people in the West are pretty confused."
Much as she loves Georgia, she will always be grateful to the West for giving her the opportunity to do what she wanted to do. It has led to fame, wealth and above all, security for her family both here and in Russia. She sends money back for her grandparents regularly and laughs at the fact that her granny has a neat little sideline selling pictures of her granddaughter. As she enthused about the West she mentioned "home", meaning Georgia.
"I feel immensely privileged. I know that if I hadn't moved to the West I wouldn't be where I am now. My independence is, like, I value it so much. It's easy to take it for granted but I never would, knowing how my life could have been. I'm grateful for things like coming to the West and having a good education and ultimately living in a society where I will be treated equally to a bloke. "All the success is funny. It's quite crazy even because there is so much involved in it. I'm hugely grateful for being able to make music, which is something I love, and being paid for it and for the security for me and my family and my family back home."
She's careful with her money, although she has treated herself to a sporty little Alfa Romeo. "I look after my own money with the help of an accountant. Apart from buying my apartment, I invest in music. I've got my own publishing company for my own music but also hope to sign other songwriters and artists in the future." Of late she has been giving some thought to helping other artists at the beginning of their careers and is indignant at how they are sometimes treated by big record companies.
"I think knowledge is very powerful. I mean, it's shocking how much record companies get away with. The whole business is set up in favour of the big corporations and not of the artists. It isn't me that has gone and discovered it. I'm pretty lucky in that I have people who are pretty honest with me. All the 'indies' are too small to fight against it. I'm not going to be a campaigner or anything. It's just something I think about."
She knows that a degree of fame will give her a degree of business "clout". There are downsides as well, often in the area of personal relationships. Melua is careful not to be specific about that. She had a bad experience in the past when she mentioned a boyfriend because of the attention it attracted. "Fame can be an alienation from society. I don't think people get put off but it attracts a wrong crowd. It's hard to judge someone's intentions, whether we are talking about friendships or relationships."
She has been let down and had her heart broken, she says, but she won't name names. "I've been pretty lucky with relationships. There isn't anyone specifically that I wanna bitch about that much. Everyone has seen a best friend wretched and in tears. We've all been wretched and in tears, you know what I mean? Yes, of course I have, but that doesn't mean the other person is evil. The worst thing is the first proper love. It's one of those things where time makes things a lot better. That's what I tell my best mates. It's a cliché but it does help. If you get hurt really badly you never get over it but you move on. You can't avoid it as a human being. I think artists are probably more selfless with their hearts."
Despite the close family traditions of her native Georgia, Melua is in no hurry to start her own. "It's a bit too early to think about that. I don't know. Coming from a very conventional background, you don't want to rebel against it because that's such a cliché, but it's not something that I've got a desire to fulfil." Fittingly for one so protective of her private life, one of her favourite songs on the new album, a haunting ballad called My Secret Life, was written by Leonard Cohen, whom she greatly admires.
"It's probably one of the most personal songs I've sung, which is weird. There are elements of it that I utterly associate with. To me that song is about the contrast and the battle between your interior and exterior. Who you want to be and who you actually are. It's slightly to do with growing up and losing certain naiveties that I had about life." Another song is titled What it Says on the Tin. Melua is certainly that, but one suspects that the tin might be much deeper than it looks.