“I don’t think I feel the need to write songs about politics” – An exclusive interview with Katie Melua
Sweet, mellifluous voice on the phone. A dulcet tone which sounds suspiciously familiar. Is it her? Hardly. In case of international superstars, it is common for a manager to pick up the receiver first, sometimes the caller is checked several times, only then they are put through to the person of attention. So, I tell the lady nicely: I’m calling from Hungary, I have an appointment for a phone interview with Katie Melua. “I’m Katie.” After a few sentences, it’s clear: naturalness and charm are not just stage-qualities for her. Was it just a role played on stage and not something authentic, she wouldn’t have sold millions of records, and obviously wouldn’t have filled concert halls over the last fifteen years.The 34-year-old London based singer is one of the three most interesting female artists of the 2000s. Those were strange times indeed: Norah Jones, Katie Melua and Amy Winehouse also proved to be a huge success with real songs, acoustic arrangements, naturalness and self-identity – even in the pop world. However, Amy Winehouse is dead, Norah Jones has been experimenting with mainstream pop with little success and her return to the roots wasn’t really a breakthrough either. Undoubtedly, Melua too rose to fame and reached her biggest commercial peak in the middle of 2000s (the hit Nine Million Bicycles is also known to those, who believe they’ve never heard it before), but so far, there is no quality break in the seven-record oeuvre. She’s always emotional, but without a kitschy tone. She’s not a nostalgia act: her renewal is permanent and real. The British are very proud of her, she performed with Queen, also appeared on the stage of Queen Elizabeth’s fifty-year coronation party. Five years ago, she played in Hungary’s Queen’s Town, Veszprém and this July she’ll return to VeszprémFest. Once a refugee girl and a fledgling, then a youngster flirting with politics and history, an international star at age 20– Melua’s story is almost as fabulous as her voice. She is the existing evidence: Georgia did not only give Stalin to the world, but also somebody truly precious and good.
– You were born on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain, just as we were- here in Hungary. Do you have a memory of Georgia in the Soviet Union?
– Sure. During the Georgian Civil War, I was a small child, but I remember, for example, that bread was hard to come by. There was a coupon system, and people had to queue up in lines, (I mean really) long lines, for hours to get bread. Maybe I wasn’t in the queue myself, but I remember my grandfather giving me such a bread coupon. I lived in Tbilisi at that time, during that war, with my grandparents.
– Is it your grandfather, who was sent to Siberia at a very young age?
Yes. It’s him.
– Obviously, you are not very fond of the Communists, are you?
– Since I was born in 1984, I do not remember the Communist times very much, you know. But my grandmother told me a lot about it. Not only about my grandfather who was deported, but also about everyday things. About jeans, for example. A pair of jeans were of great value at that time! They would have given anything for a pair of western jeans. They gave in fact, whenever they had. She also told me that they were locked in, that they couldn’t travel anywhere abroad. Borders were closed, and people lived in one place throughout their lives. It’s repugnant and shocking to me even today.
– Still, you went back to Georgia for your latest album ‘In Winter’ to work with the Gori Women’s Choir. Are you nostalgic? Or maybe local music is more exciting to you than international pop?
– The situation is that my contract with my previous management was for six albums…
– We’re talking about your collaboration with Mike Batt, right?
– Yes. We had great success in that period, but In Winter was my seventh album and the first one after my six-record contract expired. It was time to change. For a while, I have felt that I want to work with a different method. To focus more on music. Of course, everyone wants to be famous and sell a lot of records …
– And you sold a lot of records.
– Yes, and it is good, but after a while it has become more important for me to replace the activities that are necessary for such a business success – namely the promotion and everything that goes with it. with the most important thing: Music. That’s why I also made In Winter applying other methods. I wanted to have the time to practice.
Katie Melua – I Will be There – Live at The Queen’s Coronation Festival Gala
– Practice what?
– Singing. And songwriting. I listened to a lot of choral music for the album, including Georgian, Russian, Ukrainian, Romanian songs, and I sing on it with the Georgian choir you mentioned.
– Instead of superstardom, art has become the goal?
– Exactly. I didn’t even think it would be such a big success, but the record has received great reviews, sold pretty well, and the release was followed by sold out concerts.
– Gori, where the recordings were made, is Stalin’s birthplace. According to surveys, the locals still think of him with good heart. Is Stalin-nostalgia on the rise in your country?
– I don’t know any Georgian who wouldn’t admit that Stalin is a dark figure in history. However, it is also true that there is something in his figure that makes him perceived as big. Maybe it’s about the power. But probably not just that. When we recorded the album, I was told locals were demonstrating when a statue of Stalin was removed in the city. Did people react this way because they love him so much? I doubt that. Nobody wants to live in Stalinism. The reason was much rather that the city lost one of its main touristic attractions. It’s the birthplace of the Soviet dictator. Thus, outrage most likely occured because they felt that they were losing something that makes the city attractive to tourists – which provides the livelihood of many.
– It makes sense. When you left the country at the age of eight, your father- who is a heart surgeon- got a job in Belfast. You even wrote a song about the situation there. Don’t you fear that because of Brexit, IRA will be reactivated and violence will return?
– I don’t think I feel the need to write songs about politics lately. As a youngster there’s the desire to save the world. You think you have to change things, because you think you understand and know everything: what’s right and what’s wrong. With time you discover how many different things affect people’s lives, how many aspects and viewpoints there are, and that most of them are understandable from a certain perspective. Think of it as a blend of traditions we grew up in, attachment, and a sense of identity … So now I don’t think I should be dealing with politics in a song.
– Yet as a youngster you even planned to become a politician, so naturally the question arises: how would you solve the Brexit-problem? It’s not that hard to be better at it than professional British politicians!
– It is! If I had to solve it, I would be very worried. I am very glad that this is not part of my job, and that I got sucked up by music and finally I was not getting into politics. Having said that, I am sure that the UK and the continent should not be far apart from each other. I’m certainly not leaving Europe. I have a lot of friends in European cities, and as long as I can, I will go and play across Europe.
– You play in Veszprém, Hungary for the second time in July. When you played your first show there in 2014, you praised Lake Balaton during the concert and said you would swim in it the following day. Did you really dive in?
– No. Unfortunately not.
– This time?
– Not likely. I play in Linz the previous night, so I arrive in Veszprém only on July 13th. I won’t have much time until the evening concert, and then, I guess we’ll be flying right back. This is often the case, unfortunately, that there is no time to get to know the place where I play, and its surroundings.
– This kind of rush led to your nervous breakdown 9 years ago?
– Not only, several things played a part in it, but yes, it had a major role indeed. Between the age of 19 and 27, the tempo was amazing, I had to make albums, promote them, play concerts almost non-stop. I spent four days a week on a plane.
– Is it easier to look after yourself now?
– Absolutely. There are less than twenty concerts this summer, so it is easy to manage them, and most importantly: enjoy them.
– We’ve read a rumour about you, expecting a baby. Is this the reason why you have a more laid -back plan for the summer?
– Where have you read this?
– On some website, we don’t really know, but the news was fresh.
– Then that portal knows something I don’t. Wait a minute! Something comes to my mind! Every time I listen to some music on Youtube, it keeps throwing pregnancy test ads at me! Maybe they know it better? Absolutely not! We’ve been together with my husband for seven years, and we want kids, but I can’t give you an update on expecting a baby.
– Sorry to mention a gossip, let’s get back to music. Due to the changing market, most of the musicians now have a lot of concerts to make up for the loss of record sales. You have- as you ‘ve said- fewer concerts than before. Why?
– I am more optimistic about the transformations taking place in the music industry: for example, more and more revenue comes from streaming…Me having fewer concerts isn’t because of this, of course, but because I don’t have to pay a huge team now.
– Because there are just four musicians on stage with you?
– No, I did not refer to them: the musicians get paid after each concert. However, the management, the organizers, -they have a permanent job, and need to be paid continuously, throughout the year. Previously, there was this big drive, and a lot of effort was made to cover these costs. The records had to feed a lot of mouths. So now I work with a much smaller team. Of course, I will not stop performing because I like to be on stage, but on the other hand it is necessary to have a presence to draw attention to the songs and the records.
– Will there be a new album this year?
– Next year. I’m working on it, I’m in the process of writing the songs, I really enjoy it.
– Are your new songs secret or will you play something in Veszprém?
– I plan to play one.
– We look forward to it. But: will you sing Nine Million Bicycles too?
– Of course.
– How many times have you played your biggest hit so far?
– Wow. Countless times. Maybe exactly nine million times!
– Don’t you hate it?
– Let’s say I love it again. I hated it, yes, but fortunately it changed, thanks to the audience. The moment the intro starts, couples are hugging, kissing each other – you can really feel the love. It is fascinating that a song can trigger such a powerful reaction and a wealth of emotions. So, I am happy to sing it in Veszprém as well.
– Don’t you fear Artificial Intelligence – being the future of music? What if, in a few years there will be no need for musicians at all, where algorithms will write and play the songs…
– I can hardly imagine this. I know dozens of songwriters and producers. If anyone told them they couldn’t make music from now on, that person would be in grave danger. I know at least five hundred musicians who would easily kill, had they been forcibly stopped to play music.
– It’s almost an army. But what if the audience doesn’t care and chooses the algorithms – they don’t have to be fed and they are cheaper.
– Yes, on the long run, in principle, there may be something in it, but let’s not forget that supply also creates demand. And supply is very strong: a lot of young people are inspired by the music they hear, they also take up an instrument, they also write songs, and their generation wants to know them. Or through them they can reflect back on to themselves. An algorithm can hardly do this. In addition, it is now very cheap to listen to music – although it is still people, who write the songs today. So I’m not very worried about artificial intelligence taking over the music industry. But whatever the future may be, my strategy is quite simple: I will write songs, I will play music. Even if I can only play in my own room one day: I’ll still be playing.
Cover photo: dpa/Daniel Bockwoldt