Katie Melua: 'I started singing from a young age, but there wasn't much hope back then'
Katie Melua arrived in the music scene in 2003 and she has barely slowed down since. She opens up about her 15-year career, her new Ultimate Collection album and growing up in Georgia before moving to Belfast and then London
KATIE Melua is inexplicably too modest for someone with as much success as she's had. Fifteen years on from the release of her chart-topping debut Call Off The Search, the Georgian-born former Belfast resident – who has sold 11 million albums and topped the chart with two, among many other accolades – reckons she just got lucky.
"I think it's a mixture of extraordinary luck and just luck in meeting the people that I met," the singer-songwriter says, reflecting on her impressive career. "My producer and collaborator at the time always insisted on getting the most amazing musicians and on pretty much everyone playing live.
"And I realise now that that's really rare, because that kind of music didn't always have the guarantee of being super successful. It was always pop and R&B and dance music. That's why I feel really lucky."
Melua (34), who has just released a compilation of her greatest hits along with two new tracks to mark her past decade and a half, certainly broke the mould when she elegantly arrived on the scene in 2003.
Her charming sing-song voice and raw, yet subtle, jazz and folksy-blues talent was an antidote to the R&B, pop-punk and dance music-laden era of the early noughties.
Call Off The Search, released when Melua was just 19, was a number one hit in the UK, spawning classic singles such as The Closest Thing To Crazy. Her second album Piece By Piece in 2005 also hit the chart top spot and, two years after that, third effort Pictures made it to number two.
At one point she was named one of the richest stars in Britain under the age of 30. She was the best-selling UK female artist for a couple of years and her albums went platinum across the world.
But the heady heights of fame and the stress of keeping up with it all took its toll and, in 2010, Melua spent six weeks in hospital after suffering a nervous breakdown.
Two years ago, Melua said it was the "best thing" that had ever happened to her.
Now, she describes it as her "crunch time", but adds: "What has arisen out of all of that is a great collection of work that I'm super proud of.
"All the crazy schedules, the crazy promo, the creative politics – which is always there – and those things you struggle with, actually in amongst that I look back and go, 'Actually these are great songs, great recordings I'm really proud of, and I can't wait for what's to come next'."
Perhaps her can-do, no-nonsense attitude and humble outlook on life, from her triumphs to her low moments, is down to her upbringing.
Melua was born in Georgia, where she lived for nearly the first decade of her life, around the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Speaking of her childhood in the country, she remembers that times were difficult, due to lack of electricity and the political upheaval.
But she also fondly reminisces about the fun times: climbing trees, picking blackberries, swimming in the Black Sea and of living with a large crowd of family members.
"We lived with my dad's family; my grandparents, two uncles on Dad's side, Mum and Dad, plus we had two friends of relatives staying because Georgia is very communal," she recalls.
"This was in about 1991, 1992, because of the Soviet Union breakdown. The infrastructure of the country had really suffered, but because of the outdoor living, always being outside, always with nature even in the city, I just loved it. I absolutely loved it."
She is also admittedly glad to have then spent her formative years in the UK – first in Belfast, where she moved at the age of eight with her family, and then in London, in 1999.
"I am very grateful that I got to realistically live in Georgia, see the life and experience it as a kid there, and also be raised in the UK," Melua, a former pupil at Dominican College in north Belfast, says. "Because in Georgia during that period, you wouldn't have had the opportunity to do what I've been able to do in the music industry here. I'm really grateful to have had those two world views.
"When you looked ahead, about what you might do for a living in Georgia... I loved singing, I started to sing from a very young age. But there kind of didn't seem to be much hope back then."
Upbeat, she adds: "Now, things are really different. The country is changing."
Her birthplace is incredibly important to her, as Melua is to her compatriots.
"I find it remarkable to have done so well out here, but in Georgia it's kind of magnified.
"And that beautiful kind of love that artists get is off the scale out there, because it's a relatively small country on the outskirts of eastern Europe."
At the very least, she's glad to have given Georgians another famous name from home turf.
"Joseph Stalin is from there," she laughs, before adding: "Georgians also really look up to artists from the west. Everyone in Georgia grew up on the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Queen, Black Sabbath. It means a lot to them that one of theirs has kind of done all right in the music industry."
She has definitely done all right, as her back catalogue proves. She can see that more clearly now, after years of wondering if her efforts really were good enough.
Collating her body of work for her Ultimate Collection was, she says, "like looking back at a photo album".
"You know, when you're a teenager and you think, 'I've got really big thighs', but then you look back and go, 'Actually, I shouldn't have worried about it.'
"So, there's a bit of that, as well as the opposite of course."
She clarifies: "As an artist, when you're making [your music], you're so hypocritical, you really do your best, and there's a lot of politics involved and things you're juggling and really trying to maintain the creative level as well as possible. But it gets pretty stressful.
"When you put together a collection like this and you're looking back on something you did five, 10 years ago, there were quite a few moments where I went, 'Actually, this is really good, and it seems to have lasted', and it surprised me."
For some artists, a greatest hits offering might signal the end of a career, but not for Melua, her fans will be delighted to hear.
"I'm doing a lot of writing at the moment – we'll see what ends up surviving," she reveals. "There is so much work to be done, as far as I'm concerned, on just making records.
"I've got a lot of guitar practice, ear training, lyric writing... I've got a lot of stuff to keep working on.
"I think I've only just begun, to be honest."
:: Katie Melua – Ultimate Collection is out now.