Singer Katie Melua on her bold change of musical direction
Partially raised in Belfast and hailed one of the Britain and Ireland's leading jazz singers, Katie Melua's recent decision to re-boot her musical career was brave. However, the Georgia-born star's startling new album proves that the move paid off, as Andy Welch discovers
AFTER just a few seconds listening to Katie Melua's new album, In Winter, it's immediately clear she's changed.
Since releasing her debut album, Call Off The Search, in 2003, she's carved a niche as one of the premier singers of jazz-tinged ballads.
By 2006, thanks to heavy championing by the likes of Radio 2, she was one of Britain and Ireland's biggest-selling solo artists – to date she's sold somewhere in the region of 12 million albums.
In Winter, however, sees the singer go it alone, having parted ways with long-time songwriting partner Mike Batt after six hugely successful albums.
"I'm just happy to still have a job after all these years," says Melua.
"It's a record that's quite different to the ones I've done before."
She explains how she knew she wanted to try something new this time around and that it was time to work on her own – though there was a period of adjustment.
Initially, Batt didn't take her decision well, but eventually understood why she'd felt the need to make the change.
But the process was "a bit of culture shock", she says, and only when it came to writing an album completely on her own did she realise the weight that had been on Batt's shoulders all those years.
"I wasn't sure the world needed another Katie Melua album," she adds.
"But the artistic goals between Mike and I were drifting and had been for some time."
Eventually, she focused, and realised that away from the politics, thinking about her career and "all that self-obsessed stuff", she was still fascinated by music, writing songs and making records, so began working out exactly where she wanted to go next.
After the Georgian Civil War, Melua's family moved to Northern Ireland when she was eight – she attended St Catherine's Primary School on the Falls Road – and later relocated again to England, where she developed her musical talent at the famous Brit School in London (other alumni include Amy Winehouse, Adele and Rizzle Kicks).
Melua's current album began with her attempting to pen a score for a ballet – which led her to discover the Gori Women's Choir in her native Georgia.
The singer explains how she was instantly captivated by the idea of working with them.
"I met with them without making any promises and saw them rehearsing in a small town in Georgia. They sounded exquisite. But I know that I make Western pop music and they make Georgian classical music, so in order to work with them, I needed to educate myself.
"I was fascinated by that style of singing, and very interested in getting better as a singer myself."
As winter rolled around, and they sang together a few times, Melua realised it wasn't a ballet she should write, but the record missing from her collection – an album all about winter and the complexities of the season, particularly the romanticism of the Russian forest versus the harsh reality of the country's past.
"It was easy for them to get started, but I did everything slowly. Of course, there were no language or cultural barriers to negotiate. I'm not sure if it would have worked so well if I couldn't speak Georgian.
"They were very open to trying things out, and I had a very clear idea in my head of what I wanted it to sound like, but really needed their help and an insight into their way of working to make it come true."
The resulting album hears Melua's glass-like voice and virtuoso guitar, backed by the haunting sound of the choir. It's a startling combination, and Melua's idea of making an album about winter, specifically one that the listener can enjoy while wrapped up indoors, preferably in front of an open fire, is tangible.
"I wanted to really capture that nostalgia for my past, looking back at my homeland and my family. There's a mythical notion of the Russian forests covered in snow, cultivated by shows filmed in Moscow, but there are also the stories my granddad would tell us about escaping from Siberian labour camps.
"I wanted to dive into that, and pitch it against the reality of 21st century life in London and that feeling of needing a break over the winter, to get away from the madness of living in the city, and the desire we have for things to be still."
As for working together – a new experience for both parties – she says communication in the studio was paramount, noting that "as we got going, they said they would be open to the idea of collaborating with other artists, but only if they had a clear idea, as I did".
"In the West, we have this romantic notion that artists are constantly inspired by the heavens, and just pluck it from somewhere. Developing the skills and tools to make you better at your craft isn't seen as cool, or even necessary.
"In Georgia, they don't have that, and complete perfectionism is what they strive for. They really think about everything, de-construct everything, and refine and refine."
Though working with the choir started out as a bit of "an experiment", the 24 women, and the sound they make, ended up becoming something of a muse.
"The UK is worried about disrespecting other cultures, and we have a big thing about cultural appropriation, or borrowing from a culture for our own gain.
"The thing we forget is that culture from the UK and the US rules the world. For the choir to work with an artist that can release music in the UK was a thrill for them, and it reminded me what a privilege it is to be able to release music and have this job."
The end result far exceeded Melua's initial ideas – she says the more she got going, the more ambitious she became – and now, she's excited about what she may be able to do next.
As for follow-up albums about spring and summer, she's not so sure, believing there to be something special, more evocative, about the winter.
Before any new album, though, there's this month's tour, which will see her joined around Europe by the Gori Women's Choir.
"I thought singing on the stage with an orchestra was the most majestic thing, but singing with a choir, I can't really describe what it's like," she says.
"It's an orchestra of voices, really, and to me it's a bit like surfing on a wave of voices.
"It's a very special thing to watch them perform. I think they actually affect the air in the room. And when there are that many women singing at once, it's a very serious force."
:: Katie Melua's In Winter is out now, visit Katiemelua.com