GALLERY - See pictures from Katie's live performances in SA!INTERVIEWShe's twenty years old, she's met the Queen of England (who said, "I have heard your record? It is very nice") and, as of the second 46664 Aids-awareness concert, she's played a song with the ever-epic Queen. Meet Katie Melua, platinum seller in South Africa (over 55 000 units) and the biggest selling artist in the UK in 2004 (1.3 million unit sold) with Call Off The Search at No.1 for six weeks.
Our 'phone interview is at nine a.m.: perhaps, I quip to Melua, too early for the stereotypical musician? "Not really," says Melua, sounding relaxed, at ease and very much awake and alert. "Sometimes it's much earlier - although last night was a late one. We went to a traditional African restaurant. It was so fine, and we stayed up late."
Bringing her Call Off The Search world tour to South Africa for two dates, and playing the second of the 46664 concerts, Melua has been dished up as much of the local experience as can be accommodated. "On the first day we went to Soweto on a sightseeing tour, and to the museum there, and to Nelson Mandela's first house. It was amazing to learn something of the history of South Africa. We were greeted by a South African traditional choir - so vibrant. They were not only singing, but also moving as well and the music was such that you couldn't help but move yourself: it's so rhythmically based, and then these beautiful, beautiful voices?"
Having travelled some of the world, and been taken on similar slices of local culture, what else has stood out for the jet-setting young Melua? "Ooh, God, loads," she gasps back, every bit the just-out-of-her-teens Londonite, except that she's enthusing about five-star tailored entertainment across continents, rather than her favourite films or latest shopping mall experience. "Last week we were in Spain; I had been to Spain once before with my parents on a holiday, and we went to see flamenco at? I guess you could call it a little restaurant, I guess. We went to see one of those shows, but this time, one of the local guys from the record company who does flamenco as his speciality, he took us to the best flamenco that he knew of. The music was extremely moving."
Although she moved to Belfast when she was eight, being born in the former-USSR's Georgia affords Melua some sense of the culture and history of people and places. "At Christmas I was in Georgia and I recorded a new song I had written with a Georgian choir. The traditional Georgian choir is a male choir and they have really complicated harmonies - different parts move amazingly between each other. The nearest comparison is the medieval sacred music in England and Europe. The thing is that that period of Western music used four-part harmonies. Georgian music is very ethnic sounding: there's a drone at the bottom, the middle voices fit in the chords and the top provides the melody, with eight and nine part harmonies. I want to capture that in the song, as part of the whole musical exploration."
Up to Batt
That said, Melua admits that the song may well not make the next album, although stresses she would like to include some Georgian music. In large part, such decision rest with her producer, arranger and discoverer, veteran British producer, composer and innovator Mike Batt (remember Schizophonia?). Although she had a small measure of musical exposure in her early teens after winning a TV talent-competition with a rendition of Mariah Carey's "Without You", it was Batt's search for young musicians to form a jazz band that plucked Melua from relative obscurity and thrust her into the British and international music limelight.
When Batt visited the Brit School for Performing Arts, Melua performed "Faraway Voice" for him, a song she had written after learning that legendary British songbird Eva Cassidy was no longer alive. Batt was impressed and immediately signed Melua to his label, Dramatico, and is quoted as saying, "Artists like Katie don?t come along very often, she is a true original". Call Off The Search indeed.
"The funny thing is," says Melua, "He came to my college when I was just under 18," sounding once again every bit the typical teen. "Before, that he was looking for singer to do songs based on old blues and jazz songs with an orchestra behind it." Melua was ready: "When I was 15 and 16, I used to be into pop and everything [in Melua's London-tinged voice, that's close to an 'everyfing', although not quite an 'everyfink']. At that time I thought it was absolutely great, but then I heard Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Bob Dylan and Eva Cassidy; I was so inspired that I suddenly found myself writing songs that were much more meaningful. They came from a more personal side."
On working with Batt, Melua is all praises: "I knew a little of his music, but when any musician gets together with a producer, you really don't know what you're going to get. We could have clashed personality-wise, but we had similar ideas about the first album - it had to be about the music, about the songs."
"We discussed all sorts of songs - there was a lot of trial and error. We recorded a lot more very standard jazz and blues tracks, but we also recorded some more rocky tracks. In the end, it was clear which songs were viable, it was really obvious at the end which ones worked and which ones didn't."
I remark that, no doubt, there are many Katie Melua fans that would love to her this latest global singing sensation wrapping her vocal chords around a rock track. She laughs and says, "I could try them, the rock ones, but it didn't work. We'll just see what happens, maybe on the next album. At the moment I'm just really happy with the stylistic way we made the first album."
Categories, and great songs
Following on her comments about the style off Call Off The Search", the interview wanders towards the inevitable classifications a new artist endures. "The way I look at musical categories," says Melua, "Is they're just words people use when the try and describe music. When a friend tells a friend, 'Have you heard Katie Melua?' and the friend says, 'What's she like?' It's jazzy, bluesy, adult contemporary? They're just words, and you do get boxed into something. I just want to make the music that I like, and I'll leave it up to each individual to decide what it means, and what category to put it into."
When it comes to songs, and knowing which ones are the great ones, Melua says, "I usually get this feeling? as you write the song, and as you finish it. I can't describe it." Then she pauses, "The problem is, about five minutes later, your opinion of it is really gone! But if I can play it alone, just with guitar and vocals, and it sounds brilliant? when you play a song in a really stripped down way, with nothing to hide behind? when it works like that, you know it's a good song."
Here's to many more, Mr Batt and Ms Melua.
- Evan Milton
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