Welcome to Metro.co.uk‘s The Big Questions, where we ask, well, the big questions (and the smaller ones too), and this week, we’re diving deep with Katie Melua.
The star is best-known for chart-topping earworm Nine Million Bicycles, and pained love song Closest Thing To Crazy, released when she was just 19 years old.
Katie has since found her own voice in the industry, penning a total of eight studio albums, with the ninth – Love And Money – set for release in March.
Born in Georgia, Katie and her family moved to the UK when she was eight years old, which she reflects on in her music, particularly some new tracks on the upcoming album.
Katie is also settling into life with a newborn, having created her album as she prepared to become a mum for the first time – and she’s bringing the family on tour with her later this year.
You’ve just welcomed your first child, and at the same time you’re preparing to release your new album and go on tour, how are you finding it all?
You know, at the moment it’s not bad at all, I have to say!
I was off for two or three months, completely off from doing any kind of work. And about halfway through I started thinking like, ‘Oh my God, will there still be work for me?’
There’s still that kind of imposter syndrome in me. Obviously, the album was done, and I knew we were preparing for the release, but because I was essentially just focusing on being mum, there was that paranoid personality being like, ‘Will I will ever work again?’ Because it just felt like it was nonstop feeding and nappy changing. So I’m really glad to be coming back. And we’re easing things in slowly. I also think it’s probably a good time to do it now, before Sandro goes to school.
What are you most looking forward to about the tour? Will your partner and son be coming along?
Yeah! We’ve said we need to do like a little family diary where Sandro goes to some kind of landmark in each city and each town. I’m just looking forward to us rolling through Europe. We’re going to start in Poland and we’re working through Germany, we’ve got a day in France and then into the UK, so it’ll be a pretty epic first travelling adventure for him.
And I’m looking forward to getting on stage performing. I did some shows last summer when I was pregnant, and they felt astonishing.
There’s definitely a different atmosphere now. You know, we’ve had Covid, and everything feels a lot more fragile. We’re so aware of the fact that these things that we used to take for granted can just be taken away so quickly. So there’s a real kind of love of life at these shows, and to have the opportunity to bring these songs to life is so special.
You grew up in Georgia on the coast of the Black Sea and moved to Belfast as a child before moving to London. How big of an impact did your upbringing have on your music?
I think it has a huge impact. I mean, I started making records as a 19-year-old. Essentially I was singing songs that a producer, Mike Batt, who’s a phenomenal songwriter, wrote. I was still writing at that time, but Bicycles and Closest Thing to Crazy, those were big tunes and they were his.
The words and the melodies were his, but I think the history that I’ve had, it’s like another layer that laces together the art and the music. I think the songs I heard in Georgia when I was a kid, the way the language allows you to perform, definitely played into me being able to then embody the songs. And as things progressed, I think I’ve become a lot more direct and I’ve tapped into my history and my biography. Like my album In Winter has a song which actually talks about the childhood I had in Georgia, playing amongst abandoned planes from the Soviet times. It influences you – sometimes it’s more direct, and other times, it’s less so.
The subject of mental health has become normalised in society – you’ve been talking about it for many years. Has the conversation changed for the better?
Yeah, I think it’s fantastic. I love the fact that it’s possible to kind of talk to anyone about it.
I do still think there’s a bit of a generational gap, though, a certain age range where people still struggle to talk about it. There’s a song on my new album called 14 Windows, which I’ve dedicated to my old psychiatrist, Dr Michael Phillips. He was phenomenal.
He helped me massively in 2010 when I had my mental health crisis. But he sadly took his own life a year ago. You sort of think, things are definitely better, people are talking about it a lot more, but it can still really just destroy people.
So I’m glad for the improvements. And I feel like a lot of people have been helped by just the general higher awareness of it. But I remember when I had my mental breakdown, my team didn’t really want me to talk, they wanted to keep it secret. And then once I got better, I was like, ‘Well, no, there’s no reason for this, let’s talk about what actually happened.’ Now, I think that wouldn’t really happen.
I mean, it happened. It was so shocking. And it was so unbelievable. But I was asked. And I didn’t want to start lying.
What do you feel is a common misconception about you or your music?
Oh, gosh, I don’t really know. I mean, I’m probably too in the weeds of making records, and now as a mom, to know what there might be.
I mean, I think because things were really massive in the early days when I was singing the songs from Mike Batt, I think there was definitely a perception that I was just a pretty young girl, kind of being the face of the produced music. But that feels like it was a really long time ago. And now I think we’ve changed that quite a bit. So yeah, those that are still listening to me know that’s definitely not the case.
Your new album, Love and Money, is released on March 24 – what can you tell us about it?
I really wanted to make a blue sky record. I’d say a lot of the early records that I made were all about sort of passionate love, you know, happy endings in romance. And then on my last album, number eight, I was in quite a sort of, well, not a dark place, but I was a bit more pessimistic. Partly because I’d been through a divorce.
And then in between finishing that last record and making Love and Money, I met my partner, and it’s just been phenomenal, and I sort of realised how magical love can be. You know, how falling in love is just the best. So I wanted to capture some of those feelings. I also wanted to capture the relationships I have with my family, which can be so heavy. For example Lie In The Heat, which documents being by the river in Georgia, going on picnics, swimming in the river.
I kind of wanted the songs to feel like these memories that were caught and captured in that world essentially, positive and happy. Sometimes there’s this idea that good art has to come out of sadness. But I wanted to question that. These last two years have felt like the best years of my life. And I wanted to see if they could translate into the music.
Is there a particular song from the new album that resonates with you the most?
Of course, all of them do, but maybe the fact that we’ve named the album Love and Money, and that track ends the record, I can zone in on that.
That song captures the opportunity I’ve had to return the generosity that I’ve experienced from some of my loved ones. I’m an immigrant kid. We moved over from Georgia when I was eight years old, and there are certain feelings that always stay with you.
That feeling of missing family at home, that feeling of moving to a country, which socio-economically at the time was a lot more wealthier than back home. That need to kind of do good, and you end up becoming a perfectionist. It just depicts the opportunities that I’ve had as a young person living in the UK and what then I can do with that to sort of thank my family back home.
You’ve been in the industry since you were a teenager, what are the biggest changes you’ve noticed?
Oh, my God, I mean, it’s changing all the time. Don’t get me started about the tech that changes.
My cycle of writing and recording usually is about two to three years. And I remember going in on the last album, number eight, and there’s different ways that sounds get gated, so they can automatically now get rid of background noises. These things, you just marvel at.
But then in terms of what’s more public-facing, we used to make CD singles. Now, that doesn’t happen at all. And in a way, I feel like, you can put music out almost more frequently now. And you can kind of have more fun with it because of that direct access to people. You can much more quickly see if a song is doing well or not. There’s positives and negatives.
What do you think is the most important thing you’ve learned in your 20 years in the industry?
The most important thing I’ve learned is I think that you have to do everything with integrity and heart.
If you do that, then, you know you’ll be in good shape.
I also think you have to really value a great team.
You know, I really believe in the art of teamwork.
Love and Money will be released on March 24
What does Katie Melua’s weekend look like?
What does your typical Saturday look like?
Well, I’ve just become a mum. So this Saturday for example, we went and met our NCT (National Childhood Trust) group and families for a nice walk. Before that, my partner cooked a really nice breakfast.
He’s good at doing poached eggs and spinach and the whole thing. So yeah, we’ll definitely have a walk. Definitely some kind of sports. I love running … I’m slowly going back into it.
Then my mum – I’m so lucky to have my mum living close by – she might take Sandro, my little boy, for a walk. And I might then catch up on a few things that I might need to do on a Saturday. Like reading. I adore reading, so does my partner, so we definitely spend a few hours either reading the papers or reading books.
What TV shows are you binging at the minute?
We’re loving the White Lotus at the moment, it’s really good. I also really loved Adam Curtis, his documentary on Russia. That was really incredible.
And as a big reader, what are you reading on the weekends?
John Berger is fantastic. He read a lot about art, and he printed a book called About Looking, which essentially analyses art. Another phenomenal book of his is called The Fortunate Man, it’s a portrait of a man who’s a doctor who works in the countryside. I read that not too long ago, I’m diving into his essays About Looking now.
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