In 2006, Katie Melua became the United Kingdom’s best-selling female artist. Several million copies of her four albums have been sold worldwide, making her one of the wealthiest young people in Britain.
Born in Kutaisi on 16 September 1984, Katie Melua spent her early years in Tbilisi before moving with her family to Batumi. The Meluas left in 1993 for Belfast in Northern Ireland and several years later settled permanently in England.
“Call off the Search” was the singer’s first album, a synthesis of jazz and blues which became a big hit in Great Britain and one of the best-selling albums in 2004. “The Closest Thing to Crazy,” “Crawling up a Hill,” “Call off the Search” – these three singles from the first album all made it onto the British charts and from there to airplay on several European radio stations. That first successful album was followed by another – “Piece by Piece,” from which the single, “Nine Million Bicycles,” went on to become the first song in Melua’s career to hit the top-five charts of Great Britain. Katie wrote “Nine Million Bicycles” after parting with boyfriend Luke Pritchard, front-man for the English indie rock band, The Kooks. Katie later released two more albums – “Pictures” and “The House.” Her fifth album – “Secret Symphony” – is scheduled for release this November.
Along with a successful music career, Katie Melua has ventured into cinema as well. She appeared in a trailer specifically produced for the Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez film “Grindhouse” and directed by award-winning British film director Edgar Wright, best known for such cult favorites as “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz.” Songs by Melua can be heard on the soundtracks of some ten movies. She also often contributes her time and talent to charitable causes.
Katie, you are known as a British singer of Georgian origin. Do you yourself feel Georgian?
I have British brains but Georgian heart, indeed… Therefore, yes, I am a Georgian.
Even though you have spent only a tiny part of your life in Georgia…
Yes, that’s true. I was born in Kutaisi, brought up in Tbilisi and Batumi. My earliest recollections start from perhaps the age of five. When I was eight, I left Georgia together with my family, but those three years of recollections of Georgia are deeply rooted in my memory… My childhood in Georgia coincided with difficult years. I was fond of playing various games with neighboring children in the yard. From the age of six, I started singing. I used to have my parents sit down in the evenings and then make them listen to my singing. I enjoyed this immensely from the very start…
Do you remember the songs you performed for them?
Children songs from Disney cartoons or Georgian children songs… One of them was called “Father Went to the Zoo.” Remember?
My first singing teacher was Mzia Ghambashidze. I took singing lessons on Mitskevich Street. Once we even recorded a duo. I can’t recall now what the song was, but I still keep the recording. I was seven when I sang with a boy of the same age … All this was so lovely. In short, I had an ordinary Georgian childhood and it would have continued in the same vein had not my parents decided to go abroad.
Tell us about your family…
My mother is a paramedic, but she has never worked in her profession and is a housewife. My father is a doctor. I have a younger brother. My father received an offer from Belfast and, in 1993, we moved to Northern Ireland.
Do you remember your first impressions upon your arrival in Belfast?
Foaming bath! At those times in Georgia we experienced a shortage of water and electricity and, therefore, foaming or bubble bath was something very exotic for me! I also remember a constant supply of water and electricity in Belfast. I remember colorfulness, in the direct sense of this word: Numerous joyful and light colors around me caught my eye. This contrast was very stark. Georgia was then dominated by grey and dull colors even though we left Georgia in spring. Just recently, I talked about this topic with Florian Henckel [German film director best known for his films “The Lives of Others” and “The Tourist”]. Florian, who also knows Soviet republics well, noted that the West also had been grey until the “revolution of colors” happened in the 1960s. Then yellow, blue and pink “electrical colors” appeared, which never happened in the Soviet Union. Oh, I have lost the thread. What was I saying?
You were talking about 1993 when you found yourself in Belfast.
Yes, these colors, comfort and foaming bath proved to be perfect, but that’s it. Soon I badly missed Georgia. I missed my grandparents, my neighborhood, that feeling of pleasure and carefreeness which I left in Georgia. The life here – both ours and others – appeared to be more secluded. I used to go out to the street in Belfast less frequently and mainly watched TV after school. But I never stopped singing. My father spotted my exceptional disposition toward music quite early and supported me in this endeavor as much as he could. He bought me an electric piano upon our arrival in Belfast and took me to lessons for singing. In fact, my father contributed the most to my formation as a singer. We spent five years in Belfast and then moved to London.
Which means that you graduated school in London…
Yes, at the age of sixteen. After school, I had a choice to undertake a two-year preparation course, but I went to the BRIT School – a rather prestigious educational institution in the field of music and performing arts today. Among the alumni of this school are Amy Winehouse and Kate Nash. But then, in 2002, it was not as difficult to enter this school as it is now. My parents also supported me and, in short, I was admitted to the BRIT School.
Were you sure you would become a singer? Have you ever thought of any other profession?
No, I did not think of any other profession. I knew from the very start that my future profession would be connected with music. When my father bought me a synthesizer in Belfast and I started composing music, it was my hobby then. But later, at the age of fifteen perhaps, I was convinced that I had to turn this hobby into my profession.
What was the learning process at the BRIT School like?
Intensive. I studied music-related subjects: theory of music, technology, musical business. In parallel with that education, I continued composing music and singing at home. I became acquainted with the composer and my future producer Mike Batt. It was Mike who gave me an acoustic guitar and that’s how I started singing accompanied with this musical instrument. Once Mike played “Closest Thing to Crazy” for me, which I liked very much, and we decided to record it. I was around seventeen or eighteen years old then and was lucky that, in parallel with education, my career started. I remember on the day of my first album’s release, I came to school and a lecturer asked me, “Is it not your album that was released today?” The educational course was two-years long. I could have continued my studies for the third year too, majoring in musical business, but recordings took much of my time, leaving no space for education, and I quit.
Could you go into more detail about how your career began?
Radio stations showed interest in my album and started airing my songs often. After that, large studios also became interested, although they demanded that my works be changed. Such studios are very powerful and their representatives often use this power as a leverage over artists. It was very frustrating. My representative at that time was Mike Batt’s studio Dramatico, which had no other singer besides me. I did not want to cooperate with large studios and to fulfill their demands. I remember I was very surprised when I told this to Mike and he replied, “OK, as you wish.” Dramatico today is already a serious company with fifteen employees and representing up to ten singers, including Carla Bruni.
Did you have a feeling then that something serious was happening which would bring you great success?
Absolutely. I am reading a book now, Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers,” in which the author writes about the most successful people and analyses how this or that person becomes successful. I completely agree with an opinion in that book that success largely depends on circumstances and that it cannot be achieved alone – there is always someone who helps. This holds true in my case as well. I achieved success mostly owing to my father, who took me to the West where I had an opportunity to obtain an education in English, to speak and to sing in this language. Then I met Mike and many other people who helped me at various stages.
You said that you have “British brains.” Does this mean you think in English?
Yes. I try to think in Georgian, but I find it difficult. It affects my Georgian speaking as well. To go back to success, I would add that it did not happen overnight. So that made me experience a sort of shock and to think, “Oh, my God, what a miracle!” Everything developed slowly, step by step. Preparation of an album, interest from radio stations, then TV, then slow ascent on the list of best albums….eventually I was even the third on that list. It is difficult to explain accurately, but all this happened naturally.
You continue your work with Mike Batt’s studio Dramatico. What does cooperation with a producer involve?
This is a well-tested ten-year cooperation. During this period, there were, naturally, controversies in opinions; we have argued over various issues. As regards the cooperation, we meet, discuss a concept, formulate ideas. For instance, a couple of months ago we decided to prepare a fifth album. I proposed to Mike that we release an orchestrated album this time and he liked this idea very much. Last year was a somewhat difficult year for me – I was even ill and I did not want to overburden myself with composing songs. We decided together to record new versions of old songs. Both of us started seeking such pieces and then started deliberating on their orchestration. It is easy to cooperate with Mike in the sense that he is an artist deep in his heart. When we recorded the orchestrated versions, we played them for our employees. They are twenty-or-so-year-old young people. We listened to their opinions – assessments that were not positive only. In this field, as well as perhaps in any other business, it is important to hear other people’s opinions.
Have you thought about who are your listeners?
I think my music appeals to those who do not generally listen to much music. I do not know whether this is good or bad.
Is there anyone around you whose opinion you trust and with whom you share your thoughts and fears?
My father. He is always frank with me – to the point that he did not hide that he disliked my last album.
Is there any difference between performing your own and someone else’s songs?
Naturally. In your own song, “you” are more visible, your individuality is seen to a greater extent. But no matter what song I sing, I always try to be a performer, a singer. Performing your own song does not mean at all that the song is good. I have yet to compose a hit. Mike is a far better composer than I.
What are your future plans? What will you offer to your audience?
Nothing out of the ordinary. I carry on and will carry on working as usual as long as it is natural. When I need to exert efforts to record, that song never sounds natural. The important thing is to maintain a natural drive. Music does not like violence.