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Katie Melua: Imagery and influence; a conversation with Katie Melua

Katie Melua: Imagery and influence; a conversation with Katie Melua

By Jackie Lee King

Katie Melua's career is in its next stage as she 'hops the pond' from England to conquer the United States with her sweet and soulful troubadour singing. Originally from Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia (former USSR) she moved with her family at an early age to Belfast, Ireland where her father, a heart-surgeon, was granted a visa to work at a hospital outside of the country. Several years later her family migrated south to England where she attended the BRIT School Of Performing Arts. Graduating with distinction in 2003 she immediately began working with composer/producer Mike Batt [Dramatico Entertainment Inc.] and by 2006 she was one of the biggest-selling British female artists in the world with just three records under her belt. In that same year she accomplished another world record by playing the deepest underwater concert at 303 meters under the Troll-A oil rig in the North Sea.

She's a striking beauty that is somewhat of an adrenaline junkie, but comes off as a polite yet playful gal. She doesn't indulge material comforts, as memories of living with her extended family in a one room apartment in Georgia as a child are still vivid in her mind. Currently she lives on her own in Notting Hill, just a few kilometers from her family.

Allmusic.com describes her music as comfortable, extremely tasteful blend of jazz vocals, pop style, with an adult contemporary sway. I caught up with Melua in the midst of a two and a half week tour of the US while she writes songs for her fourth studio release.

Jackie Lee King: So if Mary Pickford [Song from Pictures] ate roses, what's your beauty secret?

Katie Melua: Oh goodness. My beauty secret? Jesus, I don't really think I've got one. Well, after two hours of hair and makeup if I wasn't beautiful I'd have to be firing people. You know what I mean? I don't know just kind of be happy and always remember that.

JLK: How does somebody from Georgia [Former USSR] get into classic Hollywood movie era relating to Pickford and Charlie Chaplin?

KM: Charlie Chaplin's massive in Georgia during Communist time. Absolutely huge.

JLK: You know he was blacklisted for being a Communist at one point.

KM: Oh, was he? Isn't that interesting? So maybe that's why-- you know they-- that was one of the few things they did show. So yeah, I kind of grew up with Charlie Chaplin. Now I have to be honest. I didn't really know Mary Pickford very well and the role that she and Charlie played with United Artists. That was-- how that song came about was: we were in the studio one day and Mike came across a fact about my producer and co-writer-- a fact Mary Pickford used to eat roses and we were like, "brilliant song title." And then the next day when I came in, he had done some research and found out who she was and what she did and I think Mike [Batt] probably knew her better than I did and he wrote the song. And I just loved it because it was so quirky and weird. I don't think there's anything wrong with a song, you know with a fact in there or bits of history like Diamonds and Bicycles was always a bit of a quirky one.

JLK: So, how did somebody so young, get involved with Eva Cassidy"s music?

KM: Well, she was just the best thing that I had ever heard when I was, you know sixteen--seventeen. You know being the age that I am, I grew up with Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, and then sort of the garage dance thing that was massive in the nineties, and R&B and Hip-Hop. A lot of that stuff is pretty great, but the focus there is on, you know rhythm and bass. So, you know, all of that-- it was like, a rhythm, drum and bass generation. Where that was really the focus and maybe part of it is still there definitely. I think being from Georgia I had a more-- bigger love of melody and lyrics, and that's why Eva Cassidy's stuff really appealed to me. She was the first thing I heard that was just a guitar and a voice. I'd never heard-- you know, just an artist with just a guitar and a voice. And then that led me to [Bob] Dylan, Joni Mitchell, TheBeatles...

JLK: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

KM: And, you know I know this sounds like you know like, "where did you grow up if you'd never heard of TheBeatles and, you know Dylan?" But this was when I was sixteen. So I do prefer music that's more lyrical, that tells a story and is more melody-based. And the height of that happened to be not of my generation.


JLK: Do you feel that you gravitate towards the visual medium with your songs?


KM: I think the film and movie medium is just something that is happening now for me. You know, music is the thread that's stayed pretty constant throughout my work, and it's just pictures that happen to have this particular concept. You know, I didn't say the first two albums were about films or movies. You know, like I said, it started off with the [Quentin] Tarantino film specifically the music that he picks in his films. And then it kind of-- and then the project sort of took on a life of its own and it became more generically about films. I think that most twenty-something year olds, love movies and love films. That escapism is just wonderful. I love films that make me cry, make me laugh, just anything. I mean like, I love so many different kinds of stuff.

JLK: So how did you get involved with Don't, the faux movie trailer by Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg in Tarantino"sGrindhouse movie?

KM: I got a phone call one day. You know, it was my manager and he said, "Katie, it's an acting thing." And I've had a few of those phone calls in the last years and I go--I'm like, "come on. I'm not an actress. You know I make music and that's what I want to concentrate." And he said, "Well, wait til you hear this one." And I was like, "okay, go on, then." And funnily enough previous to that-- this was during the making of Pictures, my third album which was started off being inspired by Tarantino's films--especially the music in his films.

JLK: Really? You mean it's like, 'Zombies marching though the midst. Make me think of being kissed..." - Scary Films [Song from Pictures]

KM: Kind of, yes, exactly. But mainly like things like the fact that I discovered Dusty Springfield and Chuck Berry from Pulp Fiction. You know like so many others. And he's just so great at his soundtracks. And we just wanted an album that was sort of like an homage to his taste in music perhaps. So, he said, "It's a Tarantino project." And I was like, "Okay, I'm listening." And then he said, "you know." And I was like, "but you know, I still can't really act." And he said, "well, you don't really need to worry about it because..." So he explained to me the whole concept, which seemed quite complicated and that Edgar Wright was doing Don't which was, you know that particular advert. And I was like, "well..." and Edgar Wright-- he was the one that I think that-- you know, asked me because he wanted someone you'd never expect in a horror film...

JLK: Yeah.

KM: ...like Katie Melua? You know, I was game. So I did it.

JLK: So how did you start getting into, horror films? A lot of your music has a lot of film type of imagery, but why horror films or like Japanese or Korean extreme type of things like Old Boy or something like that.

KM: I haven't seen Old Boy, but The Ring and The Grudge--the Japanese version(s) just blew me away. Okay, so when I was six years old, I used to watch Aliens back to back. I'd like play it and then rewind. And the reason I was able to do that is because in Georgia at the time-- it was all still, you know Communist so these were all pirate CDs. So there really wasn't any such thing as, you know parental control-- you know like an age you have to be over a certain age to watch it. So it was really up to your parents to decide what your kids could watch, and you know, my parents didn't really mind me watching that.

JLK: (Laughs) Did they mind the nightmares later on?

KM: Well, I never really had them. I think I was just quite... you know--I like sort of not really... you know the bloody--I call sort of Porn Horror. You know, those films where it's just like full of blood and people killing people.

JLK: Like Grindhouse.

KM: Yeah. That kind of a-- you know it's a spoof of all those types of films. But I do prefer the more psychological horror. So I don't know, I just think I got sort of an immunity to the gross factor quite early on. Also the other thing was my dad was a doctor; a heart surgeon. And I always used to flip through his weird books. And it would be sort of decapitated bodies and open-heart surgery halfway through and stuff.

JLK: Yeah my mom's a nurse and she would watch the Discovery Channel surgery shows. I have a hard time watching them you know, removing a gall bladder. I'm like, "I don't want to see this!"

KM: Ah. (laughs) I think some people are really quite alright with blood and needles and stuff and other people aren't.

JLK: Yeah, but can you watch surgery?

KM: Yeah. I actually did watch live surgery when I was thirteen. My dad had this thing called Take Your Daughter to Work Day.

JLK: Oh yeah. We just had ours here in my office.

KM: So, you know all my friends got like taken to offices and stuff and you know and I get to go and watch a heart bypass. They were taking a vein of this dude's leg and putting it in his heart. It was amazing actually. It was so cool because you see for the first time you know, the lung actually moves over the heart, like I can't even describe it. It was really cool.

JLK: Wow. Did the patient survive?

KM: Yes. I think so. I don't know if he's alive now, but ten years ago or whenever it was...

JLK: I've seen a couple of your videos on YouTube, and it seems like, especially the live ones where they get a close up of your eyes and it doesn't really look like you're physically there. Where do you go when you sing?

KM: Interesting. I think 'you're in the song." Aren't you?

JLK: There seemed to be a distance in your eyes. There was one in particular on German morning show where you were standing there singing Piece by Piece and your eyes were just piercing, just like you were looking at something far far away.

KM: Maybe it was just a hangover or something.

JLK: (laughs) Come on, I was looking for something deeper.

KM: I know. I know. (laughs)

JLK: Like, 'I go to a far-off land in Georgia" you know...

KM: (laughs) No, God, I don't know. No one's ever said that before but it's an interesting insight. I just-- you know what? You don't really think when you sing, you just sing. The point is just to communicate a song. And I don't-- I'm not an acrobatic singer in the sense that I don't think of myself as a singer. I just think of myself as a song deliverer, if that makes sense. I do that and that's pretty basic. That's pretty it. You can't analyze yourself and it's weird because in interviews you're kind of always made to.

JLK: Yeah. I know. Just like I'm doing now.

KM: Yeah, exactly. So you have to sort of-- you know, you kind of turn everything into words basically so I just-- I just go about it. It's instinct, I think.

JLK: Yeah, I agree. I was a voice major for many years and it's a transcendence that you know, when you really understand the meaning of the lyric and you interpret it and you just really give. You know, I mean I've seen people sing Amazing Grace in a gospel style, but I've also seen a small little girl just singing it very simply, and just shattering the audience.

KM: Yes, completely.

JLK: So it's more about-- you know, if you can internalize what is going on.

KM: Yeah. Well, or if there's something in it that-- that's you, and it doesn't have to be a song that you've written it could be a song that you're covering. Sometimes they can be so personal because you know, like Leonard Cohen completely opened up and tore me apart one night In My Secret Life.

JLK: Wow. Well, I just love his version of Hallelujah. It's just profound. I mean, it's God. I mean...

KM: Yeah, it really is.

JLK: ... it's God speaking through, and how he [Cohen] takes years to write songs.

KM: Yeah, I know. That's cool. Isn't it? I really like that. I always saw-- I tend to do that. I mean, I'm not trying to compare myself to him, but I'm not one of those that can quickly get them out.

JLK: So what do you think of your contemporaries like Lily Allen and Amy Winehouse; people that you'll probably get inadvertently lumped into the same category with because you're of the BRIT School for Performing Arts?

KM: I don't really think much, you know--of others. I suppose. I just tend to sort of keep my head down and do what I do. It's sort of difficult to say, really. That's kind of it. I don't really listen to a lot of their stuff, though I think they all make good music.

JLK: How about Duffy or Adele?

KM: Well, I think they all make really cool music, but I love Duffy's stuff. I think she's really cool. Adele's got this gorgeous voice. And I think that it's amazing that there are so many girls out there making music and doing really well with it.

JLK: In a male-dominated music industry women are viewed differently. I recently spoke with a female lead singer and how she has a hard time wearing a skirt onstage because she wants to be respected as a musician and not just a chick singer. It's really interesting how even some female musicians can"t view themselves as legitimate if they don't wear jeans.

KM: Yeah. It's weird that. I think I went through that to at the beginning, but I've completely sort of changed my viewpoint on that. Maybe it's just to do with feeling a bit more empowered than-- it's a sense of... I mean, women are so beautiful and so stunning and so sensual. I mean, one of the most power things that a woman has is her sexuality, and I kind of-- I mean, I would always classify myself as a feminist, but I think it wasn't right for the feminist movement to sort of look down on female sexuality or to sort of put that down as a male thing. I think the point was that power, you know being so stunning and powerful and in my opinion more gorgeous than men-- no offense.

JLK: Well, yeah. I mean it's nice to look at beautiful ladies.

KM: Not everyone would agree with that. It's just that power needed to be put back into the womens' hands, and that's where it got mixed up. It kind of got lumped with, "oh no! being treated as an object"-- as a male thing, and "being beautiful or being sexy is to please men." And I don't really think it is. I think if you have breasts like--show them. You know? It's the body that God gave you.

JLK: Yeah.

KM: You know and I think there's nothing more wonderful than human flesh and you know, man, woman or both-- you know, it's like... I think just-- I suppose it's being confident and comfortable and not thinking really.

JLK: Well, you definitely seem very comfortable with yourself.

KM: Yeah. Well, I am and I'm not. There's definitely--- well, if we're talking about this subject I-- you know, I am pretty comfortable with that, but you know not everything in life is straightforward or simple.

Katie Melua is currently touring the states promoting her critically acclaimed European record Pictures [released in the US on May 5]. She stops in Chicago on May 12.