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Brighten My Northern Sky: An Interview with Rising Star Katie Melua

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(click on the photo for music and more)

It’s 5:30pm and Katie Melua has just finished one of the most exhaustive sound checks I’ve ever heard – which was an incredible performance in itself, complete with a cover of “The Love Cats” that even the Cure would applaud.

On this sultry Boston afternoon, Melua is sitting next to me on one of the velvet-leather benches upstairs at the Paradise club, where in just a few hours she will perform, her star having risen quite quickly in the UK and Europe where her single “The Closest Thing To Crazy,” from Katie’s album Call Off The Search, hit the top of the charts, garnering Melua a performance before and praise from none other than HRH Queen Elizabeth II, which is great, and no doubt, Melua is proud, but one senses that it is the anonymous person in the audience that matters at least as much, possibly more, than this. Melua doesn’t say this, but she seems to care a great deal about the everyman/everywoman. Yet despite all this attention, Katie Melua, at only nineteen years old, remains profoundly grounded.

We’ve seen lesser talents and bigger egos play the role, but Melua, who disdains the successive assembly line of sexed-up and mostly identical teeny-poppers that the music industry seems to have in endless supply, is not cut of that cloth. She remains her own person. “It’s just not me,” she says of the industry standard of teen idols, her huge, honey-colored eyes narrowing a bit as she speaks. So who then, is Katie Melua? This is tricky: Melua, unlike so many of her contemporary counterparts, does not fit neatly into any type, either in looks or sound.

Her music is by turns London Jazz, Motown, a drop of Norah Jones, Nick Drake, her tone as dulcet and angelic as Kate Bush, a bit Ella Fitzgerald, and all with the incredible range of Sinead O’Conner and storyteller cum poet quality of Bob Dylan – a potent elixir that so far, crowds can’t get enough of.

Like one of her favorite musicians, the late Nick Drake (“Bryter Layter,” she says smiling), she defies definition. Drake, sadly, received the bulk of his fame after his thought-to-be-suicide overdose. Melua, though she may sing a few lines about drugs, steers well-clear of the scene.

She is a smart, studious young woman, who, one senses would rather curl up with a good book (the last, The DaVinci Code, and after that, Cracking the DaVinci Code) than snort lines – she’s just not that kind of girl. She “loves to read” she says, citing Iris Murdoch as one of her favorites. This is not just another pop singer. In fact, Melua is a classically trained musician (studying in London), who began writing her own songs about four years ago with a guitar lent by a boyfriend and the aid of some mixing software on her home computer.

These songs she sings, though not all written by Melua, are about serious stuff. In her hit, “The Closest Thing to Crazy,” she cries,

How can Happiness feel so wrong?
How can misery feel so sweet?

And it goes on:

How can you make me fall apart
Then break my fall with loving lies?

Melua sings it with such intensity that one is hard-pressed to know how this beautiful, sweet, young woman can already speak so convincingly of the complexities and bittersweetness of “situations” that, the late Elliott Smith noted, “get fucked up, then turned around sooner or later…”

Melua explains, “I don’t have to have personally lived it to know it, to understand it..” She leans in close when she says this. This is empathy at its finest, so rare in the world these days, and Melua has it in spades.

At thirteen, little Katie Melua wanted nothing less than to effect World Peace, and perhaps, these six years later, she has made her peace and learned a thing or two from living, quite literally, in war zones – soviet Georgia, then Belfast, and later, the UK. As she says, she can see “so many different points of view.” Clearly, politics are a big thing with Melua, whose next album will be “more political” (indeed, later that night, she performs a kickass and insightful song about racism, a risque subject for a new star.) Growing up in Belfast and war zones can have this effect – how could she not be interested in politics, when she saw the Cats (the Catholics) and the Penguins (Protestants) in Northern Ireland go at it with such vitriol. It cannot have been an easy life for Melua, yet she’s not one to complain. “It just was…”

Still, despite her young age, there is a sorrow here – a kind of beautiful melancholy, much like, in fact, her favorite (and mine, for that matter), Nick Drake, whose music (like Melua’s) is by turns optimistic and happy and seemingly free (“Pink Moon”), pleading (“Northern Sky”), but always, always with an underlying note of melancholy. Melua is quick to add that she is not one to “dwell on problems” and there have been no major “psychological issues” in her life.

One worries that this somewhat fragile looking, waifish and wide-eyed young woman who brings to mind Audrey Hepburn and a Georgian Winona Ryder (though this doesn’t begin to describe her beauty, of which she is truly unaware, as I can see and is confirmed when I share a quick smoke with Roseanna, who tours with Melua, and raves about how unaffected Katie is) would be chum for the hard driving world of rock ‘n’ roll and music industry, yet Melua has a groundedness and self-possession that is apparent even during her earlier sound check. Perched on a stool with her guitar, Melua belts out song after song, as an entourage composed of mostly men, older and more experienced, go about adjusting lights, sound, and others – her musicians, who surround her. Yet Katie never hesitates for a slight sound adjustment. She stops midsong and says “More guitar, please,” her accent, by now, quite naturally British. Her crew snaps to attention at every request, yet Melua is seemingly unaware and unaffected by the incredible power she commands (and one senses, will continue to).

What is it like to suddenly be a star? For Katie Melua it is good, but in her eyes, not so sudden – she’s worked years for this. It is good, no doubt, but she is happiest she says, on stage, “when I can hopefully affect people, hopefully make a difference on that night. You know, touch someone.” As for what she calls the “fame” and “glitter and glam,” Melua doesn’t follow her own press. “The fame thing is not my thing.” It’s still about the people, and while many musicians may say this, in Melua’s case, I buy it.

With only a few hours now before the show, Melua graciously snaps a picture with me and signs her photo, then she’s whisked away to her hotel where, she tells me, she’ll probably take a bath, watch a little TV, eat some food, and maybe even strum a few chords on her guitar…and she’ll be alone. She’s a woman of a few close friends who she trusts – a “tight, inner-circle” – but is kind to and loved by many.

The truest thing one can say of Katie Melua is that, like Drake, she is interlocking puzzles of contradiction and paradox; at once, gamine and shy, yet bold and wickedly smart and unafraid to make the demands necessary for a great show. One guesses, a perfectionist – likely one who demands more of herself than of anyone else, one who is always raising the bar, higher, higher, always striving to be better. Melua may defy definition, yet at her core, she is refreshingly simple – she just wants to affect people. A minute later, she’s off in a taxi. She leaves through the front door, as the first people come streaming through the Boston twilight and into the Paradise. The show is well-packed, close to capacity or just at.

Somewhere out there, Katie Melua is by now sitting quietly at the buzzing center of activity, while a crew of managers, makeup and hair people and various assistants and publicists go about their work. I can see her, sitting calmly at the center, no doubt contemplating the moment as she walks on stage and wondering, which of us in the crowd tonight will be touched by her songs and that incredible molasses-rich voice. She wonders about it, waiting for the moment, now about a half hour from now, feeling that excitement one feels in the moment right before a secret is revealed.

And The Lights Come On…

The lights come up and the crowd applauds and whoops. It’s a little past 10pm and Melua steps on stage, flashes a heartbreaker of a smile, accidentally knocks over the bottle of Dasani at the foot of her stool, and unfazed, says “this song is for Eva Cassidy” (one of her biggest influences, she had told me earlier) and sings “Far Away Voice” from her album. The crowd cheers. When the song is over, Melua notices the water pooling around electrical wires, impishly says, “Who did that?” Smile. Someone rushes to the stage with towels to catch the spill. We are indeed captivated. Unfazed, Melua continues, and I would guess, many in the crowd are touched by her hypnotic voice. Just as she had hoped. Katie Melua’s moment will last more than fifteen minutes – it already has – she’s someone to watch, as we see her star shooting, higher, higher, higher, as high as she wants.

Sadi Ranson-Polizzotti

For more about Katie Melua, music and video, click here.

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About Sadi Ranson-Polizzotti

  • Eric Olsen

    Great job, very fine profile and introduction to someone who would really appear to have a future. That she is only 19 really gives one pause.

  • srp

    she really is an incredible young woman. not just as a performer, but as a person. it’s rare to see someone her age and getting so much attention be so absolutely grounded and centered… none of this has gone to her head in any negative way, and she’s not of the same cloth as the teen “pop” crowd at all. I expect she will be around for quite a long while. I certainly hope so. Though i tell you, photos do not do her justice: she is an incredibly beautiful young woman as well – very natural, gamine, no fakery, which is just so refreshing.

    Glad you liked the interview. I went for less standard; more of a portrait.

    s.

  • http://kmareka.com Kiersten Marek

    Katie Melua’s voice transports and transcends. Her blues are heavy and soulful, yet uplifting for their sheer expressiveness. I’ve never heard anything quite like her and hope she can continue to keep her head screwed on straight once the world catches on to her glorious ways.

  • Eric Olsen

    very lovely comment Kiersten, thanks, and once again, great job on this Sadi!

  • http://www.tantmieux.squarespace.com sadi

    thanks K and thanks Eric —

    Katie took a lot of flak for that album and some were really pretty harsh. To me, she is a young girl with some immense talent and perhaps not the management that she needs. I fear that her management is turning her into something she is NOT, witness, the rehearsal was amazing and she completely herself and sang the best version of “love cats” by the Cure that i have EVER heard. She’s a real folk singer, and not a Norah Jones-er – and that is the direction she’s being pushed. Nothing wrong with Norah Jones, but that’s not Katie.

    Yes, just my opinion, but i think if you had heard the rehearsal (i taped it and still listen to it), you’d be even more in awe in her talent. It’s easy to write something nasty or pithy; she’s just a kid and just starting out. I’m glad to know that there are others here who see the same bright spot that i saw there, and truly, you had to sit with her one-on-one to get a real sense of her beauty and poise.

    With the right management and the right direction (read: folk, not jazz), she will go far.

    Thanks for reading, as ever,

    sade

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