Interview: Katie Melua | Livingnorth.com

Interview: Katie Melua

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Katie Melua & choir
Katie Melua may be best known for bringing us The Closest Thing To Crazy back in 2003, but as patron of Sheffield Children’s Hospital she’s no stranger to Yorkshire and is set to return to the county this December for a special festive performance

Having released her Ultimate Collection at the beginning of October, multi-platinum selling singer and musician Katie Melua is heading back out on the road for a special, festive-themed tour of the UK – and she’s making sure a performance in her home-from-home is on the cards by returning to Yorkshire this December. 

Katie’s Ultimate Collection – two CDs comprising 15 of her favourite tracks from the seven albums she’s released to date – is a release in celebration of the 15 years it has been since her debut album, Call Off The Search, was released to monumental acclaim. While most of these songs have been taken from her previous albums, there are also two new bonus tracks, Bridge Over Troubled Water and Diamonds Are Forever, and all the familiar songs benefit from creative new arrangements.  

‘It’s a record for people who just want to hear the best of what I’ve done,’ explains Katie. ‘I feel like I’m at a place now where I can really reflect back on the past and look at what those early recordings mean to me and how much they’ve shaped my experience in the music industry.’

While the Ultimate Collection is comprised mainly of material she’s already released, Katie is determined to ensure that the arrangements on the album and, particularly, in the supporting live performances offer a new and reimagined experience for the listener. 

‘There have definitely been times on the road, when you’re doing the same set, that it does become somewhat monotonous,’ Katie admits. ‘But that’s why playing fully live and giving the musicians on stage a surprising amount of freedom is so important, and that’s something that I’ve only learned recently. From speaking to them, you realise that unless they’re doing a jazz gig – where there is a certain structure but they have freedom to jam – generally speaking, they don’t get a lot of freedom in these types of shows because the parts are set by a Musical Director. I’m the Musical Director in our band so, for me, the freedom that comes from them being their absolute best is essential. That doesn’t mean that we have big 10-minute solos or anything like that; I always set an atmosphere and a location of where each song is imaginarily set and the experience that we want the listener to have. But there’s quite a bit of movement that the musicians can play around with, and that kind of thing really keeps each show alive.’

While these new shows promise a fresh experience for Katie’s fans, it is the singer’s extraordinary voice and her ability to bring to life each of her songs that has remained constant since she burst onto the music scene in 2003 at the tender age of 19. Now one of the UK’s highest-selling female recording artists of all time, Katie has seven critically-acclaimed albums to her name – but with so much material to choose from, and only 15 places to fill on the Ultimate Collection album, how did Katie approach the selection process? 

‘You start with the ones you know you can’t miss out,’ Katie reasons. ‘They’re quite easy to choose – Nine Million Bicycles, Closest Thing To Crazy, What A Wonderful World. And then the others are the ones where they just have a sense of shining for you, the ones that I had done a lot during my live set. Even if a particular song hasn’t been requested often, the odd time someone has asked me to sing it has been significant. 

‘For example, Belfast is one of my earliest songs, and I never really used to play it live. But then four years ago, I remember a fan coming up to me after a show when I had performed it and she said: “that song literally means everything to me.” And just the passion with which she talked really cemented my own appreciation for it; because it was one of the early songs I wrote when I was young, I never felt super-confident in it. But when someone says to you, that tune changed my life, you go back and listen to it and realise, actually, I was being a bit hard on myself.’  

Although born in Georgia and now living in London, Katie is no stranger to Yorkshire. Both she and her Doncaster-born husband (former Superbike Champion James Toseland) are proud patrons of The Children’s Hospital Charity, which fundraises for Sheffield Children’s Hospital – one of just four standalone children’s hospitals in the UK – and they are frequent visitors to the staff and patients who benefit from the incredible care that their charity work is helping to improve and sustain. Over the years, Katie has recorded charity singles, officially opened new hospital equipment, and has even auctioned off her designer clothes to raise funds and awareness of the cause, clearly close to her heart. 

‘I have immense respect for the work this organisation does,’ says Katie. ‘I have been a patron of The Children’s Hospital Charity for many years. Sheffield Children’s Hospital sees children from all over the country, and the charity works to ensure it remains at the forefront of paediatric care.’ 

Set to return to Yorkshire this December as part of her tour in support of the Ultimate Collection, Katie will also be bringing some friends along for the ride: the Gori Women’s Choir. The two have a special working relationship; also hailing from Georgia, the Gori Women’s Choir first collaborated with Katie on her album In Winter (2016) – a unique collection of songs centred around the festive season, ranging from original works inspired by Katie’s childhood to modern interpretations of traditional carols. 

Having united once again to record one of the bonus tracks on the Ultimate Collection, Bridge Over Troubled Water (a cover of the Simon and Garfunkel classic, recorded alongside the Georgian Philharmonic Orchestra), Katie has invited 16 members of the choir to join her on tour over the next few months. Festively themed, these live performances celebrate the unique beauty of In Winter at this special time of year.

‘Now that it’s been two and a bit years since making that record [In Winter], it’s dawning on me what a special and unique experience it was to record that out in Georgia, with the choir, and also at the time that we made it,’ says Katie. ‘Georgia is having a massive artistic renaissance, and that has only been in the last few years. So to have made that record at the very tail end of when Georgia was still licking its wounds from the dark decade of the 90s was really special. 

‘So we’re definitely going to have those wintery moments – they’re so spine-chilling, and the harmonies are so rich and deep – but I’ll also have these phenomenal musicians that I’ve been lucky enough to play with over the years really bringing another element to the show as well.’ 

Katie will be performing at York Barbican on 12th December. To buy tickets, visit: www.yorkbarbican.co.uk

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What is so special about performing with the Gori Women’s Choir? 
‘The thing with this choir is that they’re a classical choir, but they have the vivacity of the Georgian personality; Georgians are known for being very passionate, I’d compare it to the kind of drama that you have in Latin cultures. So they have that in their DNA, but they also have the influence of the classical Russian school, because Georgia was under Russian rule for so many years. The standards of Russian education are really high – they’re very meticulous and very precise – so having that in a choir is really unique, because the choir is not deemed an amateur project or something that people do in their spare time, it’s actually a very serious and considered process. When you take that and combine it with the warmth of the Georgian personality, it really makes something very moving and emotive.’

Who would you most like to work with that you haven’t already?
‘My biggest legends are people like Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan, they’re pretty high up on the list. I would have loved to have done something with Leonard Cohen – he soothes me so much when I listen to him, I have such a special relationship with his records. Laura Marling is phenomenal, and I think Rumer has also got a great voice. There are so many incredible people out there.’

What’s next for you after the tour?
‘At the moment, I’m writing. It takes a long time to write good songs. And because I’m into my classic songs, everything new that I do, I try and centre it around the structure of a classic song: a song with a melody and a lyric, rather than production-based works. It takes quite a bit of experimenting and a lot of training and practise, so I’m just working on that all the time. Hopefully what I’m working on now will be ready to release as a new album at some point next year.’ 

Published in: December 2018

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