"I love a classic song, stuff that's inspired by the American Songbook..." hmv.com talks to Katie Melua
Katie Melua is best-known for hits such as 'Nine Million Bicycles' and 'Closest Thing to Crazy', but her 2016 album In Winter took the singer-songwriter in a very different direction, incorporating her Georgian roots to create an album winter-themed songs and reworked festive favourites with the help of the Gori Women's Choir. The album was something of a surprise hit for the singer, leading to an extensive tour with the choir that took her and the choir all over Europe.
Now there's a brand new 'Special Edition' of the album featuring live versions recorded at Berlin's Admiralspalast, as well as some choral arrangements of some of the singer's beter-known tunes. In addition, Katie has just released a cover of Sting's 'Fields of Gold' as a fundraising single for Children in Need, and with the song entering the charts this week and a brand new set of tour dates announced with the Gori Women's Choir, we spoke to Katie to find out about how she got involved with the charity single, the logistical challenges of touring with a choir and why she's inspired by the American Songbook...
So a new edition of your album In Winter is in stores at the moment, how have you found touring the album with a full-on choir?
“Really intense, particularly when nobody in the choir speaks English, so I'm the translator! But what is awesome is that the choir and the level that they work at, people in Georgia are so used to it, they're so used to that level of core art, but I've found in the west that people just listen with open mouths and wide eyes when they heard that choir and what they can do. So it's really awesome to be on stage and make sounds like that, and really blow people away. You can see it in their faces.”
How did you come across the Gori Women's Choir in the first place?
"It was actually through Spotify! I wanted to work with Georgian musicians, so I was basically looking for Georgian singers and choirs, and then I heard a record of theirs. It's like a modern piece of classical music and it's sort of terrifying and astonishing all at the same time. And Georgia is a small country, so you can kind of get anyone's contact details if you try hard enough! So I was able to reach out to them.”
Were they aware of your music beforehand?
“They were because, like I say, Georgia is a small country and the story of me doing what I did over here in the Noughties was quite a big story over there, so yeah they know, and they're pretty proud!”
The new version of the album includes some live versions recorded in Berlin, how did you go about that? Did you record a bunch of shows and pick the best one?
“No, we actually just recorded that show, but I picked 17 tracks from a 21-song setlist and the thing is we were multi-tracking, so we could only really afford to do one night because, as you can imagine, taking that many people on the road isn't a cheap thing. And of course I wouldn't want it to be. But also Berlin just felt great and the Admiralspalast is a really iconic building.”
There are also some choral versions of your other songs like Nine Million Bicycles, did you put together the choral arrangements yourself for these?
“No, I worked with and incredible choral arranger and composer, Bob Chilcot. He's based in Oxford and he has some beautiful choral pieces himself, so he did the 'Closest Thing to Crazy' and 'Nine Million Bicycles' ones after we finished the In Winter album. It was quite tricky, it feels like In Winter was a completely new part of what I'd done so far, but I don't really want to do gigs without singing 'Closest Thing to Crazy' because I know that song and some of the others mean a great deal to people, they've kind of grown up with them. But I really wanted the whole setlist to have a cohesion to it, so it was important to try and get the choir into those songs where we could.”
You've just announced more touring with the choir for winter next year, did you think you'd still be touring it two years after its initial release? Were you surprised by the demand for it?
“Yeah, I mean I remember when I first met the choir and I travelled to Gori, I remember thinking 'this is going to a side project', you know? We were just testing it out, really, but when I got the first four tracks back, which included 'Perfect World', and got a reaction, you can kind of tell when something is exciting people. So I thought that was brilliant, but I didn't really know if after the first tour we would be able to go out again, just because it's a real mammoth thing to do, so I'm just delighted.”
One of the other things included on this year's version is 'Fields of Gold', the single you've released for Children in Need – how did you get involved with that?
"A couple of months ago we had a phone call from Children in Need, they were saying that they really wanted to do something out of respect for Sir Terry Wogan and the work he did for Children in Need, because he was presenting since the 1980s, and one of his favourite tracks was 'Fields of Gold'. Eva Cassidy is someone that his radio show introduced me to, and he was a huge supporter of my stuff really early on, so I didn't even think twice about it, it was a yes straight away. I love the song and I love Eva's version of it. I spent the next two months practicing that guitar part because it's really tough - well, it is for me. I mean, I play rhythm guitar on a nylon string Spanish, but Eva's guitar playing is really serious."
So what's next for you after this? Are you working on your next album yet?
“Well, actually the thing that takes up most of my time is songwriting, and the study of the process of songwriting. That's something that I think will keep me busy for a long time, there are a lot of different skill sets that are possible to explore in that area."
Do you write for other people too?
“No, not really, it's enough of a job to write for one! I think people are all different in terms of what their skill sets and what they're capable of doing, but the thing with my writing is that I love a classic song, stuff that's inspired by the American Songbook. So there are certain things, like it needs to sound as effortless as possible, the lyric needs to be as clear and vibrant as possible, so those are the areas I really want to focus on.
“I find that there's a small handful of people that have that same aesthetic and taste, and often they're people that are still around from that world. But the music and phrasing of more modern pop songs is quite different from that clearer phrasing, so it's a bit of a lost art that I'm interested in researching."
Do you start with a specific goal in mind, or do you just write a bunch of stuff and wait for a thread or a theme to emerge?
“I do find it really helpful to have a deadline now, because if I don't have a really important thing that I need to deliver for, you just kind of keep going and going, and never finish stuff off, you start to get surrounded by a pile of half-formed ideas. So I do find that helps and I will have a deadline next year, so I'm working towards that.”
In Winter (Special Edition) is in stores now, you can also find it here in our online store.