Katie Melua: Ingenue Rising

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Katie Melua

European audiences are already well-acquainted with Katie Melua from her hit single, "Nine Million Bicycles". American audiences may be a bit behind in the name recognition department, but will recall her acoustic version of The Cure's "Just Like Heaven" from the soundtrack of the movie of the same name. Hot on the heels of her sophomore release, Piece by Piece, and just before kicking off her American tour, Melua spent a few minutes with The-Trades to share a glimpse into the music of her life.

A lot of people with your vocal talent would aim for the pop, rock or country market -- traditionally "where the money is." What made you choose this light jazz / light blues route?

I don't really know. It's the type of music that has always touched a chord with me. I've never really believed in making music in order to be successful commercially speaking. I find music a very personal thing, and a very artistic thing that has to be creatively free. Songs with melody and lyrics in them are what always got to me. It's interesting that you say light jazz and blues, because I don't know if I'd describe it that way, but it's definitely influenced by those two genres. To me what I do is about the song, and I will always put that first before anything else, like trying to be cool or trying to sell a lot of records or anything like that.

What artists influenced you musically as you were coming of age?

I think Eva Cassidy was quite a big influence, as was Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen. Cat Stevens. Paul Simon -- I'm a huge Paul Simon fan. I like Led Zeppelin, but I don't know if they influenced me. I'm really also a huge Queen fan.

What were you involved in musically before you bumped into Mike Batt?

Well, I was actually still at college studying music, and what we would do is we would do is we'd play live in little clubs, that kind of stuff. Before I met Mike, I'd actually had two managers previous to him, and we were doing different types of things. So I was quite active, but on a smaller level.

What is it like collaborating with someone writing a song? I imagine there must be a bit of a tug of war when you want to take things one direction and he wants to go in another.

Yeah. Well, to be honest, because of that, I'm not very good at co-writing, and I've only ever co-written one song, which is "Halfway up the Hindu Kush" on Piece by Piece, my second album. The way we wrote it was, I had written this idea for a song, which I didn't really think was serious enough or good enough to go on the album. But I played it for Mike before describing it. I said, "Here's a laugh, listen to this." And he actually really loved the melody of the chorus and the lyrics of the chorus, and said, "Well, can I take it away and rewrite the verses?" So what I'm saying is, the way we wrote it, it was separate. I'd written one part of the song, and then he went away and wrote a different part of the song, and then we came back together and fit it all together.

I just find writing such a personal thing, and it can be a bit hard to not only want to take it somewhere your co-writer didn't want to take it, but also -- if you write something that's bad, and they go, "Oh, that's brilliant" -- then a mistake can happen. So that's a bit of a shame.

What kind of a process do you go through in deciding what songs go on the album and which ones you have to drop?

For me, one of the first things I ever do is, if it sounds good without any kind of production or anything like that, then I know that the song is good. To me, the lyrics and the melody have got to be it. That's the root of the song, the most important part. So that's the first stage. Once that's happened, once we're completely happy with the song in its pure sense, then we go ahead and produce it all the way as if we were recording it for the album. On average, I reckon we do about twenty-five songs. And then they kind of fall off either by themselves because in production we just haven't struck a chord with it or it hasn't struck a chord with me in terms of being able to deliver it.

And then we also play it to our friends and family. Usually you get a vibe off people. If they don't go, "Oh, that was amazing," then that usually means they thought it was crap, but they were to kind to say they thought it was crap.

I believe your first widespread American exposure was when you did the title song for the soundtrack to "Just Like Heaven". How did that come about?

Well they approached me -- the people that were making the soundtrack for "Just Like Heaven" -- I think they'd had my first album Call Off the Search, and asked if I'd be interested in recording an acoustic version or a lighter version of The Cure's "Just Like Heaven". I said yes right away, because I'm a huge Cure fan.

We weren't really planning on putting it on one of my own albums, we were just doing it as a soundtrack thing. But then I really liked what we came up with so I put it on Piece by Piece too.

Another song you have on Piece by Piece is "I Cried for You", also called "Mary's Song". With the recent release of the film "The Da Vinci Code," there's a lot of speculation on Mary Magdalene and the implication that she was involved with Jesus. I found that there was some discussion that this song may have been a Mary Magdalene reference, and I was wondering if you could expound on that.

Funnily enough, you're one of the few people that ever caught onto that. It's not really from "The Da Vinci Code," it's more from the book, Holy Blood, Holy Grail, which is one of the first ever books that introduced the idea of Mary Magdalene and Jesus.

The reason why I wrote the song was because I met Michael Baigent, who was the writer of Holy Blood, Holy Grail, and we just got into this discussion, and he told me his theory. And it just kind of really inspired me, purely from the point of view that... Everyone's getting really uptight about the whole religious aspect of it, and to me, I kind of just wanted to look at it in a different point of view. Let's, just for argument's sake, pretend that it really did happen. Maybe they really were in a relationship of some sort, maybe they were married. Imagine the suffering that she'd have had to have gone through to see someone she loved so dearly go through that much while he's being crucified.

And suddenly I just had all these waves of emotion, and I thought this could be a song. I don't really look at it as purely being about Mary sort of missing Jesus or anything like that, but that was kind of where the song came from for me. Now a lot of people listen to that song and they can relate it to anyone that they've ever lost. I didn't want to be all about the controversy of the whole religious thing. Let's just pretend it's a love story for a second, and it could be a really nice love story.

You have a tour coming up soon in the U.S. Can you tell us about that?

We start in a few days. The first bit we do is going to be with Il Divo, but then throughout most of July it's going to be a tour on my own, and that's going to be all around the country. Obviously we're playing smaller gigs than the one in June, but it should be a laugh.

Do you have a favorite song on the album?

Boy, that's a tough one. I often say "I Cried for You", but I like "Shy Boy" too. At the moment I'm into that one.