Katie Melua on finding her soulmate, her Redhill upbringing and BRIT School
PUBLISHED: 11:14 05 July 2012 | UPDATED: 14:39 24 August 2015
Singer/songwriter Katie Melua became a household name after Surrey-based music producer Mike Batt 'discovered' her at Croydon's BRIT School and offered her a £2 million recording deal. Here she reminisces about her happy upbringing in Cheam and Redhill, and reveals how she's found contentment after finally finding her soulmate
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine June 2012
Interview by Angela Wintle
WHEN Katie Melua performed at this year’s Hampton Court Palace Festival, it was a homecoming in more ways than one. Not only did she return to the palace, where she first performed five years ago, but it was also a welcome return to Surrey – her youthful stamping ground.
“I love performing at Hampton Court because its intimate courtyard setting makes it a unique venue,” says Katie, 27, whose fifth studio album, Secret Symphony, was released in March.
“We moved to the area when I was 13 years old,” she continues, recalling her early years in North Cheam, near Sutton, where her father worked as a heart surgeon, and later Redhill, where he retrained as a GP. “I completed my GCSEs at Nonsuch High School for Girls in Cheam, before gaining a place at The BRIT School for the performing arts in Croydon.
“Surrey is one of the loveliest counties in England. When we lived in Redhill, I relished our family outings to the lake at the bottom of our road, where you could learn to sail and canoe. And I adored browsing for antiques in Dorking or visiting the pretty market town of Reigate.”
It must have seemed like a dream come true for Katie, who was born in the former Soviet state of Georgia on the shores of the Black Sea. Her parents, both health professionals, received a meagre stipend from the state health service and privations were commonplace. Bread meant queuing for hours, the power supply failed regularly and water had to be carried up four flights of stairs.
Eager to make a better life, her father got a job at a Belfast hospital and the family (including her younger brother Zurab) upped sticks when Katie was nine. She admits her new home fell short of her idealised image of the West, but she saw little of the Troubles. And though she didn’t speak a word of English, she quickly adapted to her adoptive homeland.
However, it was only after they moved to Surrey that she began to take a serious interest in music. “My dad bought me a computer with music sequencing software and I started writing songs and producing my own demo tapes,” she says. “That’s when I realised I wanted to pursue a career in music.”
A fortuitous meeting
And so it was on to The BRIT School and that fateful day when impresario Mike Batt – best known for composing the music for The Wombles – came to the college in search of a suitable voice for an album of jazz standards. Katie sang a song she had written in tribute to the late Eva Cassidy; he noted on a pad that she had ‘a clear voice’. They met again and he asked if she’d be willing to try out some new sounds at his Farnham recording studio. She agreed, and he went on to sign her to his independent record label, Dramatico, in a deal worth £2 million.
From the off, Batt was dubbed her Svengali by the media; a label Katie resented. “Mike was much more experienced than me when I started, so people assumed he was in control,” she says. “But while he had the experience, I had something new to bring and there was an interesting creative energy between us. Over the years, we’ve learnt how to deal with each other. If we have disagreements, we always work them out and we’re not scared to try new things. We trust each other a lot.”
Indeed, it was Katie who saw the potential in Batt’s soulful ballad The Closest Thing to Crazy. “I read the lyrics and said: ‘What’s this one?’, but Mike said: ‘You won’t like it, it’s not a good one.’ I said: ‘No, play it to me,’ and I thought it was such a beautiful song. He was still uncertain, but I said: ‘Let’s just record it,’ and it’s lucky we did.”
It certainly was. When Terry Wogan played it on his Radio 2 breakfast show, it prompted an avalanche of e-mails from his listeners, familiarly known as TOGs (Terry’s Old Geezers), demanding he play it again. Michael Parkinson also championed it on his sister show – and the rest, as they say, is history.
Her warm, smoky jazz vocals struck an instant chord with the British public and her debut album, Call Off the Search, knocked Dido off the Number One spot. She soon became the country’s best-selling female musician and nearly ten years on, she remains at the top, the second richest British female artist under 30 (alongside Cheryl Cole and Leona Lewis), with an estimated fortune of around £12 million – beaten only by singing sensation Adele.
Remarkably, Katie, who was just 18 when she made it big, has always taken success in her stride. There was no danger that, like her contemporary Amy Winehouse, she would splash her cash on drugs, alcohol or designer fashion. Early privations had left her with a horror of waste and extravagance, so she persisted with her customary look (Oxfam chic) and knocked about in a battered Seat Ibiza.
There was another quality that interviewers picked up on, too. For all her doe-eyed charm and sweetness, they noticed a determined steeliness. “Katie Melua is one of the least insecure people I’ve ever met,” wrote one journalist. “She doesn’t scream confidence, but she has a quiet knowing of who she is. She’s tough, single-minded and utterly resistant to manipulation.”
Wise beyond her years
Katie, it seemed, had a maturity beyond her years and knew her own mind. Thanks, but no thanks, she said to the lads’ mags, eager for a raunchy photo-shoot. And she waved Hello magazine a firm goodbye. Interviewers who pressed for personal details were met with polite evasion, punctuated by that bewitching smile.
But Katie demurs when I suggest she’s tougher than she looks. “Oh, I don’t know,” she says. “The thing is, it’s just fame never seemed that appealing, although the music and success in the industry always did.”
Nevertheless, even the level-headed Katie succumbed to the pressures in the end, and last year it was revealed she’d suffered a breakdown. “I had to drop out for a bit,” she confided to a newspaper. “I love what I’m doing, but I was working myself into the ground. Just leading a normal life and spending time with my family really helped.”
She has since made a full recovery and is now happily engaged to former World Superbike champion James Toseland, 31. They started dating in April last year after meeting at one of her concerts and plan to get married later this year. James’ biking career ended after a traumatic accident in which he broke both wrists, but he has since made a name for himself as a talented pianist.
“I used to be quite opposed to marriage, but now I realise you can’t be against something you’ve never tried and I’m quite up for trying it!” she grins.
“Of course, it helps being utterly in love. It’s wonderful being with someone who makes the future seem so exciting.”
- Katie Melua’s latest album Secret Symphony is out now. She will tour in October: www.katiemelua.com.
My Favourite Surrey
Restaurant: Jo Clark’s cafe and coffee shop in Guildford. It has a good bar menu and serves mouthwatering sandwiches and salads, tea and cake. But what I love most is its live music evenings. I used to perform there with a friend while I was at the BRIT School.
Shop: Guitar Village in Farnham, which sells more than 1,000 instruments from electric and acoustic guitars to ukuleles and mandolins. It’s housed in a period building with rickety floors and there are 12 rooms to explore.
View: Newlands Corner on the North Downs Way near Guildford. It offers some of the best views of the Surrey hills, including expanses of chalk grassland and woodlands. It’s also great for tobogganing.
Place to chill: The lake near my old home in Redhill. It’s such a pretty spot and I love lying along the water’s edge, drinking in the view. It also brings back happy memories of growing up in the neighbourhood.
Place to visit: Painshill Park in Cobham. Every year, they stage a Santa’s grotto on an island in the middle of the lake, decorated with ferns, fairy lights and flicker candles. I took my little cousin there last Christmas and she loved it.