Something borrowed, something blues

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 02 June, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 02 June, 2005, 12:00am

WE'RE ALWAYS hearing about the next best thing, and now there's a new name to add to the list. She's a 20-year-old singer-guitarist with an angelic voice, who dresses like a rock star and cites Bob Dylan, Eva Cassidy, The Darkness and Queen among her influences.

Katie Melua has been labelled 'the new Norah Jones' and has embarked on a global tour to promote her debut album, Call Off the Search. She has a voice that evokes some of the greatest female singers and, despite her age, can sing even the darkest blues. And with the strength of one of Britain's most influential music-management men behind her, she's being shown the fast route to success.

But when she talks over the phone from Melbourne, midway through a hectic tour schedule, she seems down-to-earth about her trajectory to fame. 'It's been very bizarre, particularly when you didn't expect it,' she says in a strong South London accent that is audibly exhausted from a gruelling day of interviews. 'It's been brilliant though, it's great to be a lucky musician.'

Since Call Off the Search reached No1 in the British music charts in January last year, Melua has found how her magic appeals to a global audience - she was born in Moscow, raised in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, and lived in Northern Ireland before reaching London in her teens.

It was while performing on the stage of the Brit School - London's leading performing arts institution - that Melua landed her big break. 'I was at school and knew I definitely wanted to be a musician; either be a singer or write songs or be a producer,' she says.

Sitting in the audience during her performance was Mike Batt, a top British songwriter and composer. Batt has had a hand in various success stories: he is responsible for co-writing The Phantom of the Opera with Andrew Lloyd Webber, he created the theme tune for TV series The Wombles, and wrote the music for the famed children's film Watership Down (including Bright Eyes, Art Garfunkel's hit from the movie). He was even commissioned by Queen Elizabeth to write music for the inauguration of the channel tunnel. After seeing her perform, Batt invited Melua to jam with him and a band made up of some of the country's best session musicians.

'It was a bit like an after-school activity that kind of exploded, you could think of it that way,' his protege says with a laugh. 'I would just go to his studio and me and the band would jam and record anything and everything. It was all trial and error.

'Any song that the band and I heard that we liked, we'd try to record it. If it didn't work, it didn't get on the album and if it did, it did. This album kind of formed like that, and then radio picked up on it and started playing The Closest Thing to Crazy. I was just so shocked at how big it became.'

The album fuses a mixture of jazz, folk and blues classics such as Lilac Wine - famously covered by Jeff Buckley - and an additional six originals by Batt (including the title track and The Closest Thing to Crazy). There are also a few penned by Melua hidden among the raft of jazz-tinged tracks.

The well-crafted songs, matched by Melua's fresh yet darkly rich voice, struck a chord with the British public. In a matter of months she was on high rotation thanks to the support of one radio presenter and another British icon, Terry Wogan. Record sales have since hit platinum, and now the world is listening.

Amid her globetrotting, Melua appears to be following in the footsteps of Bono, as much as the female greats. She visited Sri Lanka last month as an ambassador for Save the Children, and has numerous charitable events coming up this summer in between appearances at rock and jazz festivals.

'That was such an amazing trip,' she says of Sri Lanka, her voice picking up at the opportunity to talk about something other than herself. 'I was there because of the child soldier problem they have there. There's been an ongoing conflict there for some time and one of the rebel groups employs and sometimes abducts children under the age of eight to fight in the army.

'I had done a few things with Save the Children in the past. This was before I got big in the music sense. When things got big career wise, I approached someone I knew there and said I'd love to do something with Save the Children. I've also got involved in the Band Aid single with Save the Children. They've kind of made me an ambassador which is very cool, but I don't know, the title suggests grand things, but I'm just Katie.'

She reels when asked if she considers herself a pop star. 'I would be crap at being a pop act,' she says. 'I couldn't dance to save my life!' She is just as reluctant to define herself as a jazz singer.

Her dream is to work with Kate Bush who she recently met 'at a thing hosted by Buckingham Palace', she says. 'Sounds grand doesn't it?'

With her feet firmly on the ground and a rock'n'roll edge about her, you get the feeling that bigger things are in store for this rising star. On the DVD that accompanies her repackaged debut album, there's a sequence of Melua backstage dressed in high-heeled boots and a jacket slung around her shoulders crooning a Dylan-esque version of her own tune Belfast. It's utterly mesmerising: like a snapshot of Melua in the future, when she's moved beyond the older generation of musicians that surround and protect her.

'This first record was definitely me as a singer. It was me as a vocalist,' she says. 'I would really like to go into songwriting more seriously. People tend to really try and put people in boxes on their first album. That's understandable if it's a successful record. But I definitely feel that a lot of maturing and growing up has gone on since then, musically as well as mentally, so yeah, people will change and evolve. But I'm not bothered about it at all.'

Katie Melua, Mon, 9pm, Fringe Club, 2 Lower Albert Rd, Central, showcase only (no ticket sales), but see today's CitySeen for a chance to win five double passes. Inquiries: 2521 7251