Katie Melua Interview - High-flier Katie Melua is so down to earth

Emma Lee Singer-songwriter Katie Melua, who plays Blickling Hall on Saturday July 12, is one of the top-selling female artists in the world. But Emma Lee says that despite her high-flying career she's refreshingly down to earth.

Emma Lee

“Sorry about the noise. I'm at the airport,” laughs Katie Melua, shouting over a tannoy announcement and the clattering of trolleys.

The acclaimed singer-songwriter is en route to a show in Budapest - but has found time to grab a quick chat with me ahead of her eagerly-anticipated show at Blickling Hall next Saturday, July 12.

“I feel like the airport is my office,” she says. “The travelling is pretty full on, but I do enjoy it. I spend most of the year travelling - I only spend about four or five months of the year at home, so it's pretty manic.”

But having lived a bit of a nomadic life anyway, it's something she takes in her stride.

“I love going to New York and Japan, Norway and Amsterdam - there's lots of places. I've always travelled - I think I've got some gipsy ancestors somewhere.”

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Still only 23, Katie's already a music industry veteran.

Born in Georgia, she moved from Tbilisi to Belfast, where she lived on the Falls Road, when she was eight due to her father's job as a heart surgeon. A few years later the family moved to south-east London. After taking her GCSEs, Katie went to the popstar training camp, the Brit School For Performing Arts in Croydon, to study for a Btec and music A-level.

Her contemporaries at the school included Amy Winehouse (more recent graduates include Kate Nash and Adele), and it turned out to be a real turning point for her.

“I was just so amazed by music and what it could do that I wanted to be part of it. I wanted to have it in my life. I loved Led Zeppelin, Queen, classical artists - a variety of artists.”

Katie was blown away when she heard an Eva Cassidy song - and when she discovered that Eva was no longer alive, she wrote the song Faraway Voice as a tribute to her.

It caught the ear of the composer and producer Mike Batt (yes, he of Wombles fame) and Katie signed to his independent record label Dramatico.

A diligent student, Katie still completed her studies at the Brit School and graduated with distinction in July 2003.

That same summer her debut single, The Closest Thing To Crazy, attracted the attention of Radio 2 and championed by the likes of Terry Wogan it made the charts at number 10.

With a voice that gives you shivers, sweet acoustic melodies and a girl-next-door image, she was quickly dubbed the UK's answer to Norah Jones and in January 2004 her first album, Call Off The Search, made number one.

“It was out of this world,” Katie says. “I don't think it was what happened - it was the level at which it happened. But it was quite gradual.”

Some critics might describe her music as 'middle of the road' - she never strays too far from the formula of her first record - but she's doing something right.

With three albums under her belt (Call Off The Search was followed up by Piece By Piece and Pictures) Katie has sold a colossal number of records - more than 7.5 million worldwide according to one recent estimate. But there isn't an ounce of starriness about her.

Usually when you interview someone of Katie's calibre, there's a PR person on standby to connect your call and tell you when your time's up. So it was a bit of a surprise when I answered my phone and heard “Hi Emma, it's Katie” on the other end.

“I think it comes from being signed to an independent label,” she says. “At major labels they build your hopes up and treat you like you're a star - at an independent label they're more realistic with what they are going to do. And my life is still relatively normal.”

You can't help wondering how different her life would be now if she had signed to a major label. As well as being extremely talented, you sense it's important for Katie to have a say in the direction her career is going creatively, rather than it being all about the units shifted.

She's been allowed to grow up gradually, despite the spotlight. Her first three albums have been written in collaboration with Mike Batt - but for her next record, which she describes as feeling “a long way off yet”, she's going to be going it alone on the song-writing.

“I might collaborate with different people,” she says, before deftly pre-empting the next question - this girl really is a pro at dealing with the media.

“Mike's my manager and I'm on his label and we have a great relationship,” she adds.

Unlike her contemporary, Mrs Fielder-Civil, you're unlikely to ever see pictures of Katie carousing round Camden with Pete Doherty in the tabloids, although in past interviews she's insisted she's not as sweet as she seems.

Apart from a passing interest in her relationship with former boyfriend Luke Pritchard, lead singer of indie scruffs the Kooks, she's largely managed to keep her private life just that.

Her official biography doesn't give much away - it's packed with figures - her chart positions in various countries, the number of albums she's sold, how many times platinum they've gone, the number of awards she's won (let's put it this way, there can't be much room on her mantelpiece), the places in the world she's visited (practically everywhere).

It's something Katie is thankful for.

“I've been fairly lucky - you probably know this better than me, but I don't think I'm the sort of artist that gets attention from the papers, so it's not that difficult at all.”

Her career so far has had some very eclectic highlights - she's had a Dutch tulip named in her honour, raced at 160mph round the Grand Prix circuit at Silverstone, flown a plane, has performed at a royal wedding in Holland and made headlines with a Guinness world record for the deepest concert when she performed 303 metres beneath the North Sea in the leg of a gas rig.

In addition to nurturing her song-writing, her career has enabled her to use her profile to support charitable causes that are close to her heart.

Katie, who is an ambassador for Save the Children, joined the line-up for the Band Aid 20 single when the new version of Do They Know It's Christmas was recorded. She's travelled to Sri Lanka to see the work that Save the Children is doing with child soldiers and was invited by Nelson Mandela to perform at a concert in support of his Aids foundation.

As she dashes off to catch yet another flight, you can't help but admire Katie. Her career might be high-flying - but she's a down-to-earth girl.

t Katie Melua plays Blickling Hall on Saturday, July 12. Tickets are available from EDP offices or via www.edp24.co.uk