Katie Melua has a reputation for being a bit of an enigma. She found fame with her debut single The Closest Thing To Crazy in 2003 when she was just 19, has sold 11 million albums, and amassed a £12m fortune. Yet she’s rarely recognised (by fans or paparazzi), has no entourage and spends every summer in a tiny Georgian town with her family. And that’s just fine by her.
When I meet Katie at the Royal Festival Hall at the Southbank Centre, she is overflowing with happiness.
She rarely speaks about her personal life, but she’s not reticent today. She cannot wait to tell me about her new fiancé (superbike racing star James Toseland), her forthcoming wedding (in England later this year) and her plans for the future (more records and then some babies, maybe).
‘Being engaged has made me so happy,’ she trills. ‘You can’t stay excited for months and months, but James proposed on 14 December. He went down on one knee in the Maldives. ‘I was hoping he would, but wasn’t expecting it. We’d only known each other for eight months.’
There are no airs or pretensions with this lady. Almost doll-like, with huge hazel-green eyes and a cloud of dark hair, she’s beautiful, but not over-polished. Fragile-looking, but fiercely clever, she speaks English, Georgian and Russian, and is a feminist.
Katie, real name Ketevan, known as Ketino to her family, lived in Georgia until the age of seven, when they moved to Belfast. But the hardships of her early years have left a lasting impression. ‘People ask what it’s like to become famous or to have sold 11 million albums. I say it’s good but it doesn’t compare with having your first-ever hot, bubbly bath. I was seven and I’d seen Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, in a bath full of bubbles, but doing it myself was such a luxury.’
But the hardships also paid dividends. Growing up with an erratic electricity supply may have set Katie on the path to stardom. ‘Georgia is a very musical country – because of the hardship, people turn to music. We didn’t always have electricity, but there was a piano. My mother would play, and I’d sing and dance.’
The West, meanwhile, seemed rather glamorous. ‘We’d been given an idea of it from Eddie Murphy and Whoopi Goldberg films. It all seemed so extravagant.’ But when her family moved, she struggled with the new language. Thankfully, music helped her to adjust. ‘Even though I couldn’t speak, I could sing and the teacher kept putting me in plays. It got me socialising with the other children.’
Music came to her rescue again, when in 2010 she was hospitalised after suffering a breakdown, due to overwork. ‘That was rock bottom. It was an illness so it was difficult to monitor my emotions. I don’t think I could even talk about it. Music keeps me happy, though. If I’m ever down, I just pick up the guitar and play something. It’s so subtle sometimes, but it works.’
And where does she get her inspiration from? ‘What tends to create the best songs is when you are emotionally heightened and feel broken-hearted, or in love or have witnessed something upsetting. Songs are emotive little gems. It’s easier to write sad songs.’
Katie started working on her new album Secret Symphony (her fifth to date), at the end of her last tour, last year. ‘That was a real landmark for me. I’d postponed it because I hadn’t been very well the year before, so to get the tour under my belt was fantastic.’
And, yes, it was also music that brought her fiancé to her. ‘He came to one of my gigs with his mum,’ she says. ‘My pianist is a huge bike fan and spotted him in the audience. I had no idea who he was, but my pianist reeled off all these facts about James’s motorcycle racing. Then James came to another gig and we swapped numbers. ‘He had an intriguing, mysterious air and the more I’ve got to know him the more amazed I am. Every day he exceeds my expectations. My family is even more in love with him than I am.’
As we finish our chat and Katie almost disappears into a full-length black faux-fur coat, I ask what her favourite song is. ‘Right now, Better Than A Dream is the one,’ she smiles. ‘It definitely sums up where I am with James and life.’
Katie Melua, it seems, is now a woman within touching distance of her very own ‘happily ever after’.
Katie’s five favourite things
Food: Georgian hatchapuri. It’s a boat-shaped bread with melted cheese in the middle.
Book: The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch.
Song: Both Sides Now by Joni Mitchell. It’s a bit of an obvious one, but she’s just so good.
Person: Well, there’s James, and my family… but I’m going to go with Joanna Lumley. She has the best voice I’ve ever heard. She should make a record.
Place: Georgia – it’s my home country. And in particular, Vardia.
Katie’s new album Secret Symphony is released on Dramatico on 5 March.
Interview first published in the Lady magazine: lady.co.uk/people/profiles/51-it-s-easier-to-write-the-sad-songs