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Born in Communist Georgia where she played "I Want to Break Free" on air guitar, raised in Belfast where she fell in love with the singer-songwriter aesthetic, and a certified pop star in the U.K. before the age of 20, Katie Melua quite literally burst onto the music scene by accident. Her debut album, 2003's jazzy Call Off the Search, wasn't exactly the product of a desperate, struggling artist.
"People always forget that I was making that record when I was still at college, as an outside-school project," Melua tells New Times, stuck in Los Angeles and in search of a beach over Memorial Day weekend. "At that time, we were making music that was never in the mainstream, like making a specialist record. When it did blow up, it was like, 'Oh my God, what the hell happened there?'"
What happened was a mix of luck, timing, and talent. The real challenge will come when her latest album, Piece By Piece released last fall in the U.K. crosses the pond this month for release in the States. But don't expect it to be the let-down that Norah Jones' unambitious sophomore effort Feels Like Home was or the critical disappointment Jamie Cullum's Catching Tales (the follow-up to Twentysomething) turned out to be. Melua's voice (think Ella Fitzgerald's wrapped in silk) is more controlled this time around; her song selection (from blues ditties like "Blues in the Night" to a chilled-out cover of the Cure's "Just Like Heaven") is the soundtrack to lazy Sunday afternoons; and the production (sometimes you feel like you're starring in a 1940s musical) is impeccably timeless. It's a solid album, and Melua knows there's no such thing as resting on the laurels of a debut.
"There was a lot of pressure people waiting to see if you fail the second time around," Melua admits. "But I knew I had to leave it at the studio door and just record the best album I could."
"Georgia is a brilliant country and I go back there every summer to see my family," Melua says. "But the quality of life at the time was just not good. It was nowhere near what it was in the West. Luckily, my dad could get a job."
In Belfast, her physician father took a job at the Royal Victoria Hospital. For the next ten years the family existed on tenterhooks; if Melua's father lost his job before their residency kicked in, they'd be deported. By then, though, Melua and her family had moved to England, where the young beauty's raven-hued curls caught the eye of veteran producer Mike Batt. He signed Melua to his label, Dramatic, for five albums. Melua's first single, "The Closest Thing to Crazy," became a U.K. standard in the summer of 2003. And Call Off the Search made her the number-one, best-selling female artist in the U.K. for 2003 and 2004.
In other words, though many Yanks might not know the name Katie Melua yet, she's still a big deal a huge deal, really. And though Melua's new celebrity status is still a bit strange to her, she's catching on.
"Before I got into the industry, I was always under the impression that when the famous people were chased by paparazzi, they didn't want it and hated it and it was intrusive in their lives," Melua says. "But I've been surprised by how much you can control it. As someone who hasn't wanted that sort of attention, the level of control is surprising. In that sense, I kind of wonder why then do the people complain."
The idea that celebrities would actually stage paparazzi shots, well, that's something the privacy-seeking Melua hasn't bought into.
"To be honest, I kind of like being a stranger," she says. "In the way I've gone about my career in England, having sold a lot of records, I never really sold my face or personality. When we were asked to do covers, I declined as much as I could. Because of that, I've been able to keep my privacy and can still do the same things I did two or three years ago, like walk down the street.
"I think as a musician and as a songwriter especially, I want to be able to write what everyone feels about, and if I stop keeping in touch with being just a normal person, then I think my songwriting will suffer."
Nevertheless, Melua's learning to enjoy the perks of celebrity in a strictly non-Paris Hilton-style fashion, of course.
"If you let me loose in a music shop, my purse really suffers," Melua admits. "But I think the fact that my grandparents' pension is $16 a month, it's kind of hard to spend 100 quid on a pair of shoes."