When Georgian-born Katie Melua signed with Mike Batt's Dramatico Records in September 2002, no-one could have imagined that by the release of her third album, Pictures, she would be the biggest-selling UK-based, female artist in the world that year. Her first two albums, 'Call Off The Search' and 'Piece By Piece' both became international number ones, and the story was to continue, after an exciting, record-breaking rollercoaster ride involving several massive world tours and many special moments - like Katie playing on stage for Nelson Mandela with her idols, Queen, or dining at Buckingham Palace with the real Queen and the American Ambassador.
It was American singer Eva Cassidy - who had tragically died aged just thirty-three - who first drew Katie and Mike together. Independently, both had discovered Cassidy's posthumously-released album Songbird, and when they met, it was their mutual admiration for her phenomenal singing and communicative ability that led to their decision to work together. Mike was in his fifties, Katie had just turned eighteen. “There are so many spooky coincidences about how our partnership started,” says Katie. “I only took up the guitar a few months before we met. The previous year, my music had been very pop and R&B, I wrote on a computer and listened to Eminem, Groove Armada and So Solid Crew. Then I started getting into artists like Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Cat Stevens - older artists whose music felt raw and real. I looked around for modern music that had as much emotion, but I couldn't find any. Then I discovered Eva Cassidy, and literally weeks later, I met Mike."
Mike played Katie a song of his own, called 'Call Off The Search' at one of their first rehearsals. Aptly, his search for a singer was over. “As soon as I heard it, I loved it,” recalls Katie. “It was perfect, intact, complete - Mike played it on a piano, with no other accompaniment, and I realized how few songs around at that time you could do that with. Then Mike said he wanted to make an album that was quite retro in style and orchestral-based. When I heard 'retro', I was in because that summed up all the music I was listening to at the time.” The following weekend, at Mike's studio in Farnham, the pair had their first proper session - recording 'Call Off The Search', 'Faraway Voice', a brand new track called 'Belfast' Katie had just written and fun number 'My Aphrodisiac Is You'.
“We bonded over our taste in music,” laughs Katie, “which was weird considering the age difference between us. No-one would have expected the two of us to have similar tastes. Because we got on so well, Mike gave me the freedom to experiment with his songs. I still remember when he asked me to improvise 'Call Off The Search'. As a singer, it is rare to be given that freedom. At the end of the session, Mike said he wanted to sign me.”
Writing separately and recording together at weekends, the two built up a collection of songs that, a year later, would form the album 'Call Off The Search'. There was a trip to Dublin, where the Irish Philharmonic Orchestra laid down the strings and Katie came close to tears - “To hear songs I had written have strings put on them for the first time was a magical moment I will never forget,” recalls Katie, as her eyes almost well up again. At a recording session in early 2003, having exhausted their supply of new material, Mike dug out an album he had recorded nearly 20 years earlier. One song on there he thought might suit Katie, but while she liked it, she didn't love it. Then, flicking through the sleeve notes, some lyrics caught her eye. They were for 'The Closest Thing To Crazy'. “The lyrics looked so intriguing I asked Mike to play me the song,” says Katie. “He insisted it was too slow for me. I literally had to force him to play it. The moment it started, it blew me away. It was an instant classic. In fact, it felt so familiar I was sure I had heard it before. I begged Mike to let me try singing it. Of course, he said yes.
Our philosophy on that first album was just to try stuff out, see what worked and what didn't. We recorded a lot of odd songs, including one I had written called 'Jack's Room', about a mum discovering her son wears girls' clothes. That might have been on the album - it eventually came out as a B-side - but 'Crazy' came and knocked it off.”
Katie's instincts proved right when 'The Closest Thing To Crazy' almost accidently launched her career. With no record companies willing to release the completed album - those that were interested insisted the sound be made more modern - Mike remortgaged his house to put it out on his own indie label, Dramatico. Hoping to secure some radio play, three songs were sent to Paul Walters, then the producer of Terry Wogan's Radio 2 breakfast show. Not coincidentally, Walters had been the first to discover Eva Cassidy and both he and Wogan were fans of Mike's solo work. They were impressed enough to play all three tracks on air. The audience response was overwhelming. “The show got hundreds of calls and letters,” says Katie. “People were so passionate, particularly about 'The Closest Thing To Crazy'. Someone said when it came on the radio, they had to stop the car. Someone else said they started crying. Then our website was inundated with fans asking where they could buy the song. We hadn't even planned to put out a single. Suddenly, that changed.”
Soon, everything changed. With the album yet to be released, Mike took a huge risk and booked London's Shepherds Bush Empire, a 2000-capacity venue no unknown artist had previously filled. It sold out. “That really was crazy,” says Katie. “I think Mike wanted to show that he meant business - that even though we were a little label, we could punch with the big boys. I was petrified. I was shaking as I walked on stage. I had only ever played one small support show before, so that was really my first concert. How did it go? Amazingly well, but it flew by so quickly I can hardly remember. Mike got in a fourteen piece orchestra, which made the night extra special. I don't even play with an orchestra now. It was bonkers, but truly magical.”
On its release in November 2003, 'Call Off The Search' just broke the Top 40. Then it dropped to No.80 over Christmas, but with 'The Closest Thing To Crazy' all over the radio, it soon started climbing again. Back in to the 40, then the 30, then the Top 10. By late January, it hit No.1, from where it refused to budge for the following six weeks. 'Call Off The Search' would go on to become the biggest selling, British album of 2004. “When Mike called to tell me we were No.1, I just about collapsed,” laughs Katie. “I was 19, still living at home in Redhill with my parents, doing a part-time music business course in case the album didn't pan out. That was the end of life as I'd known it before.”
The pressure on the pair for a follow-up album should have been enormous. Luckily, they had two songs already completed to get them started. “'Spiders Web' and 'Thank You Stars' were two tracks we didn't put on the debut, but we knew the fans loved,” says Katie. “The first had been a bit too rocky for 'Call Off The Search', the other was one of Mike's and he thought too many of his songs were on the album already. Having those gave us a comfort zone.” A year later, still touring and promoting 'Call Off The Search', Mike and Katie were in China filming a TV show. On a day off, a guide took them around Beijing. “She was giving us facts about city - one of which was that there are nine million bicycles in Beijing,” recalls Katie. “Immediately Mike said, 'What a great song title'. I was like, 'Yeah, whatever'. Mike does this all the time. As soon as he hears an odd sentence or ridiculous phrase he wants to make it a song. What's the silliest example? Probably 'Halfway Up The Hindu Kush', but then we did make that in to a song.”
Two months later, Mike presented Katie with 'Nine Million Bicycles'. Her reaction? “I thought it was one of the weirdest songs I'd ever heard,” she laughs, “but because it was so odd, I wanted to sing it. Once I did, it became magical, which I hadn't expected. That wasn't an instant one for me. Something about that song is so wrong it became right.” 'Piece By Piece', a Katie composition based loosely on personal experience, became the title of the second album, partly because it was made bit by bit, between touring. Released in September 2005, the album entered the UK charts at No.1 “I probably appreciated that No.1 more than the first,” admits Katie. “With 'Call Off The Search', I was so busy and knew so little about the industry that I wasn't fully aware what an achievement it was. With 'Piece By Piece', we also started working extensively in Europe and I was starting to have success very quickly there too, which was something I never expected.”
For her third album, 'Pictures', Katie took time out to write for the first time. In early 2007, she booked three months to herself and a further two in a studio. Determined to find a fresh take on her sound, she came up with the idea of basing the album around a concept. “We needed a new element which came from me being a huge horror film fan. Initially, the concept was to be songs inspired by the music in Tarantino movies - Chuck Berry, Dusty Springfield, lots of cowboy movie music. In the end, it was too tricky to have every song slot into such a narrow mould, so 'Pictures' evolved with a more general filmic theme. Mike wrote songs like 'Mary Pickford' and 'Scary Films'. 'What I Miss About You' and 'Dirty Dice' I co-wrote with Andrea McEwan. 'Dirty Dice' is our take on a spaghetti western, and 'What I Miss About You' has a very cinematic storyline.”
The release of 'Pictures', another international chart-topper on October 2007, preceded a natural break in Mike and Katie's writing relationship. “We knew it was the last album we would write together, at least for a while”, said Katie at the time. “We both felt three was enough and I need to go and further explore my identity as an artist, and Mike has other projects he wants to do, too. These albums have very much been a double act - a trilogy of collaborations if you like. A chapter in our ongoing relationship.”
In 2008 Katie’s world tour gave her the opportunity to look back at an extraordinary few years and embrace all three of her records: “For the first time” she says, I had so many original songs to choose from that there wasn't much room for covers. It's great to be so spoilt for choice.” Having experimented with many ways of presenting her live show, Katie opted to open solo. “It's a scary way to start,” she admits, “but the scariest way is often the best. When it's just me on stage with my acoustic guitar, I feel like I get to know the audience on my own terms first.” Katie opened the concert, with just her electric guitar for accompaniment, singing ‘Piece By Piece’ - the title track of her second album - and ‘Lilac Wine’ before taking a seat at the grand piano to play the Georgian folk song ‘Yellow Leaves’ (or Qviteli Potlebi) subsequently being joined by her band. In a live review of the concert The Times wrote “her voice was rarely short of astounding”. The live recording of the concert at the O2 in London was released in May 2009.
Katie’s focus for the first half of 2009 was America where she embarked on an acoustic tour performing with just her guitar and piano for accompaniment “sometimes it's nice to strip the songs back. That's how you know whether a song is good or not — when it can survive without such protection." Reunited with her band, a summer of outdoor shows around Europe concluded the tour before Katie settled down to start work on her fourth album.
Recorded at Air Studios in London, the new album was produced by William Orbit and saw Katie writing on her own and with Guy Chambers, Rick Nowels, Mike Batt and singer-songwriter and long-time friend Polly Scattergood. The resulting album, entitled ‘The House’, was described as sonically epic, adventurous and dramatic and on its release in May 2010 garnered some of the finest notices of her career and topped Billboard’s pan-European charts. The first single ‘The Flood’ was described by Radio 2’s Janice Long and the Daily Telegraph as “the best thing she’s ever done.” Meanwhile the Sunday Express declared “Four albums in, Melua has made her masterpiece” and the Mail on Sunday wrote “She proves herself to be a songwriter of subtlety and depth”. Q Magazine called ‘The House’ “A mighty leap forwards” and The Times described it as “Her best yet”.
Katie’s scheduled European tour in autumn 2010 was postponed due to illness “I had a bit of a breakdown so needed to take time off.” In February 2011, after a few months off, Katie returned to work starting with a concert for Radio 2 and then the rescheduled sold out dates. A pan-European tour, from April until June, showed that Katie was back where she belonged….“It was great to be back on the road, playing with the band again and I was really moved by the amazing support from my fans.”
March 2012 will see the release of Katie’s fifth studio album ‘Secret Symphony’ an exquisite collection of songs that perfectly showcases that unique, instantly recognisable voice. “On this record I simply wanted to find beautiful songs and to really sing my heart out.
Those songs include ‘All Over The World’ (Françoise Hardy), ‘Gold In Them Hills’ (Ron Sexsmith), ‘Nobody Knows You’ (Jimmie Cox) and ‘Moonshine’ (Fran Healy). Katie’s own song ‘Forgetting All My Troubles’ “represents who and where I am today” and she teams up with manager and producer Mike Batt on ‘Heartstrings’ & ‘Lone Wolf’. Batt also contributes title track ‘Secret Symphony’, ‘The Walls Of The World’, ‘Better Than A Dream’ and ‘The Bit That I Don’t Get’ “I like the way he writes about love from different point of view. His choruses soar and I love singing them.”
“Once I knew I wanted to record this album it was the simplest, and most natural, decision to have Mike produce it.” With Batt at the helm Katie returned to Air Studios in London where she recorded her last album ‘The House’ “it is such a special place to record and to sing.” The result is a collaboration that imbues the songs with a distinct personality that could only be the work of this creative team. The record allows Katie’s unique and beautiful voice to shine.