Katie Melua looks back in time before Roundhouse anniversary show

Katie Melua

Katie Melua - Credit: Archant

Songstress tells Alex Bellotti how she has avoided celebrity pitfalls after ten packed years at the top

She waited nervously and the audience followed suit. The award was there, in plain sight, but the competition was fierce and the tension thick. Win, and this would be the biggest moment of Katie Melua’s career so far. Lose, and she would be gunged beneath a giant plastic nose.

It was a close shave, the singer recalls, looking back at her pre-fame musical triumph as a 15-year-old on children’s TV show Mad For It. The vote though was conclusive. Melua won by 52 per cent over two others, and the studiously enthusiastic presenters had unknowingly discovered one of the best-selling artists of the new millennium.

It is hard to believe it was only 10 years ago when the prodigious youngster released her debut album, Call off The Search. Perhaps it is because since then, the 28-year-old has achieved so much – the mega-hit Nine Million Bicycles, five albums (including one which went quadruple platinum), working for various charities, becoming a Guinness World Record holder and somehow fitting a wedding around that.

How on earth has she kept it all together?

“I think I did struggle when I was younger, but I’m quite good at keeping my cool,” Melua says. “I’d struggle behind a closed door.

“Maybe the thing that’s saved me is that I’ve always been really hell-bent on promoting my music and not playing the fame game. I was lucky that my record label listened when I said I didn’t want to do any red carpets, anything that’s not to do with my music. It meant that after the first album, I could walk down the street without anyone recognising me. I still can.”

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With her dark Georgian locks and doll-like prettiness, it is hard to believe Melua can escape a fame estimated to be worth £12million on this year’s Sunday Times Rich List. However, for one night this October, she is embracing her achievements in a 10-year anniversary show at the Roundhouse that will also debut songs from her new album.

Winning partnership

The record’s title, Ketevan, derives from Melua’s original Georgian name and is the next instalment in her continued collaboration with songwriter Mike Batt, as well as his son Luke.

“With the first record, me and Mike, who is just as much of the creative in this, were still trying to work out a common ground musically. Now we’re trying to get away from that.

“I love the fact that he really encouraged me to write on this album as well, which is something I’ve shied away from in the past.”

Performance is certainly Melua’s main strength and stretches back to her childhood days in Georgia, where she initially spent time learning the harp – “that didn’t end well” – and later the violin.

By the time she moved to the UK in 1993, singing had already established itself as her most extraordinary talent. After completing her GCSEs, she moved to London’s famous Brit School, but even then singing professionally was not her main motivation.

“Back then, all I wanted to do was work in music, I didn’t give a monkeys if it was onstage, backstage, working on a sound desk or at a record company. I did keep getting picked for big parts in performances, but to be honest I still feel like I stepped into this slightly by accident.”

During her second year at the school, Melua was given her first guitar by a boyfriend at the time. Saddened by the death of her idol Eva Cassidy, she penned her first song, Faraway Voice, which later appeared on Call Off The Search.

Two weeks later, a visiting Mike Batt, who was looking for a jazz and blues singer, came to the school and heard her singing the newly penned ode. It signalled the start of a partnership that would shoot them both to the very top of the charts.

More recently, however, the main man in Melua’s life has been her husband, James Toseland – who she married in January 2012. The 32-year-old is famous for his previous career as a motorcycle racer, but when it comes to the adrenaline stakes, he appears to have met his match.

“I don’t know if I could describe myself as a thrillseeker, but I’ve never turned down a skydive,” Melua says.

To prove she is not bluffing, she points to what can only be described as a “skydive picnic” she took part in a few days before we talk. Toseland, “dragged along” for the occasion, watched his wife jump out of a plane to enjoy a rather airy lunch in honour of the British Legion.

In 2006, Melua also set a Guinness World Record for playing the world’s deepest underwater concert. It was in an area of the North Sea near Norway, 303 metres below sea level.

Why does she seek out such ambitious challenges?

“I think it’s to do with being a girl born in Eastern Europe, in what was quite a traditional country. As a kid, my path was expected to follow a very girly lifestyle – get married, have kids – so I’d always fantasise and fancy myself as a bit of a hero.

“It’s about not having any limits, having the opportunities that boys are afforded. I became a bit of a raving feminist.”

While the forces that drive her may have sprung from her Georgian upbringing, Melua has long considered herself British and officially received her citizenship back in 2005.

Last July, as if to compound this fact, she starred in the 60th anniversary celebrations of the Queen’s Coronation, performing I Will Be There – a song Mike Batt was especially commissioned to write for the occasion.

This was not the first time Melua has played for the Queen – that came in 2005 with her Buckingham Palace performance of her hit single The Closest Thing To Crazy – but nonetheless, the pressure surely can’t come much bigger?

“I do get nervous,” she admits, “but in odd situations. For instance, I did an album launch at Ronnie Scott’s two years ago and I was in bits. I was strangely much more nervous than I was at the Coronation.”

Reflective mode

Of course, you don’t chart a number one record as an 18-year-old unless you’ve got guts. Courteous and modest, Melua’s strength is to exude a self-assuredness absent of the ego that would accompany most stars her age.

“You’ve got to look forward,” she says of her mentality, but Ketevan is certainly her most personal and reflective record yet. With the impending 10th anniversary show also in the mix, the stage is set for a rare glimpse of retrospection, but a two minute glance of YouTube is all you need to understand why she has succeeded.

“I think it’s just amazing that I’ve got this far, but obviously I was really confident,” she says.

And that’s just the words of a 15-year-old on CITV.