It’s February 2020 and time is running out. Katie Melua’s eighth album is almost finished, but Leo Abrahams – the producer and arranger working with Melua on her new album – has a hunch that they’re not quite there yet. Now that the songs have been written and the orchestra has done its bit; now that Melua has honoured all the obligations that gently weigh upon you when it’s your name on the front of the record, Abrahams invites the singer to his studio in Hoxton and asks her to run through the vocals of the album’s ten songs – three times in total, “just for back-up.”
Somewhere between the pensive strings of opening song “A Love Like That” and “Remind Me To Forget” – a song which sees its protagonist vainly seeking to disperse their heartache in nature’s verdant panorama – Katie Melua finally lets go of whatever was holding her back. Upon singing “Your Longing Is Gone” – an aching autumnal requiem to a fading romance, both Melua and Abrahams have to take pause to gather themselves. “That run-through was one of the most extraordinary performances I’ve witnessed in the studio,” Abrahams will later recall, his words borne out by the fact that almost every vocal used on the record will be from that final session.
But, of course, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. To understand why emotions ran so high by the end of Album No.8, we need to wind back four years to its predecessor. A homecoming album of sorts, In Winter saw Katie return to her birthplace, the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, where she recorded ten seasonal songs with the Gori Women’s Choir. The critical response meted out to this otherworldly musical exploration suggested that it had been the right time to step beyond the partnership with Mike Batt’s Dramatico label that spawned modern standards such as “The Closest Thing To Crazy” and “Nine Million Bicycles”.
Now in her thirties, Melua found herself seeking succour from new inspirations, keen to challenge herself by wiping the slate clean. The more records and books she digested, the more she felt like an ingenue. “I just wanted to get back to that openness that you have as a child,” she explains, “when every discovery begets another discovery.” Throughout this time, Elis & Tom, the sublime 1974 collaboration between Elis Regina and Antonio Carlos Jobim was never far from her turntable. Another obsession was Highway Rider, the beautiful 2009 set by American jazz pianist Brad Mehldau. She read Chronicles, Volume One by Bob Dylan and made notes as she went along, writing down the names of Scottish and English folk songs referenced in the book. A minor epiphany ensued when she heard “The Waters Of The Tyne” by Joe and Lynn Hickerson – while “Casey Jones” by Joe Hickerson, led her to The Grateful Dead via their version of the same song.
It was, by Melua’s own admission, a time of increasing uncertainty. With a greater sense of agency comes an attendant insecurity. Or, to put it another way, this time, it’s all on you. It was an uncertainty she addressed in the only way she knew how – by putting in the hours. In 2017, resolving to write every single lyric on her next record, she enrolled onto a course at the Faber Academy in London specialising in short fiction. From there she branched into the songs of Lorenz Hart and Cole Porter, “looking at the type of lyrics that fit the song form.”
For Melua, this one unfolding narrative in her life offered a useful distraction from another, the realisation that her seven-year marriage to World Superbike racer and musician James Toseland was coming to an end. Perhaps it was unavoidable that these two narratives would finally meet when Melua started to work on the songs that would comprise Album No.8. The last thing she wanted to do, however, was to use the studio as a confession booth. Neither did she want to re-tread well-worn ground. “I think we’ve given love too much airtime,” she sings on “Airtime”, a song which gently repudiates existing preconceptions about what happens when people fall out of love – “in particular,” she explains, “the pressure to believe that the love of your life is out there somewhere. And when that story doesn’t go the way it’s meant to go, you’re encouraged to view the whole thing as a mistake. I thought, ‘I need to talk about this because, actually, I’ve sung quite a few songs that propagate that narrative. For what it’s worth, my husband and I had a beautiful relationship and there’s still a huge amount of love and respect between us. There are no regrets.”
Indeed, here and elsewhere on Album No.8 it’s impossible to miss the sense that this is someone enjoying new ways to address the complexities of pop’s oldest subject matter. Deploying the narrative vernacular of some of the folk songs she’d recently discovered (“His wife’s hair had golden ripples/she’s in a painting with a mulberry tree when”), “English Manner” is one of a number of songs on the record co-written with bassist and long-time collaborator Tim Harries, and sees Melua sidestepping the common lyrical tropes of love triangle songs. What plays out here is more allusive and ambiguous than anything that involves assigning the roles of victim and a victor. On an album where romantic idealism doesn’t get much of a look-in, the mood is established at the outset by “A Love Like That”. Co-written with Sam Dixon (Christina Aguilera, Adele), it’s a song that asks how you can ensure that the elemental thrill of new love can keep burning brightly through the decades. With a low weather front of strings circling ominously over a soft, supple acoustic funk, “A Love Like That” is also the song which most dramatically sets out the musical parameters of Album No.8.
In his earliest conversations about the direction and feel of the album, Leo Abrahams (whose own roll call of production and writing credits features albums by Brian Eno, Jon Hopkins and David Holmes) recalls Melua flagging up a couple of key names: Georgian composer Giya Kancheli – whose work mixes avant-garde influences with aspects of traditional music – and Charles Stepney, the arranger behind seminal albums by Rotary Connection, Terry Callier and Ramsey Lewis. “There’s an album on which Ramsey Lewis interprets songs from The White Album,” explains Melua, “And in particular, [Charles Stepney’s] arrangement for “Dear Prudence” jumped out at me. There was something about the atmosphere on that record which seemed to chime with the mood of these new songs.” For all of that Abrahams held off writing the arrangements until Melua had completed work on the lyrics. “It was important for it to feel like the arrangements had a specific relationship with Katie’s lyrics – and, by the way, I’ve never known anyone work so hard on a set of lyrics. But once they were in place, it needed to feel as though the strings were almost like a Greek chorus to what she was singing.”
Either by serendipity or design, the deft orchestral shadowplay of Abrahams’ arrangements created an apposite setting for some of the album’s more magical detours: the balmy syncopations of “Voices In The Night” and “Heading Home” – a heart-swelling paean to the streets where the erstwhile Ketevan Melua spent her first years. Calling to mind the twilit rapture of John Barry’s work on Dances With Wolves and The Beyondness of Things, Leaving The Mountain was inspired by a trip that Melua and her father took to the Caucasus mountains by the Black Sea. “It was a moment of pure contentment,” recalls Melua, “But there’s a necessary sadness to those moments too. We were listening to a playlist of songs mentioned in the Dylan book and were looking at this amazing scenery – and, in all likelihood, we knew that we’d probably never get around to experiencing it together again.”
On another of the album’s standout songs, “Maybe I Dreamt” (co-written with Katie’s brother Zurab), Melua pays tribute to Pina Bausch, the hugely influential German choreographer who revolutionised modern dance from the 1970s onwards. “I was watching footage of an interview with her,” recalls Melua, “[Bausch] is doing her dance movements and the horse seems to be, in quite a magical way, interacting with her. So she does a movement, and the horse copies it. Then it cuts to her, years later, recalling this experience. And then she says this line… ‘Maybe I dreamt it.’ There’s something mesmerising about the way she says it. And that set the tone for the entire song.”
For Melua, even when she was still formulating a picture of what her eighth album might look and sound like, one thing she knew was that it would involve reconvening with the Georgian Philharmonic Orchestra, who she used for a version of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (featured on 2018’s The Ultimate Collection anthology). It was amid the modular wood-panelled scoring stage of Tblisi’s Leno Studios (formerly the Georgian Film Studios) that the arrangements for Album No.8 came to life. That must have been quite a moment, no? “Well, it was just moment after moment after moment,” smiles Melua, “On records, I’m usually the one wondering whether we can improve on something or do it differently. This wasn’t any different – it’s just that I couldn’t quite get my head around how closely it corresponded to the sound in my head.”
And when it was time to return to London, did she have any notion that Abrahams wasn’t quite finished? “Not at all. But that’s his genius. It wasn’t just that he saw the potential to get it just a little bit better – but with the right producer, you trust them completely. If they call you in one more time, you don’t question it.” For Abrahams, it was just a matter of honouring the original brief. “Katie talked such a great record. Once the songs were there, we just had to make it so that everyone else could hear what we were hearing.” And Katie Melua? How does Album No.8 compare to the previous seven? “In the past, we would wait for the record to be released in order to see if it was a success. This time, the feeling of success came with actually finishing it. That feels more sustainable.”
Album No.8 is released by BMG on October 16th 2020For tour dates and more visit: katiemelua.com/