Katie Melua on refugees, energising motherhood and her disarmingly honest new album, Love & Money
Many kids dream of being a pilot; few get to act out their fantasy in real aircrafts. Among those few is Katie Melua. “There are videos of me at six or seven years old, laughing as I climb into old Soviet planes.” Melua smiles, recalling the abandoned airport near her grandma’s house in Tbilisi, Georgia – a land she fled with her family aged nine, in the aftermath of the civil war.
The Meluas settled in Belfast, then rife with its own Troubles. Yet the family felt like they’d “won the lottery”. The Georgian civil war, stoked by Russia, had ravaged their home country in ways not dissimilar to today’s situation in Ukraine.
“There was no electricity and no hot water,” Melua remembers, noting the parallels between past and present. Now, “the shadow of violence that had dissipated in Georgian life has reared its head again,” she says.
The war in Ukraine has stalled progress in the wider region. Melua is fearful of the instability this has fuelled in Georgia, with recent protests erupting in the capital. Earlier this month, citizens challenged a law that would have required media outlets getting more than 20 per cent of their funding from foreign sources to register as agents of foreign influence. Adapted from a similar law in Russia, this motion would have threatened freedom of the press.
The protests, along with diplomatic warnings from the EU, meant it was not passed. “I’m over the moon that they threw it out,” Melua lets out a sigh of relief. “I find it inspiring how many people came out on the streets to fight for what they believe in. It gives me hope.”
Melua and I speak a day soon after it is announced that Gary Lineker is back in his role at the BBC after a kerfuffle over him speaking out against the government’s illegal migration bill. Melua calls the controversy over the BBC’s impartiality rules ludicrous.
“There’s no doubt what Gary has said is right,” the songwriter tells me. “People shouldn’t be afraid to make their voices heard.”
An immigrant herself, I imagine she has choice words for the home secretary. “I’m no politician,” she cautions, “but it’s obvious that no refugee ever leaves their country by choice.” She confesses to feeling heartbroken when she left Georgia still a child – and guilty for the opportunities she had which relatives back home did not.
On her new album, Love & Money, Melua explores this personal conflict with disarming candour. On the title track, she lays bare a vulnerability that has never quite left: “I was in the neighbourhood pretending to be someone good, sending love and money home.” Becoming a household name at 19 with her 2003 debut, Call Off The Search, Melua has long shouldered a sense of obligation common among the children of immigrants who believe it’s their job to become the family breadwinners.
That sense of responsibility has challenged Melua throughout the years, as her guilt and gratitude pushed her beyond her limits. Eventually, her perfectionism gave way to depression, paranoia, insomnia, and ultimately a mental breakdown in 2010.
“It’s taken me twelve years, but I feel like this is the first record I’ve made where the music and lyrics truly address what I went through,” Melua says. “There’s a song called Those Sweet Days where I speak about finally accepting that things can be beautiful even without being perfect.”
Those Sweet Days also explores the different values we give our emotions; more specifically, the idea that art sculpted from misery is somehow greater than art spawned by joy. With Love & Money, Melua has said she sought to challenge the belief that happiness “carries less weight than its opposite.” This stands in contrast to her previous record, 2020’s Album No. 8, which was composed amid her separation from former motorcycle racer James Toseland.
Enrolling on a creative writing course at the Faber Academy, Melua had sought to counter the romantic idealism of her past records. But a new relationship that blossomed over the pandemic gave her fresh hope for love, and the new record reflects her newfound happiness. “I’ve rediscovered how easy love can be when you find the right person,” she muses. In December last year, she and her partner became parents to a baby boy, Sandro.
It’s been the greatest month. We’re now the parents to Sandro, the whole thing feels like a dream, never felt a love this strong. pic.twitter.com/F88s6gIIKy
— Katie Melua (@katiemelua) December 9, 2022
I ask Melua how being a mother has changed her life. “It’s like sunshine all the time, only better,” she smiles. Pursuing a successful career while caring for a newborn must be quite the balancing act; but for Melua, motherhood has been energising. “One of the best things about becoming a mum is that life no longer feels cyclical,” the 38-year-old observes. “Sandro changes every day, and my life changes with him.” Melua speaks of her son like she speaks of Georgia: with warmth, love, and hope.
She feels lucky that she and her partner were both ready for children at the same time – and how soon she became pregnant after they decided to try. Above all, she’s grateful for a society that grants mothers more options than before: “I went through the steps of having my eggs frozen anyway, something many women my generation are doing, and I’m so thankful that we don’t feel the same biological pressures that our mothers and grandmothers once did.”
As an artist, Melua is known for her gentle music. “I love songs that soothe the soul,” she explains, telling me how she first learned to play the guitar at school because other pupils played it too loudly for her voice. As an activist, however, her voice is more resonant. A patron of Fair Trees, she helps to prevent the exploitation of cone pickers in Georgia by the European Christmas tree industry.
She’s also passionate about the environment, taking her partner to Margate on their first date so they could go seaweed collecting. On the new album, she evokes the importance of marine conservation in a song called Reefs, composed as an homage to the essayist and climate justice advocate, Mary Annaïse Heglar. “Not being passionate about the environment isn’t an option for me,” Melua claims, identifying climate change as the biggest threat faced by humanity today.
She admits to feeling dismayed by the inaction of our leaders; but motherhood has emboldened her pursuit of a better world. “Governments and multinationals need to forge a long-term vision for our future together,” she says, “and realise they cannot delay addressing the issue any longer.” As her own story shows, finding sustainable solutions to our mistakes is not easy. But Love & Money shows that, with care, it is possible.
Love & Money (BMG) is out on March 24