Back in October 2016, Katie Melua released her seventh studio album, In Winter, securing the songstress yet another UK top 10 chart placing.
In Winter represents something of a musical departure for Katie, with the 24-piece Gori Women’s Choir - who hail from Georgia, the country of Melua’s birth - maintaining a magical, uplifting presence throughout.
The album’s 10 tracks, which balance both traditional and original material, ably deliver the mesmerising, wintery vibe that the singer was striving for throughout the writing and recording process.
“There was quite a specific atmosphere that I wanted to fill the house with at that time of year, and this was two years before the album came out,” Katie tells us.
“That atmosphere was like a sprinkling of old Elvis and Frank Sinatra and Julie London, but then also something that felt quite true and honest, and I think that’s where the going-back-home aspect for me had to happen.”
Indeed, Melua and her co-producer Adam ‘Cecil’ Bartlett trekked all the way over to the small Georgian town of Gori to set up a DIY studio in an old community arts centre.
“The practicalities meant that, because there’s 24 in the choir, the easiest way forward was for me to fly out to Gori with Cecil and 12 boxes of equipment,” explains Melua.
“That was actually logistically easier and also, from an artistic point of view, it was just great to be there and to be recording in that place. It’s this old art centre in Gori, which is pretty rundown to our eyes but, when you live out there, you kind of get used to it. It becomes normalised to have ceilings falling down and rubble everywhere.
“They have gigs going on and really great dancing concerts and other choirs coming to town. It really reminded me of my childhood out in Georgia and my visits there every summer that pretty much fed the writing of the original songs that are on the album.”
How did Katie discover the Gori Women’s Choir, who she later took out on tour, in the first place?
“It was slightly accidental, actually,” she says.
“There was a project that I nearly got involved with, which was a ballet. It was going to be made out in Georgia and I was going to manage the musical direction of it. I was researching Georgian musicians because I didn’t have a great deal of visibility on that, having never worked out there.
“That actual project didn’t end up moving forward but, in the process of looking for artists out in Georgia, I came across this choir and I just found their sound so different and so unusual and orchestral, avoiding any of the trappings of usual choir singing. I was just mesmerised by their sound, so I got in touch with them and listened to their rehearsals and I wanted to work with them somehow.
“I didn’t know because they were quite far out from my sound and the Katie Melua world that a lot of people know. This was late-2014 and it was that winter that I thought, ‘Hmm, I think I’d love to do a winter album.’ I just thought the choir would be great for it and it would add that element of tradition and nostalgia. Winter and Christmas are quite an important time for everyone to look back to the past.”
Before we move on to the 10 records that changed Melua’s life, we just find time to ask how the sessions for In Winter compared to her previous recording experiences.
“I’ve made six albums and I made my first one when I was 18, so essentially I’ve been incredibly lucky and spoiled, because when I look at other musicians, many haven’t had the chance to record with full orchestras or do six albums and work with the best session musicians in the land,” Katie explains.
“This experience was about taking that artist to a really special environment where suddenly making a record was sacred again, because it was to every single one of the choir and it was for me, too. It was such an incredible experience for all of us.”
1. The Little Mermaid OST (1989)
“Starting chronologically, I’m going to go with my very first electric musical moment and that was when I was eight years old and I watched The Little Mermaid for the first time. Basically, I used to watch that and then rewind it and then watch it and then rewind it. I just loved the musical numbers in it.
“I’m not a huge fan of musicals as a whole because I think musical singers always seem like their eyes are about to pop out, but I think there are some gems in that genre, and I’d count The Little Mermaid as an exquisite piece. Part Of Your World, Under The Sea and Kiss The Girl are the main classics.
“Sometimes, if we have a great show, we’ll put some music on in the tour bus and have some drinks and then just have a little dance. With the band, what gets played is really judged quite heavily and the songs have to be really cool. If people are drunk enough, I’ll put on Under The Sea and you’d be surprised at who ends up getting their jiggy on!”
2. Eva Cassidy - Songbird (1998)
“I think it came out around the time I heard Over The Rainbow for the first time.
“Throughout the '90s and early-noughties, you had Britney Spears, Take That and all the boy bands and all the girl bands. Pop was having just such a big moment and production was always the big focus of music from that time. Eva Cassidy was probably the first artist I heard who had that real pure simplicity in terms of arrangements with just vocal and guitar, although actually it’s really complicated guitar, although it doesn’t sound like it.
“I just always felt like she picked really beautiful classic, classic songs. I'm a complete sucker for all those timeless classic songs from the golden age of Hollywood and the Great American Songbook. What I've always loved with her is that she never seems to get in the way of the music as a vocalist, but then she'll punch it out at certain moments like in Fever, which is just mind-blowing. She's also the one that actually made me pick up the guitar, too, so she definitely changed my life.”
3. Bob Dylan - Shadows In The Night (2015)
“Eva Cassidy opened the door through to people like Joni and Dylan and Paul Simon. I’m just so obsessed with Dylan. The album I’m going to pick is one of his new ones, Shadows In The Night, and that’s where he covers beautiful classic songs from the '40s and '50s like That Lucky Old Sun, which is hilarious.
“The reason why I feel like it’s a life-changing album for me is because, as a director, he’s cast himself so well with these songs, or I should say it’s like he’s picked his script brilliantly. It’s genius for Dylan to sing Why Try To Change Me Now? He’s followed me from the age of 18 and I’ve fallen in love with him and I’ve fallen out of love with him.
“I fell out of love with him when I went to a gig of his, but then I keep coming back to him. This album I’ve chosen has probably cemented the fact for me that he’s just brilliant. I find him extremely seductive as a female listener, which isn’t really something that a lot of people talk about, but I think he’s extremely seductive… and I think he’s hilarious, too. Comedy is definitely one of his key characteristics for me.”
4. Julie London - The Best Of
“I’ve chosen a Best Of, because it’s got Cry Me a River, Blue Moon, Fly Me To The Moon and so many other legendary songs.
“In a similar way to Eva Cassidy, it was great having female singer role models who weren’t screeching their heads off. Julie is the master of cool vocal but without trying at all. You have certain singers where you can hear them trying to be sort of very cool and seductive, but it just comes naturally to her.
“I find her really amusing, too. I just love her. She’s like the coolest auntie you never had! I would have been in my early-20s when I first heard her, probably while we were making The House, my fourth album. I’m pretty sure Mike [Batt, Melua’s former producer] introduced me to her, actually.”
5. Bobbie Gentry - Ode To Billie Joe (1967)
“It’s funny how I discovered this album. Once the first album came out and I started working in the music industry, I was being given so many CDs. I remember being always given tons of CDs every time I went to visit a record company in whichever country. The lovely A&R people would just give me a batch of CDs, and I probably only managed to get through some of them, but this Ode To Billie Joe ended up sitting on my desk.
“I don’t why that one ended up there, but I just remember being intrigued by the title, putting the CD on and then just being blown away by it. What I loved about it was seeing that a real narrative story could be told. I know Dylan did the same, but he was always part of the action.
“Then I discovered that they made a film of that song, and then the mystery deepened in that she just disappeared. There’s that thing about, ‘Well, whatever happened to Bobbie Gentry?’ She made a few albums, and I consider them really iconic. From what I’ve gathered, I think being a female musician in the '60s and '70s was a tough thing, so I suspect it wasn’t for her and she quit.”
6. Philip Glass - Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985)
“I’ve become a real fan of Philip Glass, and this is a record that Tim [Harries], my bass player, introduced me to.
“He was over at my house one day and I was talking about how stressed I get when I’m cooking, and he was like, ‘Well, what records do you listen to when you cook?’ I said, ‘Oh I don't listen to any records.’ He then put on Mishima and said, ‘Well, try this one.’
“For me, pretty much any time I’m struggling to get up and get going, this record has exactly the same effect as caffeine. For example, if I need to pack and I’m going on a trip and I’ve delayed it, delayed it, delayed it, I’ll be like, 'Just get on and do it' and I’ll put on that record.
“I think it’s because it sort of insinuates a lot of army-type emotions. It puts you in a bit of an action state of mind but without being annoying. It just really makes me feel very much like, 'Right, let’s get this job done.' It works every time! Generally, I just put it on if I haven’t got access to caffeine or I need extra doses of caffeine!”
7. Leonard Cohen - Popular Problems (2014)
“This is quite similar to the Philip Glass one. When I’ve got a cold and I’m feeling sick and maybe I’m in a hotel room on my own, I put this album on and it’s like he’s there being just a really cool calm friend and a father figure.
“It opens with the song Slow, which is brilliant because the lyrics are ‘I’ve always liked it slow/I’ve never liked it fast/With you it’s got to go/With me it’s got to last.’ I can just hear a record company dude telling him before he made that song to do an uptempo number for radio or something stupid like that.
“There’s also hilarious sexual innuendoes in it and he just makes me smile. I kind of discovered him in the Dylan times.”
8. Gori Women’s Choir - Archaica (1996)
“That was the album that I came across back in 2014, and it’s what I mentioned to you before about hearing such unity among so many voices. That was a first for me.
“The human vocal is such a rich instrument on its own and you think it might not work with 24 altogether. Having worked with them, I know how precise they are and how much they work on being absolutely at one, and you can really hear that.
“It’s full of hair-raising tonalities, and I love it how they slide through the chromatic scales. Of course, it changed my life because it made me get in touch with them and I then made a record with them.”
9. Hoagy Carmichael - The Stardust Road (1955)
“I just love his songwriting. He co-wrote Georgia On My Mind, he wrote Star Dust and he was like one of the big fathers of the Great American Songbook. He got me into discovering Cole Porter and Irving Berlin and all these phenomenal writers.
“I actually solidly came across him in that film To Have And Have Not with Humphrey Bogart, and he plays the piano player in the hotel bar and he sings Hong Kong Blues, which is just brilliant. I just loved his lyrical phrasing.
“I know sometimes he didn’t write the lyrics but, when he did, there was just such a beautiful flowing ease to them. He’s just this really great shoulders-bent character, and I say that because it's like you can hear that in his vocals and his songwriting. For me, he really represents the quirkiness that you can get, even in songs done in their simplest form.”
10. Russian State Symphony Orchestra - Mourned By The Wind (2005)
“I discovered this just a few weeks ago when I went to a concert by the London Philharmonic Orchestra and they did a piece called Mourned By The Wind by a Georgian composer called Giya Kancheli. It was the most mind-blowing musical experience I think I’ve ever had. When I got home, I got the album and the best version of it is by the Russian State Symphony Orchestra.
“It’s a viola concerto and Giya wrote it after a good friend of his passed away, and I think he dedicated it to him. It’s something like a 40-minute symphony.
“First of all, it begins really, really quietly so your attention is instantly grabbed and it had about six double-bass players, all bowing. It’s modern classical music, but there were parts of it that were so romantic and so evocative and emotional, but then also moments that literally slammed you in the face and then dissolved and dissipated.
“The melodies would kind of fade in in front of you and then fade out again. It’s like he designed it so that the listener is lifted up into the air, smashed around in the atmosphere and then brought back down. That was literally how I felt when I came out of that gig and every time I put it on and listen to it with headphones, it’s like time’s slowed down and reality is completely warped. As the piece began and as it developed, it suddenly dawned on me that this was already probably one of the best nights of my life.”