'Stalin sent grandad to Siberia': Katie Melua goes home to Georgia

The pop star behind Nine Million Bicycles left Georgia when she was nine years old. Now she’s returned to record with the Gori Women’s Choir. We joined the singer to hear about family struggles – and how she is ‘learning how to sing again’

The severe, Soviet-era complex of Gori’s Cultural Centre doesn’t appear to be alive with cultural activity. There are no posters, no lights and no people; while the shell-scarred facade serves as a reminder that this small town in eastern Georgia was occupied by the Russian army as recently as 2008. But there is life inside. Katie Melua emerges from the darkened lobby and extends a hand. “Welcome to the post-apocalyptic Southbank Centre,” she says.

A group of local women in traditional Georgian headdresses suddenly emerge, waving smartphones and requesting selfies. Melua, whose 2003 debut album Call Off the Search sold 1.8m copies within six months of its release, is used to this kind of attention. She was brought up in the Georgian Black Sea resort of Batumi and remains the second most famous figure to have emerged from the country. The best-known of all can be found just round the corner, where the little wooden cabin in which Stalin was born has been preserved beneath a neo-classical pagoda.

Melua leads the way into the foyer, which is littered with ceiling tiles, broken cinema seats and a cardboard reproduction of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. I ask if she has visited the Stalin shrine, or what she makes of the fact that there are fresh flowers laid outside. “People have a complex attitude towards Stalin here,” she says. “Many people from Gori are actually quite proud to have produced such a strong leader. But I haven’t been to look at the house myself. I’ve been too busy.” Though the sun is beating down outside, Melua has been busy thinking about Christmas, having spent the past several months in Georgia making a winter-themed album with the singers of the Gori Women’s Choir.

Georgia’s tradition of polyphonic singing is one of the most ancient in the world – it’s included on Unesco’s list of intangible cultural assets – and Melua has engaged the 23-piece choir to add its unique sound to an album which includes traditional Georgian folk songs, Ukrainian carols and even an extract from Rachmaninov’s Vespers. But at present the choir is adding harmonies to a frenetic Melua original, provisionally entitled Christmas Shoppers.

“It’s about the mania that has become part of Christmas in the west,” she explains. “There are so many things that blow you away when you come to the UK as an immigrant – how the streets are laid out, how neat everything looks, shops where the array of choice seems endless. Then, when you add Christmas into the mix, it just goes off the scale.”

Melua left Georgia in 1993, at the age of nine. Her father, a heart surgeon, found work first in Belfast and later moved to London, where Melua enrolled at the Brit School for the Performing Arts. It was around this time that the producer and songwriter Mike Batt – who masterminded the musical career of the Wombles – was on the hunt for “an Eva-Cassidy-type singer” capable of performing jazz standards and his own easy-listening compositions. After attending the Brit showcase, Batt noted in his journal: “small girl, sang own song.” The song was Faraway Voice, a tribute to Eva Cassidy, which Melua composed on three strings of a broken guitar.

Batt signed Melua to a six-album deal and was responsible for writing her two biggest hits, The Closest Thing to Crazy and Nine Million Bicycles; the latter of which prompted a lively debate over the accuracy of the lyric: “We are 12 billion light years from the edge. That’s a guess.” Not a very good guess, as it turned out, as science author Simon Singh responded with an article in the Guardian pointing out that the age of the universe had been determined at 13.7 billion years old.

To her credit, Melua appeared alongside Singh on the Today programme to sing his suggested modification: We are 13.7 billion light years from the extent of the observable universe/That’s a good estimate within well-defined error bars. “That was just hilarious,” Melua says. “I think Simon was prepared to admit that his songwriting was as flawed as my science. Though I think the size of the universe has changed since, it’s now believed to be closer to 14 billion light years isn’t it?”

So what prompted her to return to Georgia, and to make a Christmas record in particular? “I love winter,” she says. “It’s a beautiful time, but also a melancholic time, a reflective time, and I’d come to a point in my life where I felt I had to make certain decisions about my career. I turned 30, I got married [to former World Superbike Champion James Toseland]. But really it was hearing the Gori Women’s Choir. I mean, I think I have an OK voice. But compared to these women … it’s like I’ve spent the last six months learning to sing again.”

It is also the first record Melua has made as a completely free agent, since her contract with Mike Batt’s Dramatico label had expired. “It was a six-album deal,” she explains, “so when the sixth one was done, you know – it was finished and it was time for us to part ways.” So was separating from her mentor a mutual decision? “It was maybe a bit more mutual on one side than the other,” she says hesitantly. “Yeah – it wasn’t easy, as you can imagine. And I’m still incredibly proud of the work we did together. But it had to happen and I think it has been mutual … um, eventually.”

Melua’s control over her career is now so complete that, once the session has finished, she has to assist the sound engineer in packing away the recording equipment. Back at the small house she has been renting, Melua reflects on the extent to which her life has changed.

“Ever since I left the Brit school I’ve been so protected. I had a woman to do my hair and makeup every day throughout my 20s. So now I have to try and learn to make myself look presentable, to be responsible for the keys to the studio, to make sure we have enough extension leads for the photoshoot tomorrow.”

It’s a level of responsibility that any artist would find overwhelming; and Melua is mortified to discover that, having attended to the number of extension leads required to shoot the album cover, she has forgotten to pack a dress. Disaster is averted when the housekeeper produces a gift – a hand-tailored traditional costume which she has made throughout Melua’s stay. “She used to teach Russian, until she lost her job,” Melua explains later. “She wouldn’t accept anything for the dress, but told me: ‘Darling, not everything is measured in money.’”

The cover shoot is scheduled to take place the next morning in one of the grand salons at the opera house in Tbilisi. It is barely an hour’s drive from Gori, yet the smart, European-style boulevards of the Georgian capital feel a million miles away from the post-Soviet dereliction of Stalin’s home town.

Melua arrives looking refreshed, having been for a run and spent some time with her grandfather, who still gets up early to play backgammon with friends in the park. While the photographer is rigging the lights, she reveals an aspect of her grandfather’s experience that explains why she wasn’t particularly keen to visit Stalin’s shrine.

“Granddad was deported to a Siberian prison camp at the age of 15,” she says. “One particular story he told me was about how he lost half of his thumb. The guards kept the supplies outside and he and a few of his friends used to try and steal food, as they were given very little to eat. When the guards found them they started shooting around them in a circle of bullets.” The guards kept firing so that they were unable to move for some time. “Granddad lost only his thumb because he was in the middle of the group – those on the outside froze to death.”

She says that she wanted to pay tribute to him by recording Rachmaninov’s a cappella choral composition, All-Night Vigil. “It’s the piece that most vividly makes me think of the landscape of Siberia,” she says. “Perhaps it’s not the kind of music people expect me to sing, but working with the choir has given me the confidence to do it. Most of these women have lived pretty tough lives. I always try to remind myself that if it hadn’t been for some pretty incredible twists of fate, my life would have been the same.”

• This article was amended on 18 August 2016 because an earlier version referred to the universe’s age as “13.7 billion light years”. A light year is a distance, not a time, and this has been corrected to say 13.7 billion years old.


Alfred Hickling

The GuardianTramp

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