Natalie Imbruglia is not afraid to talk about the lowest point of her career. “Oh yeah, I quit. Effectively, in my head, I wasn’t going back to music,” she says. She’s speaking to Guardian Australia over Zoom from her home in Oxfordshire in England. It’s early morning and her camera is switched off because, by her own description, she “looks like death”.
Imbruglia was just 16 in 1992 when she was cast as Beth Brennan on Neighbours. But if her name is familiar to you, it’s more likely because of Torn: a cover of a 1995 song by US band Ednaswap that turned Imbruglia into a global pop sensation two years later.
Her version became one of the most-played songs ever on UK and Australian radio and sold more than 4m copies worldwide. Left of the Middle, the debut album that followed, sold 7m, swept Australia’s Aria awards and was nominated for a Grammy.
It was a path Imbruglia mapped out almost to the letter as a teenager at home in Berkeley Vale on the New South Wales Central Coast. “I remember writing this wishlist in my bedroom that said, I want to be on Neighbours, E Street, or Home & Away,” she recalls. “Then I’m gonna make music, then I’m gonna be a movie star.”
But fame wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. Being a global celebrity, she has previously said, left her “successful, rich and terribly unhappy”.
“It was daunting,” she remembers now. “I was going around and winning awards and I didn’t have a lot of confidence. It was this weird combination of trying to step up and own it, and also not really thinking you’re that great. So there were mixed emotions. I see pictures of myself at that time and I just want to give me a hug, because I think it was a lot.”
Torn’s success also invited some criticism. Ednaswap, the band who wrote the original, weren’t thrilled by her take.
“I met them and they were quite bitter about it, at the beginning,” she says. “After it came out they were like, ‘That’s not really what we had in mind for the song.’ And it’s like, well, you would have had to sign off on me singing it for one, so there’s that. And [then there’s] the money you made.” (In a previous interview, Ednaswap’s Anne Preven and Scott Cutler described Torn as a “massive financial windfall” that yielded multiple six-figure royalty cheques; Cutler admitted that while he wasn’t a fan at first, “I love [Imbruglia’s version] now.”)
Imbruglia invited the band to work with her on her second album – but that ended badly too. She “walked out” of the sessions, she says, and hasn’t talked to the band since.
After relocating to London, Imbruglia released two more albums and acted in a few films, including the James Bond spoof Johnny English. But by 2008, not everything was going to plan. After five years of marriage, she divorced from Silverchair frontman Daniel Johns; while the pair remain friends, being newly single in her mid-30s rattled her. “I spent a lot of time after that trying to settle down, find a guy, start a family,” she says. “I [thought] another relationship might be the answer.”
And then, in 2009 – after years spent working on her fourth album Come to Life – Imbruglia was dropped by her label Island Records before it got a global release.
“I’d made this super-cool album ... and they kept trying to change it and make it more poppy,” she says. “Just that typical music industry bullshit … to have it not get a proper release really broke my heart. That was difficult for me.”
It was at this point she considered quitting altogether. “I really thought the universe was telling me not to make music,” Imbruglia says. She returned to Australia for a period of soul-searching – and a hosting gig on X Factor – and spent time in nature around Queensland’s Currumbin Creek. Eventually she went to Los Angeles to study acting, landing roles in a trio of independent films, and in 2015 she released an album of cover songs, before finding her way back to writing her own.
Now, Imbruglia is gearing up to release Firebird: her first album of originals in more than a decade. She describes the record as a celebration of independence, strength and overcoming; as the start of a new chapter.
“I realised [music] is my first love. I might not be the best songwriter, but what I am is a communicator of emotion and I think it’s valid,” Imbruglia says. “The fact that it’s taken this long is just typical me, unfortunately.”
In 2019, Imbruglia welcomed her first child as a solo parent, after revealing to Instagram that she had become pregnant after undergoing IVF with donor sperm. The album finds Imbruglia optimistic and at peace with the universe, whether it’s reflecting on the joy of having something to lose on Maybe it’s Great or cheering for being “older and wiser” in the chorus of On My Way. On the KT Tunstall collaboration Nothing Missing, Imbruglia sings about realising she is already whole without a partner, an “epiphany” that landed before the birth of her son.
Her comeback has another dimension too: it aligns with the zeitgeist. A wave of new pop acts are embracing the sort of breezy guitar pop music Imbruglia helped popularise around the turn of the century, including Rina Sawayama and Slayyyter; and Lorde covered Torn during a TV appearance this year, name-checking Imbruglia as an inspiration for her new album, Solar Power.
Imbruglia hasn’t yet listened, but is happy to be a reference point. “I think [Lorde] is a genius and it’s very flattering,” she laughs. “Lucky me that the 90s is trending.” But she wasn’t interested in returning to that sound herself. Instead, Firebird is a sonic mixed bag – pop music fused with country, electronic and rock influences – that was guided by Imbruglia’s own tastes as well as the input of collaborators including the Strokes guitarist Albert Hammond Jnr.
Signed to a new label this time around, Imbruglia didn’t have to contend with external opinions about what she should sound like, or “write for algorithms”.
“I think that the ups and downs that I’ve been through have landed me where I am now, and I’m super-proud of Firebird. Making it has been the most joyful, creative experience. So I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Plus, she says, “I try to remember the highs more than the lows. And I’m having a high at the moment.”
• Firebird by Natalie Imbruglia is out 24 September through BMG