Katie Melua on songwriting and success; the “Buzzy Energy” of the music industry defined
International pop star Katie Melua wrote a song in response to a poem by a bestselling author Joyce Carol Oates in the new episode of Songwriter. Below is an edited version of our conversation about songwriting, artistic sustainability, and Katie’s song “Forever Sunlit”.
Ben Arthur: Katie, you have always been a avid reader, how does literature and poetry relate to your songwriting process?
Katie Melua: I have always been completely obsessed with books, diving deep into them and being sent on labyrinthine explorations. Writers like Fiona Samson, Elizabeth Bishop, Ann Carson, TS Elliot have all inspired me in different ways. And I have found a lot of what they have written on the subject to be incredibly helpful when it comes to songwriting. I find songwriting to be quite different from other creative forms because there is this crazy idea that all of a sudden you can write a hit song and it might be like winning the lottery. Of course this is possible. But I find it creates a certain atmosphere in the process. And so, turning to more literary writers… I find that they have helped me anchor myself.
BA: I imagine that atmosphere, and the pressure that goes with it, must be something you’ve been dealing with for a long time.
KM: I am one of those lucky people who “succeeded” as an artist very early on. My first record came out when I was nineteen, and it just catapulted the European charts. And that meant I was just everywhere. Our industry has that kind of buzzing energy. And it can suddenly sweep away all of your normal sensitivities and awareness of your own energy levels. I definitely learned this the hard way when at 26 I suffered from a nervous breakdown.
BA: Wow, this is intense. What did you learn from this experience?
KM: I think I am suffering from a nervous breakdown and [she pauses]. I was going to say a failure of this nature but you realize that it is not a failure on your part. It’s just that certain things invade you. You are no longer able to function. I guess what I’ve learned the most is to really pay attention to myself, my energy, and the kind of inner voices. Also, to be honest about what I’m capable of. So things like getting on a plane every week, going from Japan to America, to all of Europe, for many, many years… it’s going to catch up with you at some point.
BA: How has your experience changed your perception of success?
KM: The way I see success is through the idea of sustainability. Do I live a daily life where I am creative and as productive as possible? And yet, do I have moments of relaxation? Am I able to switch off?
Songwriter is a stories and “answer songs” podcast starring David Gilmour of Pink Floyd, Amanda Shires, Mary Gauthier, Roxane Gay and Michael Ian Black.
Photo by Rosie Matheson