From the opening notes, sung in Ukrainian, it is clear that there is something different and unexpected about Katie Melua’s new album ‘In Winter’. Twenty-five female voices blend to create a sound that is both powerful and delicate, that, in its apparent simplicity, is so beautiful it glows.
Known as a singer, song-writer and guitarist, with six studio albums to her name, on ‘In Winter’ Katie Melua takes the role of co-producer for the first time. The discovery in 2014 of a recording by Gori Women’s Choir was the spark for the record. “I was mesmerised by their tone and sonic richness. They are essentially a vocal orchestra,” says Katie. With a vision to create a winter-themed record, one that was centred around the Georgian choir’s unique polyphonic sound, Katie enlisted world-renowned choral composer Bob Chilcott to arrange the vocal parts. “I learnt the importance of restraint and space from Bob. There was simply no one else I could think of who would be more perfectly suited to this particular challenge.”
“I’ve been asked a fair few times now why I chose to write around the theme of winter for this album, and, truthfully, the idea came from a conversation I was having with a friend of mine a few winters’ ago. We were both lamenting the fact that there didn’t seem to be a go-to album out there for us to listen to during the winter months – an album that would fill the house with wonderful, warm, poignant sounds rather than the usual jingle-bells pop songs that tend to hit the airwaves during that time of year. Something we could listen to from start-to-finish rather than on a song-by-song basis. So, that’s how the album was born – out of necessity!”
With a very clear idea on how this record needed to sound, in late 2015 Katie and Adam ‘Cecil’ Bartlett (whose engineering credits include the likes of PJ Harvey and Marianne Faithfull) flew to Georgia with twelve boxes of equipment and built a DIY studio in the small town of Gori’s cultural community centre. “There were many unknowns: we weren’t established producers; we were building a studio; the choir had never recorded with headphones; Cecil didn’t speak a word of Georgian and could I effectively communicate to the choir how I wanted this record to sound?” With the studio built, the choir, their conductor Teona Tsiramua, and their vocal professor (former opera singer Anzori Shomakhia) on hand, recording began.
One of the first songs recorded was the album’s opening track The Little Swallow (Shchedryk), a traditional Ukrainian carol first arranged by Mykola Leontovych in 1916 and subsequently adapted for the West as Carol Of The Bells. “It felt right to sing the piece in its original language. Ukrainian belongs to the eastern Slavic language and is close to Russian which is widely spoken throughout Georgia,” Katie explains. On Joni Mitchell’s River, Katie’s acoustic guitar provides a minimalist backdrop for the swell of stunning voices. Perfect World, the first new song written by Katie since the release of her last studio album, was brought to life with the addition of the choir. Nunc Dimittis from Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil, written 2 years before the Russian Revolution in 1917, was a challenge to record but was a piece that was central to Katie’s vision for the record. “I had to have it on the album; it took me close to the mythical notion I have from my youth of the Russian forest, frozen and covered in snow, and of my Granddad’s tales of escaping from a Siberian labour camp.”
With the four songs recorded, Katie returned to London and spent the next six months continuing her research into the album’s remaining songs, while continuing to write new material, the abiding theme being winter and the deeply personal feelings elicited by this particular season. In April 2016 Katie and Cecil returned to Gori, rebuilt the studio, and for the next four weeks immersed themselves in the recording. “Cecil was a fantastic partner during the whole process. He learned a Georgian word each day and was totally egoless as far as being open to trying various methods out in the studio. He was also very patient with my endless note-taking during the sessions.”
The album reflects Katie’s dual culture – born in the ex-Soviet country of Georgia, she moved with her parents and younger brother to Belfast aged nine, and became a British citizen in 2005. Since then she has achieved immense global success as a recording artist, selling in excess of 10 million albums. The beautiful melody of the Romanian carol Leganelul Lui Lisus (Cradle Song) led Katie to write Plane Song on which she recalls playing with her brother in old, rusty Soviet aircraft littered across various fields in Georgia after the civil war. A Time To Buy is both literal – the commercialism of Christmas, overwhelming (particularly to a young Katie arriving in the West) yet joyful - and allegorical – the self-judgement, anxiety and fears of the ‘have-it-all’ woman.
Tu Ase Turpa or If You Are So Beautiful is a modern folk song, and the only Georgian song on the album. Dreams On Fire continues the theme of love, and is co-written with one of England’s songwriting greats, Don Black. “I feel the stillness of the winter season really causes us to reflect on our lives and relationships, wondering if our loved ones share the same feelings when it comes to growth and the fear of change. I consider Don Black a master of lyric writing, and the words in this song sit right at the heart of a lover’s insecurity.” The album closes with a delicate and restrained performance of O Holy Night, a carol that Katie performed at her first school carol concert in Belfast.
With the recording complete, Katie wanted the artwork to represent that magical, winter wonderland in her imagination. On a trip to her local bookshop she discovered the work of London-based Thai illustrator Niroot Puttapipat who has illustrated such notable book titles as The Nutcracker, The Rubáiyát of Omar Khattám, and Jane Austen’s Emma. Puttapipat works only by hand, and is responsible for the album’s cover art, as well as the illustrations held within the physical albums, through which he brings words to life in such stunning fashion.
This winter Katie Melua, her band, and the 24-piece Gori Women’s Choir will be embarking on a European tour performing the album in its entirety as well as a selection of classic songs from Katie’s catalogue.
Wed 23 Nov 16 Guildford, G Live
Thu 24 Nov 16 Bristol, Colston Hall
Fri 25 Nov 16 Southampton, O2 Guildhall
Sun 27 Nov 16 London, Theatre Royal Drury Lane
Mon 28 Nov 16 Leicester, De Montfort Hall
Tue 29 Nov 16 Liverpool, Philharmonic Hall
Thu 01 Dec 16 Birmingham, Symphony Hall
Fri 02 Dec 16 Manchester, Bridgewater Hall
Sat 03 Dec 16 Glasgow, Old Fruitmarket