Let’s dispense with the obvious: Singer/songwriter Katie Melua is big in Britain. Until I began doing my research for her sold-out solo gig at Chicago’s modest Schuba’s Tavern, I had no idea how big. For such a young artist, her list of accomplishments is staggering. At 19, Melua shot to the top of the UK charts on the strength of her debut Call off the Search and became the biggest selling female artist for the next two years. Her sophomore release, Piece by Piece sold 3.5 million copies, making her the biggest selling UK female artist in the world in 2005.
She has since sold ten million albums to date, all on the independent label Dramatico. At 25, Melua has had a Dutch tulip named in her honor, met and played for Nelson Mandela in support of his Aids charity, and set a Guinness World Record for deepest underwater concert (19 miles underwater on a gas rig in the North Sea). However, it seems that most of America has not caught on to the Katie Melua phenomenon, and as I saw her take the Schuba’s stage to 200 respectful, yet ecstatic European fans, I realized that maybe years from now, I could say to a fan, “Yeah, I once saw Katie Melua at a bar gig in front of two hundred people in Chicago.”
It seems that to capture the American consciousness, artists from across the pond better be in a hip, indie rock band (Arctic Monkeys, Franz Ferdinand) or be salivating junkies on a crash course with oblivion (Amy Winehouse, Pete Doherty). Katie Melua’s music is beautifully meditative—spare acoustic strumming and pianos drifting over her smooth, dulcet tones. On her latest release Pictures, Melua has not so much evolved as continued to perfect her occasionally somnambulant approach to folk and jazz. Her whole approach is so laid back, so free of bile or controversy, that several songs into her set, I wondered what all the fuss was about. Candles adorned the stage, and after years of noisy rock shows, it was nice to hear a voice resonate in a venue so clearly.
The crowd was a mix of suits and women in hip, casual attire. The floor was packed, so I stood my ground at the back near the bar. As drink orders assaulted the bartender, I noticed that nearly every request bore a heavy or slight European accent. I spoke to one woman briefly, who could barely contain her excitement, telling me how rare this occasion was, and that Katie would be selling out 3,000+ venues back home.
Striding onto the stage just a shade after 9pm, Melua immediately launched into “Piece by Piece”, the title track of her second album. Her stage presence was striking, with a curly mane of jet-black hair hiding her delicately beautiful looks. In between songs “If You Were a Sailboat” and “Toy Collection”, Melua told anecdotes about her youth, mostly relating to her feelings of mourning for an innocence lost. For a girl born in Georgia (former USSR) I chalked up the bleakness to her Eastern European upbringing. On the Jane Siberry inspired “Toy Collection” Melua relates her desire to recapture the joy of a child sitting amongst her favorite toys.
For a girl worth an estimated 18 million Euros, ranking seventh among the 100 richest musicians under 30 in Britain, it seems that Melua can afford any number of toys she desires. However, fame and fortune seem to be the last thing on her mind. Her lyrics are about life’s journeys and pleasures; love, innocent joy, and growing into an adult. The themes and images can sometimes be cryptic—“Nine Million Bicycles” is particularly abstract—yet each tune is delivered with an earnestness and slight mysticism reminiscent of Kate Bush.
Melua’s set was short, a little over an hour, and she exited the stage by smiling and bowing humbly. I clapped appreciatively, realizing that the next time I see her I may be surrounded by thousands of boorish, drunken American fans.