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U.K.: Teenage Georgian Singer Hitting It Big in Britain

  • Kathleen Moore

She was born in Batumi, Georgia, then moved to Britain when she was a young child. Now, teenaged singer-songwriter Katie Melua has a hit single in the United Kingdom, and her debut album, "Call Off the Search," has gone gold. RFE/RL spoke to the singer about her life, her home country, and her new career.

Prague, 17 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- One year ago, Katie Melua was a British college student with a keen interest in music but no great desire for fame.

Today, her debut single, "The Closest Thing to Crazy," is a Top-20 hit in Britain and her debut album, "Call Off the Search," has already earned her a gold disc.

Melua has been called a "breath of fresh air" and is being compared to Norah Jones, the young, smoky-voiced jazz singer in the United States who already has a string of Grammy awards to her name.

Remarkable enough for any 19-year-old singer-songwriter. But Melua stands out from Britain's current crop of music stars in one more respect -- she's actually from Batumi, in Georgia. She moved to Northern Ireland after her father, a doctor, got a job there when she was 8 years old:

"It was a harder adjustment to go from Georgia to Belfast. Coming to Belfast was my first taste of the Western world. But I was young, I was 8, and I think kids adapt quite easily. Obviously, I missed my grandparents and all my friends in Georgia, but [I] loved Belfast and I thought it was a great place and I got used to it," Melua said.

One of her teachers later described going from Georgia to Northern Ireland -- with its sectarian violence between Catholics and Protestants -- as going from "the frying pan into the fire." But Melua says she has happy memories of growing up in Belfast.

"I was definitely aware of [the violence], from the news really. I didn't actually see much happening myself going about the streets. I found the Irish extremely warm, but I was always aware of the things that were happening. I wrote a song about it. It's called 'Belfast,' and it's on the album," she says.

Melua later moved with her family to England. Then one day, well-known British music producer Mike Batt visited her college: "He had come to have a look round the college, and he heard me sing a song that I'd written about [the late singer] Eva Cassidy, and he really liked it and [asked] if I wanted to make an album. And I said, 'Yeah, definitely!' And that's how we did it."

"Call Off the Search" was released last month and immediately received a lot of play from one of British radio's top presenters. The album has already sold more than 100,000 copies:

"It's absolutely brilliant. It's great to have achieved this because I'm with an independent company at the moment, so I don't have a huge multimillion pound marketing [campaign] backing [me]. So it's great to see that people really appreciate the music," Melua says.

Melua writes some of her own material, including one track in Georgian that, sadly, didn't make it onto the album. The songs are a mix of dreamy ballads and bluesy numbers, like one, called "Mockingbird Song":

Melua is not yet famous in Georgia -- outside of her family and friends, of course. She goes back every summer to visit and otherwise follows the news, like the ouster last month of President Eduard Shevardnadze following public protests.

"I miss all my family and friends. My grandparents and all my aunts are there, and I miss everything about it. It's just a beautiful gorgeous, gorgeous country. I've obviously been watching the news lately with what's been happening over there. It was a bit alarming at first when it all started, but it was good the way it turned out -- the way Shevardnadze resigned peacefully and so on," Melua said.

What are Melua's next plans? She says breaking into the U.S. music market would be great, but that dream will probably have to wait:

"America is the biggest one, isn't it? I think next we would probably do Europe and Asia and Australia and then go for America. But that's a long-term plan. The short-term plan is to do a tour in the U.K. and hopefully get myself more established in the U.K," Melua said.

So, watch out for a new single to be released sometime early in the new year. Melua says that the Georgian song may make it onto the B-side. Now that really would be a first for the British music charts.
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