The lockdown restrictions have stopped the majority of musicians from working in a standard live setting, but live streams have seen plenty of opportunities to see performers playing concerts for internet audiences.
The latest of these is Katie Melua who is performing a full show with her band from the vintage Rivoli Ballroom in London, showcasing her recently released album. Acoustic Review’s Andy Hughes chatted with Katie about the recording of her album, the live show, and a brand-new acoustic guitar.
Lockdown has been a busy time for you Katie?
It has indeed. During the first lockdown I was mixing the new album which was a strange experience because it was the first time I have mixed recordings virtually – not being there in the studio. It was mixed at Cameron Craig’s studio in Putney, and I was at home in West London. It means you do everything entirely by listening, and the urge was always to look at the computer readings to help you visualise what you were hearing, but of course, that wasn’t possible. It meant really listening intently and after about three days, I was starting to feel sea-sick because the reaction of my brain to such concentration brought on some nausea, it was really strange. During the second lockdown I have been busy preparing for my live show broadcast, making sure I know everything properly.
You have been the main writer for this album, has your writing process changed because of that?
It’s been different for the last five years really, since my album with the choir. I have been specialising far more in the lyrics, as opposed to thinking of myself as a songwriter. I adore working with words for songs, and especially creating songs for me to record. I enjoy finding out what is missing, what the tone is, who the song is being addressed to, I am intrigued by the fact that you can only hold notes on vowel sounds, not consonants. I think the voice is like the acoustic guitar with a sound hole that changes shape. I could get really hippy and abstract about it!
Have you changed the acoustics you played in the studio this time?
No, no changes. I have been working with Leo Abrahams as producer and arranger and he is an amazing guitarist, and garners a lot of respect from the other musicians I worked with. Guitars were also played by Luke Potashnick and my brother Zurab Melua. This is the first album where I have not played any guitar myself.
I have said when we have spoken previously that I think you are a better guitarist that maybe you think you are.
I’m not going to disagree with you now on that. I am like a classical guitarist – if I have a piece to learn for a performance, I will do that, and make sure I can play it really well on stage. What I can’t do, is understand conceptually what is needed for the song to sound right, and when you have three wonderful guitarists to work with on that side of things, the best thing is to just let them get on with it.
When you were writing and recording, did you have specific guitar sounds in mind or did you wait and see what your guitar players came up with?
I was curious to see what Leo would come up with the sounds he would want to use. The acoustic that Leo used on Your Longing Is Gone is my vintage steel string Gibson which I love. It was made in 1965 at the Kalamazoo plant in Michigan, it’s a wonderful guitar with a fantastic sound. I still use nylon string Avalon guitars as well, again I have a favourite, the handcrafted Avalon Golden Gate Jazz Limited Edition – mine is number seventeen.
Looking ahead to your live concert, and hopefully to returning to live shows next year, are you mindful that what your band have written and played for the album, you are going to have to reproduce, at least in part, on stage?
I have thought about that, and that’s why I think I am growing as a guitar player. There is a really beautiful finger-picked part in Remind Me To Forget, and I have enjoyed learning to play that. There are a lot of folk song influences on this album, I have been checking out the songs that Bob Dylan talks about in his Chronicles, and having some complex right-hand parts has really helped to bring additional life and feel to the songs. I think playing the acoustic gives you a feeling of a strong support when you play and sing, it means I feel comfortable when I start to perform in front of people. Then, as with making this album, you work with really excellent musicians, and you get put in your place, you know you have some work to do.
I was looking at a YouTube concert you gave in 2008, and you started off with Piece By Piece which is not an easy song to perform technically, I was impressed that you didn’t ease into the show, you started off with a tough piece of playing.
I can always think creatively when I perform, as I said, I can learn the part that I need to put the song over, and once I have it locked in, I can reproduce it and concentrate on the vocal. It’s not actually that hard a piece to play technically, maybe it looks more difficult than it actually is.
Does that mean that you learn what you need, and leave it there?
More or less. We have a new member of the band Nina Harries who is an upright bass player, and we were talking about this. She said it is awful for musicians who have practiced for hours and hours every day for fifteen years or so, and now they have come to hate their instrument when they pick it up. It must be awful to pick up a guitar and feel nothing from it. When I pick up the guitar, I have a wonderful feeling of functionality from it. The moment I start to play and sing, the feeling comes in and it’s wonderful.
Have you had any guitars made for you?
It’s funny you should ask that because I have a new guitar which has been made for me, it arrived yesterday, and I haven’t even unpacked it yet. It was made for me by a guy called Steve Gray. Steve came out on tour with us a couple of years ago to tech for me, my regular tech, Mark Gordon who is known as McKinty was off for a few shows on the tour and Steve came in, and he’s since moved to Spain, and he’s made this new acoustic for me. I’ve got the details here, it has a twelve-fret body, cocobolo back and sides, and an Engelmann spruce top, an elevated finger board, a side sound port, LR Baggs pickups with volume and tone controls, and Kazakhstan nylon strings, and a Profile C Neck.
Which pickups do you use?
We use Fishman AGO94’s for the nylon string acoustics and AG125 for the steel acoustics. I’m told that I play very quietly, so those pickups get a good signal and range of sound when I am playing live.
Are you an effects fan?
Not really, I am a bit of a purist on that score, again it’s my classical motivation as a musician, I just like some reverb which is controlled from the mixing desk, other than that I just like the pure guitar tone.
What other acoustic players do you admire?
I adore Nick Drake, and I have always loved Eva Cassidy. I love Leonard Cohen’s playing, I saw him live once, he was amazing, and another great player I saw live is Paul Simon, I saw him at the Jazz Festival in Montreal one year, where we first met up.
Do you like plectrums, or are you strictly a fingerstyle player?
I have tried plectrums a few times, but I just never seem to be able to get on with them for some reason. I always keep my nails really cut back because I like the feel and sound I get from the contact of my fingers on the strings, not nails. I just love that feeling of intimate connection that I get playing that way.
Which songs are you looking forward to when you play your live London show?
I have to say that the guitar parts for this album are the hardest I have ever played. Remind me To Forget starts off with a drone sound and then the right-hand pattern kicks in and that is really complicated. The G string is tuned down to F sharp for that, and it makes for some interesting harmonies, but it’s not easy to play the left-hand part on that. A Love Like That has a very fast-moving harmonic, and I’m very grateful to my brother for helping out with learning that part. I am really looking forward to playing my new songs, and some favourites for a live audience, and fingers crossed, getting back out on the road next year and going out on tour. I love playing, and having new songs to play is a real pleasure.
Katie Melua plays a full livestream concert UK/ Europe 17th December 2020 & North America 18th December 2020. Details and tickets available here: Tickets from katiemelua.lnk.to/Live