The British-Georgian singer-songwriter explains why she has returned to her roots to record with the violinist Lisa BatiashviliThe Guardian
In a recording booth at the Georgian Film Studios in Tbilisi, an engineer helping to record the violinist Lisa Batiashvili’s new album curses under his breath as the electrics on the soundboard repeatedly switch off. Katie Melua, the British-Georgian singer-songwriter, is perched on a piano stool, nodding in time to the music. “You’re in Georgia – you have to get used to it,” she says.
Such mishaps were a part of her everyday life when she was growing up. “Though what was most stressful was when the lights came back on again after a power cut,” she says. “Everyone would rush around – my uncles to their cassette players to listen to music, I’d put in a VHS to watch a film, my gran would run to heat up the water. Then we might lose power again within five minutes.”
Times have changed. Georgia is growing economically, power cuts are rarer, and Melua is back in the capital to record a track on Batiashvili’s album City Lights.
“For a long time Georgia was not somewhere I’d have considered recording music,” Melua says. “But artistically the country’s always been very rich, and now the technology is coming into its own.”
The Georgian conductor and composer Nikoloz Rachveli, who is artistic director of the Georgian Philharmonic Orchestra, was responsible for bringing the compatriots together. He and his musicians also feature on the album, which journeys across the cities of the world, from Berlin to Tbilisi, combining the genres of film and classical music, folk and pop, tango, jazz and gypsy in 12 pieces.
The final track, Tbilisi, by Giya Kancheli, a feted Georgian composer who died last year, is, for Batiashvili, the most poignant. “It recalls the pain and anxiety of this small country, which has been in conflict most of its history, at the crossroads of bigger powers, who always wanted something from us. It’s an endless story, which is still relevant today,” she says.
Later, Batiashvili and Melua, on whom Kancheli was also a big influence, will lay flowers at his grave in Tbilisi together.But even as the two musicians meet for the first time, politely shaking hands and greeting each other in Georgian in the wood-panelled, Soviet-era studio, outside, anti-government protests are convulsing Tbilisi.
“I was woken up by water cannon fire this morning, as our apartment is just behind the parliament,” says Melua, showing a video on her phone of police trying to break up the protesters, thousands of whom have taken to the streets in recent months, campaigning for electoral reform, even pitching tents at the foot of the parliament building.
Batiashvili says: “The protesters would like the country to move closer to Europe, while others think retaining the closeness to Russia is important. The government plays a sort of game where they pretend to go in both directions. But of course you can’t go both ways.”
Melua’s contribution to City Lights is the raspy ballad No Better Magic, a heartfelt tribute to London, her adoptive city. Written by her, it conjures an idyllic picture of London life passing through the seasons, told by an observer at the Serpentine lake in Hyde Park.
For the orchestra accompanying her, she translates the lyrics into Georgian and explains the title. The musicians applaud. Melua says the song sums up her feelings towards Britain, where she moved with her parents in the 1990s when she was just eight, escaping from the aftermath of Georgia’s civil war, which left the country in economic ruin.
“Viewed through the eyes of a Georgian, Britain has this touching delicacy about it, embodied in its well-tended parks, people’s love of nature, and London – where I now live – from my Georgian perspective, is the most extraordinary place to chance upon. I wanted to capture that in this song and paint that picture,” she says. “Of course, once you’re inside British culture, you realise it’s full of drama and its own kind of wildness.”
Batiashvili’s family left Georgia for similar reasons, choosing to settle in Germany because of their expectation that she would get a good education in classical music. She has gone on to become one of the leading violinists of her generation, performing with some of the world’s major orchestras and frequently appearing at the Proms.
“What I became was thanks to Germany, where I found my place as a foreigner as soon as I was accepted into the school orchestra. But like all Georgian children, I had been given a strong musical grounding and I remain deeply connected to Georgia through the music,” she says.
Melua says being in a choir in Georgia and having singing lessons there gave her the basis for her success in the UK, where she attended a performing arts school and went on to have several hit songs.
“When we left Georgia, I remember being particularly sad about leaving my singing teacher, Zia, and my heavy metal-loving uncles,” she says. “At the same time, I had this great hope of moving somewhere where the electricity would work and the water was always available. Though when I look back, I think my musical ear probably developed during the blackouts, when we spent the evenings in candlelight and my Mum played the piano.”