Success turned her psychotic: Katie Melua’s sobering story
The singer-songwriter battled to bring herself back from the brink, getting totally creeped out along the way
At 34 years young, Katie Melua has spent half her life in the music industry – and a quarter of her life recovering from the sudden success, which saw album sales in the multi-millions and back-to-back world tours, and culminated in an acute psychotic breakdown that saw her hospitalised for six weeks and on medication for two years.
For sure Melua hasn’t gripped the headlines like her near-exact peer Lily Allen, but the singer-songwriter has, surprisingly, endured her own ups and downs. And she’s come out the other end, sober, smiling and with a greatest hits collection of 32 tracks (including her breakthrough hits such as The Closest Thing To Crazy and Nine Million Bicycles) to remind everyone, herself included, what it was all about in the first place.
Signed to a record deal aged 18, Melua – who was born in the former Soviet republic of Georgia and raised in the UK from the age of eight – had vertiginous liftoff from the start: her debut album, Call Off The Search, was the biggest-selling album of 2004. It was the start of a run of seven Top 10 albums, the first six with producer/writer Mike Batt.
“When it (her first album) did so well, that blew me away. Eleven million albums,” she says, big eyes widening. We’re talking on squishy sofas in a lovely house in a lovely street in very lovely Holland Park, west London. Melua bought the home for her family at the height of her success.
“To have been able to buy my parents a house in London is something no one can imagine. Especially this bit of London. It’s incredible.”
She herself lives in equally chichi Barnes, southwest London, with her husband of six years, former superbike champion James Toseland. Ten years ago, the Sunday Times Rich List had the then-24-year-old musician as being worth £18m (about R346m).
“I did not expect to make that amount of money. I just loved performing, the singing, the songs. And then things got really tough.”
The physical sales started to go down and suddenly it was like: “OK, we need to use your touring work to sustain that as well.” But it quickly became unsustainable. “It became crazy – don’t know how many people on fees all the time, people constantly being hired, people on retainers. The success was amazing,” she reiterates, grateful for the songs Batt wrote for her, and the wisdom he imparted after 50 years in the business.
“But the timing of how much we had to put out, that was the bit that I struggled with. It was album, tour, album, tour …”
Melua remembers a “hilarious” meeting where she was presented with an actual picture of “the person who is your average fan: a guy in his 40s or a 50s – and they drive a Volvo!” she laughs. “I was like: ‘Brilliant, what am I supposed to do with that?’” Apart from being creeped out, that is. “It’s really creepy!” she laughs again.
Then, in the midst of it all, eight years ago this month the wheels fell off.
“I had spent a year going to hypnotherapy sessions. When I wasn’t touring I’d be really down, then suddenly after a few weeks of crazy travelling – America, a double headline with Ray Davies in Denmark, TV shows here and just partying … Suddenly I had an acute psychotic breakdown.
“It came out of the blue. I’d never suffered from depression before and we don’t really have a history of it in the family. But I was completely out of it. Not unconscious, but having really terrible paranoia. I couldn’t sleep for I don’t know how many days and was having really chronic nightmares, like you’re in an apocalyptic film.”
Deeply unwell, she was admitted to hospital for two weeks. Katie remembers: “When I was coming out of it, one of my night shift nurses said: ‘Jesus, I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy.’”
Does she view her mental breakdown as a function of the treadmill, and the success, the relentless pace of it?
“Hmm …” she begins. “There was that. Having that in your early 20s, trying to figure out who you are, I experimented – the partying, not wanting to have a conventional family … I just wanted to try everything. I think it’s what most 20-somethings do. Then as I was turning 26, it dawned on me: actually I love family life, and I do want to get married and have kids one day, I’m not this crazy rebel.”
She was put on anti-psychotics for four months, and the antidepressant Citalopram for two years. “And I’m really proud of the fact that I weaned off them.” She admits to a slight apprehension about returning to work, wondering whether resuming singing and performing might trigger another breakdown.
“Did my job do this to me?” she wonders rhetorically. “I wouldn’t want to pin it just to that. Recreational drugs and partying and drinking – that doesn’t help.
“It taught me just what the mind can do,” she continues. “And since then I have been very clean-living. I don’t really drink, I don’t do any recreational drugs – because the human mind is extraordinary in terms of the chemicals in there. Because mine just went,” she smiles, pointing to the ceiling.
Now, signed with new management and a new label, Melua is more in charge of the business side; “I’ll go through the budgets for tours and recordings, royalty statements … You have to wise up about it a bit more. I can do my own hair and makeup. I don’t need an entourage. Maybe when you’re 18, 19, 20, you could have a bit of a wobble if you’re going on live TV and playing guitar. But in your 30s you’ve got to just grow up about it.
“Plus, I married a Yorkshireman. I think you probably know what I mean by that – financial sensibility!” she laughs.
Even with her spell of ill health in 2010 and 2011, Melua largely kept up her work-rate. She released albums in 2012, 2013 and, in 2016, In Winter, recorded with Georgia’s Gori Women’s Choir.
The latter is a reflection of a still-deep attachment to her homeland. When we meet she’s just back from a weekend visit, where she performed in Tblisi and was awarded the title of Honorary Citizen of the Georgian capital. She’ll be spending much of the rest of this year on an extensive European tour.
Toseland is also busy: now retired from competitive racing through injury, he’s a sports pundit and a musician, too. But will the couple pause their careers to have a family?
“Totally. That’s the biggest thing with women in our industry: our courage to go: ‘OK, I’m in my mid-30s and I want to have family.’ But just finding that moment to say: ‘OK this is it,’ is the biggest struggle. And then praying and hoping that nature will be kind to me …”
As for that upcoming two-month run of concerts, Melua is determined to do it sensibly. She’s been thinking about adding extracurricular activities for the touring party, to break the cycle of gig, hotel bar, party, tour bus. “Takeaway night? Cinema night? Game of netball backstage? Just to add something.”
Spoken like a true grown-up.
- © The Daily Telegraph