Choice Of An Angel: Charlotte Church's Favourite Albums
, September 16th, 2013 08:40
Charlotte Church, former world-conquering child soprano turned alt-rock auteur, picks 13 albums that may entirely change your view of her. But, as the Quietus finds out, challenging preconceptions is something she's used to
Charlotte Church is everything you think she's going to be. And nothing like it at all.
She is, just as you'd predict from her public persona, fantastic company and a riotously good laugh, blessed with an easy Cardiff charm which fools you into feeling that you've already known her for years (and has you affectionately calling her 'Charl' way before you've earned that kind of informal intimacy).
But even this down-to-earth normality is, when you take a step back and consider it, a massive surprise in itself. Never mind "Crazy Chick": after the life she's had so far, she couldn't be blamed for actually being stark, staring, pencils-up-the-nostrils insane.
Born Charlotte Maria Reed in 1986, Church didn't have long to enjoy a regular, anonymous life. Discovered at the age of just 11, the Llandaff Cathedral choirgirl became an international singing sensation when she signed to Sony and shifted millions of copies of her debut album Voice Of An Angel and its three successors, performing in front of the Queen, the Pope and the President of the USA.
Like generations of former child stars before her, from Elizabeth Taylor to Christina Ricci, Church then had to negotiate the transition from cherubic innocent to mature sexual being in the full glare of the spotlight, hindered and hounded all the way by a leering, lascivious tabloid press which depicted utterly average teenage behaviour as shocking evidence of a bad girl gone off the rails. There followed a brief but brilliant phase as a pop princess with the Tissues And Issues album. There was a further era of press overkill when she and her then-boyfriend, rugby player Gavin Henson (with whom she has two children), became anointed the Welsh Posh & Becks. There were three series' worth of a patchy but likeable Channel 4 chat show. There was another album, 2010's more downbeat, reflective and autumnal Back To Scratch. In 2011 she testified before the Leveson Inquiry, and later accepted £600,000 in damages from the News Of The World after claims that 33 stories about her had resulted from the hacking of her family's voicemail. Then she disappeared off the radar. Until now.
What Charlotte did next, no-one saw coming. She's undergone a complete stylistic change, daringly switching to inventive, often challenging, genre-mashing, borderline-experimental alternative rock with a succession of EPs on her own Alligator Wine label, recalling the questing spirit of Kate Bush circa The Dreaming. Charlotte's been touring tiny venues around the UK to showcase her new sound, and confronting the preconceptions of her audience isn't always proving easy.
"I think there's a small section who go along to take the piss," she accepts, sipping a lunchtime lemonade in a London private members' club bar. "Like 'Oh, come on, let's see what this is gonna be like'. Hopefully they go away pleasantly surprised. We get loads of metalheads, who love it 'cos it's pretty raucous live. There's two drummers, and Johnny (Powell, Church's boyfriend) makes horrific noises with his guitar. Then you get lots of older people who come along expecting Voice Of An Angel. In the early days, we had people literally turning up in wheelchairs with oxygen tanks and earplugs. A lot of them sat through it and enjoyed it, but we've had quite a few walkouts. And we get people expecting something poppy, like the 'Crazy Chick' era, but they seem to enjoy it as well. Because we've been so hardline about this - it is what it is, no covers, a whole new set you've never heard - it can be quite a difficult thing."
Being a mainstream pop star was never something Charlotte took to naturally.
"I was trying to write, for the first time. And the reason that I started wasn't that I was a naturally talented writer, or even wanted to write, just that that's what you did. It was 'good for publishing', or whatever. So Sony just said 'Right, we'll put you with this person, this person and this person'. And I was a baby! I was 16-17, and I'd had a really weird life experience that I couldn't really put into words and rhyme in a song that would move anyone. You can't help but draw on what you know, so it was teenage relationships, silly things. It was a great experience and I met some incredible characters."
These included the two Guys, Chambers ("mental but brilliant") and Sigsworth ("it didn't work out"). Then there was a certain R&B maestro...
"I went over to Atlanta and worked with Dallas Austin (TLC, Brandy & Monica, Pink, etc), which was ridiculous, 'cos he didn't start work till 9 in the evening and then he wanted to work through the night. I thought 'What?!' It made no sense at all. And he was absolutely stoned. I was there with my notebook and pen, ready to write, and said to the engineer, 'Is he... snoring?!' and he said 'Oh no, he just likes to rest his eyes. He'll wake up in a minute.' I was like, fuck this, I'm going home. I haven't come all the way out here for him to fall asleep.'"
Meanwhile, the papers were revelling in the supposed disparity between the squeaky-clean soprano who'd sung for royalty, and the real-life Cardiff teenager who liked to party hard.
"It was the perfect hypocrisy for them", she says. "And though it wasn't mine, personally, they love to victimise people over it, the stereotypical child-star-goes-bad kind of thing. It started in earnest when I was 14, after we had a court case with (former manager) Jonathan Shalit. We kept being told I had to move over to America and be done with it, 'cos that's where my career was, and get away from all that stuff. But I didn't want to leave. My life would have been totally fucked up. And through staying there in Wales, in my little safe hub, which it continues to be, I was free to be totally normal and do what my friends did. And the media just had a field day."
It was, in fact, the papers themselves who were guilty of hypocrisy. With a staggering absence of self-awareness, the Daily Star famously ran a creepy a photo item about 15-year-old Charlotte's cleavage, with the headline 'She's A Big Girl Now' and joking that she was "looking chest swell", right next to an article denouncing the Brass Eye paedophile special as 'sick'. It's an incident Church remembers well.
"The Chris Morris thing? Yeah, I know... but it's still present in most of the tabloids today. That blatant hypocrisy, where they'll really go after people like they're the true white knights of justice, but it's like, take at a look at your own product, now. Just reflect. Come on. What is this really giving the world apart from titillation and a bad taste?"
During her TV show, Charlotte was a first-hand witness when another star really did start to go off the rails. Her duet with Amy Winehouse on Michael Jackson's 'Beat It' was car-crash viewing.
"I was gutted. I loved Frank, and this was just before Back To Black was released, so she wasn't 'Amy Winehouse' yet. I had no idea about all the rest of it, I was just a fan. Even in rehearsal the day before, she was a bit all-over-the-shop, and I remember thinking 'Oh no! But you're incredible!' I was 21 and heavily pregnant, and I just didn't know how to deal with it. So we just sort of pushed through, and it was OK, but on the day of recording it was really difficult. People were shouting 'Sing it yourself, Charlotte!' We had to do it so many times, I literally had my hand behind her back, holding her up. I was thinking 'You shouldn't be here in front of the camera! You should go home and have a kip.'"
Even now, Charlotte isn't safe from the prying lenses. The Daily Mail recently papped her through the windscreen of her car, eating a burger on the way home from rehearsals. Hold the front page - a human being eating food!
"Haha, yeah, 'She's a size 12! How dare she have a McDonald's! Why isn't she at the gym? It's disgusting!'"
Charlotte's no stranger to the zoom lens of the body image-obsessed glossy magazines, publishing long-distance bikini shots from her holidays and criticising her shape with their too fat/too thin/can't win mentality.
"That's stopped now," she says, relieved. "And if it started again, I would play up with a vengeance, 'cos it's no way to live. Some people in the public eye want to live like that, and that's their selling point, and that's fine for them, everybody's gotta make a living, whatever. But I don't think it's a good thing for society. That whole thing sucks, and I'm so glad I'm no longer part of that. It's died off with me, because I got a bit more savvy, and hid away for a bit, and tried not to say anything controversial."
She'll be referring to past incidents such as calling Pope Benedict XVI a Nazi, calling the Queen "an old woman who has no idea what's going on", and some poorly-received comments in the wake of 9/11.
"I just kept my head down. And then I got a bit chunkier and a bit older, and they weren't so interested! But also, through Leveson, I think they thought, 'Leave her alone until we've got something really fucking awful.'"
The first time I saw Charlotte in person was at the aftershow party at the Manic Street Preachers' set at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium on Millennium Eve, an early sign that her musical tastes stretched beyond hymns and arias.
"Yeah, I would have been 14... but I've been into everything, for ever. When I was super-duper young, I'm talking 3 or 4, I loved Gloria Estefan. Apparently, in my nursery they had the radio on all the time and I just used to pick up the lyrics really easily, and that's how my mother first knew I was musical. As I got older I listened to a lot of classical and opera, obviously. A lot of Puccini, more from the romantic era, and as I grew up I got into all sorts of weird shit, and now I'm massively into Messiaen, and more instrumental stuff than vocal, like The Protecting Veil by John Tavener, which I was gonna put on my list. And then the Manics: I was gonna choose The Holy Bible. My tutor Richard, who used to travel round with us 'cos I couldn't always be at school, was a massive Manics fan. It was around the time of This Is My Truth, Tell Me Yours - which I loved - and he was like, 'It's not about this. It's about The Holy Bible.' Then I got into Silverchair, 'cos I was a teenager and I was into emo, and I was massively into R&B as well, like D'Angelo, India.Arie, Musiq Soulchild, Jill Scott... and Nikka Costa, this skinny white chick with blazing red hair and a badass voice. But pop passed me by, apart from the Sugababes. And then I listened to a load of old stuff, like Laura Nyro and Ricki Lee Jones, and lots of jazz. My bampy (Welsh slang for grandad) used to listen to a lot of old blues and soul and rock&roll. And my aunty, who's a cabaret singer, was always into Celine and Barbra, but I couldn't really stand that. And I feel bad saying that, because they're obviously incredible singers. But I suppose it was when I was pregnant with my eldest that I started massively delving into music. Before that, I'd been working so hard for such a long time, and I'd never got to go to gigs until then. Which is when these albums came into my life."
Which brings us to the Baker's Dozen. Whatever you expected from Charlotte Church, it's fair to say this probably wasn't it...
Click on the image below to begin scrolling through Charlotte's choices. Her UK tour begins in Wolverhampton on Thursday, September 19; head to her website to get hold of tickets and read our review of her latest EP, THREE, here