Charlotte Church: The voice of an angel gets down and dirty
She sang for Mandela, sold millions, and testified to Leveson. Now Charlotte Church is touring scuzzy indie venues and relishing the simple life
All the women I know dream of a night out with Charlotte Church. Even my mum dreams of a night out with Charlotte Church. Ever since the child star stopped performing requiem masses for leaders of the free world and reached the legal age to drink in pubs, she has looked like marvellous company for a night on the gin gimlets. (Her sterling testimony at the Leveson Inquiry only served to increase our awe.)
Charlotte Church is now 27 and would offer, you tell yourself, the fiercest stories, the most generous rounds of drinks, and the loyalty to hold your hair back while you puked over the bog at the end of the night. She even looks like the sort of friend who'd chuck your phone in the river if you threatened to sext your ex. A trooper.
Devastatingly, though, it appears I have met her too late for any of this to ever happen to me.
“I don't really go out much any more,” she says with a comedy sigh, in London for a day of meetings and a video shoot before going back to Cardiff, where her ex, Gavin Henson, is looking after their two children.
Oh but come on, I protest, everyone says that. It's what celebrities say to put you off the scent. “Yeah but I'm getting old, I've got babies – I'm not that much fun!”
“She's not fun at all,” pipes up her friend Rhiannon, who works as her manager. They chuckle.
The thing is that Church has reinvented herself as a DIY singer-songwriter, somewhere nearer Florence and the Machine or Björk in genre, but without the backing of a major record label. She seems to be absolutely thriving on doing everything herself: writing the songs with her band, fiddling with guitar pedals on stage in small venues, building a recording studio in her garage, even washing up all the coffee mugs that get used in said studio. But it's quite a departure from her old life.
“We're shooting a video for my song 'Glitterbombed' today and I think my head is going to be a planet, cos I was looking at some NASA footage of some nebulae and when they come together they get faster and faster until they explode, which looked cool. But sometimes I'm trying to think of ideas for a video or something, and I'm like, you know what, I'm all out. Cardboard box, that do? Ha. So yeah it's been quite complicated. I haven't worked this hard for a long time,” she says.
I suggest, only because I've got one myself, that having babies is hard work too. “Yeah but that's different work,” says Church, who is quite glowing and perky considering she got up at about 4am to drive to London. “That's instantly rewarding. This is more of a slog.”
She's clearly having a good time in the driving seat. But I wonder what it's like having been such a world star, your childhood so unusual that you are schooled on the road by tutors and end up sitting one of your GCSEs in the White House, singing for Nelson Mandela, the Queen and the Pope, and selling more than 10 million records worldwide – to now be on the road with a somewhat scruffier bunch of musos and staying in cheap hotels. Where, she herself admits, “a couple of times we've been back after a gig and the only thing to eat is probably a microwaveable horse burger – disgusting!” and where they were so happy when the venue promoter in York took them home to his wife who cooked them chicken fajitas.
“Ah, it's all about going where the wind takes you – whatever. All that really matters is whether it was a good gig or not,” says Church, magnanimously.
One of her band is her boyfriend of a couple of years standing, a handsome, shaggy haired muso type called Jonathan Powell, who also releases his own songs. He lives with Charlotte and her kids and their life seems a world apart from her previous one, where she was with rugby player Gavin Henson and would do photo-shoots with the kids in celebrity magazines.
“Oh it's ridiculous,” she says of her current bloke's bookishness. “Four o'clock this morning, we're in the car and he wants the light on so he can read. Crime and Punishment! Little bit of Dostoyevsky in the dark.” She clearly adores him, and hasn't ruled out having more kids. (Her own current bedside reading is A Prayer for Owen Meany, and The Selfish Gene). He bought her a record player and they sit and listen to it so much they have worn the needle out.
If you could have known, I ask her, 10 years ago, that you'd be doing this: running your own band, playing these little indie venues, getting political, testifying against the press, with two kids, and a divorce in your twenties? “Oh I never married,” she says. “Smart girl,” she adds, knowingly.
She says that, though she worked hard, it was always just always about following the way the wind was blowing. I find that hard to believe – just listening to her talk you can feel her focus. Her boyfriend just took her to see Björk play in Paris on her birthday and she's raving about the mechanics of the show, how the Tesla synth was activated, how the 20-strong choir could possibly have been conducted to work so well with Björk's complicated time-signatures.
And so we come to Leveson – perhaps the clearest example yet of Church deciding to take matters into her own hands. She testified against the phone-hacking that made her family's life a misery, revealing all sorts of lurid personal stuff, and about Murdoch himself, revealing quite extraordinary tales of how she had sung at his wedding to Wendi Deng, and been convinced to take “press favours” in lieu of payment.
“Doing Leveson was... sort of awful. Yeah… just sort of, ugh, going back over all of that stuff. And also I did feel like, I didn't want to give my statement up against someone like the McCanns, I mean I have nothing to say compared to them, let them say it all. But at the same time there weren't many people speaking out so I also felt quite isolated at the time. There was still the possibility of the almightily powerful press, which it is, still, sort of being like, 'okay we've got you'.”
So you still thought, worse things could happen to me if I do this?
“Well I just thought. I don't want to be targeted. I'd just got out it. I had just sort of left all that, tried to steer away from all of that tabloid stuff. So I don't want to make myself a tabloid target again, have them just waiting for me to fall and make a mistake or whatever. But I thought: 'Well, I have to do it. I have to do it for my children. For my family and all that they've been through. For my nana, every time that she went to church on a Sunday and she'd be like, ”so and so said something, you know, she's a Catholic and... well, blah blah blah“.' It was difficult for the whole family. Obviously I also had an amazing career from which we all benefited but, similarly, it shouldn't have had to have been that hard. It was unfair – it was just the injustice of it the whole way throughout that made me sick to my stomach.”
The experience has left her newly politicised, something that is apparent even in her song lyrics. “Beautiful Wreck”, on her last EP, is a song about exploitation, inspired by her experiences at the hands of the Daily Mail. There is more political material on its way – Church is releasing a string of EPs, rather than longer albums, as she wants to work with material while it's still fresh.
“After I did the Leveson Inquiry a lot of stuff fell away from me. A lot of clouded vision that I'd had. I started to see things a bit more as they actually were, which is a bit harsher – a bit harder. I had a little romantic idea of people and humanity, and spirit and art, and I had never really paid much attention to politics. I've never been interested in Margaret Thatcher. So when you start paying attention you go: ”Oh shit. Oh my god! My god this is awful!'“
She says she travelled the world as a child with a massive interest in meeting people, not working out the structures that rule us. She had no fear about performing for huge audiences. “I was a kid, I didn't care. I mean, I took pride, but I wasn't frightened. But when you start to see the world as it actually is, you... [she sucks in her breath] you see that this is a hard place, and it's all about money. And I just, sometimes it just overwhelms me a little bit. And you think: 'My children. Oh my children!” She affects the dramatic voice of a Chekhov heroine losing the dacha, and laughs at herself.
So, she tries to fill her children's lives with music. They love listening to Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf in the car on the way to school and nursery (Ruby is five and Dexter is three), and she plays them vinyl records at home. In fact, she buys all her music on vinyl. I say this must limit what she can buy – they don't release Taylor Swift in that format. “I'm good for Taylor Swift, thanks!” she laughs. “The kids are quite into David Bowie. I try not to play them all of this synthesised Taylor Swift, Rihanna – because some of it's just sex, sex, sex… but also it's all of these autotuned elements that are really inhuman and not musical. And whilst computer music, in terms of electronic beats and synth sounds, is great, in general that's controlled by humans and has a human element. I don't want them to listen to autotuned stuff and get attuned to it – because once you hear that stuff you can't really listen another way. Your ear has been trained to listen to this inhuman perfection. Yeah... crazy things happen to the brain with soundwaves and… whatnot.”
So you think that stuff has a permanent impact on the brain?
“Definitely! And you'll be more likely to reject other stuff. And there can be so much emotion in a voice that's slightly flat, or a detuned piano. If you look at somebody like… Morrissey – he's sharp. Almost the whole way through – but it's the whole thing. You'd never get that nowadays, people wouldn't stand for it. And everything now is super treble-y or sub-bass-y with no mid-range – but anyway I'm getting on my geek high horse, ha ha ha. So anyway, the kids love ELO. 'Mr Blue Sky'! That's a great tune for kids. We just try and play them stuff that's still fun.”
And if these new songs take off, will she go back to doing chat shows and the whole media machine again?
“I don't want to sit there and look pretty in a nice outfit with some high heels and talk about shit. I've done that and I don't want to do that any more,” she says. “I've always spoken freely but I've always known the confines too – I know how to play the game so well it's second nature. But I don't want to play it any more. I don't like it.
“I don't want to say something outrageous just to be outrageous, or demand all the attention, because that's not me either. But I don't want to be bogus.” Charlotte Church is looking as sure of herself as I've ever seen anyone look. “I want to break the mould.”
The EP 'Two' is out now; Charlotte Church plays SXSW on 15 March
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