Natalie Imbruglia: Torn no longer

After a tough few years, Natalie Imbruglia has found the right songs again. Her new album is the proof, she tells James McNair

Natalie Imbruglia was 16 when she began playing the surfer girl Beth Brennan in Neighbours. Fourteen years on - and seven years after the hit "Torn" established her as a pop star - we're meeting at her PR's London offices.

Natalie Imbruglia was 16 when she began playing the surfer girl Beth Brennan in Neighbours. Fourteen years on - and seven years after the hit "Torn" established her as a pop star - we're meeting at her PR's London offices.

Imbruglia's beauty - huge blue eyes, full lips and perfect, L'Oréal-nourished skin - is striking. Beside her is a Balenciaga handbag, a gift from her husband Daniel Johns, the singer and guitarist with the Australian rock band Silverchair.

Imbruglia left Neighbours more than a decade ago, and she won't be taking part in the Aussie soap's upcoming 20th anniversary celebrations, although she was asked. "I'll always be grateful to the show for launching my career," she says, "but I wouldn't want to revisit that time."

In any case, commitments would make it very tricky. Visit her website at www.natalie-imbruglia.co.uk, and you'll see a digital clock ticking off the time to the release of her third album, Counting Down the Days - three years in the making and subject to various false starts and hurdles. The single "Shiver" is already a hit and Nat is doing the promotional rounds.

Problem one in making the album was the material. The band she played Australia's Rumba Festival with in 2002 "rocked out a bit", and - although that was fun - her less than raucous voice was drowned out at times. "The record company wasn't feeling what we'd written; they thought it had too many heavy guitars," she says. "Most of it got scrapped."

Then, when Imbruglia began passing on songs that became hits for others, she acquired a reputation for being difficult. "It wasn't that I didn't know they were hits, more that I knew they weren't right for me," she says. "I have to value the sentiment of a song. If that makes me a control freak, I'll live with that."

One song that made it was "Shiver". With Shep Solomon, it was written by Eg White, who wrote "Leave Right Now" for Will Young. On Counting Down..., she has also worked with the writer/producers Ash Howes and Martin Harrington; the Blur producer Ben Hillier; and with her husband, who donated the Beatles-esque "Satisfied".

She met Johns at a Silverchair gig in London in 1999. After dating, splitting, reuniting and then marrying on 31 December 2003, they are now living on opposite sides of the globe - an arrangement that seems to suit them. "I see it as a good thing that we have so much space," Imbruglia says. "I can sense when Dan needs to go off and do his thing. When we're apart and he tells me he's come up with songs, I'm pleased because that's the person I fell in love with. If I felt I was taking that away from him, I'd be the first to put him on a plane and say, 'Time for a writing trip.'"

Still, it's not surprising that a major theme on Counting Down... is that great pop stalwart, longing. Imbruglia thinks that her new album might have been less potent if she and Johns were together all the time: "Getting too happy and writing shit songs scares a lot of songwriters."

And she seems uncomfortable when quizzed about her efforts to learn the guitar. "I gave it a go, and I was terrible," she says. "You feel this pressure that people will take you more seriously if you play guitar, but I've decided I'm a singer and that's enough."

Natalie Jane Imbruglia was born in Campsie, Sydney in 1975. In her early teens, she attended McDonald College, a performing-arts school in Sydney. Emerging as something of an all-rounder, she got an agent and began doing TV advert work. At 16, she won a part in Neighbours and left home to live in Melbourne. This was when her love affair with music began; by day she acted on Ramsay Street, at night she was singing Joni Mitchell and Shawn Colvin.

Disappointed by the scripts and weary of compulsory bikini days, she quit Neighbours in 1994 and moved to London. After partying "a lot", she turned again to music. Her 1997 debut album Left of the Middle reached No 5, sold 6.5 million copies and stayed in the UK chart for 81 weeks. Since then it's been something of a struggle, with poor sales of her 2001 album White Lilies Island, so the six-figure endorsement deal Imbruglia signed with L'Oréal in 2002 must have cheered her up no end.

What with that other Neighbours star turned pop princess Kylie now working her Showgirl tour, costing £5m to stage, you feel for Imbruglia when she says that booking venues for her own tour is a tough call. "If I don't get to tour this year, I'll go mad," she says. "But the record company tells me it depends on how well the album does. I know my music probably isn't going to matter to the public after I die, but that doesn't mean I don't have something to offer."

'Counting Down the Days' is out on Monday on Brightside Recordings

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