Imbruglia imbroglio

Five minutes ago she was a Kylie clone. Now the former 'Neighbours' starlet is at the top of the charts with a soul-searching debut album; and the wonder is, it's not half bad; interview: Natalie Imbruglia
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
YOU MIGHT have thought that after Alanis Morissette and Joan Osborne and Fiona Apple and Meredith Brooks the attraction of wailing, troubled beauty would have worn ultra-slim. It seems not. Natalie Imbruglia's brand of girlie angst took her to number two last year with her debut single, "Torn", her album, Left of the Middle, is sticking around the top 30 and the next single, "Big Mistake" (released 23 February) promises to be another huge seller. As she explained to Arena, she has emerged from the chorus line of former Aussie soap stars to become not just successful, but credible. Even Melody Maker want her on their cover.

A tiny 23-year-old with perfect skin and puppy-dog peepers, Imbruglia is an odd candidate for tortured soulstress. "Sometimes," she admits, "I can imagine my dad thinking, 'What has this girl been through, my little girl, to write songs like these?' But we don't discuss it. We don't go there." Imbruglia grew up on Australia's sun-blessed Central Coast. "I came from a family that was the real Brady Bunch, I had two parents who loved each other and loads of sisters [three to be exact]. But you can always find your own turmoil, a way to isolate yourself. Maybe I am just a bit of a drama queen. I always found a way to bring some angst into it. I felt different and isolated, just in the sense that I was so ambitious, much more than anyone else in the family."

At 14, Imbruglia caught the train to Sydney to find an acting agent. Her mother had decided that her six evenings of dance classes a week were quite enough theatrical labour for a young lass. But Imbruglia got an agent's number from a friend and went anyway. Within six months of leaving school at 16 she had four commercials under her belt and a part in Neighbours. For the next couple of years she was Beth, the latest Melbourne burb-babe on the block. In an effort to move on, she came to live in London. "I was really maniacally busy from the age of 17 and then suddenly Neighbours was over and I didn't know what to do. So I did nothing. I just went out and had a good time. It was a good solid year of doing nothing and it was worth two."

Imbruglia is coy about the names, places, habits and hook-ups of this year. But, whatever the details, eventually the thrill of her London adventures began to fade. In her darkest hours, with the parties over, Imbruglia had started writing songs. "There was this whole thing of 'I can't do that', even though I really wanted to. It had already been done and I had to deal with that. While I was on Neighbours the idea of one us making a record had become a bit of a joke. But I just kept telling myself, I'm doing this because I want to do this before I die. And I might not get another chance. But I felt like a twat."

A year and a half ago she took her songs to RCA. They liked what she had. More importantly, they understood that Imbruglia's past did not mean she had to be marketed as short-life dance fluff. They hooked her up with a range of writing and producing partners who could help her develop into something with more long-term adult appeal. Certainly, RCA's efforts are centred on promoting Imbruglia as an album artist, a Mojo-friendly, rock- reverent neo-classicist; a song-smith with something to say. In turn, Imbruglia makes it clear that the angst was not engineered as an angle. "When I'm trying to be intelligent or trying to make a statement, I can't do it. I fuck up. What comes out, comes out."

All has not been entirely plain sailing. Back in January Imbruglia's status as an authentic singer-songwriter took a body blow when it emerged that "Torn" has been written by a Dane called Phil Thornally and recorded two years previously by a Norwegian popette. Although she never claimed to have written the song, her cover was beyond faithful: "It shouldn't be called 'Torn'," quipped Chris Evans, "it should be called 'Ripped Off'."

But it is impossible to believe that Imbruglia's terrible ache for credibility is anything but genuine. "That was more important to me than anything, more important than chart positions or sales. Is it going to be a joke or not? - that's all I really cared about. And it didn't matter what people were saying to me while I was making it. Now the reviews are out and they're good and people are treating it with a deal of respect, at last I can kind of chill out and enjoy it."

What she enjoys less is the sudden nation's-sweetheart status, and the attendant interest in her duvet action or lack of it. "That is something that I really struggle with," she admits. David Schwimmer has been one such romantic attachment and is in the thank you list on the album's credits. It is also rumoured that Nigel Goldrich, who mixed much of the Left of the Middle, as well as co-producing Radiohead's all conquering OK Computer, has been a close friend. Imbruglia will not elaborate. What she will say is that the bitter symphony of Left of the Middle does not signal a terminal disenchantment with the male of the spieces. "I am not anti-men, no more than any other girl, anyway. I've been through all kinds of experiences and I've been hurt but I don't have some hang-up on men, I love men. The thing is, I don't feel that I need to be with somebody at the moment and that' s a nice change."

More generally, has the critical and commercial success of the album brought Imbruglia to a happier place? "Oh no, I'm not sure I'll ever have that feeling. I just hope I stay feeling like this for a while."

This is an excerpt of an interview which can be seen in full in the March issue of 'Arena', on sale now