'This one's for Mr Murdoch': How Charlotte Church fought back against the media
Even her appearance at the Leveson Inquiry hasn’t stopped the paparazzi chasing Charlotte Church – and with a new musical direction and a new maturity, she tells Nick Duerden why she’s not prepared to be a ‘product’ any more.
So, who is the typical Charlotte Church fan in 2012? Fourteen years ago, when she was the dulcet Voice of an Angel, the answer to such a question might well have been everyone from presidents to popes – she performed for both – and, of course, quite possibly every teary grandmother in the Western world.
But tonight, on a crisp autumn evening at the end of September, the answer is harder to divine. Church, now 26, is playing a gig at the Monto Water Rats, a tiny venue in the back of a pub in King's Cross, which, at a push, can squeeze in 200 people. The singer is here to debut her new material, songs that have little in common with either her classical past or previous pop outings, but is instead far darker, more torrid and windswept.
While paparazzi loiter outside, perhaps in the hope that Church will emerge at some point with drink and fag in hand, the venue itself is crammed with men, mostly, ranging from 30 to 50, many with beards, some boasting faded Charlotte Church T-shirts, the tour dates listed on the back long since lost to history.
The singer herself will later admit that she has no idea who her core audience is any more ("I've done so many different things, over so many years, it's difficult to know who I appeal to now"), but they are clearly a loyal bunch: when she at last appears on stage, dressed casually in jeans and frilly shirt, many of these men cry out, "We love you, Charlotte!" Church, busy spooning manuka honey into her mouth to oil her vocal chords, smiles tentatively and offers demure thanks.
Halfway through her 40-minute set, she introduces a song called "Judge from Afar", which recounts the period in her life late last year around the Leveson Inquiry. After giving evidence, she wanted to gauge public reaction to her, and so broke a long self-imposed rule by logging on to the Daily Mail's website, and scrolling down to the readers' comments. This, she soon realised, was a mistake.
"They were saying that I was such a bad role model, that I should have my children taken off me," she says in a voice deliberately devoid, now, of emotion. "At the time, it made my blood boil. These people have no idea who I am, where I am coming from, how I raise my children, or how I live my life. So how dare they? OK, ﬁne, not everybody is going to like me, I accept that, but they were talking about me like I was this truly horrible person. It hurt."
In the song, which she performs with near operatic vocal intensity, she sings: "My furrowed brow is deepening/ You've worn me down down down/ Misdiagnosed my cheapening/ I think I should turn my life around." By its climax, she is on her knees. "Crikey," she laughs afterwards, "that's a hard one to sing."
The crowd, ever faithful, seem not shocked by this abrupt change in musical direction, but rather heartened by its bold sense of anguish. They roar in approval.
Outside, the paparazzi still stand poised, expectant.
Fifteen hours later, Church is ushering me into the courtyard of a central London hotel, "where I can smoke". She roots around her handbag for her cigarettes, takes out two by mistake, and places one into her mouth the wrong way round, noticing her error a moment before lighting it. "Idiot," she says.
We talk, initially, about her music. She is about to release an EP called "One", the ﬁrst of ﬁve EPs scheduled for release over the next 12 months on her own label, Alligator Wine Records. "People keep talking about a reinvention, a comeback," she says, "but I'm not really ambitious enough for anything quite so calculated. This is just my latest evolution. It's me growing up, I suppose."
The four tracks on "One" – "The Rise", "Say It's True", "How Not to Be Surprised When You're a Ghost" and "Beautiful Wreck" – certainly sound grown-up, each freighted with an emotional ballast suggestive of a woman who has come of musical age. The mood throughout is fairly gothic rock, and it suits her voice, which remains a remarkable instrument. The manuka honey she feeds it isn't cheap – a small jar can sell for more than £15 – but it's clearly money well spent.
"I hope the music reﬂects where I'm at these days," she says. "I've definitely grown up a lot. Having children helps, likewise meeting my partner [the musician Jonathan k Powell], and the whole Leveson thing. I was pretty insular in my outlook before, but I'm much more socially aware now." She laughs, and waves a copy of New Scientist in the air, as if offering proof. "This is what I read now."
Church is full of the hard-won sagacity that comes from having former boyfriends sell lurid sex stories, enduring exposés that detailed her mother's reported suicide attempt (following News of the World revelations that her husband had had a cocaine-fuelled affair), and going through her own painful break-up with the father of her children. Yet she remains open, friendly and immensely likeable. When asked a question, she answers it.
"I trust people," she explains. "I cannot live my life any other way. I'd rather trust people, get it wrong sometimes, learn, and hope that things get better. I've never felt like a victim, and I don't believe I ever will."
Church has been a global superstar since the age of 12, after appearing on ITV's The Big Big Talent Show, in which the little girl from Wales impressed with the unexpected operatic voice. Long before YouTube assisted such things, her talent went viral by word of mouth, and she was soon being whisked around the world to sing before Bill Clinton, the Queen, Nelson Mandela and at George W Bush's inauguration. She sold more than 10 million albums, half of them in the US, becoming a teenage multimillionaire.
But, by her 16th birthday, by now thoroughly sick of "Pie Jesu", she quit. "It had been a lot of hard work, you know?" she says, adding, with a smile, "and I'm sure the [classical music] purists were glad, because I'd always received flak from them for representing the whole dissolution of the art form, blah blah blah. Personally speaking, I just found that kind of music constricting. I didn't want to work within those confines any more."
With classical music, she decided, all you could ever really do was recreate a beauty that has already been recreated thousands of times before. "It could never be anything nasty; you could never make a horrible noise. But I was 16. I wanted to make a horrible noise."
But before doing just that, on her 2005 debut pop album Tissues and Issues, she wanted to play catch-up at being an ordinary teen. After years of obeying an excessively strict work ethic, she craved fun. The tabloids had a field day.
"The whole so-called binge-drinking epidemic was happening at that time, and I basically became a poster girl for that," she says breezily. "But I was doing what any 18- or 19-year-old girl was doing: going out with my mates and having a few drinks. We never got into trouble with the police, we were never drunk and disorderly, so what was the problem? I never gave a rat's arse about what anybody thought about it, and I think [the tabloids] had a problem with that. They wanted to put me back in my place."
This they duly did, but then, just as abruptly, Church ceased the bar crawls. She was 22 years old by then, dating Gavin Henson, purportedly rugby's answer to David Beckham, and was pregnant. In 2007, she gave birth to a daughter, Ruby, amid reports that the couple wanted to have at least four more children. In 2009 came a son, Dexter, but just a year later, she and Henson split up.
"I've been in the public eye for so bloody long that I'm like an extended soap character, a part of everyone's family," she says. "Perhaps that means some people have a little more empathy for me, but just as many cannot stand me, I'm sure. I've always accepted that, but there is such a convoluted picture out there as to who I am. That's fine, whatever, I don't need everybody to know me precisely, or what I stand for, but when I'm portrayed as the very opposite of what I am, it does start to make me go yearghh."
Friends encouraged her to quit the UK and move to Los Angeles. Many people in her position do. But Church was having none of it. "I wasn't going to have anybody drive me out of my own home," she says, "but also, I simply couldn't leave Wales. I love it too much."
She continues to live just outside Cardiff, surrounded by her extended family ("there's a shit ton of us"), and some fiercely protective neighbours. And contrary to persistent rumours, she insists that she has a good, and close, relationship with her mother.
"My mother got a really bad reputation simply for looking out for me during my early career," she says. "It was a spin that happened after I parted ways with my first manager [Jonathan Shalit, who successfully sued the singer after he was sacked]. It fit the stereotypical k story of a child star with her controlling mother, didn't it? It wasn't the truth, but why spoil a good story with the truth? As far as I'm concerned, my mother was phenomenal. She took care of me in an industry that couldn't care less how hard it pushed me. Yes, she may have been a pain in the arse from time to time, but I was 14. I'm sure I did her head in as well. But my mother, and my father, were phenomenal all the way, fighting everybody in order to protect me. The fact that she got a really bad reputation for it is severely unfair."
Last November, Church gave evidence to the Leveson Inquiry. She found it, she says, a terrifying but necessary experience. That so much of her private life had made it into the papers over the years always suggested to her that her phone was bugged – and not just hers, but her family's, friends', even the family priest's – but she repeatedly doubted the notion because it just seemed so ludicrous. It would have been such a violation; surely they wouldn't go that far, was what she decided back then. "And then of course you discover later that, well, actually they did. And this was just the tip of the iceberg. We'll never know the true depths they went to."
A few months later, the process of giving evidence in a civil case at the High Court was convoluted, painful, and would, she was repeatedly warned, prove prohibitively costly should she lose, should she not settle upfront. "But I was never going to settle. I didn't want to be paid in return for my silence. I wanted to go all the way." She was ultimately awarded £600,000 in damages.
"But this was never about the money," she argues. "I wanted justice. I just hope there is actual government legislation that comes from Leveson's recommendations, because that was the point of all this. Not in a way that ties everybody's hands behind their backs, or puts journalists out of work, but mostly to reduce the amount of power these corporations have. They have so much power, and politicians are super-scared."
She has recently written a song on the subject, "Mr The News", which she aired at the gig in King's Cross, introducing it by saying, "This one's for Mr Murdoch."
"I don't think [Rupert Murdoch] has really suffered over this at all," she tells me now. "I've been checking his share prices ever since, and not a lot has happened to them, even though I know he has put plenty of his own money back in. But he is still sitting pretty." She shrugs. "I never liked his business practice – particularly immoral, I believe. But this whole thing was never just about one man."
Indeed, Church is certainly determined to bring about lasting change, via the lobby group Hacked Off, which campaigns for press reforms; at last week's Conservative Party Conference, she and other Hacked Off supporters were granted a private audience with the Prime Minister. Their efforts have been duly noted by Murdoch himself, who last Saturday tweeted about "scumbag celebrities pushing for even more privacy laws". Church swiftly tweeted back that it would be "decent to withdraw & apologise", but it seems fairly unlikely the media baron will. Their mutual animosity rumbles on.
way from the perpetual vagaries of living her life as a famous, and therefore endlessly fascinating, woman, Church insists she has found a life balance that was previously missing. She and Henson have settled their, in her words, "emotional shit", and are bringing up their children separately, together. She is settled, and clearly happy, with her boyfriend Powell, with whom she co-writes everything. And for the first time, she knows exactly what she wants to do, and how to do it.
"I cannot do anything I don't believe in," she says, in part explaining why, four years ago, she quit fronting her Channel 4 chat show when the producers wanted to turn it into TV's answer to Heat magazine. "I have to be really passionate about something, which makes it difficult for me to take the money and run. I've got more integrity than that. I want everything I do now to have a point, a lot of heart, and creativity to it. I don't want to be a product any more. I was once, but it's personal now."
Charlotte Church's EP 'One' is out now on Alligator Wine Records. For more: charlottechurchmusic.com
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