Natalie Imbruglia on being ‘so body dysmorphic and insecure’ when making ‘Torn’

The Australian pop star talks to Nick Levine about celebrating 25 years since her influential debut album, lean times after leaving ‘Neighbours’, writer’s block, and how she chose the look for her most famous music video

Monday 10 October 2022 06:30 BST
<p>Natalie Imbruglia: ‘ I’m in a really confident place after going through writer’s block'</p>

Natalie Imbruglia: ‘ I’m in a really confident place after going through writer’s block'

Cast your mind back to 1997. Britpop’s bubble had yet to burst, the Spice Girls were the biggest band on the planet, and Aqua’s “Barbie Girl” was inescapable. Then out of nowhere came “Torn” by Natalie Imbruglia, a pop-rock banger so perfect it broke airplay records in the UK and Australia. Trying to sing along, badly, to its slide guitar solo was practically a rite of passage.

“Torn” catapulted 22-year-old Imbruglia to global fame, making her the latest Neighbours alum (after Kylie Minogue, Jason Donovan and Craig McLachlan) to pull off the tricky transition from soap to pop. But Imbruglia‘s sound and attitude, harnessed enthrallingly on her debut album Left of the Middle, was much more unexpected than her Ramsay Street predecessors. Her pure, expressive and slightly plaintive voice sounded tremendous on the album’s grungey but catchy pop songs, which were underpinned by Garbage-style guitar loops. Whether Imbruglia was exploring sexual jealousy on “Wishing I Was There”, venting her career frustrations on “Pigeons and Crumbs” or calling out vacuous posers on “Impressed” (“All that money, you deserve the best”), she was utterly compelling.

Now Imbruglia is looking back, fondly but honestly, on her breakthrough era. Later this month, she’ll embark on a UK headline tour celebrating the 25th anniversary of Left of the Middle. A reissue of the LP on “special limited edition blue vinyl” will follow on 18 November – a must for any discerning Nineties music fan. “I’m super-excited to celebrate the album, especially now I’m in a really confident place after going through writer’s block,” she says today, speaking over Zoom from her Oxfordshire album. Imbruglia put that fallow period to bed with last year’s Firebird album, her first collection of original songs in 12 years. It debuted in the UK top 10 and led to a busy summer festival season for the singer. “I think it’s pretty incredible just to still have a career,” she adds, sounding grateful and maybe a little surprised.

We’re hardly starved of Nineties nostalgia at the moment – Robbie Williams just topped the charts with an album of re-recorded greatest hits – but in this case, it’s very welcome. Though the Left of the Middle era earned Imbruglia two Brit Awards and three Grammy nominations, the album itself remains ever so slightly underrated. Its edgy but melodic alternative pop sound – perhaps best exemplified by “Big Mistake”, a gritty rock song that became a No 2 hit – is arguably the missing link between Alanis Morisette’s blockbuster 1994 album Jagged Little Pill and Avril Lavigne’s 2002 debut Let Go.

At the same time, this fascinating album mixing spiky rockers (“One More Addiction”, “Don’t You Think?”) with tender ballads (“Smoke”, “Left of the Middle”) – is beginning to get its proper dues. Lorde cited it as an influence on her indie-leaning 2021 LP Solar Power. This July, Imbruglia made a guest appearance at Olivia Rodrigo’s London gig, joining the Gen Z icon for a duet of “Torn”. “I saw myself in her,” she says of 19-year-old Rodrigo. “She’s someone who’s really stepping up after being put in this position very young.”

Imbruglia had to step up – and also weather a steady wave of unfair criticism – at a very young age. “At the start of my career, there was that whole thing of ‘one-hit wonder’ and you know, that was something I had to live with for quite a few years, regardless of what successes I had,” she recalls. Even having her third album, 2005’s Counting Down the Days, debut at No 1 didn’t eradicate this stigma entirely.

Imbruglia is of course talking about “Torn”, a song that’s still massive today. It’s now amassed nearly 500 million Spotify streams and remains so evocative of the Nineties singer-songwriter vibe that vast chunks of the internet freaked out in 2017 when they discovered it was a cover. “When you’re involved with a song that’s so monumental, that’s just kind of part and parcel,” Imbruglia says of the whole one-hit wonder thing.

Left of the Middle reinvented Imbruglia – who was best known at the time as kindhearted builder’s apprentice Beth Brennan in Neighbours – as a credible and very original singer-songwriter. She calls “Smoke”, a beguiling ballad that became a top five hit, a “pretty dark” and “not literal” song about “feeling like your needs aren’t being met by your parents”. “Torn” was one of just two songs on the album she didn’t write. It was first recorded in Danish as “Brændt” (which means “Burned”) by singer Lis Sørensen in 1993, and then in English as “Torn” a year later by American band Ednaswap, whose members Scott Cutler and Anne Preven had originally written it with Imbruglia‘s producer Phil Thornalley. “Torn” was subsequently recorded in 1996 by American-Norwegian singer Trine Rein, whose version bested Ednaswap’s by charting, though only in Norway.

Natalie Imbruglia performing at the MTV Australia Video Music Awards, 2005

Imbruglia insists she never had any reservations about launching her music career with a cover. “It seems like everyone else is obsessed with that,” she says. “But for me, being an artist is about being a good communicator. So I find it really funny and annoying that people trip out on this particular point with me. I mean, it was released twice before me [in English] by other people.” And though she’s too polite to say so, none of the earlier versions made a massive impact. “I think, you know, some songs marry with the person,” Imbruglia continues. “And it’s my truth and how I related to what’s in the lyrics and how I communicate that – the authenticity of that – that people connect with. And that’s valid.”

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Imbruglia fully appreciates that “people just really want [the song] to be my words”. “I remember seeing a funny meme showing someone looking really shocked when they find out that ‘Torn’ is a cover and thinking, ‘Great, now I’ll have to go through the whole bloody thing again!’” she says with a laugh. She also attributes the song’s success to the “really powerful video” she made with director Alison Maclean. Set in an apartment that turns out to be a film set, it features shots of Imbruglia interacting with British actor Jeremy Sheffield, who’s playing her love interest, interspersed with footage of crew members coming in to move props and touch up their hair. It still looks fresh and unusual 25 years later. Though Imbruglia gives a commanding performance worthy of a main pop girl – to use a contemporary term – she also seems to be deconstructing the music video form. It’s perhaps a nod to one of the song’s most memorable lyrics: “Illusion never changed into something real.”

Today, Imbruglia hails Maclean as a “genius with so many ideas” and says, “everything about the video still blows my mind.” She only chose to wear her now-iconic hoodie and baggy army pants because she was “so body dysmorphic and insecure” at the time. “The army pants weren’t even cool army pants – they weren’t in fashion or anything,” she recalls. “My intention in wearing that was so that you couldn’t see my silhouette, because I didn’t want anyone to see. But it ended up that there was a power in that because it was like [seen as] androgyny cool. But it really came from a place of ‘thank god I don’t have to wear a dress!’”

Everything about the ‘Torn’ video still blows my mind

Imbruglia admits she was also “really insecure” as a songwriter when she made Left of the Middle. She would over-prepare for recording sessions by turning up with pages and pages of pre-written poetry, something she now knows will just “restrict” her creative flow. This insecurity stemmed from a serious case of imposter syndrome. After leaving school at 16 to focus on her performing career, Sydney-born Imbruglia landed her breakthrough role in Neighbours the following year. In 1994, after playing Beth for nearly 150 episodes, she said goodbye to Ramsay Street and moved to the UK to pursue other acting work.

Sadly, it didn’t quite pan out. “I couldn’t get a work permit and I couldn’t get jobs,” she recalls. “When I signed my record deal, my UK visa was about to run out and I owed two grand to my landlord.” Though she landed that record contract based on demos she’d already made, Imbruglia couldn’t shake the feeling she had got lucky.

“I had grown up as a stage-school kid – I was a trained performer,” she explains. “But in some ways, that felt a little bit cheesy compared to what I was trying to do [as an artist]. So I couldn’t kind of marry those things in my head. And you know, I was in debt and I’d been famous for being on this TV show.” When she sings “funny how those friends forget you when you’re tired of their games” on the album’s reflective penultimate track “City”, she’s referring to the false friends who disappeared when her Neighbours fame ebbed away.

But in a way, it’s this touching and very relatable insecurity that makes Left of the Middle such a timeless listen. Though she worked with six different producers on the album including Radiohead collaborator Nigel Godrich, it still feels cohesive: a testament to slick mixing but also Imbruglia‘s captivating emerging voice. It’s no coincidence that “Pigeons and Crumbs”, a wistful ballad that was never released as single, has become a firm fan favourite. Anyone who struggled to find themselves in a big city in their early twenties – or perhaps a little later – can recognise themselves in the line: “Seems we all get lost amongst the pigeons and the crumbs”.

A quarter of a century later, Imbruglia can look back on her younger self with kindness and pride. “With the tour coming up, I’ve just had so many memories of those days flooding back – happy memories,” she says. “And it’s a great album. I feel confident enough to say that now.”

The Left of the Middle anniversary tour begins on 10 October, with the vinyl reissue following on 18 November

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