When and how did you start writing Come To Life?
I started writing this record a long time ago actually. The first incarnation of it was delivered before the Singles Collection came out. I had a really good time in the studio with Ben Hiller and Dave McCracken, and we kind of worked on it like how he works with his bands. 'Cause I wanted to do a pop record but I wanted to work with him ‘cause I just thought he’s got really quirky ideas, and I wanted to approach it [like] how you would approach recording with a band, but obviously with me.
You started with Ben Hillier as producer – what was the appeal of working with him?
I actually had worked with him on Counting DownThe Days, he produced a cover I did called Come On Home. I just loved watching him in the studio. He liked experimenting with different sounding instruments from what I’d worked with before – he had the glockenspiel out! There was just a sprit of fun in the studio that I hadn't experienced before. It was just a bit like playing, and I quite liked that. I just think he’s quite eclectic, from his work with Blur, which I absolutely loved, and The Horrors. He’s just done so many different styles of music. But mainly it was just working with him in the studio and seeing his approach to it, and his fearlessness in experimenting with songs and changing them around and trying different things.
Let's talk about songs. You worked with Jamie Harman on "Scars" – a song that went through three incarnations…
Jamie’s a brilliant songwriter. He had this concept and title "Scars" – everyone has their scars. I actually remember at the time being blissfully happy in my relationship and being a little bit worried about writing this song and the subject matter of it! And I remember him saying to me, ‘Nat, it’s just a song, let it go…’ But at that time I actually was finding it quite difficult to write a song like that. So we definitely edited the version that we had, but I kind of thought 'put it at the back of my mind and just compete the song…'
It was very similar to the version that’s ended up on the record. But then when I went in with Ben Hiller we flipped it on its head, 'cause I’d said to Ben, ‘I’ve got too many songs, I wanna try and rework a lot of these tracks. I want the record to be uptempo, so wherever we can, let’s try and flip songs on their head. So with "Scars" – because I told him I love Arcade Fire – we tried to do a production that was like a crescendo of things just being thrown on and added. And the track just grew. And it’s actually still a really good version, I still love that version. But when it came down to the final tracklisting and I’d already done all the songs with Chris Martin, the album was just calling for the demo version of it.
And actually, in discussion with Chris Martin about it, he completely agreed with me on that. So I ended up asking two guys I’d met through Chris – Leo Abrahams, John Hopkins, who do a lot of stuff with Chris and with Brian Eno – if they’d look at the demo for me and try and sprinkle some magic on it. So that was the final production – a rework of the demo with those two guys doing backwards guitar sounds and whatnot.
All "The Roses" seems to be a very personal song…
I worked on that with Gary Clark. Basically the story goes that, my grandfather, a year after he died, appeared to my uncle on the other side of family, at the bottom of the bed. Which is kinda spooky. It was actually the night before my granny’s funeral and my dad and his brother were helping pack up the house. And they were talking about the rose bushes, and how they were too hard to dig up – ‘we should just leave them’. And obviously this really upset my grandfather 'cause he appeared to my uncle and said, ‘you have to dig up the rose bushes. I want clippings to go to all my grandchildren.’ And he said, ‘don’t worry if you hit a pipe, we know a plumber down the road!’ And he told him where the shovel was! So, this mad, trippy story… It’s not often that a situation happens and I have to write a song about it. I find songwriting to be more organic than that. It can be harder to pick a subject and write a song about it. But I just felt compelled to document that moment.
Did you receive clippings yourself?
Well, my clipping went to my parents, who were living in the central coast of Australia at the time. The next time I went home to visit they showed me one of the roses and it was blooming completely out of season. And it smelt amazing. These big, big red roses. It’s a pretty cool story.
What about "My God", which opens the album?
I’ve done a lot of work with Crispin Hunt, and I like his approach to pop songs. I think because he comes from an alternative background – he was in Longpigs – he’s really quirky. So a lot of the tracks I did with him, they’re really sporadic and each song’s very ,very different. But in amongst all that there’s always a gem that’s a really, really special, and this to me is probably my favourite song on the album, apart from Fun. I love everything about it. It’s a great song to perform live, it’s got that driving beat behind it. But it’s got the nice falsetto vocal in the chorus. I just think it’s a really, really cool.
Does it open the album because it sets the tone?
It was hard to know which one to go with first because there’s so many different styles on this record, it was hard to know which one to go with. But I’m yet to play that song to someone who doesn’t like it. There are other tracks on the album – like, if you don’t like dance music you won’t like a certain song. But his song seems to appeal to everybody somehow, and that’s what I like about it.
Then "Twenty" was written with Shep Solomon, who’s written for Britney Spears…
I worked with Shep in LA. We had a few songs on the go but this is the one out of the session that we liked the most. I remember painstakingly going over the lyrics of this song. I had quite a set idea of what I wanted this song to be. But it came together really quickly in the end. He’s a very successful pop songwriter and he’s really good with melody. He’s worked with Britney – he knows big pop songs!
"WYUT" was another LA song…
"What You’re Up To" was with Alan Johannes and his partner Natasha. I actually met Alan through his cousin. I remember being in the car and playing his cousin some demos. And he said, ‘you’ve got to work with my cousin Alan.’ I’m like, ‘he works with Queens Of The Stone Age, I hardly think he’s gonna wanna songwrite with me!’ But behind my back he went to Alan and asked him, and he’d said yes. So I ended up at Alan and Natasha’s house and had one of the best times I’ve had songwriting. They’ve got this really cool house in LA, and he can play all these really weird ethnic instruments. And he’s just really, really passionate about what he does. And I just thought, maybe it would be quite interesting to see what would come out of working with someone who does a lot of rock music, a lot of alternative music. And sometimes it just makes for a quirky pop song.
Anyways, I worked on three different tracks with Alan and Natasha, and I remember doing the vocal for "What You’re Up To", and I remember Natasha really, really pushing me on this vocal. And it was quite aggressive for me. And I remember just really encouraging me to step out of my comfort zone and do something a bit different, that was quite aggressive and angry. And being really happy with the result. Unfortunately, before I got to finish the record Natasha found out that she had cancer – and lost her battle with cancer. It’s really sad for me that I didn’t actually get to finish the album and send it over and let them hear it in context. So it’s just nice to have that track on there. She was this feisty Russian woman, gorgeous and really strong and powerful, and I love being around women like that. She was really inspiring as a songwriter.
Talk about feisty and powerful – "Cameo" and "Wild About It", from another writing session, they’re club-friendly, full-on pop songs; again, a different sound for you.
I’d finished promoting the Singles collection, and I got back to London and I thought, I’ve got to go back into the studio, I feel like I need to. I wanted to something with a sense of humour – I was newly single after seven years. And I really wanted to do some sexy songs. I know that sounds kinda weird. But I had this sense of freedom, being single and also being free of a record company. And I just wanted to be creative at that time… It’s not like the old record company ever was in the writing room with you. But when you’ve got a record deal ultimately you have to deliver an album and they’re gonna have something to say about it. So to songwrite in a time of your career when you don’t have a record deal and you can just do whatever you want, and you’re gonna out the record out on your own label [as was my original plan], was quite exciting to me. So "Wild About It" and "Cameo" kinda captured the spirit of how I was feeling at that time.
There are three songs that, in one way or another, feature Coldplay. First of all, tell us about the history of your friendship with the band.
I was an early Coldplay fan. I loved their first album, and I remember going to all the early shows from the first time I heard their first record. I was a bit of a front row-er you could say. So the boys used to see me at all the gigs and were familiar with me, and I’d go and see them at festivals. And we kind of lost touch over the years, and I hadn’t been to a show in a long time. So I was quite surprised to get a phone call from my lawyer saying that Chris Martin had been on the phone and he had some material that he thought would be great for me.
It's one thing to be a fan of a band’s music but it’s another thing to have them call up and say they wanna songwrite! So I think I’m still in shock about it. It was just too good an opportunity to refuse – 'cause we'd finished, so I thought, the album once more and were just about to put it out. So we put everything on hold – 'cause it was Chris Martin, obviously – and he came round, heard the record and he said, ‘come round and say hello to Brian – we’re gonna be working in Brian Eno’s house,’ with the daunting prospect of going in the next day to songwrite. But he was really supportive.
I was really, really nervous to be honest. But he works very quickly and he's got a lot of ideas so you’re not sitting there twiddling your thumbs when you work with him. And I just had a great time. I remember him saying to me he had a chord progression started, hearing the record, and then saying, right, 'I'm gonna finish this song for you'. And he came in the next day and sang "Fun", and I was nearly moved to tears, which was quite embarrassing. But I just think it’s a really simple melody – but it's so emotive it just presses all the right emotional buttons I think. And that’s quite hard to do: keep a song really simple but have it feel big like that.
And he worked on "Lukas" too…
We had a few other tracks as well that didn't make the cut – about four or five different ideas bouncing around. And then we were in Air Studios in London and Chris said, ‘I’ve got a great idea, what about Lukas for Nat?’ I think Jonny Buckland [Coldplay guitarist] might have been in the studio that day, and he said, ‘that’s a great idea’. They called the rest of the band, see if they’d be up for it and they were all keen to hear my vocal on Lukas.
So this was a song Coldplay had been working on during the Viva La Vida sessions?
Yeah, this is a pre-existing Coldplay track – they had so many incarnations. I must have heard at least five demos. I heard there was around 20. That’s how much they care when they’re working on songs – they’ll try so many different versions. And that’s why Brian’s name is on it, because he'd already produced the material and I just laid my vocals on it.
I remember saying to Chris time and time again in the studio, 'why are you doing this [for me]?' And he said, 'isn't it great? We're making music! It’s fantastic!’ He talks about my video coming on the telly whilst he was songwriting and being reminded of my voice and thinking that the songs would be good for me. I’m just grateful that the opportunity came my way to work with him. The whole time I was doing it I kept thinking he’s gonna pull the plug and change his mind and take the songs back off me… I was on the phone to my manager, 'get it in writing!'
And then there’s "Want", the lead single…
I asked Chris to give his honest opinion on all the songs I had at that time. And there was more than ten. And he said, 'do you want me to be honest, really honest?' And he was brutal – he went through every song that he liked, what was great about it, talked with me about what kind of record I wanted to make. And I did take his advice on board and a lot of the songs that maybe I thought were better than they were, I got rid of after I heard his opinion. But there were songs that I fought for, and one of them was the original version of Want. It was a kind of Donna Summer disco track; it was a love song, with a really sweet lyric – more light and fluffy. But I said to him, 'there’s something about the music in the chorus, it's not sitting right, the groove’s wrong…' And he said, 'you're absolutely right, get rid of it!' I was like, 'no, no, no, no…' I loved the start, the bassline, what’s happening in the verse… I though there was something there worth saving. And he said, 'why don’t you go home and sleep on it?'
And I remember being really stressed out – I can't lose another song, I really like it! And I came in to work and he said, 'don’t worry! I've come up with a brilliant idea for the song.' He probably felt bad he'd been so brutal. And he had this string keyboard part, he had an idea for the chorus – which was a completely different feel emotionally. So it went from being this sweet love song to almost like a break-up song, with all this attitude and feistiness. So I had to go back and rewrite all the verses and everything. It's a completely different sounding song. But I think he made it so much better.
Why is "Want" a good choice for the first single?
I think because "Want" is the biggest departure from what people would expect from me. That’s what I like about it. Little bit of shock factor there. And with the video being really sexy, which people don’t expect from me – I’ve never done a video like that! And you run the risk of people thinking, ‘oh, what, is she becoming a dance act now?’ But when people hear the song in context – there’s so many different styles of music on the record. I guess I just wanted a bit of the shock factor as well.
Let's go back, ten, 12 years, when you embarked on your second big career after your acting success – what kind of pop star were you?
I was very green, and very scared. I didn’t really have much confidence at all in what I was doing. The weirdest thing about that first album was, I guess, coming from being on Neighbours, I expected people to give me a hard time. I was prepared for people to throw tomatoes, literally, on stage at me. I know that sounds weird but that was the thought that came into my head. I didn’t expect to be taken seriously. But I loved singing and I just thought, maybe in five years time I’ll write a song that I’ll get a bit of respect for, that’s how I viewed it. So to put a record out and have the first single, Torn, explode like that was incredible but very, very daunting. What it did do was raise the bar and put people’s expectations way up high. And I found the pressure eon my second record really difficult.
Did you learn anything on Neighbours that helped you when you started you music career?
I think it toughened me up. I was 16 and a half working in an adult setting. No one even told me how to sign on and off to get paid. They didn’t mollycoddle you; you had to step up and be a grown-up. So it set me in good stride for what was to come in the music industry and how difficult it could be. It’s certainly not for the meek hearted. There’s a lot of criticism. There’s a lot of opinions that are gonna fly your way. And you have to have a really strong sense of who you are and what you won’t do more than what you will do.
What are your memories of first hearing Torn?
Phil Thornally, who produced my first album, played me the song – we were working in his home studio in north London. He said. ‘I’ve got this song that I’ve worked on with a band called Ednaswap, do you want to hear it, I think you’d sound good on it?’ And it was such a no-brainer. I’ve never had a problem singing someone else’s song. It’s actually really hard to find a really good song out there that feels like you can relate to it and deliver it as your own. And I felt that I could make that song my own.
The song was an international radio smash – what was it like being in the middle of that hurricane?
I felt like I was chasing Torn around the world. I remember it got leaked to KROQ in LA, which back in the day was not playing that kind of music – they did not play pop acts like me. So the song broke itself. People spend all this money on marketing campaigns. And to have a song that’s just doing the work for you was quite incredible. But I had the sense that it was never gonna be this way again. I had my fleet planted on the ground. Maybe because I’d lost all my money after the whole Neighbours thing. I’d been through hard times. But I was walking around collecting awards! Billboard, MTV video awards! It was ridiculous, but it was amazing. I was scared – ‘cause I knew I then had to go and write another record and it was gonna be really, really daunting.
How did that impact on the writing of the second album?
I was trying to not think about it – but how do you run away from success like that? I think that’s why I moved out to Windsor. I definitely went a bit strange and isolated myself. It was such a difficult record for me to make that just to finish it was an achievement! And I did get a lot of grief with that second record. But I guess it was important to me. In some ways I rebelled. I put a single out that didn’t have a chorus. Who does that? It was two-fingers up to all the people who were expecting me to try and compete with Torn. I kinda went the other way; some people could say that was career suicide. But I didn’t want to feel for the rest of my career I’m trying to live up to this one song. I just wanted to get on and make good records and have people try if they can to see past that song. So I’m actually really proud of that record.
You almost set up your own independent record label to release Come To Life. Do you have a good business head?
Not so much. I have good people around me who have good business heads. I’m not driven by money, and I’m not driven by needing to be Number One in the charts. I really love doing it. I love singing. I find songwriting challenging, but I love the challenge. So for me setting up my own record label was about freedom; I wanted the joy back in my work. I wanted to feel that I was excited to go to work every day. I’m not having battles with record companies about how they wanna portray me. I just wanna be. The only thing I’ve ever been sure about is that. And even down to what I wore in the Torn video… I’ve always just wanted to be myself and it to be authentic.
You’ve kept up the acting a bit – you filmed an independent movie in Australia, Closed For Winter, in late 2007. What was the appeal of doing that?
I really felt an affinity with the lead character. She was very different from me and I liked the idea of jumping into someone’s skin who was very emotionally shut down. The film is about a girl who, 20 years prior, her sister went missing, and she was there with her the day she went missing. When someone goes missing a person doesn’t get closure. If someone dies it’s obviously horrible, but there’s a funeral and a grieving process to say goodbye to someone. That doesn’t mean it’s easy but when someone goes missing that grief is suspended in this feeling of hope where you’re hoping that they’ll come back. And I just thought that was a really interesting thing to shine a light on. So to get to play the lead role in a film and do emotional scenes – like a breakdown scene that I’d never done before – was just too good to refuse.
Your film before that – Johnny English with Rowan Atkinson – was very different…
It wasn’t an overly challenging role. But it was an opportunity to work on a film set, which I’d never done before. Apart from being an extra when I was a kid. And to work with Rowan Atkinson – and I’m a big fan of John Malkovich. So I just really wanted the experience. And it was just absolute bliss. I loved watching Rowan, who I think is a genius, do his thing. My character was the straight girl to his funny guy. I actually came in to rescue him – it was kinda like a Bond spoof.
Will you do any more acting?
Yeah, I wanna. I’ll see what happens with this record. I try not to plan too much ahead – ‘cause it doesn’t work anyway. I planned to do this record in a year and look what’s happened. So I think, finish a tour hopefully, and then if I’m feeling creative I might go straight in and do some songwriting. If not, I’d like to take six months out and do some auditions and see what’s out there.
How was it signing your new record deal for this album?
It was actually a really big, scary decision for me, ‘cause I’d just got my new found freedom. And I was enjoying being completely in control, doing it ourselves, sink or swim. We’d put this great little team together and I was quite looking forward to it… But Island Records is so artist-friendly and has a history of supporting and sticking with their artists. And they’ve given me creative freedom. So it made sense to license the album to them. Especially if you’re releasing worldwide – it’s just more cohesive to have the support of a big, major record company.
You trailed the album with a viral video for "Wild About It" this summer. What was the idea behind that?
I think multimedia’s a really important part of putting records out. We wanted to start the campaign with something that only goes out on the internet. I had the visual of this house party, day party, with lots of bright colours, then there was the idea of some of the furniture coming to life and singing the song. Then we had a brainstorming session and someone suggested puppets interviewing me on the day of the video. I thought that was a brilliant idea and thought, gosh, what if I asked [actor, comedian] David Walliams and [comedian, TV presenter] Alan Carr, who are my mates, to be the voices of the puppets… And they came down to the video shoot and it was just really fun to be a bit naughty and cheeky and do some adult stuff that could just go online.
What does Chris Martin make of the finished album?
He helped me with the tracklisting – he’s really good at that! He said, ‘I now like every single song on your album.’
Will you tour?
Definitely. As soon as we get the single out we’re gonna start pencilling in some dates. That’s my main wish for this record, that it connects enough that I can do as many gigs as I can.
How did you arrive at the album title Come To Life?
I listened to all the songs and it just came to me. There’s a sense of fun and freedom and me having the confidence to just be myself. And I mean that personally and with my music. I was brave with this record. I tried different things. I threw caution to the wind and didn’t really care as much as I have in the past – in a really good way. And so that’s really what the title means.