There’s not a lot that hasn’t been written about Charlotte Church in the 16 or so years since she captured the nation’s collective heart as an 11-year-old girl singing down the phone on This Morning. She’s been cast by the tabloids as the little angel, the teenage tearaway, the doting mother and wife, the foul-mouthed diva; she’s faced petty sniping from the likes of the Daily Mail over irrelevancies such as her appearance and smoking habit, and suffered awful media intrusions during a high-profile marriage to rugby player Gavin Henson – ultimately giving evidence at the Leveson Inquiry in November 2011.
Church’s music, meanwhile, has ranged from her early classical work to the commercial pop of her 2005 album Tissues And Issues. She’s never been predictable, then – but possibly the last thing anyone saw coming was ONE, the EP Church released in September of last year.
It was a dramatic break from both Church’s previous classical and pop material with its atmospheric, dramatic rock sound, all topped off with incredible operatic vocals that harked back to her classical output. Ethereal single How Not Be Surprised When You’re A Ghost was accompanied by a video in which Church appears as a benign earth-mother in a Victorian nightgown, watching over eerie children in animal costumes as they run around a woodland clearing. ONE was just first in a series of five EPs, with TWO and THREE following in January and August of 2013 – and Church growing more experimental with every release. Anyone unconvinced should check out the video to TWO single Breach Of The Peace (below), which features Church as a disembodied, gold foil-embossed head. Crazy Chick, this ain’t.
“I don’t really like sticking to things; formulas don’t really work for me,” says Church, by way of explanation. She’s clearly in the middle of a mad press day – our interview was delayed by an hour because of previous interrogations overrunning – but is unfailingly polite and never betrays any impatience or boredom, giving thoughtful and considered answers throughout. “The whole process of ONE and TWO and most recently THREE helped me make the most artistic and most valid statement that I’ve made during my entire career. I hope so, anyway.”
In conversation, Church is candid and friendly, her gentle Welsh tones regularly punctuated by a clucking, mother-hen giggle. Despite her 16 years in the media spotlight she doesn’t come across as diva-ish or overconfident in any way – her sentences broken up by uncertain ‘just’s and ‘sort of’s, that telling ‘I hope so, anyway’. She’s well aware that her new direction has been a huge leap of faith to make, one that could have jeopardized everything she’s so far built up in her 27 years. Does it bother her that her music now attracts less coverage and attention than her previous work?
“It doesn’t bother me because it’s not commercial anyway – I don’t think that this would ever work as a commercial thing. I just think that a lot of people wouldn’t like it,” she admits, under no illusions. “At the start when we first started touring, people were massively confused. There were a lot of people there expecting sort of Pie Jesu and that kind of stuff, a lot of elderly fans of my previous work who did not approve at all. And there’d be some people going there and expecting, sort of, Crazy Chick, you know. We had two drummers and a lot of electronic noises and some horrible guitar sounds going on. We had quite a few walkouts at the start.”
“It is sort of difficult having my name – in a certain way it opens doors and in other ways it slams them shut.”
– Charlotte Church on expectations
Part of the problem has been credibility issues because of her past in commercial pop work. “It is sort of difficult having my name – in a certain way it opens doors and in other ways it slams them shut. You’re faced with people giggling, people are sort of reticent to take this as a real thing. I think that nobody really wants to stick their head above the water and say, ‘actually that’s good’. Maybe I’m living in cloud cuckoo land and it’s because it’s not good enough,” – that uncertain streak coming out – “but I believe in it massively. It’s a more difficult path to take because of my past, but I sort of feel that in an artistic sense, as long as I carry on producing music which is quality, and I keep doing it, then it’ll start being difficult to be a snob about.”
The response has, though, been pretty good, on the whole. Her new material has been covered favourably and despite the walkouts, a lot of her existing audience has proved surprisingly open-minded. “Most of the time people stayed, it’s certainly not what they’re expecting but they just went with it – phenomenal. I think my audience is changing slowly, but to be honest I don’t care who comes to the show, as long as they appreciate music and hopefully appreciate what we do.”
“We” is a word that comes up a lot; though ONE, TWO and THREE were released under Church’s name, and she is the main creative force, it’s been far more of a collaboration than any of her previous work – “much more of a band type thing than a solo project. Creatively, me, my partner Jonathan [Powell, her musician boyfriend] and also our bassist Jamie [Neasom], we’re the three main songwriters. Sometimes we write separately, sometimes we write in duos, sometimes it’s all three of us together. For the last few weeks we’ve all had a bit of a purple patch, so at the moment there’s just loads of material.” It’s clearly something Church absolutely relishes, enthusing about the ferocity of the recording process. “We almost lost our minds really during [THREE]. ONE and TWO were really the learning process, finding our feet, and then when we got to this one by the final mixing stage we all went a little bit crazy.”
It’s not only the recording that was heavy-going; THREE itself is “an intense record, despite being melancholy and quite atmospheric. Especially in its lyrical content, a lot of it gets a bit heavy.” You’re telling me. On THREE, Church’s lyrics are stunning but sinister, conjuring up bleak and haunting images and situations: “I got worked up like a fool, now I need to wash myself with thoughts as clear as water” in Like A Fool; “There’s a terrible voice that echoes around […] says I should fake a death” in House Upon The Sea. Over the course of the EP, Church becomes a dying Cock Robin addressing a sparrow (“Take the arrow from my breast and let me rest”), a vulnerable assistant in thrall to her magician (“You boxed me up so you can cut me in half”), a lonely water tower observing the strange little humans around her (“When the land around you is dying, I will keep your fields fed”). The songs start off deceptively quiet and beautiful, before reaching huge, dramatic, unsettling climaxes, the music pulling and pushing in crazy, unpredictable directions while Church’s voice soars above the melee.
“I’d rather poke my eyes out with sticks.”
– Charlotte Church on whether she’ll be an X Factor judge
Finally, the interview unfortunately has to be brought down to less lofty heights: at the time we speak, Church is 9-1 odds to be a judge on the now-current series of The X Factor. Is there any truth in the rumours? “I’d rather poke my eyes out with sticks,” is the pithy response. They did ask her, she reveals. “I met with them out of curiosity, because I was asking them how much creative control I’d have. I knew it would never happen, I mean it’s way too successful a show to ever let anyone have any creative control really – and they pretty much told me that that was the case. Curiosity killed the cat!”
Church’s views on The X Factor and other shows of its ilk are uncompromising – her voice takes on a much angrier, exasperated tone even just talking about them. “I think it’s horrific for music in general. It’s horribly cynical. Music is such an important part of people’s lives, and life is really tough, it’s really fucking awful sometimes. Music has been something that has helped people sort of emote and understand things, and come to terms with emotional shit which everybody goes through. The X Factor just homogenises everything that’s sacred and special about music and they just rehash the same old shit. When you think about it, there are lots of incredible songwriters throughout the world and [The X Factor] has a lot of money to spend on acts – they could make it a really phenomenal thing, but they just take the easy route every time. ‘We’ll do a cover of this’ or whatever. It’s just bullshit.”
If there’s one thing you can’t accuse Church of, it’s taking the easy route. She could quite easily have followed Cheryl Cole in taking up a cushy judging job and using it as a platform for a solid but unspectacular chart pop career, raking in the cash and consigning any integrity to the skip. Instead, she’s proved that the only thing she shares with Cole are her initials, diving head first into a world of uncertainty to pursue her artistic vision. Charlotte Church, it’s a yes from us.
Charlotte Church’s THREE EP is out now through Alligator Wine. She tours the UK in September, including a date at London’s Scala on 24 September. More here: charlottechurchmusic.com