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Natalie Imbruglia: ‘It was the next level obviously compared to Neighbours. This was around the world’
Early in her career, Natalie Imbruglia vowed to never fall out of love with the song that had made her a star.
“I decided to never hate it because I knew I would be singing it for ever,” says the 46-year-old Australian. “I’m incredibly proud to be part of something that has touched so many people. Because of that, I’ve been able to have a career.”
That song was – well, duh – Torn. Released in 1997, it was a shimmering nugget of Gen X angst that swept in on the trail blazed by Alanis Morrissette and Fiona Apple. Torn wasn’t the most ground-breaking hit ever, and it twinkled with an unmistakable major label gloss. But when Imbruglia, surfing waves of anguish and rocking a glamorous tomboy look, plunged into the chorus, who could resist?
Torn catapulted the then 22-year-old to mega fame. A quarter century on, Imbruglia is about to release a satisfyingly dark and stormy new record, Firebird. And yet, in a way, she is still reckoning with life after Torn, which is in the spotlight once again after it was recently covered by Imbruglia’s fellow southern hemisphere pop luminary, Lorde.
“It definitely affected me,” says Imbruglia of the celebrity that swept her off her feet like floodwaters rushing through an open door. “After the first album I moved to Windsor [down the road from Queen Elizabeth], to this old house, and was kind of hibernating. I got a bit agoraphobic. There’s a lot of pressure, as you can imagine.”
That pressure was sometimes too much. Imbruglia struggled for years with writer’s block. She was still wrestling with it at the start of Firebird. An early session in London had to be aborted, she says, because she was too knotted up inside to sing, let alone compose new material.
“I didn’t quite have my confidence back,” she says. “I think I had a bit of a trauma [after] a difficult period with work. So I asked my managers to book me a trip to Nashville.”
In Nashville, the solution to every musical conundrum is to put your head down and work harder. That no-nonsense approach was precisely what Imbruglia needed. Soon she was producing new songs with friends such as KT Tunstall, and The Strokes’ Albert Hammond jnr, who’d asked her for years to work with him and was delighted when she finally relented. He’s in good company – Coldplay’s Chris Martin sought out Imbruglia in 2009 to contribute to her album Come to Life.
“I thought, if I put myself in Nashville and I have to turn up every day for two sessions, surely I’m going to break through in the end.”
She had a lot to get off her chest. In 2008, Imbruglia divorced her husband of five years, Silverchair frontman Daniel Johns. The break-up didn’t come out of the blue: she’d been living in London while he was half a world away in Sydney. And then, two years ago, she had a baby boy, Max Valentine, by IVF via a sperm donor.
Imbruglia put out a press statement at the time of Max’s birth but today quite reasonably feels she has nothing to add on the subject. And yet the roller-coaster trajectory of her life – the heartache of divorce swerving into the joy of parenthood – has clearly been poured into the new record.
That’s particularly true of the single Build it Better, a defiant banger about shrugging off past disappointments and turning into the future with head high. “But nothing lasts for ever,” she sings. “When it all falls down gotta build it better.”
“I was almost trying to tell myself that when I had to make big decisions about massive changes in my life … It was almost like a mantra to myself. And now it’s proved true. I have actually got myself into a position of independence and happiness.”
Now that she’s in her 40s nothing fazes her, she feels. Not that she ever stood for nonsense. She’s always had an independent streak. As a young woman coming into the music industry after a successful stint in Melbourne soap opera Neighbours, this was sometimes perceived as problematic.
“I used to get called ‘difficult,’ ” she says. “I’ve always stuck to very much to being my own person. And protecting myself in that way. Very early in my job in television there were situations where I felt compromised. I think by the time I started music – you know, if I didn’t want to wear a dress in a photoshoot, I wasn’t going to wear a dress. And there were times that ruffled feathers.”
Imbruglia never had to endure Britney Spears levels of public shaming. Yet as Torn became a global hit – to this day it’s the most-played song ever on Australian radio – there was definitely a backlash.
The charge against her was that she had not written her biggest smash. “It shouldn’t be called Torn,” sneered DJ Chris Evans, “it should be called Ripped Off.”
But of course Imbruglia had never pretended Torn was hers: it was credited to her producer Phil Thornalley, along with Scott Cutler and Anne Preven, who originally penned it for California band Ednaswap. It struck her at the time that nobody was criticising male artists in the same situation. Did anyone upbraid Robbie Williams for not having solo credits on Angels or Rock DJ?
“Funny isn’t it?” she says. “Frank Sinatra … He didn’t write his song [My Way]. It’s okay. I got over it.”
Then in 2017, Torn and its provenance became a talking point all over again. This time it was via – what else? – a meme on Twitter. In a way, the internet’s obsession with the authorship of the track is a back-handed compliment. How many songs from 1997 do people care enough about to turn into viral talking point 20 years later?
“Somebody did a meme and it started again,”she says. “ ‘Oh bloody hell – here we go’. I do have a sense of humour about it. I personally know my gift is as a communicator. The power of how I sang that song is what’s connected with people. It’s funny to me that that’s the sticking point [Torn’s authorship], rather than how amazing it is that it connected with people. I don’t know why it’s a sticking point with people. It certainly doesn’t rock my confidence.”
Imbruglia was born in 1975 in the Sydney suburb of Campsie. She studied at the McDonald College, a boarding school specialising in the performing arts (she is by far its most famous graduate). Despite sending her to drama school, her “not very showbiz at all” parents were slightly aghast at her wish to become a singer and quietly encouraged her to consider a more reliable profession.
Their objections were of little use. Imbruglia was cast as Beth in Neighbours aged 16, leaving after three years in order to pursue music in London. After a period of partying and aimless drifting, she got a record deal. And then came Torn, her debut album, Left of the Middle, and overnight acclaim.
Torn made her immediately, absurdly famous. It was a top 10 hit internationally (peaking at No 4 in Ireland) and propelled Left of the Middle to sales of seven million.
Neighbours had already given her a profile in Australia and Ireland and the UK. Having a global smash was something else, though. That fame was magnified further when she started dating David Schwimmer at the height of Friends mania (according to last summer’s Friends reunion, Schwimmer and Jennifer Aniston were secretly pining for each other around that time).
“It’s a bit of a trip,” she recollects. “It was the next level obviously compared to Neighbours. This was around the world. I remember seeing the album cover up in Times Square.”
Being a young woman in the spotlight inevitably brought prurient interest in her love life. It continued down the decades, with the gossip press “linking” her (entirely without substance) with everyone from Prince Harry to Harry Styles.
“I was a little bit frightened by it [fame],” she says. “As amazing as it is, it is also quite intimidating to have everyone pay attention to you. I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with that. But I took it in my stride and just tried to enjoy it.”
She sees Torn as part of wave of new female talent coming through in the 1990s. “When I put my first album out, you had Alanis Morissette, Fiona Apple – incredibly strong women putting out music,” she says, “I think there have always been women in music.”
Did she encounter much misogyny or prejudice at that time? “I think, if anything, the sexism is more behind the scenes than what you would see out front,” she says. “I don’t know – there are so many talented women in music.”
Ultimately the biggest challenge wasn’t fame, it was dealing with the comedown. Her darkest moment was in 2009 when Come to Life was buried by her label (and that despite Chris Martin’s contributions).
The project was released in Australia and New Zealand and then essentially killed off. The rejection rocked her to the core. But she has put it behind her and now is back with a record sure to win new fans and to thrill anyone who still breaks out in goosebumps when Torn comes on the radio.
“I think I was in denial for a bit. I told myself, I just didn’t want to be doing it,” she says of her relationship with music.
“Then, I had fans on social media telling me they really want to hear what I have to say. I felt I have an audience and I should try. I owe it to myself, and to them, to try. I don’t like things beating me in that way. In the back of my mind, I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. I definitely hadn’t said all I wanted to say.”
Firebird is released September 24th
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