Q&A: Natalie Imbruglia on her freedom as an artist, her new album, Nick Cave, Joni Mitchell and more


Natalie Imbruglia of course exploded into pop stardom with her debut in 1997, Left of the middle, and the single “Torn”, still one of the most memorable songs of the 90s.

Today, more than two decades later, Imbruglia is back with their sixth studio album, Bird of Fire. In this 24-year interval, so much has changed in the world of Imbruglia. Most importantly, she is now a mother. And with that, she is a different artist.

Although she doesn’t write directly about being a parent on Bird of Fire, motherhood is felt at every moment of the superb album. As Imbruglia tells me when we speak via Zoom, she’s happy now, and it permeates the record. It’s also more free musically because, as we’ve discussed, when you’re in charge of a human life, what people think about your music doesn’t matter anymore.

Older, wiser, liberated, daring, Imbruglia shows how much she has grown as an artist on Bird of Fire. I told her about the new record, parenting, English country and telling stories like Joni Mitchell, Tori Amos and other artists she admires.

Steve Baltin: I’m a big believer in how the environment affects writing. So when you come back and listen Bird of Fire all along, do you hear a lot of oxfordshire in there?

Natalie Imbruglia: One hundred percent. Yes, the place where I write has a lot to do with a particular mood. If you think about The island of white lilies, my second album was named after where I lived. So the energy of where I live goes into an album and I’m kind of like 10 years urban, 10 years isolated in nature, that seems to be pretty much the vibe.

Baltin: So, is it your 10 years of isolation in nature?

Imbruglia: This is my nature trip to Oxfordshire. Yes of course.

Baltin: I really like “When You Love Too Much” and the title song. Do these softer, more vulnerable songs reflect Oxfordshire?

Imbruglia: One hundred percent. And I think they probably reflect me more (laughs). But you can’t have an album full of those kinds of songs, so I think I’m probably more proud of up-tempo songs, because it’s not my natural sensibility. I think I go for songs like the melancholy ballads genre.

Baltin: What are your two or three favorite happy songs from other people?

Imbruglia: I would say “Get Lucky”, [Daft Punk] Pharrell. Because it just puts me in that kind of happy, dancing state of mind. But I’m a bit more of the Nick Cave type, so I can’t think of others off by heart (laughs).

Baltin: Nick Cave is one of my musical heroes. What are Nick Cave’s favorite song (s)?

Imbruglia: Oh, my God. “The boatman’s call” probably. He’s amazing, he’s very sexy on stage.

Baltin: After the long absence and the fact that you’ve put so much of yourself into this album and it’s vulnerable and open, do you find a different response to it than you might expect?

Imbruglia: You never know how it’s going to play out. I really think you earn your stripes, at some point, if you still do it and do it well enough. People aren’t mugs, so if the music isn’t good enough, they’ll tell you. So these two things have to happen at the same time. I think even before I got a response from this record, I was so confident that I had done a good job that I really didn’t care. And it’s a very good thing to get to a point in your life. I do this because I love to communicate my truth. I tried to get away from it, I studied theater for two years. [But[ I think my gift is communicating emotion, it’s not even about being the best at this or the best at that. I think that there’s a place for me in where I go to with my particular voice and the way I tell a story that people resonate with. And so, that’s who I make my music for. Not everyone’s gonna like what you do, but I definitely feel that probably a lot of the difficult times I’ve gone through to have things to write about is what made this album great. For me, I got dropped by my label, they kind of shelved the record. They only put an album out in Australia and New Zealand and at that time, it was a very, very difficult time, probably sparked my writer’s block, but I’m sitting here now going, “If I hadn’t gone through all of that, I don’t know that Firebird would even exist.” I think it’s good to have peaks and troughs in your career, I think it makes you a more fully rounded person. I don’t know, I think there’s a lot of people out there who haven’t had those ups and downs.

Baltin: I’m sure that for you, having gone through some of those valleys right now, you are enjoying things much more. Is that the case?

Imbruglia: Oh, gosh, yeah. I’m just blissed out. The writer’s block was so real for me.[But] that confidence to go, “I can do that. I’m actually pretty good at it. I love it,” and owning it while I was working with Romeo. [Stodart] again, I was just in the flow. So I just couldn’t hurt. Then I called Eg White and I thought, “We have to write. We have to write.” It was just an incredibly easy creative time, but the funny thing is, in order to get into the flow, it’s your own mind that you kind of have to overcome. It’s putting you in the open space where you can just let things flow, and I’m not quite sure how I did that. I guess 10 days in Nashville kind of pulled this out for me and I was also ready to write some shitty songs and be aware that they lead to a breakthrough. I think it takes confidence and courage to apply it as a discipline as well.

Baltin: The other thing, of course, is that being a parent changes everything for you. Because what anyone thinks about the song seems so irrelevant. Do you feel like it liberated you musically?

Imbruglia: One hundred percent. You’re busy trying to keep a human alive and make sure they’re okay, fed, and getting some sleep in between, and that’s probably the best thing I’ve ever had. arrival. He’s a great leveler, it definitely puts things in perspective. It made me write better songs, I think some of the happy, upbeat songs are 100% inspired by this unconditional love that I felt. I was writing a lot while I was pregnant and I just posted a picture of myself, I was recording until a month before Max was born, and then I kept doing my voice and everything. This whole process definitely set me free because I was so happy and I think happiness is contagious, it’s contagious and it made everything a little happier for me.

Baltin: Do you still see yourself as a melancholy person or has that changed as well?

Imbruglia: I will always have this dark side of my personality. I don’t think it’s by choice, I don’t think it’s something that I have the time or inclination to indulge in more. I think when I was younger, especially as a creative person, you could indulge in those feelings and maybe those times lasted longer. I think when you have a child, you don’t really want to. Rather, it’s about getting out or breaking down as quickly as possible in order to be present and be a good parent. It’s so awesome to have something bigger than yourself to focus on, as a human thing, as a life experience, how awesome is that? And I remember wanting that, I thought, “My life has been very selfish, what now?” I don’t just want it to always be about me. I live far from my family, I have this life, I am very independent and for a long time there was this desire. And so it made my job better. I feel like I can’t wait to write the next album, I have more than five songs that didn’t make this album just because I had too many, 14 is long for an album . I wanted 12, but I couldn’t make 12. I always make albums as if I knew it, the whole thing is that you release a single and then you release a single but for me, I always approach it old school because I’m old.

Baltin: What are for you the reference albums that take you on a whole journey from start to finish?

Imbruglia: The first album that came to my mind was when I was living in Melbourne and just starting to get into music, it was Tori Amos, Small earthquakees. Joni Mitchell, Court and spark. I love Rickie Lee Jones, Rainbow sleeves, which was an EP, I don’t know if you’ve heard that one. I love to tell songs, Joni Mitchell, I would be at people’s parties, I just stay in a room and see everything she sees, and I remember going to France and staying at the Hotel Costes and think about being in Paris and imagine that I was Joni. And I’m like, “I wonder if she stayed in this hotel and wrote this song sitting here. These artists have a big impact on you and it’s a beautiful thing to be able to do that. I’m not saying I I put myself in the league of these people, but it made me love those kind of travel albums. For me, the songs didn’t make this album because, in terms of subject matter, they were way too quirky. , so I’m like, “Well, you can’t follow this song from that song and it doesn’t fit in there.” For me, the track list chooses itself because you start to make them. put them together and I usually cut them out of pieces of paper and put them on a table, and then I look at it and I listen to it, and it’s really obvious when it doesn’t work or if it suddenly switches to another topic at the coincidence my brain can’t cope so I think it’s just a personal thing.

Baltin: When you look at this tracklist, what’s the story it tells you from “Build It Better” to “Firebird? Do you see a line through this whole album?

Imbruglie: I’m not sure if I did the sequencing in order of events in my life and what the stories are about, as it starts with “Build It Better”. But if you think of “Build It Better”, it’s about not putting a brave face on it, just accepting that everything is falling apart and believing that you can be in a better situation, live better and you can live better. to feel better. And so for me, it was so poignant. And it’s the first track on the album because it’s like the overall theme of the phoenix rising from the ashes. And there had been so many different situations in my life that I had been through, it was almost like I needed to tell myself. I’m setting here now saying, “Well, I don’t know if I’ve had that experience now.” But when you write the song, you aren’t necessarily there yet. Sometimes these songs are about a place you’re trying to go, not a place where you already are. I am now looking at the track list and I think there is no specific timeline other than the fact that “Firebird” the title song was the last song to be written. The album was not called Bird of Fire until the last minute, and that was when we were doing the creation for the artwork with Simon Procter, who I think is a genius, and I was talking to him through the album, he was living with the songs, and I was talking to him through the album, he was living with the songs, and I was like, “It’s kind of like I’m a Phoenix from the ashes.” And we were talking about it and he said Firebird and I was like, “Well, I’m a Firebird.” And then I was like, “I’m going to call the album Firebird but I don’t have the song.” So I called Romeo Stodart and I was like, “No pressure man, we gotta write the title song in 24 hours. Come over to my place.” So it came out and in two days we wrote this song and it was a tough song because when you write under pressure, and there were so many different themes because it’s to do with strength and fragility. and find that balance. So I was like, “Is this a song for my son? What is this song? So the first day was a little tough, the second day was my friend’s funeral, and she had lost her battle, she had two stage four cancers. And she was a life force, and I lit a candle and asked her to help me write the song, and it all came out of me, and I think, in the sadness of her passing and thinking of his crossing and all that, went into the song. So it was a really special track, and I think it’s quite poignant that it’s the last one I wrote and it’s the title song.