Natalie Imbruglia of course exploded into pop stardom with her 1997 debut, Left Of The Middle, and the smash single, “Torn,” still one of the defining songs of the ’90s.
Now, more than two decades later, Imbruglia is back with her sixth studio album, Firebird. In that 24-year interval so much has changed in Imbruglia’s world. The biggest thing is she is now a mother. And with that she is a different artist.
Even if she is not directly writing about being a parent on Firebird, motherhood is felt in every moment of the superb album. As Imbruglia tells me when we talk via Zoom, she is happy now, and that permeates the record. She is also freer musically because, as we discussed, when you are responsible for a human life, what people think about your music stops mattering.
Older, wiser, liberated, daring, Imbruglia shows how much she has grown as an artist on Firebird. I spoke to her about the new record, parenthood, the English country and telling stories like Joni Mitchell, Tori Amos and more of the artists she admires.
Steve Baltin: I’m a very big believer in how environment affects writing. So, when you go back and listen to Firebird all the way through, do you hear a lot of Oxfordshire in there?
Natalie Imbruglia: One hundred percent. Yeah, where I write is very tied to a particular mood. If you think about White Lilies Island, my second album was named after the place I was living. So, the energy of where I live goes into an album and I kind of do 10 years urban, 10 years isolating in nature, pretty much seems to be the vibe.
Baltin: So, this is your 10 years isolating in nature?
Imbruglia: This is my Oxfordshire nature trip. Yeah, for sure.
Baltin: I really love “When You Love Too Much” and the title track. Do those softer, more vulnerable songs reflect Oxfordshire?
Imbruglia: One hundred percent. And I think they probably more reflect me (laughs). But you can’t have an album full of those kind of songs, so I think I’m probably more proud of the up-tempo songs, because it’s not my natural sensibility. I think I lean toward songs like the kind of melancholy ballads.
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 a Nick Cave kind of girl, so I can’t think of any others off the top of my head (laughs).
Baltin: Nick Cave is one of my musical heroes. What are the one or two favorite Nick Cave songs?
Imbruglia: Oh, my God. “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 is vulnerable and open, are you finding a different response to it than maybe what you expected?
Imbruglia: You never know how it’s gonna play out. I definitely think you earn your stripes, at a certain point in time, if you’re still doing it and you’re doing it good enough. People aren’t mugs, so if the music’s not good enough, they’re gonna tell you. So, it has to be both of those things happening at the same time. I think that before I even got a response from this record, I was so confident that I’d done good work that I didn’t really care. And that’s a really nice thing, to get to a point in your life. I do it because I love communicating my truth. I tried to go away from it, I studied acting 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 of going, “I can do this. I’m actually quite good at this. I love this,” and owning that by the time I was working with Romeo [Stodart] again I was just in flow. Then I could just do no wrong. Then I called up Eg White and I’m like, “We need to write. We need to write.” It was just an incredibly easy creative period, but what’s funny is that about getting in flow is that it’s your own mind that you have to kind of overcome. It’s getting yourself into the headspace where you can just let things flow, and I don’t quite know how I did that. I suppose 10 days in Nashville kind of busted that out of me and also being willing to write some s**t songs and be aware that they’re leading to a breakthrough. I think that takes confidence and courage to apply it as a discipline as well.
Baltin: The other thing too is obviously being a parent changes everything for you. Because what someone thinks about the song just seems so inconsequential. Do you feel like that freed you up musically?
Imbruglia: One hundred percent. You’re busy trying to keep a human being alive and make sure they’re okay and fed and get some sleep in between, and it’s probably the best thing that’s ever happened to me. It is a great leveler, it certainly puts things in perspective. It made me write better songs, I think some of the happy up-tempo songs are 100 percent inspired by that unconditional love that I was experiencing. I was doing a lot of writing while I was pregnant and I just posted a picture of me, I was recording up until a month before Max was born and then continued doing my vocals and stuff. That whole process definitely freed me ’cause I was just so happy and I think happiness is catching, it’s contagious and it just made everything a little bit more joyful for me.
Baltin: Do you still consider yourself a melancholy person or has that evolved as well?
Imbruglia: I’ll always have that dark side to my personality. I don’t think it’s by choice, I don’t think it’s something that I have the time or the inclination to indulge anymore. I think when I was younger, especially being a creative person, you could indulge those feelings and maybe have those periods last longer. I think when you have a child, you don’t really want to. It’s more about pulling yourself out of it or kind of falling apart as quickly as you can so that you can be present and be a good parent. It’s just such a great thing to have something more important than yourself to be focusing on, as just as a human thing, as a life experience, how great is that? And I remember yearning for that, I was like, “My life has been very selfish, now what?” I don’t just want it to be always about me. I live away from my family, I have this life, I’m very independent and for a long time there was that yearning. And so it’s made my work better. I feel like I can’t wait to write the next album, I’ve got 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 get it down to 12. I still make albums as if I know it, the whole thing is you put a single out and then you put a single out but for me, I still approach it old school because I’m old.
Baltin: What are sort of the benchmark albums for you that take you through a whole journey from start to finish?
Imbruglia: The first album that sprang to mind, which was when I was living in Melbourne and just getting into music was Tori Amos, Little Earthquakes. 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 just love storytelling songs, Joni Mitchell, I would be in people’s parties, I’m just staying in a room and I’m seeing everything that she’s seeing, and I remember going to France and staying at Hotel Costes and thinking about being in Paris and imagining I was Joni. And I’m like, “I wonder if she stayed at this hotel and wrote that 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’m putting myself in the league of those people, but it made me love those kind of journey albums. For me, songs didn’t make this album because subject-wise, they were way too off-piece, so I’m like, “Well, you can’t follow that song from that song and it doesn’t fit there.” For me, the track listing chooses itself ’cause you start piecing them all together and I usually cut them out in bits of paper and put them on a table, and then I’m looking at it and I’m listening to it, and it’s really obvious when it’s not working or if it suddenly goes to some random other subject, my brain can’t cope so I think it’s just a personal thing.
Baltin: When you go back and look at this track listing, what is the story that it tells you from “Build It Better” through “Firebird?” Do you see a through line through this whole album?
Imbruglia: I don’t know if I did the sequencing actually in order of events of my life and what the stories are about, because it starts with “Build It Better.” But if you think about “Build It Better,” it’s about don’t put a brave face on it, just accept that everything’s falling apart and believe that you can be in a better situation and live in a better way and feel better. And so for me, that was so poignant. And that’s the first track on the album ’cause it’s like the overarching theme of phoenix out of the ashes. And there had been so many different situations in my life that I’d been going through it’s almost like I needed to tell myself that. I’m sitting here now going, “Well, I don’t know if I’ve had that experience now.” But when you write the song, you’re not necessarily there yet. Sometimes these songs are about a place you’re trying to get to, not a place you’re already at. I’m looking at the track listing now and I’m thinking there’s not a specific timeline, apart from the fact that “Firebird,” the title track was the last song to be written. The album wasn’t called Firebird till the last minute, and it was when we were doing the creative for the artwork with Simon Procter, who I think is a genius, and I was talking him through the album, he was living with the songs, and I was like, “It’s kind of like I’m Phoenix out of the ashes.” And we were talking about that and he said Firebird and I’m like “Well, I’m a Firebird.” And then I was like, ” I’m gonna call the album Firebird but I don’t have the song.” So I rang up Romeo Stodart and I’m like, “No pressure dude, we have to write the title track in 24 hours. Come to my house.” So he came out and in two days, we wrote this song and it was a hard one ’cause when you’re writing under pressure, and there were so many different themes because it’s to do with strength and fragility and finding that balance. So I was thinking, “Is this a song for my son? What is this song?” So the first day was a bit of struggle, the second day, it was my friend’s funeral, and she’d lost her battle, she had two stage four cancers. And she was a force of life, and I lit a candle and I asked her to help me write the song, and it just all flowed out of me, and I think, in the sadness of her passing and thinking about her crossing over and all of that, went into the song. So that was a really special one, and I think quite poignant that it was the last one that I wrote and that it’s the title track.