Photo: Simon Procter
Natalie Imbruglia Opens Up About Grief, Unconditional Love & Her Reclamatory New Album 'Firebird': "I Always Fly Home To Myself"
Quick, someone edit the Wikipedia entry for "impostor syndrome" to include a picture of Natalie Imbruglia: She's its rightful Exhibit A, and she knows it.
Sure, the Aussie singer/songwriter, actress and model's strummy alt-rock single "Torn" might have ripped through pop culture back in 1997, resonating with lovesick suburban teens the world over. But as she freely admits, the dilemma of what to do next hasn't just been annoying or demoralizing: It's amounted to a decades-long, near-total spiritual paralysis.
"I think I've spent most of my career just thinking I'm going to get found out. That I have no idea what I'm doing," the three-time GRAMMY nominee tells GRAMMY.com over Zoom from a London hotel room. (Her tiny dog, Mr. Wilson, yaps away on the bed behind her, adding to the "nagging inner voice" vibe.) "Certainly, when I started my career, I didn't expect anything to go well," she continues. "Then I had a song that I covered that connected with the whole world."
The stress of following up "Torn" "with the whole world watching" was basically poison to Imbruglia's psychology. But it got worse: When her 2009 album Come To Life—the product of three years of work and her last album of original material—only got a limited release in a few countries and stalled out commercially, she decided to drop the Sisyphean ordeal and quit music altogether.
"I would say that crushed me pretty hard," she says with a weary laugh. That is, until Firebird, her proverbial rising from the ashes with high-profile collaborators like KT Tunstall and the Strokes' Albert Hammond, Jr., which will be released September 24.
How did Imbruglia wrest herself from the writer's-block mire and craft uplifting singles like "Built it Better," "On My Way" and "Maybe It's Great"? For one, she became a parent, which connected her to a previously untapped matrix of unconditional love. She also learned how to muzzle her inner doubter and get out of her own way.
To be sure, Imbruglia remains a naturally anxious cat, rattling off her insecurities in her Down Under accent. But that's just how she's wired, and she's learning to overcome it every day. "[I'm] keeping the critic out of the room and just having a playful heart," Imbruglia says. "It doesn't need to be so serious." Learn how that metamorphosis happened in the below, in-depth interview with GRAMMY.com.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
This is your first album of original music in more than a decade. What's been going on in your life in the interim?
Oh, gosh. What hasn't gone on in that time?
I don't know if you know that I quit music for a while and took quite a big break and studied acting. It comes out in [2015’s] Male. I did that album, and I think during that whole period, I had writer's block but wasn't really being honest with myself about that. And then my label I was signed to made me do a covers album before they'd let me do original material.
I did that, but I have to say, that tour was really amazing. I reconnected with my fans. I really missed singing my own stories, so it just motivated me to want to be on stage singing my words. You know?
Despite that rough stuff, Firebird is such a flourishing for you. How did these songs grow from scratch, since you had been away from this world for a while?
It's actually been an amazing experience. I think when you go through something like that, it's weird to not be able to touch or feel something that you've done your whole life. For me, to not be able to write and feel like it was something I lost confidence in doing was quite hardcore.
So, I started the process with Luke Fitton, Rachel Furner and Fiona Bevan in the U.K., but I still felt like I was wobbly on my feet, you could say. I told my management I wanted them to book me a trip to Nashville. I don't know if you know that on my first album, the song "Smoke" was written under a tree in Nashville with a guy called Matt Bronleewe. I'm quite familiar with the work ethic there.
I just had this feeling that the structure of the way they write in Nashville—if you kind of line up the sessions to a day, whatever—I thought it was going to be terrifying, especially jumping in with a lot of new writers and people I don't know. But I thought "It's going to do something great," you know? Sometimes you have to get out of your comfort zone, and that's what happened.
At the start of it, I feel bad for some of the people I was working with because I didn't really have the confidence to have an opinion. But I think by the end of that writing session, it was like… if you keep saying "Yes," like [Overly amenable voice] "Yeah, sure! We'll write that," and it's not who you are, that gets really tired.
I think by the end of it, I really found my voice. It was the song "When You Love Too Much" that really encapsulated exactly what the writer, Caroline Watkins, and I were talking about. The heartbreak we'd been through.
And then—when you have a song at the end of it—I just got really excited and was reminded why I love the process.
Tell me more about that song and the emotional information it contains.
Well, we'd both been through a lot. We both loved too much. So, we were swapping stories and just talking about the pain of that. How do you deal with that and grow from that? Is that something you can change about yourself, or is this kind of how we're destined to be?
So, it was just kind of the open chat when you meet somebody who's got a similar story—or affliction, you could say—and to be able to encapsulate it is what it's about. I guess I'm more of a storyteller and emotional conveyor—a communicator—more than I'm a songwriter or a singer or anything.
That needs to land, so I'm always really focused on [that fact that] I want people to have some payoff from it. I want them to feel relief from this particular thing. And if that's not happening, I have to keep going back, going back, going back. It's an interesting process.
Did becoming a mother put you back in contact with those emotions?
100 percent. I also think yearning to be a parent has got to be connected to the writer's block. Clearly, that was something important to me, and it was a long journey to get there through relationships, single—the whole thing has been a long journey.
When I finally was pregnant, I think it was like an exhale. I'm sure, for creativity, that's got to kind of have timed around when I was having this creative flow. Yeah, unconditional love, the experience of being a parent, the unknown—all those things were amazing for writing.
When crafting the sound of the record, what did you want to draw from as far as music already out there in the ether that you love?
You know, I don't start with "I want to make this style of an album." I don't start with a genre. I start with writing my truth, which is why I have so different genres of song. But I feel like my voice ties things together, so I feel like each song is its own little universe. I really go song by song, and the hard part of that is how I'm going to tie this into an album. That's where picking the right producer is vital.
There are songs that were [potential] hits that I left off for the thing you're talking about. I still approach an album with an arc to it. Old-school. So, some of them, subject-matter-wise, didn't fit the story of this album. When I was doing my tracklisting, I was like, "This one doesn't really fit," so I took it off.
But sound-wise, it was my first co-production. I never go so far into pop land that I feel it's inorganic. I love real instruments, so there's always real guitar and things like that. It's just a case of: There'll be slight influences, or I'll have an artist in mind or a feeling or a color or a track or a something.
To answer your question, I'm usually approaching each song as its own little thing. I write a lot and then deal with tying it together at the end. So, I don't even know what you would say the sound of the album is, but I think [collaborators] My Riot were very good at helping me get that thread through.
I really love the electronic sounds they choose. It's very organic. I don't like things to be jarring. I like them to feel like "Dive to the Deep." The electronic sound in "Just Like Old Times" makes the chorus for me, because it's sparkly and happy. These things are emotive, so any kind of sound is to evoke a particular emotion for the song.
"Dive to the Deep" was like, "Guys, this has to sound underwater!" I say the weirdest things. I'm kind of thinking in pitches. I'm not a [trained] musician, so the way I communicate with my musicians is a little bit random, but it seems to work.
Tell me about working with Albert Hammond, Jr. on this project.
Oh my gosh. So, we've been friends a long time. I remember back in the day, he said we should write together and I was too scared. I'd go "Yeah, sure!" and brush it off, but I was actually like, "Oh my god, I could never do that. I might pass out."
I think once I got past this writer's block, I had the courage to reach out to him. And he was up for it, thank god. He didn't say no. It was just about finding a time we could do it. Luckily, he was in L.A. while I was in Australia and he was like, "Oh my gosh! I love Byron Bay! Why don't I just come there?" My friend has a studio in Byron.
Gus [Oberg] was with him, so Gus came out. He's a producer, engineer and friend—bestie. So they came out, and the three of us had this amazing week at Rockinghorse Studios. Imagine this amazing studio out in the hinterlands, in a rainforest, in nature. We had the place all to ourselves. There was a pool. I mean, it was just idyllic! It was fun!
He's got a great sense of humor. Musically, he just starts playing whatever over a beat and the guitar is like another voice in the room. It's very melodic. So, I found the process with him very easy.
In the bigger picture, though, it's seems like hesitancy and trepidation have followed you throughout our career. Where do you think that comes from? What questions pop up in your mind?
Oh, I think I've spent most of my career just thinking I'm going to get found out. That I have no idea what I'm doing. For a very long time. Certainly, when I started my career, I didn't expect anything to go well. [Laughs.] Then I had a song that I covered that connected with the whole world.
I was like, "Whoa! Everyone's watching!" and then I had to deal with that and write a second album. I kind of had to learn my chops with everyone watching, which, at times, is painful. But to be honest with you, at this point, it's really nice because I don't have to prove anything to anyone. I don't really get that fear. I think when you've had writer's block for that long, nothing's more scary than that.
I did a writing session with a guy where he came from Scotland with his friend, Roy Hart. He's a great songwriter, musician, radio DJ, et cetera, and I couldn't open my mouth. He was in my house with the keyboard set up, everything, and I was like, "Should I get a coffee?" I just couldn't do it! That was pretty traumatizing.
And I think at that point, writer's block is beyond that kind of fear and trepidation. It's just kind of paralysis. I don't know. It's bizarre. I think you can overthink things and you have to learn that you can have a day where you are a s*** songwriter and the very next day, you can be prolific. That has nothing to do with you. You're pulling these songs from the ether.
I write my melodies walking. I have to move. If I try and sit down, it's like I'm trying too hard. I think it's also learning techniques to get out of your own way, keeping the critic out of the room and just having a playful heart. It doesn't need to be so serious.
Is there any other advice you'd give someone with writer's block? Any specific exercises to get the machine whirring again?
Yeah, it's like that book "The Artist's Way" [says about] writing. I think you have to show up. It has to be a discipline and a practice.
I would encourage anyone to do that and show up and cry and deal with the fact that you've written a bunch of s*** songs, which I had to do. Some of which we had a row about—me and my managers rolled around on the floor. But, so what? Who cares? Then you do the good songs! So, dare to fail, right?
Give me a line on Firebird that you think sums up everything we've been talking about.
"Don't worry, I'm steady / A firebird, I'm ready / I always fly home."
What does that mean to you?
So many things. I think it's a message to myself about when I feel like I'm losing it—is that I always fly home to myself. I always get my equilibrium back, whether that means depression—whatever that means.
I had my son in mind. I was thinking of lots of different things when I wrote that song. I was thinking about being someone that can't be pinned down. And ultimately, I'm here, but it's an "I'm always here for you, but you're on your own" kind of thing. Things like that.
It's interesting, when I wrote that song: The first day of writing that, it was the last track on the album, and I said to Romeo Stodart, "Before I write this track, I want it on the album." The head of the label said it was already too late. I said, "We're doing this. It's happening. The album has to be called Firebird because I'm the firebird. We have to do this."
The first day, I had nothing. I said "Romeo, I'm not feeling anything. I don't know what's going on, if it's a full moon…" He said, "Chill, Nat. We can just talk today. We don't have to." He's so chill! Having people around you that can take all the pressure out—"We've got loads of time. Two days is a long time. Let's just chat. Let's just get back into each other's energy."
On the second day, it just flowed through me. I'd lost a friend to cancer. It was actually the funeral that day. I lit a candle and I asked her, "Help me write the song." So then, the themes of the song became death and crossing over and flying home in that way. I think my friend kind of hijacked that one.
I'm sorry to hear about your friend. That's tremendously rough.
Yeah. But, you know, she lived her life as someone who was a firebird. She is someone who sucked the marrow out of life, so I don't feel sad for the life she had. I feel sad for the people she left behind. She would have loved that I dedicated that song to her on my album, and that makes me happy.
When it comes to loved ones who've passed on, I've found it's more constructive to talk about them in life than as some faceless dead person.
Yeah, I talk to her all the time. She still has me in stitches even now, when I think about what she would be saying to me. I have a very open relationship with those kinds of things on the other side. It's not hard for me to feel like she's here with me.
Natalie Imbruglia. Photo: Simon Procter
What have you been listening to lately?
I've been listening to the Black Keys—their latest album [Delta Kream]. I've been listening a lot—still—to Leon Bridges. I just can't give it up. I'm obsessed. It's just so mellow and yummy and lovely. I really love Willa Amai. She's really special. Her voice is magical. She's almost whispering. I wish I could sing in the way that she does. There's barely any sound coming out. I find her beautifully haunting and I love her lyrics.
Is there anything else about Firebird we didn't touch on that you'd like to impart?
I just feel like a lot of the songs are about independence and discovering inner strength and being unapologetic about that. The road less traveled being actually quite a cool thing.
I'm just excited for them to be out there in the world. I recorded this album in lockdown, so the beauty of that was that I was able to go over it with a fine-toothed comb over and over and over, much to my co-producers' annoyance. But I'm so happy I didn't rush anything, and just letting it be out there in the world is really exciting.
Do you think we'll have to wait several more years for the next one? Or are you back on that creative path for good?
I'm trying so hard to not take a long time! I've already said to my managers, "Let's get on it." But, you know, I'm Mediterranean. Maybe I'm just a little bit lazy. I don't know. It might not happen! But I'm hopeful.