atasha Bedingfield knows you think she vanished, and frankly she’s fine with it. “It’s almost worse to be overexposed, or to be in someone’s life too much,” she says. “I don’t think it’s a bad thing for an artist – especially a songwriter – to withdraw for a bit and live a bit of life.”
In 2004, Bedingfield was one of British pop music’s great hopes, responsible for loudly inspirational ear candy at a time in which big, commercial British indie otherwise dominated the radio. She recited some Byron, Shelley and Keats over a hip-hop beat, wrote lyrics that were unashamedly sincere and earnest, and sung “Unwritten”, a track The Guardian called a “basic bitch staple” only this year. And because she and her pop-star brother Daniel never strove to be anything edgier or cooler, it became perfectly acceptable, and almost encouraged, to be mean about them.
“I feel like as a performer and as an entertainer, I was always trying to navigate other people’s emotions and trying to micromanage the way that I was perceived,” she explains of that time. “It’s like the press. Can I control how someone will understand me? When I’m talking to the press, how are they going to perceive me? And also – I can write a song that I know will be a pop song [that people like], but can I really guarantee that everyone is gonna like me? No, I can’t. You have to just be who you are. Some people will just not like you. And once you understand that, it brings peace.”
After her initial success, it seemed to all go quiet. Not for as long as many people in the UK claim that it did, but it was still lengthy. Her new album, Roll With Me, is her first in nearly a decade. Today, the 37-year-old still has a home in the UK but a mostly permanent base in Los Angeles, where she is married to an American and is the mother of a young son. She describes LA as a “songwriting mecca”, and a place where “the lyrics really flow” for her. But it is also true that the US treated her music with far more respect than we did here, so why wouldn’t she decide to make it home?
One of the most frustrating things about listening back to Bedingfield’s early work is how genuinely brilliant a lot of it is, and therefore how boring it was to sneer at it back then. “These Words”, “Single” and “Pocketful of Sunshine” are all lovely bits of early-Noughties pop-R&B that almost work as low-key gospel numbers, while the derided “I Wanna Have Your Babies” may be lyrically strange but is also playful and masterfully structured. “Unwritten”, which would go on to become the theme song for the classic MTV reality show The Hills (a remix has been used for its recent revival), is marvellous, with a gorgeous emotional build that makes you want to rip open the windows and sing it to the skies.
Indeed, listened to in 2019, where every day marks a new form of political and environmental hell, Bedingfield’s material is often deeply moving, the sheer positivity in her voice helping lift her best-known songs beyond the empty messaging of a “Live, Laugh, Love” wall hanging. And it raises an unexpected question: is a track like “Unwritten” somehow more necessary in 2019 than it was in 2004?
“It’s dark times,” Bedingfield suggests. “When there’s prosperity and an amazing leader in charge and everyone’s jobs are doing well, people for some reason like to hear sadder songs. But then when there is bad news every morning and the world feels divided, we need music that takes us out of that place. It’s a reason to get out of bed. But also maybe people are more willing to own what they find pleasurable [now]. And be like, ‘Yeah, this is what I like!’ And celebrate it.”
She remains overjoyed by the legacy “Unwritten” has had. “I love that that song has surpassed me,” she says. “When people sing that song, they’re not actually thinking about me, they’re thinking about something in their life, and a moment that that song represents for them, and I love that. The goal of every mum is for their kid to leave home, so ‘Unwritten’ is its own full-fledged human being right now! I did my job!”
On the heels of her UK success, Bedingfield was encouraged to try to break America, even if she was told repeatedly that it would never happen. Look what happened when a big British star like Robbie Williams tried to do it, she was reminded – “it just didn’t translate”. But she persevered anyway. “I did six months of a different state every day, and sang at radio stations with an acoustic guitar and being just very ‘real’. There was this real British invasion after that, with Adele and so many people. I loved the fact that I got to represent England in a place like America.”
And represent she did. Bedingfield earned a Grammy nomination, and her music would become a regular presence in romantic comedies, adverts and Grey’s Anatomy. “Unwritten” was even the most played track on US radio in 2006. Such success did have its downsides, however. Bedingfield doesn’t cop to having encountered anything quite as bad as the traumas experienced by her one-time contemporaries Kate Nash or Lily Allen, who were equally young when they had their images shaped and moulded by much-older men and thrust into a world of celebrity and tabloid cruelty. But she does reveal that she struggled to be heard when she was starting out – her second and third albums fell prey to music industry “geo-blocking”, she explains, meaning that they were released in different territories at different times, and sometimes not at all, with entirely different track listings and even titles. She says the experience was “devastating” and did little to quell the sense that she had turned her back on her native country.
“I would release something in America and then it wouldn’t come back to England,” she recalls, mentioning incredible professional opportunities that the UK didn’t know about. “I sang at the White House for Obama, and my mum was like, ‘I can’t even watch it on the internet’. I hated that and felt like maybe my [UK] fans felt that I left them? Which was just never [the case]. And honestly I couldn’t say anything about it because I was signed to my label, and I didn’t want to alienate myself with them.”
Those experiences have also made her new fourth album feel different. Roll With Me was entirely produced by Linda Perry, the singer-songwriter behind Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful” and “Hurt”, Gwen Stefani’s “What You Waiting For?” and a host of modern pop classics. It isn’t a singular record in terms of genre, pleasurably drifting between pop, R&B, and even, somewhat daringly, reggae. But there’s cohesion there, in its instruments and its confessional lyrics. As a result, it feels like a noticeable step up from the albums that came before it.
Bedingfield agrees. “I’ve always written a lot of radio songs, and they’ve all been produced by the writers that I’ve worked with,” she explains. “So, the albums themselves never felt like special, cohesive bodies of work. I love the songs independently, but it’s just been my dream to do that Amy Winehouse type of thing where you work with one person and you really get a chance to dig in. And I felt like I could really trust Linda. I’d just had a baby, and she had a young kid as well, so we would finish at the same time and put our kids to bed and there was this camaraderie between us over both being mums and both being badasses,” she laughs. “When you’ve been an artist for over 10 years, a lot of people become kind of complacent. But for me I just feel like I’m in my prime right now.”
There are moments speaking to Bedingfield when she sounds incredibly LA, with her vaguely mid-Atlantic accent and enviable sense of ease, or her references to loving yoga and sunshine. But when the topic of her next musical chapter emerges, a bit of self-doubt can be heard in her voice, hinting at the fact that despite having Perry on production duties and the genre blurring evident throughout Roll With Me, she is still striving to do something weirder in the future.
“In no way am I comparing myself to Radiohead,” she warns, “but I’ve always made very anthemic songs – not more anthemic, because there are plenty of anthemic Radiohead songs. But I see them as, like, scientists of music, and they’ll play something and you’ve never heard it before, and you’ll be like, ‘Ooh, this is weird’. I wish I had the guts to be like Radiohead, because they always take a risk, and they really do write the stuff that is right on the edge, and I feel like I have always written songs that are… more accessible at the start. Maybe I’ll do that on my next album, I don’t know.”
Considering the decade it took for her fourth record to materialise, it’s a good sign that she’s already thinking about the fifth one.
Roll With Me is released on 30 August
Source: The Independent