Don’t stop ranting, Charlotte Church. We like our celebrities real, opinionated (and refreshingly unedited)
Words: Lyndsey Gilmour Photography: Mark Harrison, Additional file photos: Rex Features
A media trained celebrity is de rigueur these days. It’s like before they have even released a single/stepped on set, they’re given a crash course in how not to give anything away. So when you get the opposite – like the gloriously gobby Charlotte Church – it’s magnificent.
After years spent on a well-publicised rags to riches career arc, she has stepped away from her old record label and life as a tabloid fodder pop star. Which means what you see is exactly what you get. Something that’s precisely her appeal.
She’s someone who’s had many guises. First she was an ‘ordinary’ 11 year old from Cardiff with a major singing talent who was launched as ‘The Voice of an Angel’ in 1997. She sang for the Pope at 13 and sat one of her GCSEs at the White House after performing at the inauguration of George W Bush.
Then there was ‘Laddette Charlotte’ who supposedly extolled the virtues of the ‘Cheeky Vimto’ [a toxic mix of ruby port and blue WKD] and inspired countless ‘Fallen Angel’ headlines. At the age of 20, she was given her own comedy talk show after guest-presenting Have I Got News For You because “someone thought I was good at it”. She had two children, Ruby, now six, and Dexter, now five, with uber-tanned international rugby star Gavin Henson; a period when they almost became Wales’ answer to the Beckhams before going their separate ways. By 2007, she’d sold 10 million records and was reportedly worth £25 million (she’s now said to be ‘down’ to £10 million). So far, so much fun.
However, very much on the flip side, Church was at the height of her fame at a time when celebrity culture went into hyper drive. There was a public countdown to when she turned 16 and ‘was legal’. Other, countless, crappy stories not worth repeating were run.
Then, three years ago, the News International phone hacking scandal exploded and newspaper giants admitted they had targeted public figures including Church and her family members by illegally tapping their phones. She and her family were awarded £600,000 in damages. It’s been a bruising but enlightening journey for Church, 28, who invites us into her Cardiff home as she tries to make sense of it all.
Charlotte greets me in the studio at the back of her house – the hub of her self-started record label Dooby (a venture born when she parted ways with Power Amp Music seven months in to a new contract citing creative differences). From her clothes – hoodie, polka dot dress, slippers – to her kids, who run in and out as we talk, the vibe is super relaxed and open. She smokes roll-ups (she’ll give up soon. She promises); empty wine glasses from the night before sit alongside lyric sheets.
She’s been working on her latest album – simply titled Four, with a group of local musicians and her “fella, JP”– singer and songwriter Jonathan Powell. Stylistically, her new music could easily be filed next to the likes of Björk or Friendly Fires – tracks Love and Little Movements have a wonderful, ethereal, synthy edge – but it would be foolish to define her sound. “That whole genre defining thing is bulls**t”, she tells me.
She’s more interested in the “wonder of physics” (one of her songs is about quantum entanglement theory) than reading some “sh***y celeb rag” full of “this is how to be skinny”. The last book she read was Richard Dawkin’s The Selfish Gene and she subscribes to New Scientist, saying “science is f***ing incredible and totally mindblowing”. And she is open, honest and actually very interesting.
But having spent two captivating hours in her company, I still can’t quite figure her out. Feminist, intellectual, firebrand and sharp as a tack – there is still no ‘box’ for Ms Church. This deduction, I’ve no doubt, will please her immensely.
From classical to pop to independent artist; you seem to suit yourself when it comes to musical direction. Do you care about critical success?
In the beginning, I wanted the respect of my peers as I never really had that with [2005 pop album] Tissues And Issues. When I got into this area of music, this word ‘credible’ kept coming up but lots of festivals still wouldn’t book me because I was [seen as] something else. I’ve never been cool in my life and if I have to fit into a role to be cool I’m totally disinterested.
Setting up your own record label could be seen as quite a risk. What prompted this?
I never really thought of myself as a creative person. I was never encouraged [by music executives]. They said, “You can do a bit of writing but these guys are the writers – they will steer you”. You’re constantly but very subtly undermined. It’s only in the last couple of years, since the Leveson thing that I’ve really understood my power. That probably sounds a bit w**k.
Did your involvement in the inquiry force you to get introspective about your life?
I’ve always been introspective. When you spend your childhood doing interviews about how difficult your childhood is, it stops being so much of a mystery. It’s like some weird kind of therapy. And I’ve always been confident. But I feel like I’ve woken up from the state you’re supposed to be in within modern life; dead behind the eyes and susceptible to advertising. So I’ve started to have an awakening from that and see everything as it really is.
Getting involved with Hacked Off [the pressure group, fronted by Hugh Grant, campaigning for a public inquiry into phone hacking] was a brave move. Were you worried about the tabloids targeting you again?
No way. I didn’t care about the repercussions – it couldn’t be any worse than what I’d already gone through. There was nothing left; no skeletons. They couldn’t get at me anymore and the injustice sickened me.
And it was a rare opportunity to do something about it.
I remember interviewing Piers Morgan [then editor of the Daily Mirror] when I was 17 for the Oxford Union and he was such a pr*ck. His argument basically centred around, “You’re rich, you’re making money out of this, who the f**k are you to question it?” I was like, “I hate you!” I wanted to storm out and it took all my strength not to, and in that talk he basically told me about phone hacking and everything.
He admitted it?
He didn’t say it happened at the Daily Mirror but it was in the video I had made [of the talk]. I gave it to The Guardian because when it all came out he was like, “I had nothing to do with it”, but I was like, “Well, I’ve got a f**king video of you telling me how to do it from way back!” [Morgan has recently been interviewed by police as part of their investigation but has always denied all knowledge of phone hacking].
Do you feel satisfied with the conclusions drawn by Leveson?
Dude, I’m so unsatisfied with this government and the way things are happening, but I thought his conclusions were fair and insightful. I’m a proper leftie and would never want to curb anyone’s freedom of speech. But what I couldn’t get my head round was people saying it would damage that and journalists’ privileges. It seemed so obvious that it had been so corrupt for so long it would simply be protecting a fantasy. I got really frustrated – even with the Hacked Off committee. I had to take myself out of that one in the end. There was too much bulls**t to wade through.
Speaking at the Leveson inquiry in 2011
What kind of bulls**t are you talking about?
I went to the Tory party conference and it made me sadder than I’d ever been in my life. The whole thing just felt horrible. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t hate the Conservative Party, I’ve only recently become politicised.
The awakening again?
The awakening! This is such bulls**t language by the way; I don’t actually think like that. But my Grampy is a proper socialist, and I’m from a proper working class family in South Wales, and there was something about [the conference] that felt very dystopian. Afterwards we [Hacked Off] met with David Cameron – it was awful.
You rolled your eyes there. Why was it so bad?
I just felt like Cameron looked at us like we were children. He had a proper conversation with Hugh Grant and the other men and any time he looked at me or Jackie Haines [Crimewatch presenter] it was like we were kids who he had to be nice to. So patronising. Him and Michael Gove; I can’t bear them.
What about Michael Gove particularly niggles you?
There’s this incredible lecture by [educationalist] Ken Robinson called The Changing Paradigms Of Education, where he talks about the idea of free schools. In the industrial revolution, schools were made like factory lines; ringing bells, and specific subjects with all the kids grouped by age. The idea needs total restructuring. The way Michael Gove is pushing [education] into the ground… My cousin is a primary school teacher. Teachers are tearing their hair out. What is really going on? Surely [the government] can’t truly believe this is the best for the nation? It’s just capitalism; money reigns. Whoa… what a massive rant.
1997, aged 11: On ITV's The Big Big Talent Show
So you’re understandably sceptical about tabloids and politics. Where do you get your news from?
The internet. Best place. I love Twitter. I listen to Radio 4 too. Not so much Woman’s Hour. It’s great it exists, but it’s a shame it has to be called Woman’s Hour. It’s important to educate women and men about feminism.
It’s only recently, with the fourth wave of feminism, that’s it’s become popular to identify yourself as a feminist again isn’t it?
I don’t understand why any ethically minded person wouldn’t class themselves as a feminist. When I was younger, life would revolve around going out at the weekend, having the perfect outfit, shoes, hair, nails and it was really dull. If you were to ask those people, "Do you count yourself a feminist?” They’d say no. A lot of it’s to do with those ridiculous [tabloid weekly] magazines. They judge and attack women because they’re easy targets. “Look at her cellulite! Isn’t it funny? You don’t have that? Maybe you will and you’ll feel awful and have to do something about it. It’s totally going to consume your brain! You will want to conform to this ‘thing’, which is really just a small part of you. But if you pour all your energy into it, perhaps you can be in this constant fictional state of happiness!!” It’s depressing. God, I have to stop ranting!
When were you turned on to feminism?
Again, with Leveson I was approached by lots of women’s groups then I read an interview with Kat Banyard [head of UK Feminista], and she put all those things I’d never been able to vocalise properly into this succinct way. She smashed it. And I thought, ‘Why am I not doing anything about this?’
Who would you like your children to hold up as role models?
It should be a myriad of people. I try to let my kids make their own way and be free, but trying to protect them and let them make their own choices at the same time [is hard]. For instance, I don’t want my little girl to see a Katy Perry video. I like Katy Perry; she’s funny – I’m not fussed on her music – but I don’t want my little girl to hold her up as an ideal. I think a lot of what she does is marketed to children. All that candy stuff [in her California Gurls video]. If [Ruby] had seen that she would have loved it, sweets everywhere and then there she is – this naked chick!
Performing on The Jonathan Ross Show in 2012
If you’re concerned about Katy Perry videos, where do you stand on Miley Cyrus’ performances?
It’s so obvious this young lady has a skewed perspective because of what she’s been through. All she knows is to sell and be sold. This sounds patronising but in a couple of years she’ll change her tune. I went through a similar-ish thing; not to the depths she is taking it to. But it’s exhibitionism. As a teenager, you’re really egocentric. Why would you give a f**k about the rest of society?
Some justify these images as young women exploring their sexuality. Is that fair enough?
Having the opportunity to explore your sexuality is great but when you look back you’ll think, ‘Why did I do it so publicly?’It’s such a deeply personal thing. It’s extremely marketable and what people ‘want to see’, but is that basic fundamental nature or has it been bred into us? If the same thing happened to men, it doesn’t necessarily make it right or beneficial for society, but it makes it more of a level playing field rather than a way to objectify and demean women. But, because those girls feel comfortable enough in their own selves saying they’re ‘exploring their sexuality’ and happy to do it publicly, it has a knock-on effect to girls of a similar age worldwide because celebrity has become so important.
Is this what inspired you when you gave The John Peel Lecture on the sexualisation of the music industry and stated that the pop industry only had room for three types of women: One Of The Girls, Victim/Torch Singer and Unattainable Sex Bot?
BBC Six Music gave me a general headline and said speak about whatever you want. As I was preparing, lots of stuff was happening – Miley’s VMA performance, Sinéad [O’Connor’s] response; Rihanna had just released that video with all the strippers on the throne and Annie Lennox came out saying there should be ratings on music videos. It all just fell into place.
Your voice came through strongly…
Me and Johnny sat debating it for hours. I wanted to go into schools to ask kids what they liked, but I didn’t have time. Kids are like magpies. Anything that isn’t allowed – bums and poos, that kind of thing – and they’re in. I don’t want to sound like a neurotic mother, because I’m not, I just think it’s important to let these tiny little humans work out their processes through play. It’s all being lost because there are now these hugely adult influences everywhere. Sex sells; everyone buys it.
You’ve been financially very successful during your career. What’s stopping you from giving up music completely and becoming a campaigner?
It only recently dawned on me that I don’t have to be a singer. What a novel idea! I guess I’m lucky to have a bit of wealth behind me that I can go to university. I want to make a documentary on education, get a physics degree… I haven’t got a lot of money. I’ve got enough to be comfortable if I was reasonable for the rest of my life, but I’m not reasonable [laughs] so I will have to find a way to sustain my lifestyle.
So, if not money, what are your main drivers now?
I never want to stop educating myself. And I want my kids to see my career and see that it’s possible to dart from one end of the spectrum to another. I feel like I know my own power and strengths now – if I set my mind to something, I absolutely will achieve that. I work with these amazing people, I’m in control of my own creativity and work life and I can provide for my children. Fingers crossed it carries on. It’s a privileged position to be in.
Four is out on 10 March