The Prince Edward is a crumbling old deco hotel in Melbourne, Australia, that opens out over the Pacific Ocean. On the second floor, there is a ballroom --low-ceilinged and dark--that has been converted into a rock club where tonight, newly minted pop sensation Natalie Imbruglia is playing an industry showcase. The venue is perfect for Imbruglia --just seedy enough to endow her with a patina of alternative credibility, but not so seedy as to scare off the mainstream record business types (radio joes, retailers, etc.) for whose benefit the evening has been planned. The crowd isn't wholly comprised of blas professionals -- Imbruglia lived in Melbourne when she starred as Beth-the-teen-bride on the soap opera Neighbours, and some old friends have turned up to root her on--but it's no love-struck sea of shrieking teenagers, either.
And so there is a hefty portion of tonight's attendees who maybe aren't so eager to see her succeed; people who assume she's cut from the same cloth as the last Neighbours star to make it big in music, Kylie Minogue. The fact that Imbruglia's ascent has been so incredibly fast only fuels suspicions. There are very few corners of Europe and Asia where her doe-eyed swoon of a single,"Torn," has not become a hit. And its progress in America, a market Imbruglia didn't think she was anywhere near ready to conquer, has been astonishing. "Torn" was supposed to be released in the U.S. in March, when the album debuted. But the influential L.A. rock station KROQ started playing the import single in January, and other stations followed, and a decision was made to release it immediately. MTV jacked the video into heavy rotation. And then, amazingly, Imbruglia (pronounced im-BROO-lee-uh) was invited to perform on Saturday Night Live, one of a handful of artists ever to do so before their debut album was released. Appearances on Letterman and Rosie were cinched. All of which was great, but RCA was hoping for a slightly more gradual build. Something more long-term, and less gaudy. More Tori, less Tiffany.
But it's too late: Like a robot that outsmarts its creator and seizes control of the laboratory, Natalie Imbruglia the product is moving on its own steam. Across the globe in another time zone, it is morning in America, and by the end of the day the charts will reflect that her album, Left of the Middle, has debuted at No. 10. Imbruglia won't know this for another 12 hours, though. Right now, she must get her wits about her, head onstage, and play her sixth live show ever. A label functionary doesn't exactly soothe the 23-year-old's nerves by addressing the crowd as though they were unruly sixth graders at a school assembly. "Natalie and the band have come a very long way to play for you tonight," he announces, "so if you're not prepared to stop talking and turn off your mobile phones, please take it outside."
Actually, despite the label's fears, the crowd's behavior throughout is at worst cordial, and at best, especially during "Torn" and the propulsive hits-to-be "Wishing I Was There" and "Big Mistake," positively devoted. But even this hometown audience looks on with an ever-so-slightly-jaundiced eye. Australia is a nation obsessed with American celebrity culture, and therefore Imbruglia is as notable for having briefly dated a star of Friends as she is for starring in Neighbours or for making Left of the Middle. Just before the band comes on, a young Australian fan I've been chatting with turns to me, and with a very serious look on her face, says,"Can I ask you a question?"
"Why did Natalie break up with David Schwimmer?"
It's the morning after the show, and Imbruglia--looking very low-affect glam in olive drab cargo pants, black T-shirt, and sunglasses--is wide awake and feeling goofy as she enters the airport minibus with her bandmates. She is just so pretty--even more so in person--and it's that rare kind of beauty that men and women can agree upon, an ever-so-slightly exotic Christy Turlington grace. Her dad is Italian, and she inherited his striking combination of dark skin and light blue eyes. She is as tiny as Natalie Wood, or Madonna, and nicely curvy. Even the features that don't have to be perfect are perfect: Her eyelashes are thick and long; her skin is flawless. In another era, she would have been discovered in a high-school talent show and whisked off to Hollywood for a studio contract.
But actress-cum-singer fuels the dreams of today's female progeny, and Imbruglia's climb to the top is quintessentially now: Pretty girl comes out of nowhere with radio-friendly, professionally administered beats, and a face that knows its way around a camera. A hairdresser comes in and tousles her tresses just so. And a new video queen is crowned. From Lisa Loeb to Jewel, from Alanis to Fiona, even from the Spice Girls to All Saints, each succeeding version becomes more streamlined, more idealized. This may rankle those excessively fond of the get-in-the-van school of rock authenticity, but today's teenagers don't seem to care how their pop stars get here, just so long as they look cute doing so.
One downside of having stardom hatch too early is that the artist's tools may not operate on as high a level as the profile. Such is the case with Imbruglia's voice, which, she explains in a gravelly whisper, blew out last night after the show. As the van pulls out of the hotel driveway, the sweet and borderline-nerdy guys in her band make fun of Imbruglia for acting so crushed-out on one of the guests at the after-party last night, another former Neighbours star."He said, 'I really like the record,' and I said, 'Oh, do you have it?' and he said, 'No, but my girlfriend does.'" Imbruglia makes a face and everyone laughs at her tale of woe."I thought I was gonna get snogged!" she says with a pout. But this is silly: Though she wears her beauty easily, Imbruglia must be aware that she could snog any guy she wanted.
Which is part of the reason"Torn" has been such a smash. First of all, it is that very nearly perfect pop specimen, a breakup song teenage girls instantly adore and the rest us pretend to hate until we realize we haven't stopped humming it. And it is about that most universal girl experience, the moment when a guy who's made himself all vulnerable and lovey retreats back into his shell and you're left wondering which version of him was real."You couldn't be that man I adored / You don't seem to know, seem to care what your heart is for," Imbruglia sings in a voice that makes heartbreak seem like the most noble emotion in the world. If there is one thing teenage girls love, it is knowing that pretty girls get their hearts stomped on too.
By Wednesday afternoon, Imbruglia has arrived at the seaside town of Palm Beach, which is to Sydney what Malibu is to L.A.: a star colony just far enough away from the city for the air to clear out a bit; where million-dollar houses are piled up one on top of the other, on a cliff, with an ocean view so exhilarating that one is left with no option but to believe that money can too buy happiness.
Imbruglia spent her childhood on the beach--"I was a professional sun-baker when I was young," she says--and sometimes, before a show or something stressful, she likes to sit near the water and clear her head. We have walked down a steep path from her friend's house to the water, and are seated at a beachside tofu burger shack, a world away from the pressure-cooker environment of the night before.
She says that she absolutely always knew she wanted to be a performer."As a kid I thought everybody was born with a blueprint," she says."I always thought, Isn't it what you're naturally talented at, and making the most of those talents? How can you not be aware of that? I don't mean to be mean, but I just couldn't fathom." She and her three sisters took dance lessons, but none of them were as obsessive about them as Natalie."I remember there was this girl called Henya Hyland who was at my tap school. She used to get all the solos, and God, I just wanted to be in her position. So every night I would put two planks of wood down in the garage, and I would practice and practice. I did my exercises in bed, thinking 'I've got to get my ankles strong,'" she says. At some point, something inside her just clicked, some extra added edge.
Of course she beat out Henya Hyland the next time auditions rolled around. And just as Imbruglia practiced tap until she got it perfect, she's convinced that she'll polish her act enough to be a really good pop star, too."The only thing I'm lacking is experience, and unfortunately I'm going to have to gain it in public. But better this way than, you know, than never having success at all."
To which Anne Preven, the author and original performer of "Torn," might respond, Well, yeah. Preven is the lead singer of Ednaswap, one of the many female-fronted bands signed by major labels in the great alternative gold rush of the early '90s. She wrote"Torn" in 1993 with bandmate Scott Cutler and with Phil Thornalley, a former bass player for the Cure, and recorded it two years later, for Ednaswap's debut album on Elektra. That record went nowhere, and Ednaswap left Elektra for Island, where they've so far released an EP and an album, both of which include a second, radically reworked version of"Torn" (there's even a third Ednaswap version, a sweetened last-ditch"radio mix"). Of the three, it's the EP/LP take that's most affecting, as well as most emblematic of the changing musical times: There, Preven's"Torn" is a full-on grunge ballad, all wails and ache, and when Preven sings that she is torn, she sounds like she is torn as in ripped wide open, exposed and bleeding--as opposed to torn between staying and going, which is how Imbruglia sings it.
Preven is philosophical about having "Torn" fluffed up and toned down for a pretty young soap star; after all, she and her bandmates tried everything short of a Puffy remix to break it on radio, and the song, she recognizes, has a life all its own."Torn" has been recorded by an American based in Norway named Trine Rein, a Dutch girl named Lis Sorensen, and scores of others who have made demos of it, all under the tutelage of Thornalley. It has been recorded so often that, as Preven jokes,"you could make a 12-song album and call it Torn."
The song's provenance was blown up into a big fat quasi-scandal in the U.K., where tabloids accused Imbruglia of trying to take credit for it, something she insists she would never do." 'Torn' was unknown in most places," Imbruglia says, her voice taking on a clipped, pissed-off quality for the first time. "So why was I going to say, 'Oh, and by the way, this song that you haven't heard yet. Has been done by some girl you haven't heard of.'" She is tired of answering questions about it--she's got other songs, after all, ones she wrote. But for now, she is stuck where she's been for the past few months, explaining "Torn" to yet another journalist.
Phil Thornalley, who should know, thinks the key to Imbruglia's "Torn" is its "vulnerability, something maybe more universal." And though Imbruglia did not write the words herself, when she sings"I am cold and I am shamed / Lying naked on the floor," it does indeed sound as if she knows what she's talking about, because when she first sang that song, she was going through maybe the most trying period of her young life.
It was the summer of 1996 and she had been living in London since she'd quit Neighbours two years earlier. She didn't have a work visa, which didn't bother her at first, because she wanted to dress up and go to clubs more than anything, but all the partying got old really fast. Even worse, she was running out of money, and her visa was about to expire, which meant she would have to return home in order to come back. Faced for the first time in her life with an uncertain future, her perfectionist side kicked in, and she decided she needed to leave with some kind of career plan in place. She'd had offers to be a TV hostess, but what she really wanted to do was sing and write songs, and though she'd been told that she sang well, she was too embarrassed to pursue it. "I'd been on a soap," she says, "and it wasn't very cool to talk about the fact that I was a singer."
She did, however, meet with Mark Fox, former percussionist for Haircut 100 who was at the time creative director of BMG Publishing. He knew the moment was right for a girl like Imbruglia--fresh-faced yet with showbiz know-how under her belt--to hit as a pop act. Fox had worked with actors-turned-singers before, and he was "aware of the possibility that actors can do other things besides just act. It was clear to me," he says, "that acting was the thing Imbruglia had fallen into, not singing."
Fox instantly thought of his friend Phil Thornalley, and called him to say he'd met a girl who'd be perfect for "Torn." So Imbruglia recorded a demo with Thornalley, and then met her future manager, Anne Barrett, an intense Scotswoman who had guided the career of Betty Boo, a girl pop-rapper who for a few brief months in the early '90s was being hyped as the next Madonna. Imbruglia played Barrett the tape she'd made with Thornalley, and Barrett knew instantly that Imbruglia was destined for stardom. "When I first heard Natalie sing 'Torn,' I got the same feeling as when I first heard Chrissie Hynde sing 'Brass in Pocket,'" she says.
So, armed with the Thornalley demos and some 8" x 10" glossies, Barrett met with BMG exec Jeremy Marsh."A few bars in, he was jumping up and down," Barrett says. "RCA didn't have any act of this sort, whereas A&M had Sheryl Crow and Suzanne Vega, and Warner Bros. had Alanis Morissette. [They] had in actual fact been looking for a Natalie for the past six months." It was Imbruglia's great good fortune that everyone was looking for an Alanis that year, and her even better fortune that two years later, Alanis has yet to deliver another album.
The credits on Left of the Middle tip off the record's true identity: a state-of-the-art pop product with as many cowriters, producers, and collaborators as a Hollywood movie or a Mase album. Imbruglia shares writing credit on ten of Left of the Middle's 12 songs; ten other people besides Imbruglia receive writing or production credits on the album. Most notable among them: Thornalley; Nigel Godrich, producer of Radiohead's OK Computer, who mixed much of the record; and Mark Goldenberg, an L.A. songwriter who penned "Novocaine for the Soul" for the Eels and worked with Imbruglia on a batch of songs, including the plucky "Big Mistake." The triptych of singles to be released from Left of the Middle --"Torn," bittersweet and wounded;"Wishing I Was Here," a super-bouncy Hanson rip; and "Big Mistake," an alt-ish kiss-off la Alanis's"You Oughta Know"--are expert examples of late-'90s pop architecture, brilliantly if clinically designed songs certain to fill the air at beaches and Sweet Sixteens all summer long. Left of the Middle may not be as sublime a version of assembly-line pop as Motown, or Madonna, or even Alanis, but if you don't scratch the surface too hard you'll come away with a nice little sugar high.
Imbruglia is very proud of the finished album; proud she asserted herself with all those intimidating boy producers, and that her identity didn't get totally squashed along the way. Even if, she admits, that identity was not always clear even to her."When I worked with people, I'd say, 'I don't want to do cheesy pop.' And they'd say, 'What do you want to sound like?' And I'd say, 'I want to sound like me.' And they'd say, 'What's you?' And I'd say, 'I don't know yet, help me find out."
Imbruglia's story, and the story of "Torn," is more than just the latest pop fable, though: It is also a poignant reminder of how the female voice in pop music has, over the course of a few short years, gone from a whisper to a scream and then back to a whisper. Not that long ago, there was an army of female-fronted bands united not so much by anger as by a shared spirit of rebellion. Veruca Salt, the Breeders, Hole, and even Elastica were all at least slightly threatening to your average guy (which doesn't take much; just the image of a girl playing electric guitar is slightly threatening to your average guy). There was something sexy and subversive about women playing together in a band, something exhilarating to a generation raised to believe that only guys could turn up to 11.
The problem was, it wasn't exhilarating to enough people. So when Alanis Morissette sold more records than all those groups put together, the music industry retreated and looked again to sign singers, not bands. Whatever skills they lacked could be fixed in the studio. Morissette worked an edge and an anger, but most of those who followed lacked even that. They were young, vulnerable girls, pretty as you please, with unplugged guitars--when they played an instrument at all. And, as the Anne Prevens of the world know all too well, hurt and vulnerable trumps angry and vulnerable any day.
Natalie Imbruglia is lying on the sand, on a beach towel, looking at a copy of New Idea magazine, which is sort of an Australian cross between the Star and Good Housekeeping. She flips to a story about Tommy and Pamela Lee's big bust-up, and I point to Pamela and ask Imbruglia when she's planning on getting that done. "Do you mean the drunk look on her face or the fake boobs?" she asks. The boobs, I tell her. "Nope. Never. Don't need to go there." She glances at the cover story on Nicole Kidman's wardrobe, and an expos on Elle Macpherson's sister's new mystery beau. Then she lands on a two-page spread with the headline the girl who grew up to be a star!
"Look at this picture!" she gasps, pointing to herself at age 14, after a dance recital. Her hair is pulled back in a ponytail. Her lips are glossy as chrome. "Oh. My. God. Check out my mouth. It's maaassive. Eeew, it looks like someone punched me in the face." She reads from the story's first sentence: "She grew up to become a Neighbours star, then the famous girlfriend...uhhhh," she groans, and stops reading aloud, for the next words are"...of Friends star David Schwimmer." She finishes the story in a sub-whisper, interjecting comments along the way. When she reads that "Torn" "was offered to Natalie by its composer, who didn't think to tell the young Aussie star that someone had already recorded a version in Norway," she reacts by saying, "They did tell me, you bastard. Oh, they just lie." She reads a few more lines and finds a touch of fury in her voice. "And I never said Elvis didn't write any of his songs. I didn't even know that. I said, 'Tina Turner has done pretty well for herself performing other people's songs."
Imbruglia longs for the day when these questions of authorship and album credits stop dogging her. In a recent story, she spoke with admiration and envy of Shawn Colvin, saying she was afraid even to compare her talent to that of the older, more seasoned singer/songwriter. It is pointed out that Colvin's career trajectory could not differ more dramatically from her own; that the 42-year-old Colvin just this year earned her first platinum album; that she has toured tirelessly for a decade and a half and never enjoyed the perks of being anointed a Next Big Thing. "Wow," Imbruglia says, staring out to sea, and for a moment, one gets the impression she wouldn't mind trading places. "That's the real McCoy, isn't it?"
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