After an 11 year wait for her latest album, the singer/songwriter is back. She talks Max Gayler through the songs and singers that inspired her voice.
Natasha Bedingfield’s career is a story of seismic success. From her breakthrough album Unwritten to writing for other artists, the singer/songwriter has helped to shape the flavour of modern pop with her instantly recognisable voice, vast vocal range and dynamite high notes.
From her origins of building a connection with listeners with a lyrically ambiguous but inspiring narrative, Linda Perry, who produced Roll With Me, says that "singing about rainbows and unicorns is not where she wants to shine. Her intentions are to heal, not pacify.” Roll With Me is both a reminder of how Bedingfield keeps her ear to the ground to find the most impressive sounds on display and of her powerful singing voice.
"I think about different people when I sing, whether it's Tina Turner or Aretha Franklin", she tells me the morning after her homecoming show at Islington Assembly Hall. Coming off the high of her first performance in the UK for some time, Bedingfield says it's still a surprise that she has such a committed fanbase.
"I did some old songs and then some new ones, I spliced them all the way through and it was great to see how they bounced off each other. When I wrote this album with Linda, I said I really wanted to create the best live show possible. I've done so many shows and I was looking for what I needed to take it to that next level.”
Experimenting with her new live show and music has meant refocusing her creativity, but Bedingfield explains that her musical exploits were nothing compared to the literal creation of having her first child. “I learned a lot about being creative from that experience. Eventually songs come to you and they’re a puzzle that you have to solve. I'm at a place where I feel like a beginner again and becoming a mother has been a reset for me and created this new identity. I've been an entertainer, I've proven myself, I've made hits and I've played the game. I'm at a point now where I’m following my intuition and I'm having fun with it all.”
In spite of a newfound approach to creativity, there’s something that Bedingfield has maintained throughout her career - that incredible singing voice - which has been the bedrock of her sound since the start of her career and a part of her performances that she says makes her feel she’s flying above the ground.
From Stevie Wonder to Sting, Bedingfield found inspiration in male voices, as well as marvelling at the ranges of female singers such as Dolores O'Riordan and Lauryn Hill. She takes us through the songs and singing voices that guided her own voice to the soulful, gritty tone that's synonymous with her music.
“Stevie Wonder is so childlike as a person and as a songwriter, and having sung with him and met him he was just as imaginative and childlike as I had imagined. He was so warm - he met my sister and wouldn't let go of her hand because she was the same star sign as his late wife. He's just angelic and I feel like this song is too, the lyrics are spectacular.
“Songs in the Key of Life was the first album I ever had. I remember people telling me about CDs and music and that was the first stage of awareness for me. Somehow, that was the album I picked up and it’s still my favourite album even today. I love the fact that he played all the instruments on this record too.
“I was definitely nervous when I was singing with him. It was a charity event and it was my job to walk him on stage and I completely failed. I didn't have any idea where I was going, let alone where he needed to go. He kept saying, ‘Keep walking, keep walking…’ under his breath, because even he knew I was doing it wrong!”
“If you ask Daniel or my sister, they’ll tell you that No Need to Argue by The Cranberries was the album we played constantly in our house and this song in particular. Every single song on that album is amazing to me so it makes it hard to choose one - obviously “Zombie” is an incredible song - but “No Need to Argue” resonates with me so much.
“As a family, it's a great song. As you know, every family has its moments where they argue and If we're talking about influence, that song was relevant on many levels. For me, that's what makes a great song, it should be able to relate to on a micro and macro level, to an individual and society. What was happening in Ireland then is still happening today and there is definitely a need for albums like that now.
“I was fascinated by the control she had over her voice and its vocal acrobatics. Even looking at what was going on in Ireland at the time, how current and poignant that song was made it hit that much harder.”
“I heard that to become a really good singer, you need an individual sound and you can't sound like anybody else, but when a lot of people learn to sing they try to sound exactly like Whitney Houston, or whoever their favourite singer may be at the time.
“One thing that occurred to me early on was that I shouldn't listen to many female singers. You can't help but absorb whoever you listen to, so I figured that listening to voices I couldn't replicate would let me find my voice. One of those singers was Sting, I loved that he had this reggae flavour but he made it his own.
“Shape Of Your Heart” is lyrically perfect from a songwriters perspective, you can tell that he used to be a school teacher in that song, the metaphors are so powerful and well-constructed. There’s a part where he goes through the suits in a pack of cards but then brings it back to the meaning of the song. He’s a truly inventive songwriter.
“It's almost like a poem. It has such a solid structure but it's lyrically very clever and has lots of wordplay that makes it so engaging. The Sugababes did a version of that song too, which I also love.”
“I really wasn't sure which song I wanted to put here as I had way too many choices! In the end, I found that I just had to put a Michael Jackson song in, because he has had such an impact on my musical taste and style.
“I love the young Michael Jackson, that pure, piercing little baby voice always hits me so hard, as a singer I just adore it. I really love Motown and this crazy positive energy that shot out from the stage whenever it was played. Everyone gets caught up in the storm, but it's in no way cringy or cheesy. There's something about it that’s beyond being ridiculed.”
“Aretha Franklin grew up in church, but she didn't stay there. She expanded and that meant a lot of her songs were influenced in a truly unmatched way. She wrote all these love songs, but rather than singing about God, she sang about her love for people.
“Her strong notes are the same as mine in terms of range. It's hard to describe, because I'm in no way saying I'm as good as she was, but all of her songs are perfect for me to sing because they're in my key.
“The whole of that album Amazing Grace was perfect. She released it to massive commercial success and then moved to a church and did a live album. I love that she had this church background, I grew up in church too but there’s a lot of things from that time I wouldn't want to take with me. There's a lot of hypocrisy and things I couldn't believe, but there was definitely this inarguable thing when it comes to spiritual music - that it has this power to make you feel something. You can't argue with it.
“I met her at the Capitol Building on the 4th of July one year. One thing I remember was being in this packed room full of senators. There were these two plates of chicken wings and chicken drumsticks coming towards me and this guy goes past me and says, ‘She wants food. Now.’ Next thing you know, this plate of food has been crowdsurfed across this room so she could eat. It was so funny.”
“My American manager was Lauryn Hill’s manager. I have a UK manager, but he wasn't able to get out to the States.
“The American guy wasn't into working alongside another manager. The reason I bring him up is because he'd once said to me, "If only Lauryn Hill had listened to me and put one or two more pop songs on the album it would have sold as much as Fergie." I was so shocked to hear that, because an album like The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill couldn't be measured with Spotify back then. It was all about album sales.
“I'm a big Lauryn Hill fan so it was hard for me to pick one particular song. I don't know what it is about her, but I love her tone. She speeds up as she sings when she plays live, so when she turns up late to a show or wants to leave early, she can fire through. I really respect her journey as an artist.”
“Brandy isn't actually a lot older than me at all, but I grew up listening to her because she was so young when she started. I think maybe one of the reasons I love her is because she sings in a way that I can't. She has this incredibly breathy, deep voice than can't be replicated by myself. I wish I had that, but I don't, she uses such great vocal techniques.
“She worked with the producer Darkchild, Rodney Jerkins is his real name. There's a very specific vocal effect he uses on her voice, but when you hear her sing live it's even more incredible. She once sang at The O2 and she asked me to come on stage and sing "The Boy Is Mine" with her, but I couldn't because I’d only learned her parts!
“I haven't seen her recently because I've been in the studio so much, but I'm excited to see her again soon. I think when you have a kid too, you really have less time, I hadn't realised quite how isolating that can be. Brandy is incredibly humble and such a great friend. She was at my wedding, she's one of those people who I call a friend and I just have to pinch myself about that.”
“I feel like it's an unusual choice, but I chose it because “Norwegian Wood” inspired “Unwritten”. It’s the way that the verse goes around one note in a similar way to the drone that’s synonymous with Indian music - “Unwritten” was constructed with that in mind. You could sing “Norwegian Wood” over my verse if you wanted to.
“The Beatles are English icons and again, listening to male singers is really important for me to learn how to sing in my own way. They're such a fun group and they really tick a lot of boxes for me.”
“Bon Iver, Bon Iver is the album that I’ve listened to on repeat every single day. It's amazing and this song is my jam. Maybe everyone has this, but there must be a song or album that re-sets you and puts you in a certain headspace. When I'm traveling or on tour and it's stressful, this album becomes meditation for me.
“The story of that album is that they went away and made it in the woods, and maybe that's why I mention it, because it's similar to what I've done with Roll With Me.
“That album was so countering to everything else that was being released at the time and is a real testament to how brave he was being. You are always on this journey to create your own audience and he was able to create an entirely new scene that has inspired most new artists. I love that.”