Cast your mind, if you are able, 25 years. The Britpop battles of the 90s were dying down, Britain had a new Labour leader and TFI Friday was the buzziest show on TV. A shift was coming in fashion and culture that allowed female pop stars to be something other than perfectly polished, helped in part by the huge success of Alanis Morissette and Sheryl Crow. But in the UK it was an Australian former soap star leading the charge. Natalie Imbruglia, with her cropped pixie cut and baggy cargo pants was the epitome of cool and her hit-single ‘Torn’, was inescapable. More than two decades on, Imbruglia is still a talking point, with a wave of modern artists such as Beabadoobee and Olivia Rodrigo, citing her as an inspiration. As she marks the anniversary of Grammy-nominated album ‘Left Of The Middle’ with a tour and re-released vinyl, we caught up with the singer-songwriter to reflect on the 90s, the industry and inspiring a new-gen of female talent.
It’s been 25 years since ‘Left of The Middle’. Can you remember what your hopes for the album were before you released it?
There’s only a first time once. What was beautiful, was that the world was my oyster. I felt so privileged to have a record deal. Everything was ahead of me. And although yes, I’d been on Neighbours and there was the fear of being another person doing music from a soap. But there was this incredible confidence and joy. People talk about manifesting, it was easier to do it because you had no experience of living up to a previous album. I thought: I can be anything, I could do anything. And I was a sponge, everyone I wrote with was teaching me something I had the opportunity to work with Mark Goldenberg – I loved his work with Eels. And, you know, there was Gwen Stefani and Alanis Morissette and I was like, ‘Oh my God, these chicks are so cool!’ And so it was actually really wonderful. You can’t get that back because you know too much. And so, yeah, fond memories.
As a teenager you wrote down that you wanted to be in a soap, you wanted to make music and you wanted to be in films – and you’ve done it all. Is manifestation something you’ve practiced throughout your life?
I’ve pondered that a lot because I’m a very spiritual person. How much of this is destiny? Like, how much of this did I agree to before I was born, because I do believe in stuff like that. I do tend to think that that moment of ‘Torn’ and the connection with so many people around the world was an arrangement. But, the perfect orchestration leading up to that moment is the bit where you have free will and things can go different ways. I definitely was a powerful manifester when I was a kid, and I had a sense of purpose and destiny that that I lost through the school of hard knocks. I think it’s a good lesson for anyone out there who reads this – that’s a powerful thing to carry. I wrote this list; I was going to be on Neighbours, E Street or Home and Away and I was going to be a musician. And then I was going to be film star. We still haven’t done film star. Well, I guess I’ve been in a film but I don’t want you to Google that! So yeah, it’s pretty good going. But I have to admit, I don’t have the confidence I had then now.
It does seem like your confidence was knocked by the industry resulting in a lengthy gap where you didn’t release any music. What happened?
I got dropped by a label. I made this beautiful album that I stand by but it was around the time when streaming started and the mergers were all happening. So labels were dissolving or joining forces and I got handed over to other people. I had this beautiful album that I made with two guys called Ben Hillier and Dave McCracken, and it was incredible, quirky pop music. But I feel like what happened was the people that inherited me were trying to do a rehash of ‘Torn’ and dumb it down. They didn’t really know what they had. And it ended up getting released in Australia and New Zealand but I was dropped by Island Records and it was just awful.
What did that do to you as a person?
I think I had kind of some kind of a breakdown. I quit music and because I am a spiritual person, and you’re searching for meaning and things, I genuinely thought the universe is telling me you shouldn’t be doing music. And I believed it. This is the power of the mind. There’s a lesson in this. Just as powerfully as I manifested good things, I told myself that music wasn’t something I should be doing. And that was a travesty.
But sometimes you’ve got to have the confidence to let something go that you love. I went to Australia, I was a judge on X Factor. I’m still friendly with those kids. That was, in a sense, me giving back. Then I went to the States and studied acting, which is something I never had time to do, and made lifelong friends, and ended up doing a play called Things We Do For Love. So it’s not like I wasted my time. And what that showed me was how hard starting a new career is at that age. And that my natural gift was singing and so I did find my way back to music and the bitterness was gone.
I was at the recent Olivia Rodrigo show where you popped up to perform ‘Torn’ with her. It must be cool to be influencing this new gen of artists?
It was very flattering to be asked. Olivia’s a good person. It makes me happy that young girls have people like that to look up to. You could see the respect that we both had for each other. We were literally singing to each other and didn’t want to look at the audience because I was giving props to her, and she was giving props to me. It was so lovely.
Was there anyone you looked up to, that offered you support when you were coming up?
Not on the daily, but the person that springs to mind is Tori Amos. I remember meeting her in the bathroom at her show and giving her a rose quartz crystal and having beautiful conversations with her. She was someone I looked up to immensely, who also seemed to have a quirky spiritual energy – she was into crystals and stuff like me.
I would also say Kylie. I grew up watching her on on Neighbours, and wanting to do what she did and obviously followed in her footsteps. She’s always been incredibly supportive, and gracious, and kind. And even now, when my album came out, she sent me a little message. So definitely, Kylie.
I was watching an old interview with you on TFI Friday where Chris Evans keeps referencing the fact that you wouldn’t date him. Was this sort of thing just par for the course or did it make you anxious doing interviews back then?
I want to give props to Chris. He got me on the show because what had happened was he’d started the whole ‘Natalie didn’t write ‘Torn” thing on the radio. And it was interesting timing because I had just shut him down for a dinner date. Anyway, me being the feisty Aussie that I am, I saw him in a pub and I went up to him and got in his face and was like, ‘You owe me an apology’. He looked terrified and I was like, ‘Do you realise what you did?’ So he gave the most genuine, look-me-in-the-eye apology, and then got me on the show and tried to correct that. So knowing what I’ve just told you, it’s actually a very sweet thing that he did, because he kind of owned it and was trying to repair that damage. But 100% you’re right. Recently, I had to look back through some old press articles – and we can’t put all of this on Chris, this is an industry that certain things were a given – but it’s quite shocking now to look back at some of those old articles. I was made of pretty tough stuff, I just took it on the chin but I think what you see in that ‘Torn’ video is someone taking ownership after being exploited in numerous situations and going ‘I don’t need to show my body. I’m gonna draw a line in the sand’. There were numerous occasions I was called difficult because of that, because I wouldn’t wear a dress. I wanted to cover up and it didn’t go down well.
People like Billie Eilish have taken a similar stance – covering up because they don’t want their body to be a talking point
She’s able to do it – I got called difficult – but evolution is a great thing. They’ve also got to do deal with social media and things that I didn’t have to so it’s all relative. For the things that we’ve corrected, there’s a whole new wave of other shit that teenagers have to deal with for mental health. I was the right person for it to happen to because I’m very strong. And I was able to say no, and I didn’t really care if people called me difficult.
And now young artists like Beabadoobee are citing you as a style icon.
Listen, if you stick around long enough, you come back in flavour. I’m just like, yes! The 90s are trending right when I need them to be! This is amazing! The truth of it is just that I just wanted to be comfortable. And I wanted to wear my own clothes. I think I was also going through curiosity about my sexuality, which is more evident to me now when I look at myself back then. That exploration was a period of time that I had to go through very privately – another thing that people can go through a lot more openly now. Yeah, there’s lots of things going on there. But for people to say I’m this style icon, it’s just so amazing and cute to me. I was wearing the daggiest army pants, they weren’t event a cool brand. I think that T-shirt’s a cheap Portobello Market print shirt. The cool part was probably from a stylist, which was the Maharishi jacket because they were all the rage. And eventually I ordered Maharishi trousers.
You are definitely responsible for me cutting all my hair off. I didn’t look like you.
When I did the Coldplay Wembley appearance, their tour manager said “I’ve a bone to pick with you. I cut all my hair off and I didn’t get laid for so many years!” She has really long hair now. But I was just a kid taking in a photo of Helena Christensen. I think I cut out my face and stuck it on a photo of her, so I was doing the same thing you were doing. I feel like people don’t know I was just trying to be Helena Christensen.
There was a bit of a gap between your 2015 covers album ‘Male’ and 2021’s ‘Firebird’. Have you started thinking about a next record?
Oh my God, are you kidding me? I was thinking about it six months ago and my manager was like, just calm down and get through the tour. I want to be doing this until I’m old and gray. Well, I’m already gray but nobody knows that! I don’t think I could ever have the writers’ block that I did before which is weird, because it was a very real thing. So I can’t wait for a gap in my schedule so I can write again.
Natalie Imbruglia is celebrating the 25th Anniversary of ‘Left Of The Middle‘ with a special limited edition blue vinyl, out on November 18.