Charlotte Church: "Politicians need to act on Leveson"
One of the most enduring images from the Leveson Inquiry – aside from the comedic custard pie assault on Rupert Murdoch – was Charlotte Church in a crisp navy business suit, stateswomanlike, chin held high, as she gave evidence about the treatment she’d received at the hands of a hungry tabloid press from the age of 12.
Her statement was surprisingly measured as she described how her mother’s mobile phone was hacked by journalists who knew she had recently attempted suicide.
Today, 11 months after her Leveson appearance, she shatters the illusion of quiet confidence that she exuded at the hearing. “I was shitting myself, I was so nervous. I’d never been in a situation like that before, it was like court,” she says.
“But I felt really proud to be part of the Leveson Inquiry. It’s not about retribution, it’s not about revenge, it’s just about the truth. That’s all it’s about. Because I have been unable to get that through for a long, long time. So where’s my freedom of speech?”
In her recording studio, engineer Gethin John and her partner Jonathan Powell are working on the second of five EPs Charlotte will release this year. Reluctant to jump back into the round of album-promo-tour that has been her life for the last 14 years, she’s in terra incognita, feeling her way as a producer, discovering a talent for drumming, touring the toilet circuit of 200-capacity venues and staying in Travelodges.
The four tracks on her first EP, One, show a deeper, darker, more introspective Charlotte Church than the Crazy Chick popstress or the ‘voice of an angel’ pre-teen choir girl. “My musical palette has become much broader, I’m much more well-listened than I was a couple of years back.
"A bit older, and hopefully a bit cleverer,” she muses, curled up in a slouchy armchair in the sitting room of her home, a comfortably understated detached house nestled in a leafy garden on the outskirts of Cardiff. “I was in that bubble for a loooong time. Right from the start I was a commodity. Although I think my early career was handled really well, I was still a product.”
At 26, it feels like we’ve watched her whole life played out as a soap opera, from alcopop partying in Cardiff to the breakdown of her relationship with Welsh rugby player Gavin Henson, father of her two children, Ruby, five, and Dexter, three.
For someone who’s grown up in public, every teenage misdemeanour splashed as an intimation of boozy breakdown, she is amazingly open and, contrary to what you’d expect from the Leveson poster girl, she’s not bitter about the press. Not entirely.
“I don’t want to keep banging on about blaming the press, it’s boring, but when everything is so sensationalised and nothing is off-bounds then everybody becomes a little apathetic, almost. It’s like there are no rules anymore.
Whilst there are some ‘bad’ journalists, I think probably everybody came into it with good intentions. Unfortunately at some point because of the need to make money, sell magazines and keep your job, you are made to compromise your morals, which is sad and unnecessary.”
Lord Justice Leveson is set to report within a month. Charlotte will be speaking at the Tory Party conference, representing campaign group Hacked Off. As someone who describes herself as “a big Lefty” and refers several times to the consequences of rampant capitalism, isn’t she stepping into the lion’s den?
“I’m looking forward to it, it’s going to be great! I will be talking about the importance of putting Leveson’s recommendations into something solid.”
While she doesn’t want the campaign to overshadow her life, she views this as a watershed moment for the press. “There needs to be serious binding laws. I don’t think it will have to infringe upon freedom of speech. I also think it shouldn’t be looked at as a problem, but as an opportunity to make things better.
"Tabloid culture is going to eat itself. Where else do we go? It’s an opportunity for change, for growth of a much stronger, better press which is more factual and fair, and everything freedom of speech stands for. Right now I don’t think that it is freedom of speech at all, because it’s run by conglomerates who have a certain amount of people with certain views at the top of the chain.”
She doesn’t refer explicitly to Rupert Murdoch, but his News of the World was one of the worst offenders, the nadir being the hacking of her mother’s phone while she was in a psychologically fragile state. She says her family have come through it okay (“unbelievably”) and her mum and dad, who run a B&B in Cardiff, are “awesome” now. But it’s been tough to overcome what she describes as the “archetypal narrative” of the child star bound to self-destruct – the voice of an angel, destined to fall. “It is weird looking back, we went through the psychological grind. But my mum was much more fragile than I was, and was really vilified. They went for her in some of the most inhumane ways I’ve ever seen.
“When we did the court case [settling out of court with News Group Newspapers for £600,000 damages], I wanted everything to be public knowledge, but because of the settlement you’re not allowed to talk about it. If you go through with [the court case] you might end up with costs that could go into millions.
"And they tried to put my mum through psychological examination. We had a psychological examination and they weren’t happy with that, they wanted their own guy, and they were going to make it absolutely horrific. So we had to settle. For them to then say ‘we’re sorry’… yeah, of course you are.”
Does she still get watched by journalists? “Not as much as I used to. But if the politicians don’t grow a set of balls and act upon what Leveson says – as long as it’s reason-able, which I should imagine it will be – what happens then? Then it’s a free-for-all again, but possibly with a bit of a vendetta. You’re never out of the woods.
"Before I used to think, ‘I don’t care about any of you, I’m not going to alter the way I live my life. I’m not going to be a prisoner in my own home, or not have fun when I’m a teenager because you’re making me the poster girl for binge drinking’. I’m happy I did it in that way.
"But now I’ve got children it’s different. It’s not just about me, it’s about them and how they grow up.” Her house is packed with happy family photos, and Church glows as she recounts how Dexter loves dinosaurs and Ruby embarked on her first romance after Jonathan read her the children’s Shakespeare version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. While fiercely protective of them, she reflects that her own childhood was anything but ordinary.
“I did one of my GCSEs when I was in Washington,” she recalls. “I can’t remember if it was Bush or Clinton – I was 16, I can’t remember who would have been in 10 years ago? I sang for both of them at the White House.
"I was a really good student, I wanted to learn. I wanted to do well. Possibly because a lot of people would know what my results were! My friends were all like – why are you botherin’? You’ve got money, you’ve got a job, why are you botherin’?”
For news, Church reads The Guardian or The Independent. While the TV’s rarely on, Ruby and Dexter are hooked on DVDs of her own childhood favourites (The BFG, The Animals of Farthing Wood, “a beautiful, comp-licated social set-up”). Music is ever-present. As we chat, Jonathan Powell gleefully unwraps a newly-arrived slab of LCD Soundsystem vinyl. Although tired, she’s been in hospital until late the previous night visiting a relative who is ill, she seems at ease. Is she happy?
“It’s a totally different thing to anything I’ve ever experienced in my life before, a totally different path I’m taking. I think I am making music I can be proud of for ever. My whole ethos at the minute is to make everything as true and as real as possible. You use the word ‘outspoken’, I would use the words ‘absolutely truthful’. I can’t lie. I can’t really pretend. If somebody asks me a question, I can’t be guarded.
“Sometimes that’s got me into trouble. But I don’t want to do it any other way. If I’m nothing but honest there are less trip-ups, there are less opportunities for other people to catch you out. And I feel really lucky to be surrounded by such smart, creative people.
"There are lots kicking around here. I don’t want to use the word blessed, I don’t feel blessed, I’m not religious any more. But I feel lucky and really privileged surrounded by these people. And I feel happy that my children are as well.”
Charlotte Church’s EP One is out now (Alligator Wine). See charlottechurchmusic.com for tour dates