Sunny side up
Natasha Bedingfield may have traded some of her signature optimism for a more realistic outlook on her latest album, but the pop star still dwells in the positive.
By Naila Francis
They tried to make her go to rehab. And she said: “No, no, no.”
It’s a joke Natasha Bedingfield can’t help cracking. The British pop star isn’t putting down fellow Londoner Amy Winehouse, whose hit single “Rehab” took on a new irony given the singer’s continuing battles with substance abuse and her erratic behavior in the last several months.
Instead, affirming the squeaky-clean image that has been as much a source of derision as it has affection and praise among critics, Bedingfield is pondering a question often asked of her by the media.
“I always get asked in interviews, ‘Why aren’t you like Amy Winehouse?’ or ‘Why are you different?’ People want music people to be a little bit …,” she says, pausing, as if hesitant to make a blanket assumption, and then goes for a different approach.
“One of the main differences really is I don’t do drugs,” she says with easy candor, “and that’s because my parents are counselors, and I grew up watching people who were drug addicts, so I saw the extreme of what happens when people get addicted to drugs and that really set an example for me.”
In the year she spent at the University of Greenwich before quitting to pursue music full time, Bedingfield, who had been performing and writing songs since childhood — she formed her first group, The DNA Algorithm, a Christian dance-pop trio, with siblings Daniel and Nikola — also studied psychology, in the hopes that it would make her a better songwriter.
“So I could have actually ended up in rehab but just from the other side,” she says.
The cheerful 26-year-old may not be dispensing wisdom and insight from the couch but she is delivering her own messages of hope and inspiration through her music. Her sophomore album, “Pocketful of Sunshine,” debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200, with its ebullient title track speaking to her ability to find a calming center amid life’s craziness. Much like her 2004 debut, “Unwritten,” which made her the first British female solo artist to score a No. 1 pop hit in the U.S. in 19 years on the strength of its pervasive and catchy title track — it became the theme song to MTV’s “The Hills” and was used in a Pantene commercial among other promotional spots — “Pocketful of Sunshine” draws on Bedingfield’s penchant for empowering pop songs with exuberant dance grooves and a soulful R&B imprint.
“I like music that means something. It’s just my personal preference,” she says of the album’s 13 tracks, all of which she co-wrote, save for the first single, “Love Like This,” featuring reggae singer and rapper Sean Kingston, and “Angel,” the hip-hop-flavored Rodney Jerkins vehicle — he also worked with Brandy — that ends with a rousing shout-out to all women in love with a good man. “I like things that you feel something when you hear them, whether it’s positive or even just feeling an emotion. A pet peeve of mine is when you go to a gig and someone puts on something and you’re just, like, ‘Oh, that’s nice.’ I don’t want people to say, ‘That’s nice.’
“Also I think the most fun thing to do is write a song. I put my heart and soul into it,” says Bedingfield, who comes to the Theater of the Living Arts in Philadelphia on Monday. “I happen to make pop music — stuff that is a bit nursery-rhymey and simple but it’s got soul.”
While her first album celebrated her independent spirit and an embracing of life’s limitless possibilities, “Pocketful of Sunshine” represents a shift in priorities. The disc still contains its share of positive affirmations with songs like “Freckles” — about the beauty in our physical imperfections — and “Pirate Bones” — a cautionary tale against compromising one’s identity to fit in — but Bedingfield is focused primarily on relationships, a theme captured perhaps most poignantly in the yearning, strings-drenched ballad “Soulmate.”
“There are some songs that are a bit more realistic on the album,” she says, noting that although she now has a boyfriend, her experience dating had a strong lyrical influence. “Life is not going to always be easy. ‘Soulmate’ doesn’t give any answers; it just asks the question: ‘Is there a soulmate for everybody?’ We all have times in our lives where we’re going to ask that question. We just all want to be connected, but you can’t expect to always get what you want so that’s why there’s also this idea of surrender.”
As a woman in a male-dominated industry, Bedingfield, whose strong, warm vocals are tinged with a raspy edge, has managed to avoid stereotypical billing as a nubile 20-something posturing through a cliched arsenal of provocative lyrics.
“I come from a long line of women who worked and were very equal to men. My family comes from New Zealand and it was the first country where women voted, so that’s a big part of myself and my heritage,” she says.
“The main thing for me is I want to stay true to who I am and I don’t want to look at myself on stage and say, ‘Ooh, I don’t recognize that person.’ And the camera doesn’t lie. Most people can tell when someone is not being honest with themselves.
“Take the Pussycat Dolls. They’re great dancers and I can actually appreciate that they’re really good at what they do and I feel like that’s true to who they are, but when you see someone else doing that, it just doesn’t fit. I just want to fit with who I am at the time. Also, I think it’s important as a woman not to have to degrade yourself to sell something. That would just be going backwards.”
And so it seems no surprise that Bedingfield, despite album and singles sales of more than 10 million worldwide, has her feet firmly planted on the ground. The woman who claims Mother Teresa among a wide range of influences is an ambassador for her mom Molly Bedingfield’s Global Angels charity, which works to rescue girls around the world from prostitution, and is also an advocate for Stop the Traffik, a coalition to end human trafficking.
“When Mother Teresa died, it was the same day or same week that (Princess) Diana died and no one really realized that Mother Teresa had died. Everyone has this obsession with fame and people want to be famous and well-known, but the people who are so selflessly giving to others and making a difference, those are the ones to admire,” she says.
“There are so many people desperate for success, but you can lose the whole of who you are to be successful, and to me, that’s a failure.
“I did actually write a little memo to my management team on my definition of success and how it is not how many people buy my album or how much money I make. It’s about making music that I’m proud of, liking who I am in the process, not hating …. At the end of the day, if your friends still like you,” says Bedingfield, “you must be doing something right.”
– The Intelligencer