In London’s Roundhouse in October, at a concert by the Chicago singer Ezra Furman and his band the Boy-Friends, punters got a strange support act. Charlotte Church in a kaftan, surrounded by a sprawling troupe of musicians, singing a full-throated version of R Kelly’s vintage make-out anthem “Bump n’ Grind”. Then she did “Killing in the Name”, the anti-racist rap-metal assault by Rage Against the Machine. Then “Closer” by Nine Inch Nails: “I want to f*** you like an animal”.
When these colourful tunes were released in the early 1990s, Church was wearing an Alice band and singing “Pie Jesu” for the Pope. Between kissing the venerable ring, having her phone hacked and appearing on Blue Peter and its equivalents around the world, there wasn’t much time for R Kelly, which is perhaps why she’s doing it now. Despite the ecstatic reaction, the act – which she does at festivals and in late-night cabaret slots – remains defiantly fringe.
“It is dramatic, it is nonsensical, and it is engineered to be as much fun as is humanly possible,” she says. “Which in the modern world is becoming far more necessary.”
We meet in Dinas Powys, the village just outside Cardiff where Church lives, at a small delicatessen with scaffolding on the front. She has a big navy-blue wraparound coat and a stretchy dress underneath, which she adjusts now and then with a snap. There’s a copy of this paper on the table with an artist’s impression of Donald Trump on the cover, and she will jab at it intermittently throughout the interview, in a wordless gesture that says: This has changed everything.
As someone whose political opinions have developed in the public eye, Church takes interviews seriously. Her brain fires off in several directions at once but her words are carefully chosen. Occasionally, she thinks she’s got herself down a theoretical cul-de-sac (“Brain! Come on!”), stops for a second and backs out again. She has a rare habit of admitting she has changed her mind about things. At the same time, she is fearless. During a trip to New York in 2001, aged 15, she said that the heroism attached to the firemen who were on duty during the 9/11 attacks was distasteful: “They went from here in society to celebrities. They are even invited here to present television awards, which I just don’t agree with.” At 17 she hosted Have I Got News for You, successfully rebuffing digs about her fortune, with some youthful gaffes thrown in – she didn’t feel she should have to pay 40 per cent tax to a government she hadn’t been able to vote for.
“Have I Got News for You is a piece of piss compared to Question Time!” she cries. “Question Time is horrendous. I don’t think I’ll do it again. The last time was right here in Cardiff, two years ago and the audience was completely right-wing.”
Before doing the programme, she says, “I squirrel myself away for a week and jam-pack all the knowledge I possibly can – just interesting things I didn’t know before.” One of those things was a report in the US scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences which drew links between the civil unrest in Syria and climate change: a five-year drought had pushed rural communities into the cities, compounding the existing refugee crisis and pushing up food prices.
“I thought it was important to bring up because all these things have connections, and we’re going to start seeing that more and more,” she says. “And I got absolutely annihilated for it afterwards! Then a couple of weeks later, Prince Charles said something about it, then Nasa – and then of course it was OK.”
After her Syria comments, the Sun ran six pages under the headline “Voice of an Angel, brain like an Angel Delight”. It was a continuation of an old narrative that leaves Church – who turned 30 this year – with one foot in another, grimier era: that of a press which sent bugged wreaths to Freddie Mercury’s funeral and tapped the phones of missing schoolgirls. For the tabloids, Church’s trajectory from angelic child star to pent-up teenager was too good to ignore.
In 1999, when she was 13 years old, she was invited to sing at Rupert Murdoch’s wedding to Wendi Deng on his yacht in New York Harbour. Church and her mother, Maria, were offered a choice: £100,000 for the gig, or favourable press for the next few years. Mother and daughter wanted to take the money: her manager at the time, Jonathan Shalit, went for the second option. The favourable press, she tells me, lasted “precisely two years”.
The News of the World ran 33 stories on her from hacked voicemails alone. Her pregnancy was announced after a call with a doctor was intercepted. Her relationship with the rugby player Gavin Henson, the father of her two children, was scrutinised. Her mother got wind of a piece in the News of the World alleging that her husband had had an affair – and she attempted suicide. Church appeared at the Leveson inquiry in 2011, which is where she traces the start of her political engagement. She went on Question Time in Swansea afterwards. An elderly woman in the audience suggested that a person stronger than her mother might have been able to handle the limelight.
Church clearly bears the scars from those days, and says that she has always attracted abuse for being outspoken, wealthy and, more recently, for being Welsh. She notes that since the Brexit vote, some of her Twitter trolls have relinquished their anonymity: the little “eggs” that appear in place of profile pictures have been replaced by photographs and names.
A couple of years after Leveson, Church was asked to do a BBC John Peel Lecture on women in pop, at a time when Miley Cyrus’s twerking butt was driving much of the world’s news. She identified the figure of Miley as an “untouchable sex-bot”, saying that there was no clear career trajectory for the teenage female pop star coming into adulthood, short of removing her clothes. Her own inevitable transition from Opera Charlotte to Sex Charlotte came in the form of her 2005 hit “Crazy Chick”: “Won’t you lay me on your leather couch/I got a lot I need to talk about”. It seems innocent now.
She talks nostalgically of the women singers she listened to as a teenager – Erykah Badu, India Arie, Jill Scott, Sugababes, TLC, All Saints, Alicia Keys. There was an understated toughness to their image, naturally boyish and relatively non-sexualised. If a girl band turned up dressed in combat trousers today there would be countless dissections of their “message” online.
“The rise of identity politics has fed in to all of this nonsense,” she says, “and I’m not saying that identity politics is a bad thing; it exists because there are factions within society which are still struggling. But in another way, it is divisive. You might all believe in the baseline thing – feminism, for example – but when so many types of feminism are pitted against each other it becomes segregated, and it can cause disunity even though everybody really wants the same thing.
“Those acts back in the day got through to all girls, and all boys, in primary schools – without any analysis of the fact that the girls in TLC were actually quite strong, and not over-vulnerable. Now, a band like that would elicit so much analysis, and loads of people find it impenetrable.”
High-level identity politics is hopeless, she thinks, when trying to counter a right-wing message that is clear and brutal.
“They say it’s the voice of the liberal elite – but call a spade a spade: a lot of the time, it’s just academic writing. What the right wing managed to do, both here and in America, was get beyond all of that, put things into simple messaging. A lot of the time it was bullshit, but apparently now that doesn’t matter.” She jabs at the picture of Trump again.
“Obviously we underestimated how angry white men are,” she says. “All forms of bigotry – whether it’s homophobia, misogyny, racism – are about fear of being in the minority. And if you hold the majority position – ie, white males throughout history – you fear losing control. We need to find ways to make people feel like they aren’t losing control.”
Then, on a roll, she expounds a theory she says may be “mad”.
“The alt right in America, they’ve made themselves victims,” she says. “And some of this victim stuff might be to do with the over-sexualisation of women. When you think about porn, and advertising, you’ve constantly got these dudes feeling urges all over the shop, and a lot of the time, for whatever reason – maybe they’re socially awkward – they are not attaining those levels of women, and that’s making them embittered and frustrated.
“I don’t want to excuse these people, but what’s the root cause? We really need to start thinking about things in a far more psychological, human way. If you can’t control consumerism, then have the same the other way round: I’d rather not have page three, but if we’re going to, let’s have page two – do you know what I mean? An attractive, scantily clad dude.”
Church first came to the public eye sitting in an armchair at the age of 11, opposite Jonathan Ross on ITV’s Big Big Talent Show – and introducing her auntie Caroline Cooper, a wannabe singer with a voice a bit like Beverley Craven’s. Church had sung “Pie Jesu” down the phone to Richard and Judy a few weeks earlier. Ross got her to do a few bars. She hit high Cs without batting an eyelid. Her aunt, she says, was furious.
Her parents had been planning to put her through music college before the TV shows and record deal came. She sang love duets with 60-year-old opera singers, performed at George W Bush’s inauguration and sat a GCSE at the White House. “By the time I was 16, I said, ‘Eugh, I’m dead, I hate this, I want to go home.’”
As a child, remarkably self-possessed, she would say that she was a pretty normal kid, and everything was fine. “And it sort of was . . .” she says. “But I just wanted to be with my friends, to hang out on street corners and drink vodka and go to underage nightclubs. That’s what I wanted to do.”
She got what she wanted – quit classical music, ended a six-album deal at 20 and started releasing pop stuff, with limited critical success. But you sense there have been many milestones missed because of the accelerated course of her early life. A few years ago she talked about wanting to study quantum mechanics at university, but today she says: “I did want to, but then life gets in the way, doesn’t it?”
The funny thing about watching old clips of Church on television is that the audience doesn’t break into rapturous applause within six seconds of her opening breath as listeners would today. She was the prototype of the reality-TV pop star but she missed the whole X Factor thing by half a dozen years. She tells me that she’d probably have done it, “because I love singing and I think I’m really good at it”. She guffaws. But she is not a fan of the show.
“They’re completely immoral, the way that they treat people on there. The deals these people go into afterwards are scandalous. They sign their life away for three years, and even if you don’t win, you’re not allowed to release anything . . . It exploits people, and it’s incredibly formulaic, and there’s no real artistry. The initial sparks you see in people are completely homogenised out of them by the time they’re doing the live shows.”
Church has assembled these strong opinions because she was asked to be an X Factor judge. “I went for the meeting because I was curious. I asked how much artistic control I could have over my artists, and they basically said none.”
Her plan was to infiltrate the X Factor system in an ironic way, “make a shed tonne of money and do some good at the same time”. She would use her technical know-how to give direction – “rather than saying some inane shit which doesn’t mean anything. I’m a vocalist, I’ve trained for years; I know what to say to somebody about their tone, if they’re sharp or flat. If you don’t say stuff like that, it’s not helpful, and it’s not helpful to the wider public. These people are supposed to be experts. So, I thought I’d go in and bring something to it that was a bit kinder, a bit nicer, but also a bit more informative. But I couldn’t. I found that out from just one meeting.”
The idea of a grass-roots overthrow of the TV talent shows seems appropriate to the 2016 Church, who says that this year, there are bigger things to be angry about than party politics. She was an outspoken critic of David Cameron (“gross”) but when I ask her what she thinks of Theresa May, she says, “Well, she’s not saying anything, is she? This is an authoritarian government, essentially, that’s what it’s turning into. Philip Hammond says he’s going to abolish the Autumn Statement – he’s just not going to do it any more? They’re using Brexit as an excuse to say they can’t show their hand because they’re in the middle of negotiations. Meanwhile you’ve got every EU politician saying, ‘There is no deal, there are no negotiations.’ I’m pretty opposed to May on everything. She is not democratic and she’s keeping the country in the dark.”
On 21 November at the Cornwall pub in Grangetown, south Cardiff, just near the football ground, Church hosted the inaugural night in a series called Charlotte Church’s Pub Politics, tickets priced at £2.75. The series was inspired by Brexit: Cardiff voted 60 per cent Remain, while 52.5 per cent of Wales overall was Leave.
“We need to try and understand the psychology of why people are feeling the way they are,” she says. “I want to find ways in which people can express themselves in situations like a pub, where they feel comfortable, and have their opinions challenged, but not in a super-duper academic way, because people then feel diminished by that, and then will go on the defensive.
“Cardiff is a pretty left-wing city, and the crowd at Pub Politics included a lot of left-wingers and some centrists. But there was one guy there, probably in his early sixties, that’s his local, and as soon as the conversation turned to anything about minorities, he had a lot to say, and loudly.
“And so much of it, as with this dude [jabs Trump], is schoolroom stuff. How easily offended he is, and how volatile. How do you deal with a child who is angry?”
She has never met the president-elect: says she hopes she would have declined to do so “because he is such a tool. Mind you, I sang at George Bush’s inauguration . . .”
I ask her why people find it so much easier to believe that immigrants are responsible for their financial hardship, rather than austerity. “Because austerity’s far more complicated, and all this has been engineered: It’s his fault, he’s come over here, he’s taken your job, and there’s all those mosques going up round here, and where’s the churches, even though you don’t go to church . . . It’s mania, hysteria. But it’s good these things had come to the surface. It’s very common to be mildly racist. We need to help people with those fears.”
One of the questions raised by the pub politics panel was: do we want our politicians to play dirty?
“Is that Corbyn’s problem?” she asks me. “That he’s not willing to play dirty like everybody else?” In summer 2015 she threw her support behind him, shared a platform with him at anti-austerity marches and spoke alongside Owen Jones and the CWU union general secretary. She said there was something inherently virtuous about JC, the anti-Farage: “One of the few modern politicians who doesn’t seem to have been trained in neurolinguistic programming.” Then in the Welsh Assembly election in May she voted for Plaid Cymru rather than Labour’s Carwyn Jones. “I still also support Corbyn,” she tweeted, with irritation. “Razzzzzz people.”
Today, six months later, she tells me: “I think he can’t win. The best thing for him to do is to train somebody up under him, who can be a new fresh face but who has the same politics that have always been Labour’s. Because there is another option – to neoliberalism, and to being right-wing. That option is the one your fathers and mothers took before you. They didn’t vote this way. They were for the trade unions, and workers’ rights, and you can see it all unfolding in front of you.”
Why can’t Jeremy Corbyn win?
“I don’t think it’s anything to do with him. I think it’s everything that the press has created. You hear something more than seven times and then you believe it – that’s how advertising works. He’s a relic, he’s a nutter, he’s a left-wing lunatic.
“I just think that there needs to be somebody there who is not Jeremy Corbyn. It’s gone too far, and they’re not going to stop. They’ve made up their minds, they have their narrative, and that will always be. Just as they made my narrative: brain of an Angel Delight.”
Education is still a big concern for Church. She is home-schooling her children, seven-year-old Dexter and nine-year-old Ruby, with a group of other parents. She tries various unconventional tools for learning, including virtual reality. “I have failed at lots of things in my career and in my life in general, but I’ve kept going, because as soon as you’re stuck on one thing – whether it’s your political beliefs, the party that you support – you stagnate,” she says.
“I’m not going to go around for Plaid Cymru or for Labour, door to door, telling people how they should vote. I’m going to go and try and speak to people in different ways. I’m trying to understand why people are feeling the way they are. Because it feels good, that’s why. It feels really good.”
She plans to record an album of her bombastic underground music, too. It will be called V, she says, and will feature dozens of collaborators. As we stand up to leave the café with the scaffolding, Church tells me she is also planning to take up martial arts. The other day in Cardiff town centre she saw a man verbally intimidating a beggar. As she approached to see what was going on, he changed his line, saying, “Do you want to come and get a drink, mate?” The beggar left with the man. “If I knew how to defend him, and myself, I would have followed them round the corner, and if the guy had tried anything I’d have been able to help,” she says.
“As I’m getting older, I’m starting to realise just how wilful I am. I never used to think I was – but whatever I want to do, I do, which puts me in an incredibly lucky position. I’ve got a real bob on myself. But I think it’s really important to, because the world is harsh. I’ve always given myself a pat on the back. I just think, if I set my mind to it, I can do anything.”
Apart from standing for Labour in Cardiff. “Because I will never do what I’m told,” she says. “Besides, I get to work in the creative arts. Which, considering most jobs are going to be automated one day – maybe even in parliament – is where I’m staying.”
Charlotte Church performs her Late Night Pop Dungeon at the Tramshed in Cardiff on Tuesday 20 December