Katie Sings the Blues; at Eight, KATIE MELUA Had to Use Sign Language Because She Spoke So Little English. Now She's Topping the Charts with Her Own Songs

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Byline: DAVID JONES

A little over a decade ago, a shy, eight-year-old girl from the former Soviet republic of Georgia boarded a plane, sobbing her heart out for the friends and family she was leaving behind, and began a new life in Britain.

Perhaps that painful early experience accounts for the faintly perceptible sadness in Katie Melua's huge hazel eyes. Perhaps, too, it inspires the poignant songs she writes - mature beyond her 19 years - and accounts for the plaintive edge to her angelic voice.

Whatever the reasons, Katie - or Ketevan, the name she was given at birth - is creating a sensation on the music scene. In January, her debut album, Call Off The Search, knocked Dido off the top of the charts, and sales have topped one million. She is also just completing her first UK tour, to huge critical acclaim.

That Katie has achieved all this by singing jazz and blues numbers in a style more reminiscent of Ella Fitzgerald or Edith Piaf than Britney Spears is a testament to her incredible natural talent.

When we meet, she is preparing to perform in York, a city she has never visited before. She has just signed a [pounds sterling]2 million, five-album deal, yet, the night before, she donned faded trainers and joined a group of tourists on the Ghost Walk trip.

Wasn't she spotted? 'No, I've never been recognised,' she says. 'I can still get the train and walk down the high street without being bothered.' Not for long, I tell her.

With her delicate beauty (she stands just 5ft 2in tall) and her voice, it can only be a matter of time before her privacy is invaded. 'Do you not think I can control it?' she asks. 'Look, for example, at someone like Dido.

Doesn't she control it? She says she can go to the pub and not be recognised.' Since Katie has brought Dido into the conversation, this seems an opportune moment to ask what she thinks of her greatest chart rival.

Have they yet been introduced? 'No, I've never met her,' she says, a tad flatly. Does she admire her? 'Musically? Er- I haven't got her second album.

I never bought the first [which, by my reckoning, means she has no Dido CDs in her collection at all]. But I like her style. Oh, I don't know. She's got nice songs. She's got a lovely voice. It's- nice.' Whatever she really thinks of Dido and her suburban ballads, she is not about to criticise. That isn't her way.

Katie was born in Georgia in 1984. Her father Alex's work as a heart surgeon meant that the family moved often, from Tbilisi to Moscow and the Black Sea resort of Batumi, where they lived in relative comfort: she may have had to fetch fresh water from a well four storeys below their flat, but she and her brother Zurab, now 11, had plenty to eat. …