As Australian soap star-turned-songstress Natalie Imbruglia prepares to make her American TV debut March 6 on MTV Live, members of her sizable posse — a vocal coach, a hair stylist, a makeup artist, two managers, and assorted other handlers and hangers-on — filter into the gaudy adult playpen that is the Manhattan-based channel’s greenroom. Within minutes, their attention is diverted by a large screen flashing the video for Imbruglia’s first single, ”Torn,” an infectious slice of romantic angst that has already hit No. 1 in half a dozen European countries and created intense advance buzz here. A thirtysomething woman seated toward the front of the room speculates on the musical reasons for the song’s success when suddenly Imbruglia’s video image leans forward, pressing her lush lips into a painfully telegenic pout. ”Well,” the woman concedes, ”the video certainly helped.”
Certainly. At 23, the petite Imbruglia (pronounced Im-BROO-lia) has a porcelain-doll beauty and slacker chic — in the video for ”Torn,” she sulks gracefully in a worn T-shirt and baggy pants — that suggest a young Audrey Hepburn as refashioned for the post-grunge crowd. But her obvious charms have not made Imbruglia immune to criticism. In England, controversy erupted over ”Torn” two months ago when it was discovered that an earlier version of the song — which Imbruglia’s frequent writing partner and producer Phil Thornalley cowrote with members of the American alt-rock group Ednaswap in 1995 — had already been a hit in Norway for singer Trine Rein.
”What happened was, [the British tabloid] The Sun tried to make a big story out of it,” Imbruglia explains, unwinding after the MTV shoot. ”I was ‘Naughty Natalie.’ But I never said I wrote [‘Torn’], and I never said it was written for me…. [Rein’s record company] had the choice to release ‘Torn’ in the U.K., but they didn’t, and so now they’re kicking themselves because another artist had success with it.”
Imbruglia is generally much happier with how the more ”credible” British press received ”Torn” and the other songs on her debut album, Left of the Middle, which arrived on our shores last week. Granted, the ennui-tinged lyrics and driving, postmodern guitar-pop arrangements on Middle have led to a few inevitable Alanis Morissette comparisons, but Imbruglia seems to have taken them in stride. And she is visibly comforted when informed that she’s not the only nubile babe whom critics have tagged with a scarlet ”A” in recent years.
”Fiona Apple got it too?” Imbruglia gasps, barely suppressing a vindicated smile. ”No way! Well, that just goes to show you that the industry and journalists have to tag things. I’m sorry they have to do that, but as long as I know in my heart I’m being true to myself, I don’t go to bed at night worrying myself sick that I sound like somebody else.”
The second eldest of four girls born to the son of an Italian expatriate and his schoolteacher wife, Imbruglia began taking dancing lessons ”when I was still in nappies” (American translation: about age 2) and became interested in theater in her early teens. Four years ago, she relocated to London, after finishing a two-year stint as teen angel Beth on Neighbours, the same serial that gave the world Aussie pop tart Kylie Minogue. But unlike Minogue, who continued to act after embarking on a singing career, Imbruglia has opted, for now, to concentrate solely on her music. ”The only way I’m gonna get better at what I do is to stay focused,” she stresses. ”I don’t believe in spreading yourself too thin.”