Petula Clark, 80, Experiments With AutoTune, Evokes Lana Del Rey in Pop Comeback

Petula Clark
Clement Schneider

Petula Clark has settled into a quiet booth at Amsterdam Burger Company on New York's Upper West Side, relaxing with a cool glass of fresh mint lemonade at the start of a two-week promo tour. "This is something I really haven't done," the English singer says.

"Lost In You," her first new album of English language material in over a decade, has just been released the week prior, and is a collection of new songs and covers that ranges from the familiar (Gershwin's "He Loves and She Loves," Lennon's "Imagine," Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy"), the original (smoky, noir-ish ballads "Next To You" and "Every Word You Say") to the unexpected (a downtempo, pensive take on her signature hit "Downtown.")

Produced by John Owen Williams, a veteran record executive and producer best known for his BBC Radio One sessions with acts like The Cocteau Twins and The Cure, "Lost In You" modern touches that has already brought comparisons to Lana Del Rey and The XX. Lead single "Cut Copy Me" has been generating a fair amount of online interest for its use of AutoTune and a lyric built around a computer metaphor that might be expected from a vocalist far younger than the now 80-year-old Clark.

So it's strange that "Lost In You" would be the first project Clark has actively had to plug herself Stateside. A child star in the U.K. since the 1940s, Clark first became known on these shores via swingin' ‘60s singles like "I Know A Place," "My Love," "Sign of the Times," "Don't Sleep On The Subway" and the immaculate "Downtown," based on her existing fame abroad and those songs' release on the back of the Motown and Spector sounds that were popular at the time.

"I really didn't have to do anything. It took off on its own," Clark says of her '60s success in the U.S. "Eventually I was here, but you know when ‘Downtown' came out I was working like a maniac all over Europe, and in fact when it became No. 1 I was in French-speaking Canada playing a one-woman show in French. And you know, ‘Ed Sullivan Show' was on the phone saying, ‘You gotta get her here!'"

Though Clark has continued to record and perform in English and French throughout the decades, she hasn't appeared on any Billboard chart since 1982, when the single "Natural Love" went to No. 62 on the Hot 100 and No. 24 on the Adult Contemporary chart. In total, she's charted 22 Hot 100 hits, including six top 10s and two No. 1s, "Downtown" and "My Love." She is reported to have sold nearly 70 million records worldwide, and still performs live (a U.K. tour is planned for October.)

That earned Clark more than enough clout to catch the attention of Andreas Katsambas, founder of indie label The End Records, who was seeking to broaden a label roster that already includes recent releases from The Dandy Warhols, The Prodigy, Anathema, Helloween and The Lemonheads and broaden it into vocal pop. 

"The first sense was even though she's a very known artist with a lot of history, we felt strongly about this album based on the strength of the songs," Katsambas says. "We did a very viral press release at the beginning and were surprised by how it was received by music blogs and all these places you wouldn't expect to pick up on an artist who's been doing this for so long. We developed this in a way that we felt gets us in front of the audience that's been following Petula through the years but also gets the music to as many people as possible."

And though she's excited about having new U.S. label support, Clark's approach to promoting her music hasn't changed much since her '60s heyday. "There have been performers who come over here and try to crack America, and I don't think it works like that. It's not quite the same now because of the way everyone listens to music and downloading and all that. It's a very different business and I'm aware of that. You do what you do and hope people will hear it and like it and follow you. Maybe I'm being naïve, but what else can you do?"