Although “These Words” was her first top 20 hit on the Billboard Hot 100, many pop fans were first introduced to Natasha Bedingfield with “Unwritten,” the Grammy-nominated single which peaked at No. 5 on the chart in 2004. The song was given a whole new life two years later, thanks to its use as the theme song to the then-little-unknown reality series The Hills.
“Unwritten” was penned with Bedingfield’s younger brother in mind, serving as advice as he tried to find his footing as a teenager. But in retrospect, “Unwritten” also reflected an unexpected transition for Bedingfield: seemingly overnight, she went from being the U.K.’s new pop artist on the rise to a major name across the pond.
Throughout her musical journey, Bedingfield has experienced the highs and lows of the music industry; she’s teamed up with artists like Nicki Minaj, Ryan Tedder and Rascal Flatts, and scored hits like “Pocketful of Sunshine” and “Love Like This,” while also fighting to make sure her vision didn’t get lost on her own albums. After becoming a mother in 2017, the singer felt even more willing to take risks, so she left her record label, Phonogenic, and joined esteemed songwriter/producer Linda Perry and Kerry Brown’s new label, We Are Hear. Her fourth studio album and first since 2010, Roll With Me, was released on Friday.
Bedingfield, 37, spoke to Billboard on having Perry as the album’s sole producer, why she stays away from Auto-Tune and looking back at the sensation that was “Unwritten” 15 years later.
It’s been nine years since the release of your last album, Strip Me / Strip Me Away. Did you have any nerves about returning?
I didn’t want to release something that I wasn’t happy with, so it’s taken a bit long to write. And since I had a baby, it felt like a different kind of flow. Every creative has to realize that when you put out something personal into the world, there’s definitely a shaking that you feel inside. It’s almost like setting yourself free. I love having a song that no one’s heard, like my secret, but when you release it, you have to think, “I relinquish my control over what happens to this song.” Whether someone like it or not, that’s out of your control.
How did that experience of becoming a mother help inspire the record?
I was just going through a moment of vulnerability while becoming a mom at the same. But I also gained a new strength — kind of like a tiger mom. (laughs) So writing from that place made me more easygoing, and willing to let producers have their way with the music. I love pop music and I obsess about lyrics a lot. I like for my songs to have double meanings and intricate layers. And I think my voice got better after this whole experience. After years of touring so much and adding so much miles to my voice, it actually became stronger. I’ve become a magician on stage. I try to make the hardest songs to sing so that I can keep growing. So every time I go on tour I’m like, “Shit, why did I write this!”
The first song I wanted to dive into from the new record is “Kick It.” There’s a duality, with the lyrics speaking about hardships, yet the melody is so upbeat.
I like that you use the word “duality,” because that is definitely what the song is about. It has that summery, up-tempo, carefree feel to it. But it also has some darker tones with the subject matter on the verses. And I didn’t forget the double meaning with [the title]! You know, the definition of the phrase “kick it” means hanging out but also letting go — either of a habit, or someone you’re having sex with. (laughs) How do you make a good thing last? Music and my relationship are the most commitment I’ve ever had. I don’t even have any tattoos, because I can’t commit to that. For me, making a relationship last is doing the things you use to when you first fell in love and willing to let go of the things that are hindering. But how do you compromise while still retaining a sense of self?
“Roller Skate” highlights your soulful side, from those horns to the gritty tone of your voice.
I’m obsessed with young Michael Jackson! Just that Motown positivity. I love that nothing ever felt cheesy; everything had a realness to it. We really had fun with “Roller Skate.” It’s definitely got that soul to it.
“Everyone Come Together” has a very timely message, especially in our political climate. Was that intentional?
The world is getting more and more divided. You wake up in the morning and there’s already a reason to feel low or mad. In my life, I’ve chose times to not be political as a way to keep the peace. I’ve had people tell me, “Shut up, just be pretty and sing.” That’s another part of being a mom. I’m not so willing to shut up because I want the world to be a great place for my kid. So we have to find ways to come together and have hope. As the Beatles said, “All you need is love.”
Speaking of your son, “King of the World” sounds like an ode to him.
It is. That’s the song on the record that’s specifically about him. I’m enjoying this time where I’m his everything. I’m savoring that because I know it doesn’t last. A lot of my friends’ kids have grown up. Then they’re gonna go to counseling and someone else is gonna tell them all the things they did wrong. (laughs)
I also love that you kept the rawness of the vocals, when pop can often be too polished.
I know Auto-Tune is really in fashion right now, but we didn’t use it. As a songwriter, it’s interesting, because when you stick Auto-Tune on a song everyone immediately goes, “Ooh it’s a hit!” You end up disguising a song by putting too many tricks on it to where people don’t even know if it’s a good song or not. On this record, with every single song we wrote with piano or guitar. We wanted to really know we liked the songs before we even produced them.
My favorite song is “No Man I See.” It’s such an empowering anthem for women who are trying to find their voice.
I feel like everyone wants to tell us our limits. It’s almost like they feel it’s their responsibility to protect us from “disappointment.” It’s so stupid. [The song] is just about feeling powerful and not letting people take that away. There were times in my life where I given my power away just to make someone’s ego feel better. Even just talking dumb when someone is explaining something that you really know. And most of the time it is men. (laughs)
Linda Perry is the sole producer on the record. How did that come about?
I met Linda about seven years ago and we wrote some incredible songs. We were kind of blown away at the stuff that was coming out. We both had it in our heads to do something together in the future. I asked my label [Phonogenic Records] to let me go, ’cause the music industry was changing and the labels were saying it wasn’t like it used to be. A lot of people were losing their jobs and I thought this wasn’t a good place to write songs. You can’t be creative out of fear or copying someone else — that’s boring. A lot of times labels will release songs because they’re safe, and I don’t want to just be safe. I want to expand and keep my identity. I had to grow and hoped people would come with me. I was so happy when they let me go. Then Linda started a label [We Are Hear] and we just knew there was something there.
What was your experience being in the studio together?
A lot of times before, I’ve worked with men. I’ve always had to say, “I’m a producer too!” The records that we wrote came with a lot of fighting. And with Linda, I have this feeling where I want to trust her and let her have a vision. So that was a very unique experience for me. I love the freedom [that] working with one producer gives you. She’s known for getting people out their comfort zone. She’s not afraid to tell you to sing a certain way. It was definitely uncomfortable because it was different to what I normally do. I like to stop and edit but she always told me to keep going. We wrote our songs very quickly because we wanted to go home to put our babies to bed. It was like within two or three hours, where I used to spend the whole day [in the studio].
When people hear this album, what’s the message you want them to take away from it?
I want people to have fun. We need to let our hair down sometimes, because we get so serious. Let the music take you somewhere and go along for the ride. That’s why it’s called Roll With Me. Come along on this journey.
I want to take it back to your signature song: 2004’s “Unwritten.” What was the recording process like?
I originally wrote a poem [for my younger brother] and I showed it to one of my other co-writers. They weren’t feeling it. So I put it in my back pocket and we wrote a whole ‘nother song called “I’m a Bomb,” which was a hook-y, sexy kind of song. One day Danielle Brisebois came into the studio and this breeze just came over me. She had this amazing energy and I thought, “That’s who I’m gonna write this song with.” She was a child actor and was in the first production of Annie, and went on to be in All In The Family. Then she reinvented herself and became part of New Radicals. She read my poem, and it was really simple: Life is a page, you hold the pen to your own life story — no one else. We were in the most incredible flow. One of the songs that inspired the [sound of the] verses was the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown).” We tried to put every single wise saying in one song! (laughs)
And then the song got even bigger once MTV picked it for The Hills theme in 2006.
It’s interesting because it was already the most-played song on pop radio in America. So it didn’t really need The Hills. But it became MTV’s most-watched show, so that was a phenomenon. It was the beginning of that whole wave of reality shows. I love being part of pop culture and feeling of having my songs in movies and TV shows. So when MTV came to me, it was an easy yes. I’ve asked myself, “Why was my song on that show?” But I think it was because the show is about trying to find out who you are. As we grow older, we like to wear so many hats.
You ended up remixing the song for this year’s The Hills reboot. It has a very sexy tone compared to the original.
The characters grew older and someone of them had kids. I think if MTV had [originally] come to me and asked to write a song for The Hills, I’d produce it the same way [as the remix]. So I wanted to celebrate the show and what it meant to so many people. It was a version that was very specific.
If you could talk to your 22-year-old self 15 years ago, what advice would you give her?
I think the same advice of the song! The biggest thing about the song that I have to keep reminding myself about is the whole thing about making mistakes. Mistakes are important because it means you’re trying something. So you can’t beat yourself up about them, because you’re taking risks. It’s not about how you fell, but how you get up afterwards. Don’t be safe, because that’s boring.