In terms of chronological age, Charlotte Church — at just 27 — is probably too young for a comeback tour and album. But launching a second act can be tough when you charmed the world at 12.
As a young girl, she sold many millions of records and performed live for a president and a pope before being laid low by a no-win confrontation with Britain's tabloid press and the release of what even she admits was some mediocre pop material and a not-so-great reality TV show.
Now she's emerged from her basement studio in Wales — a hangout for local songwriters and musicians — with a wealth of new material she's releasing in the United States on CD and showcasing at live performances at the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, and in several other cities, including New York and Los Angeles, where she'll perform at the fabled Troubadour.
"I've been waiting a long time to come back to the States," said Church, who released the album, "One & Two," on Tuesday. Taken from two previously released EPs in Europe, it's the first of new material from the singer in the U.S. for a decade, in part because she hasn't had full confidence in her material.
Church, burdened perhaps by the "Voice of an Angel" title of her first smash album, sees America as offering a fresh start. She believes her reputation in Britain has been tarnished by tabloids that covered (and exaggerated) her every growing pain as she moved from cherubic youth into rough adolescence and more tranquil adulthood, including last year's phone hacking scandal. The singer received a $950,000 settlement from Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. after his reporters were found to have been hacking into her voicemails and those of other public figures.
"I'm intrigued to see how people will take it. In the U.S., I'm known predominantly as a singer; in the U.K., I've been seen as a caricature of myself for such a long time, so it's been difficult for me to find the credibility as a musician that I so crave."
Her new material is difficult to describe. Church has moved away from straight-ahead commercial pop, which didn't serve her particularly well, into a less-structured arena. There are traces of Bjork and others in her phrasing and the instrumentation varies from song to song; the purity of her soprano voice provides the unifying factor.
The singing seems effortless, free of theatricality, but the lyrics are no longer naive: "Beautiful Wreck" is one title that certainly sounds autobiographical, with its description of a lovely, troubled soul, and the songs are adult in tone, well beyond boy-meets-girl.
"I think the new material is fantastic," said Neil McCormick, music critic at the Daily Telegraph. "She's finally found a way to use her classical aptitude in an atmospheric pop music context. The voice really works here."
But he said the tabloid coverage of her teenage years will make it harder for her to find a receptive audience.
"I think it's very, very difficult for her," he said. "All these youthful transitions that should have been done in private have been done in public. But she just might carry it off."
The new songs were cooked up by Church and bandmates Jamie Neasom and Jonathan Powell — her boyfriend — often as part of four-day marathons involving friends and musicians from the greater Cardiff area.
"We started doing house writing sessions," she said. "We invite great songwriters from around the area and do sessions, and then we'll all share at the end and see everyone's different styles and make comments ... it's just very useful. It's a great creative thing to be involved with."
It's no accident that Church began her tour with three gigs this week at SXSW. She went to the festival two years ago as a fan — and the experience opened her eyes.
"It blew my socks off," she said. "I thought the level of talent from people all around the world was incredible. Everyone was at a certain level — good, great or above. And the diversity of the music, being able to see electronic artists from Japan. I don't think there's anything like it anywhere else in the world. I just wanted to come back."
As a kid, with the world at her feet, Church sailed through concerts with breezy confidence. It's harder now — she needs some quiet time, even just half an hour, to collect herself before each show.
"I'm getting more nervous as I get older," she said. "When I was really young I was totally fearless. As I've gotten older I'm more scared, it matters more. It just means the world to me now."