I'm taking back control, says Ricki-Lee Coulter
Fourteen years is a long time to still be getting milage from your five minutes of reality TV fame. Long enough perhaps to prove you were always going to get there without it.
It's hard to believe Ricki-Lee Coulter first caught the music industry's attention when she appeared as an 18-year-old on the second season of Australian Idol in 2004.
It was the glory days when the series was a ratings bonanza. Her shock elimination in seventh place made front page news, bad cop judge Ian "Dicko” Dickson describing her departure as a scandal. She laughs at the memory.
"I still get people all the time talking to me about Australian Idol,” she says. "I went to the doctors just the other day and the receptionist said, 'I cried for days when you were voted off Idol'.”
Ricki-Lee is not the sort of girl who's precious about how she got her start in the game.
Her early Idol departure arguably didn't make too much difference in the long run. She was the only contestant other than the two finalists to score a recording contract, setting her on the path she's never wavered from.
She's back in the spotlight this week with a new single Unbothered, an unashamed pop number - "classic Ricki-Lee at her best” as one reviewer describes it.
"It's a bit of an anthem,” she says. "I think it's got a great message: walk away from sh---y people and sh---y situations.
"It's all about taking control back.”
While the tone is cruisy, the lyrics are sassy: "I don't care enough to hate you/ I'm just Unbothered/ 'Cause hating you is energy/ Now I'm spending it all on me/ Unbothered/ Chillin' with my apathy/ Don't give a f--- about you and me/ Unbothered.”
It is a song born of experience and, just shy of her 33rd birthday, why wouldn't Ricki-Lee use her music to channel the wisdoms she's earned?
A prolific songwriter - she estimates she has well over 100 songs in her warehouse - Ricki-Lee describes herself as an "absolute sponge”.
"I listen and watch what friends are going through and I draw from that,” she says. "Times in my own life, movies, things I hear, I pick up my phone and I start writing words and singing melodies.
"I think if people were going through the notes on my phone, they would say, 'This girl is heavy'.”
Unbothered is more the Ricki-Lee style we're accustomed to. Her previous single Not Too Late, released more than a year ago, was a ballad with a powerhouse chorus that seemed to signal a new direction for the pop princess.
But that would be to overthink things.
Ricki-Lee says it's always been about songs for her rather than a "sound”.
Not Too Late came after a three-year break from recording. She spent 2015 and 2016 living in Los Angeles, focusing solely on songwriting.
"That was my reason to go to LA,” she says. "That's where all the songwriters live and work from. It was very productive. There's no place like it.
"I'd write with someone for three or four days, start a few different ideas, some were half realised, some are half songs but I came away with a lot of songs.”
Interestingly Not Too Late was the first song she wrote when she returned to live in Sydney, inspired by a close friend's deteriorating relationship with his husband.
She says it's probably her favourite song from her extensive cache that includes a string of Top 10 and 20 hits, gold and platinum albums, an ARIA Song of the Year nomination, even a single that featured on the soundtrack of the Sex and the City 2 film that won her a legion of international fans.
"That brought on a whole wave of success in the UK and Japan,” she says. "I'm so grateful for that. I've been very lucky with the support I've got.”
Indeed Ricki-Lee has a broad fan base. There are doting mums and nans who've followed her since her Idol days, young adults who grew up as she did, kids who love her pop songs and a strong following from the LGBT community.
"When I perform live, it's definitely not your usual audience,” she says. "There's always a mish-mash of different people of all varieties. I love it.”
Ricki-Lee would love to tour again next year but in the meantime, fans were able to whet their appetite with her appearances in the opening and closing ceremonies of the Commonwealth Games in her beloved home town in April.
"Being a Gold Coast girl, I was honoured,” she says. "I remember watching the Sydney Olympics opening and closing ceremonies with Nikki Webster, John Farnham, Olivia Newton-John, Tina Arena.
"I wished one day I could be on a stage like that; it would be such an amazing feeling. It was my dream and to actually get to do it, I just had the best time.”
Ricki-Lee was born in New Zealand but came to Queensland with her teenage single mum when she was just three weeks old.
She's spoken in the past about her difficult childhood, with her mum working two jobs to support them, and being farmed out to relatives while her mum pursued a party lifestyle in her younger days.
At school Ricki-Lee was a talented sportswoman. Her musical ability was only discovered later at 15 when her mother heard her singing in her bedroom. It led to live gigs with local bands and starring in school musical productions.
At 15 she also met the man who was to be her first husband, then 23-year-old builder Jamie Babbington. They married in 2007 when Ricki-Lee was 21 but separated a year later.
In 2009, she met the man who would become her manager Richard Harrison who Ricki-Lee describes as "an amazing man”. The two married in 2015.
"I'm still as obsessed with him as the day we first met,” she says. "I have definitely found my match. I should probably shut up and stop banging on about that. I've written so many love songs about him. I'll try not to put out too many about it.”
The one-time poster girl for curvy girls has dropped more than 30kg since they've been together, ironically sparking some negative chatter on social media, but Ricki-Lee is unapologetic about her decision to change her diet and lifestyle.
In 2014 she attracted more social media response when she revealed how she and Richard had decided early on not to have children.
"I just plan to be an overbearing mother to my songs,” she laughs. "A helicopter parent - you couldn't describe me better than that. I like to be involved in every little detail.”
Ricki-Lee says there'll be more songs coming next year.
"I'm so obsessed with what I do, there's no slacking off,” she says. "I work hard and my focus is on making music. I've been lucky and lots of amazing things have happened for me, but I've worked my arse off too.
"I want to get out on tour again. I love that interaction. I'm aiming for people to be sick of me.”
Like most true artists, Ricki-Lee experiences her creative bursts and troughs.
"I can go days and weeks when nothing comes out,” she says. "It's like I've forgotten how to write songs. I feel like a fraud. So when inspiration comes you jump on it.”
She admits she often drives with her phone on record and spills out what's in her head while she's in the car: riffs, melodies, lyrics, ideas, voice memos.
"I think the thing with songs is they're like little snapshots,” she says. "They're best when they're honest and raw and vulnerable.
"Some songs I wrote over 10 years ago and I still love them because you don't forget the feelings you had that you wrote about. They take you back to a time in your life that you've been through.”
She says the early reaction to Unbothered has been amazing.
"People have said to me, 'I needed this song so much right now, it's like you were in my head',” she says. "When someone can take something out of one of your songs, that's a good feeling.”