1997 flashback: Natalie Imbruglia addresses 'Torn' controversy

Natalie Imbruglia
Natalie Imbruglia’s 1997 “Torn” video (Photo: Courtesy of RCA Records)

Twenty years ago, Australian ex-soap actress Natalie Imbruglia exploded onto the scene with “Torn,” a bittersweet heartbreak ballad that helped her ride the mid-’90s wave of emotional, angst-driven female pop/rock led by the likes of Alanis Morissette, Tori Amos, Fiona Apple, Sheryl Crow, and Sarah McLachlan. However, a backlash ensued when fans discovered that Imbruglia had not actually written “Torn,” and that it was in fact a cover. The single was penned by Scott Cutler and Anne Preven of the alt-rock band Ednaswap (who released two recordings of the song) with producer and ex-Cure member Phil Thornalley; Denmark’s Lis Sørensen and Norway’s Trine Rein also released their own versions (the former under the title “Braendt,” which translates as “Burned”), although Imbruglia’s was the only bona fide hit.

While Imbruglia had never overtly claimed to be “Torn’s” composer, her record label, RCA, had marketed her as a Lilith Fair-style singer-songwriter (and she did indeed have co-writing credit on 10 of her album’s 12 tracks), so the public felt duped. However, in that pre-social media age, the controversy quickly faded away. And Imbruglia’s kinder, gentler version, which earned her a Grammy nomination and charted in 19 countries, became the “Torn” that forever held a place in ‘90s pop fans’ hearts.

But, as noted above, that was before Twitter.

This week, a randomly retweeted joke suddenly alerted thousands of children of the 1990s — who were obviously too young to pay attention to the “Torn” scandal back in ’97 — that “Torn” is a cover. And they reacted like kids finding out, all at once, that Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy do not exist.

They were all out of faith. Nothing was fine. They were torn!

(Wow, wait till those fans find out that “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll,” “Tainted Love,” “Valerie,” and “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” were not originally recorded by, respectively, Joan Jett, Soft Cell, Amy Winehouse, and Cyndi Lauper. The internet will break.)

This oddly revived scandal goes back to the day that Imbruglia’s manager, Anne Barrett, introduced the singer, who was unsigned at the time, to Thornalley. Imbruglia and Thornalley hit it off and began working on some demos — including “Torn” — that found their way to RCA Records. RCA eventually issued Imbruglia’s hugely successful debut album, Left of the Middle, a collection of hypersensitive ruminations on love, loss, and betrayal that garnered more than a few Alanis comparisons. And the rest was internet-recycled history.

As an educational service, as well as to console those who are just coming to terms with this bombshell news, we present our Natalie Imbruglia interview from 1997, conducted just as Left of the Middle was taking off — a time when the young singer was doing some damage control after the cutthroat U.K. music press discovered Trine Rein and Ednaswap’s “Torns” and declared Imbruglia a fraud.

Yahoo Music: “Torn” has been recorded a few other times. Was Phil Thornalley behind all those versions?

Natalie Imbruglia: Not all of them, no. But he’d given it to that Trine Rein person before I’d even met him. … I’m so glad that song fell into my hands. I was not even expecting to break America with my first single. That was something in my head that was going to be way down the line, after slugging it out on the road — which is fine as well. So now this thing’s happened, and it’s going to be interesting to see what happens next, because I’ve got to prove myself — which I’m quite happy to do. Let’s get on with it.

Did Phil keep persisting because he really believed “Torn” had the makings of a big hit?

Definitely. He definitely, 100 percent believed in it. I’m sure that’s why he kept giving it to people. … I was working with Phil before I got my deal. I knew his manager socially; I didn’t know he represented writers. When he found out I was singing, he said, “You should meet Phil.” I met him and that was that. This was all before the deal. “Torn” was one of the songs I went to the record company with.

What do you think of Ednaswap’s version of “Torn”?

It’s great. I like it a lot. I think they’re great, but I’ve never met them — which is kind of strange! I’m just so grateful that they wrote such an incredible song.

The press, especially the British press, gave you a hard time because the song wasn’t written by you. Did that bother you?

The thing is, I never said that I wrote it. This is what they get away with in the U.K.! What it was is, they found out there were other versions. I always credited Ednaswap and Phil Thornalley for writing the song.

But I never talked about some girl named Trine Rein who did a version of it in Norway, because I didn’t see that that was relevant. If it was a really well-known song, then that’s different story, but in an interview I wasn’t going to be like, “Oh, by the way, there is this girl that you’ve never heard of, who had success with this song in Norway but nowhere else. So I’m going to tell you, just in case.” You know? The great thing was, after it came out, everybody was like [shrugs demonstrably]. It was just that one [British] paper that made all the fuss. … And don’t you think that if I cared about that, that I would have released one of my own songs as the first single? [The controversy] just didn’t make any sense to me at all.

Are you worried about following up “Torn”? Obviously you want to establish a lasting career.

Yes, and I think that takes time, anyway. I think you have to prove yourself. I’m just concerned with staying focused on what I’m doing, because you get so busy when you have a song that’s done well. You’re running all over the country — countries, I should say. So it’s just a case of staying focused on what you want and finding the time to be creative, which can be really hard.

Are you writing right now?

I write when I have time. I’m not the kind of person who carries a notepad around; I have to be in a relaxed environment. If I’m doing this that and the other, I’m not going to go up to my room say, after lunch, and try to write a song.

So what do you think of all those Alanis comparisons?

Well, I’m female, I’m young, sometimes my songs are angry, they’re about love — that’s all you need, I guess. But certainly don’t take it too seriously.

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