Britain might be smitten, as much of the world is, by a Queen B from H-Town, but we’ve our own pop princess coming through the ranks just fine, too.
London singer Katy B, born Kathleen Brien in 1989, made her first moves into the music business as a guest vocalist, appearing on DJ NG’s ‘Tell Me’ in 2008. She soon made a name for herself on the UK Funky scene, buoyed by the support of Rinse FM and its associated label – initially as Baby Katy, and later under the name we know her today.
Her solo breakthrough was summer 2010’s ‘Katy On A Mission’, a top-five hit on the UK singles chart, preceding her debut solo LP, ‘On A Mission’, which came out in the April of 2011. Before the album dropped, Katy chalked up two further top 10 singles: ‘Lights On’ and ‘Broken Record’, both of which featured on ‘On A Mission’. The album went to number two in the UK, and earned a Mercury Prize nomination.
But as Clash learns when we catch up with Katy ahead of the release of her second album, ‘Little Red’ (review), ‘On A Mission’ wasn’t conceived as an album to call her own. Therefore it’s perhaps no surprise to find that ‘Little Red’ is a more personal collection – one listen to the single ‘Crying For No Reason’, more ballad of design than dance banger, makes that clear enough, when contrasted with the singles preceding her previous album. The girl’s grown up. Let’s see where she goes from here.
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Katy B, ‘Crying For No Reason’
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When you were appearing as a guest vocalist on other artists’ material, what did you learn then that you brought through to your solo work?
Well, I’m not sure, really. I always thought of those projects as 50/50 things anyway, because I always wrote on them. The collaboration was an even one. Though, I suppose I did still feel that I was the guest. It was a bit like I was being had around for dinner, or something. You’re both there at the same time, so you’re each bringing your own thing to it. But at the time I didn’t have the platform to release my own music, so that was a great way for me to be able to do my thing.
I like the dinner analogy. So who ends up doing the dishes?
I suppose that’s me – I’d have to do them, wouldn’t I? I couldn’t show up, eat their food and drink their wine, and then just leave.
Your first three solo singles went top 10, which must have been a thrill. But was that a case of the songs meeting your expectations for them, or totally exceeding them?
Oh, I was 100% exceeding my expectations. The first two, ‘…On A Mission’ and ‘Lights On’, I wrote those for the clubs, not the radio. So it was a really pleasant surprise to see them do so well. I was on holiday with my friends when ‘…On A Mission’ came out – I needed a break, and I had my phone locked away in a safe. I believed in it, but I was never… I was enjoying the moment so much, being involved with every aspect of it. At that point, I wasn’t thinking of the future, as the present was so good. I didn’t have a clear path, quite.
Well, it worked out alright, didn’t it? The album did really well, and it got a Mercury nomination…
But, you know, ‘On A Mission’ wasn’t meant to be my album. I was meant to be a guest vocalist on it, as (producer and Rinse head honcho) Geeneus wanted to put together an album of all of the different Rinse producers. He asked me if I’d be interested in singing over that, and of course I was. After a while, though, it just turned into my album.
So if ‘Little Red’ goes a position better and charts at number one, what’s that likely to feel like?
I try not to get too hung up on things that are outside of my control. There’s no point, really. But I don’t know… I feel like the album is what it is. I’ve put my heart, my body and my soul into it, and that’s all I can do. We’ll have to wait and see!
Given the releases between albums, like 2012’s ‘Danger’ EP and the non-album single ‘What Love Is Made Of’, it doesn’t look like you had much in the way of downtime between ‘On A Mission’ and ‘Little Red’…
It’s funny you say that, because a lot of people speaking to me right now are like, ‘Oh, you’ve been away for ages.’ I’m like, ‘I haven’t! I wish I had!’ I wish I’d been spending six months on a beach in Thailand, that’d have been amazing. But I’ve been in the studio a lot. I wrote a lot of songs for ‘Little Red’, and ultimately picked the ones that gelled together the best.
Is that why a track like ‘What Love Is Made Of’ isn’t on the album, because it didn’t fit its overall tone?
I just felt that I wanted to put some music out there, really. Like, ‘Aaliyah’ from the ‘Danger’ EP is on the album, but I loved collaborating with Jessie Ware. But ‘What Love Is…’ means a lot to me, so I wanted to get it out there, regardless of whether it was on the album. So yeah, I just wanted more out there, basically!
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Katy B, ‘What Love Is Made Of’
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You’re very much an ‘album artist’, though, if you get what I mean – the reception and award nods for ‘On A Mission’ make that clear enough. What I note on this new album and the last is that you only work with a select few producers, Geeneus being foremost amongst them. Is that a means of ensuring consistency across your albums? To avoid the different producer on each track vibe that some pop artists go for…?
I don’t think it was a quantitative decision in that respect – I think I just like working with my friends. I used to be in a band with friends, who I had a lot in common with, and I just want to keep that going. I don’t want to have to fight for my ideas with people who I don’t know so well. I have worked with new people on this album, but they’re people who I’ve had that connection with. It’s hard for an artist to go and write with a brand-new person, on the other side of the world, for just one day. Y’know what I mean? That can be a really cold way of doing things.
You’re credited as a writer on every track on both albums. Have you ever come up against interviewers thinking, wrongly, that you are merely the mouthpiece for songs written by someone else? After all, a lot of pop performers are basically just that – the conduit for someone else’s song to reach the public.
I’m not sure, to be honest. I think that sometimes I do get that, yeah – that people don’t think I write my own songs. They assume that I’m the face for the music, because I don’t sit there with an acoustic guitar in my hands. But in time, hopefully everyone will know.
Can you see yourself writing songs outside of the dance genre you’re presently positioned within?
Definitely! I’ve just been at Metropolis doing a Rinse session, where I’m performing with acoustic backing. I like doing things like Radio 1’s Live Lounge, things like that – it’s something different. And I do sometimes perform acoustically in my live sets, to break it up a bit. In the future, you never know! I like all kinds of music – I was well into my hip-hop growing up, and I used to go to jazz jams. I love soul music, and my dad used to listen to loads of blues. So there’s a lot of music that I love – but right now I am definitely a child of the club. Also, I’d love to work on other people’s songs – ones that aren’t club music.
I was going to ask about potential co-writes on other people’s material. I look at Jessie Ware’s album and all the great work Dave Okumu, of The Invisible, did on that. It’s her album, but born of a brilliant partnership…
I’d so love to do that. Before my solo career took off, when I first got my publishing deal, the aim was very much to go in and do sessions with other people. I’d go in and work with people and come away from the studio on cloud nine – I couldn’t believe that this was my job. I was something like 20 at the time, skipping my way down the road. I thought that type of work was incredible – having this conversation with this other artist, getting to know them, hearing about their boy troubles, y’know? And putting that all into words. I’d love to do that again, but right now I just don’t have the time. In the future, though…
Are you so busy that you aren’t aware of what’s going on elsewhere in pop? I’m wondering what you make of the rather over-sexualised music videos that seem to be doing the successful rounds – your Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke tracks. Because you’ve never been pushed down that route, to peel the clothes off to flog more records…
Well, sex sells, doesn’t it? And it always will. I guess people want to see it. And I suppose there are people, performers, who are comfortable being presented like that. For me, I’m a bit of a tomboy, so I wouldn’t be comfortable at all going on stage in a just pair of knickers – something like that just completely fills me with dread. It terrifies me! So I’m happier in a jumper or something. I think if other artists are comfortable wearing less, that’s fine.
Is it fair to say that you’ve not been coerced, in your career so far, into doing anything you’ve not wanted to? The success seems to have come on your terms, very self-motivated, without any concessions to what others are doing in the commercial world…
I’ve always had great people around me, and they’re people who I trust. I like making music, music that I can get excited about, and I like to just do my thing – but I don’t have a great deal of contact with the people at the major label I work with, Columbia. I’m down at Rinse every day, and they talk to me. That’s the way it’s always been. Obviously Columbia has worked really hard on my records, and the people there are amazing. They’re cool. They really have worked their guts out.
Just finally, I’ve been going through the older videos, naturally, and wanted to ask a couple of questions regarding the ‘Easy Please Me’ one. Firstly, the pool balls, which spell your name. Tell me you kept those…
(Laughs) I think they were Photoshopped! It was probably a bit cheaper.
Damn. You’re probably right. Okay, in the video you’re hustling some guys out of their money. What game could you legitimately hustle someone over?
Oh god, with that video, me and my friend Shakira, who’s in the video with me, we actually went to a pool hall in Catford and practised like crazy. We got quite good at it, but honestly I don’t think I’m that great at anything other than music, really. And it’d be hard to hustle anyone that way. Perhaps I could challenge them to karaoke: “Oh, I’m so bad, I don’t know…” What would my karaoke song be, though…? ‘I Will Survive’, I like that one. I’ve not been to South America, or Asia, so I guess I’d have to go there to pull it off. Karaoke’s big in Japan, isn’t it?
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Katy B, ‘Easy Please Me’
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Words: Mike Diver
‘Little Red’ is released on Rinse/Columbia on February 10th. Read the Clash review here.
Find Katy B online here.