Brewing Up: Katie Gregson-Macleod Is Just Getting Started

The complex truth behind her irresistible rise...

Katie Gregson-Macleod woke up one morning to find herself famous.

A songwriter from the Scottish Highlands, she blended her spare time with shifts in her local coffee and stints in the recording studio, attempting to get her thoughts down on tape. Working instinctually, she released ‘complex (demo)’ without thinking any more about it, and then went to sleep.

To say the song’s rise has been rapid probably gives disservice to Katie’s art. Within hours it had chalked up more than 100,000 plays on TikTok, and after a few days had inspired cover versions from Camilla Cabello, Tom Walker and King Princess, to name but a few.

With FINNEAS, Lewis Capaldi, Maisie Peters and dodie giving her co-signs, Katie Gregson-Macleod went from life as a barista in Inverness to the offices of major labels. Snapped up by Columbia, ‘complex (demo)’ has gained an official release, and it’s already cracking the charts.

With her life in continual acceleration, Katie kindly took a few minutes out of her day to sit down with Clash, reflecting on her rise, her deep roots in music, and how she’s just about keeping grounded amid the hype.

Well Katie how are you?

Haha! It’s been a crazy couple of weeks, put it that way.

It’s been a whirlwind, but music has been a part of your life for a long time, is that right?

For as long as I can remember, aye. I actually grew up as a squash player, and played to quite a high level, but alongside that I was studying music. I’ve been writing songs for basically forever, and then suddenly this happens and all my plans have been sledge-hammered! Just blown to smithereens. But it’s all for the best!

Are your family musical?

Well, my mum is a pianist. She studied piano. She’d say she isn’t a great piano player, but she is! So I grew up with a piano in the house, which is a huge blessing. There was always music playing – or at least, discussions about music. At first I wouldn’t let my mum teach me, as I thought it was embarrassing… but I soon picked it up, and started learning the guitar when I was about seven or eight.

At what point did that interest flip from being a hobby into something you would actually base your whole life around?

I mean, I started writing songs at about seven or eight. They’re not my finest work, but I did write those songs! (laughs) I always performed in some capacity, and I always felt it was an intrinsic part of me. There was never a conscious moment when it changed. I suppose I started gigging a bit when I was 16 or 17, and I got my first festival slot the year after. And that’s when I started to write a bit more, too, because you get more actual life experience at that age. 

And how is life in the coffee shop?

It’s good! It’s a small independent shop, we do coffee and donuts. It’s honestly like a family. I’ve worked there since it opened, and we’re very close. After I went to uni, they would give me shifts whenever I wanted to come back.

It seems as though everything has really taken off for you in the past 18 months – so many songs, releases…

I’ve been doing so much writing. I supposed it’s becoming an adult, grappling with that. And then lockdown came, and it represented a huge change for everyone. I was very prolific for me, as I had the time to learn how to produce, and I was just in the zone, I was making music for the fun of it. We had a little group of songwriters in Inverness, and we would challenge each other to write a song every two weeks. 

And it all leads to ‘complex (demo)’.

It does! We went down to Edinburgh to record that, with Rod Jones. It’s just piano and vocal. A live performance. And it felt it needed to be like that, that the first take on the song should be an important one. 

Brewing Up: Katie Gregson-Macleod Is Just Getting Started

Are you an over-thinker when it comes to music? Is there a side of you that wants to revise, and go back, and tinker?

Not really! When it comes to songwriting I’m happy to let the moment be the moment. If I write a song in a day or a couple of hours, then I try not to edit it because a song is quite a sacred thing for me. With ‘complex’, it was such a cathartic and raw moment, that I was really determined not to change a thing because that’s what resonates with people. That’s what makes it real.

It’s a very unguarded performance, and I think that’s what resonates with people on social media so much. What was it like to watch the song have that much of an impact?

It’s still really hard to comprehend. It’s very surreal. You try to take it in your stride but at the same time you’re almost watching it all as someone else. This is a thing that happened, but it’s happened to me. I wrote the song a few days before we recorded it, and put it online a few weeks after that. By the time I woke up it had been seen 100,000 times and I was like, well this is weird! And it hasn’t stopped. It’s just kept growing and growing. 

Obviously this is the very start for you, is there a songwriter you look to as a point of inspiration

Phoebe Bridgers is the probably the person I’m most influenced by. Julia Jacklin is a big one for me. As a writer, Matt Maltese too. I remember hearing those people at 17, 18 and thinking, this is life-changing for me. Like my world was opening up. 

From further back, you’ve got people like Joni Mitchell, Elliott Smith, Leonard Cohen… those are the Holy Trinity for me!

So that’s what Clash will get if we venture to the coffee shop, then?

Yep! I just like to depress everyone. I go in, play Phoebe Bridgers, and everyone gets pretty depressed! We all have the same tastes, actually. Put on some Adrienne Lenker and see if people get up and leave! (laughs)

Are you an autobiographical writer?

I write very autobiographically. I find it hard to write in the third person, so I tend to write about myself. And the things going on inside my brain. ‘complex’ was a moment of pure realisation and resignation, a way of processing emotion. And I don’t know what I’d do without that. It’s cathartic. It’s a way of understanding what’s going on, and making something beautiful about it.

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