True Grit: Cat Burns Interviewed

“As long as you are honest and true, that shines through in the art you create…”

The London singer-songwriter rose to superstardom with a surprise viral anthem, but she’s proven time and time again that she’s no one-hit wonder. With debut album ‘early twenties’ out this week, Cat’s ready to convey her truest self.

“The fourth one…the knitwear on top of knitwear,” says Cat Burns on her favourite outfit of the CLASH photo shoot. “I’ve always really liked that look.” Burns has a casual-preppy sense of style that exudes an aloof coolness almost at odds with her innate approachability. Since the start of the year, the 24-year-old South Londoner has been posting TikToks of her daily outfits, introducing her series with the caption: “The year i stop being so scared to share my outfits! I think i’m kind of stylish and thats all that matters LOL!”

Speaking to Burns comes with a sense of familiarity; she’s an artist who writes with honesty in everything she does. She’s penned lyrics – and posted online – about the most vulnerable parts of her life: whether it be about coming out as a queer woman, her neurodivergence, anxiety and relationships. Or, of course, just allowing herself to feel “kind of stylish”. Her relatability is intrinsically connected to her stardom: her artist bio on TikTok simply says “helping you get through stuff one song at a time!”

It’s a style of artistry that has earned her a solid and ever-growing fanbase. She was the UK’s highest-selling female artist in 2022 and was nominated for three BRIT awards the following year. Her super-smash breakout single ‘go’ went two-times platinum in the UK and she’s performed in massive arenas on the international tour circuit supporting Ed Sheeran and Sam Smith. All this, and she has yet to release her debut album. But, despite two solid years of soaring stardom, she still seems shocked by her status as one of the most prominent rising stars on the British pop landscape. “I still feel like a very small artist, and there’s lots of milestones yet to achieve,” she says, speaking slowly and thoughtfully. “I am obviously extremely grateful for everything that has happened, but I still have lots left to do.” 

Coat by Mr P via; tie, vintage by Joseph.

Burns’ breakout was sudden and explosive. She first teased the anthemic guitar-based ‘go’ as an unsigned artist in 2020 on TikTok, which eventually led to viral fandom and a record deal. Things only got bigger when the track was remixed by goddard. in 2022, taking it to new heights as a drum-and-bass smash. A few months later, Sam Smith duetted with Burns, once again breathing new life into ‘go’. I tell her that the song is the gift that keeps giving, but it’s something she’s hesitant to be anchored to. “Especially in this day and age with how songs are getting big rather than the artist, I was very worried that my song was just going to be something that did well, and me as an artist wasn’t gonna match [up],” she said. 

“I’m always very shocked when anything happens because I thought I’d be a one-hit wonder. So anytime I get a sign that I’m not being one, I’m happy.” There most definitely have been signs to assuage Burns’ concerns. Her heartfelt song ‘you don’t love me anymore’ has clocked over 5 million plays on Spotify since it was released last June. The song captures the most painful part of a relationship — the bitter ebb of disengagement: ‘It would hurt less if you gave a reason’, she implores. 

Coat by Mr P via; tie, vintage by Joseph.

Burns has a unique knack for opening up indescribable feelings of pain and navigating them with subtle precision. The power of her melody is so malleable that it can transcend her plucked guitar rhythms and mould itself into various genres: she’s recently teamed up with goddard. again to release ‘Wasted Youth’, her pop hooks pairing up idyllically with the DJ’s delectable drops. “We were writing specifically for more of a drum-and-bass sounding track,” she recalls. “I channelled my inner 18-year-old self and tried to add a story-esque vibe to it, and after I wrote it I felt goddard. would be perfect for it. The rest is history.”

The song navigates heartbreak through an angst lens: ‘Could have been / Falling in and out of love / Kissing strangers In the club…I’ve wasted all my youth / on / you’, the last word epically intensified by goddard.’s kick and spine-tingling deep synth. Given that this is the second time Burns has crafted a dance floor smash, is she preparing for a shift into electro territory? “I don’t know what I’ll be like next month, let alone next year,” she laughs. “Maybe when I’m 29, I might go ‘I’ll be a dance act’. But right now I think it’s nice to dabble here and there when I think my songs need it.” She can’t say much about the new album, other than it’ll be released this year. Her fanbase (“the Burners”) have long been pleading for a full-length, just scan the comments on her social media. With such heightened anticipation, does she feel pressure to put it out? 

“More…just excitement,” she asks rhetorically. “I think once my album is out, hopefully, my fans will feel more of a connection because they’ll hear the range of music I can make. I want to give them a body of work.” As of yet untitled – and without a release date – we can only glimpse what’s to come based on recent singles. The harrowing track ‘alone’ signals a shift in sound; Burns’ usually soft guitar plucks are amplified by booming percussion, and her vocals are echoed by the cries of a choir. It sounds bigger than she’s ever been before. It’s a perfect evolution. She’s more than a TikTok breakout; she’s now showing off a polished pop flair while retaining the core parts of her artistry. 

Jacket and trousers by HUGO; shirt by Arket; tie, vintage.
Shirt by Martine Rose x Nike; coat by Fendi.
Shirt by Martine Rose x Nike; coat by Fendi; shorts by Carhartt WIP; trainers by New Balance.

Teaming up with producer Steve Mac (co-writer behind Ed Sheeran’s megahit ‘Shape of You’), Burns admitted that Mac deliberately pushed her out of her comfort zone: “He just wanted to be the producer that I go to when I want to try something a bit different.” Burns’ brand of relatability always stems from lived experiences: her own or those around her (she describes it as a 50:50 ratio), and ‘alone’ was no different. After speaking to friends struggling in relationships, and resigned to eternal singledom, the song navigates fear and loneliness. “We just wanted to make this really big, loud, dramatic song to represent the feelings a lot of people have when they’re scared that they’re going to be alone forever.”

There’s a recurring theme in many of Burns’ songs: the passing of time. At 23, she’s achieved a shit load of amazing things, but her lyrics continually express themes of regret. ‘Wasted Time’ talks about ‘All the time I won’t get back’, while on ‘alone’ she sings ‘the years are going by / I’m not long off 25’. Last year’s single ‘know that you’re not alone’ opens with: ‘I’m not gettin’ any younger, the years are catching up on me’ before the chorus breaks into ‘thought I’d be flying by now / but I’m still stuck to the ground’. I ask her if she’s particularly hard on herself given all that she’s achieved as a musician. “I think career-wise, yes, one could argue I am “flying”,” she reflects, signing inverted quotation marks with her fingers. “But, personally, there’s so much growth that I want to be able to do, and that’s why I can relate.” Even though a lot of her lyrics explore the thoughts and feelings of friends and peers, she finds ways to personally connect to each song. “I can say I thought I’d be flying in my ability to communicate, and I’m still struggling with that. It can vary from person to person, really.”

Last year, Burns shared that she lived with Autism Spectrum Disorder, highlighting how Black and brown women are discriminated against through autism diagnoses due to a lack of inclusion in research. “​​It’s a massive struggle trying to exist and function in a society that was just not designed for how your brain understands and processes things,” she wrote in an Instagram post. While Burns may struggle with communication (although, interviewing her, one would beg to differ), her hard-hitting lyricism succeeds in putting words to the most complex emotions, an exploration of feeling that extends to the poignancy of her music videos. 

Shirt by Beans Plus via; tie by Dries Van Noten via; knitted vest by Prada; Jacket by Solid Homme; trousers by Tres Bien.

Videos like ‘people pleaser’ and ‘you don’t love me anymore’ capture multiple shades of queer love with sharp realness. As a queer millennial woman (I am ten years Burns’ senior) the representation in Burns’ video takes me back to Hayley Kiyoko’s defiantly lesbian music videos of 2015. I ask her if, in 2024, representation still feels necessary. “Absolutely, it’s very important,” she says without a second guess. “As long as you are honest and true, that shines through in the art you create.” She explains that the industry has been wholly supportive of her ambition to portray herself authentically. “I would be doing myself a disservice not continuing to highlight queer relationships in my music videos especially because that’s my reality, that’s my normal, that’s how my world looks,” she said. “Even most of my friends are queer.”

The conversation brings us to Sam Smith, and the brutal comments they’ve received as an openly queer artist. As Sam is a collaborator and friend of Burns, I ask her if she’d ever feared one day facing the rampant homophobic discourse that Smith has endured. “It doesn’t make me fearful because Sam is such a lovely human being. Every time I speak to them they’re just so warm,” she says. “They just ignore the stupid things that people say because that is all you can do. They’re just stupid.. It has made me realise how things can change and how people’s perception of you can change when you are not what people expect you to be or want you to be. They can switch on you,” she said. 

Burns stresses that she is prepared for the hardships, and won’t back down on her own authenticity at any cost. “It hasn’t made me worried because my truth is my truth, and perhaps it’s the neurodivergent brain in me that my sense of injustice is very high.” Burns’ music is tied to her bravery; perhaps it’s an openness that defines a defiant new generation of pop stars embracing their weakness as their strength. For Cat Burns, being anything but Cat Burns was never in the question: “If I couldn’t be myself wholeheartedly, or if I was made to feel uncomfortable, you would just get blocked and deleted. It’s as simple as that.”

As seen in CLASH 127. Order your copy here.

Cat Burns will release her debut album ‘early twenties’ on July 12th.

Words: Charis McGowan
Photography: Arthur Comely
Creative Direction: Rob Meyers
Fashion: Jake Hunte
Make-up: Daniela Alves

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