Interview: Katy B
By Tom Hoare
There’s no doubt that the current British pop climate has become increasingly geared towards the nation’s burgeoning urban scene. Long reliant on US artists for their pop-rap fix, the Poms have recently been taking a far greater interest in home-grown British rap, with artists like Tinchy Stryder, Chipmunk, N-Dubz, Dizzee Rascal and Tinie Tempah all scoring places significantly higher up the Top 40 than they would have ten years ago. Arguably, it was Dizzee himself who sparked this pop de-gentrification; his 2003 debut Boy In Da Corner’s Mercury Prize gong (normally reserved for artists like Franz Ferdinand, Arctic Monkeys, Klaxons and PJ Harvey) shed new light on the wealth of talent in London’s underground ‘grime’ scene and, more significantly, gave pop producers and record labels all over Britain a great idea for a new cash cow. From unlikely collaborations between grime godfather Wiley and Aussie pop-crooner Daniel Merriweather, to Brit singer Jessie J wailing about how she can ‘do it like the mandem’, the UK music scene has never been so fascinated with its own seamy urban underbelly.
Enter Katy B. On paper, an ideal contender to finally bridge the gap between the pop charts and the pirate stations. Educated at London’s prestigious BRIT School of Performing Arts (alma mater of Adele, Amy Winehouse, Imogen Heap, Jessie J and Jamie Woon, to name a few) but born and bred on the mean south London streets of Peckham, Katy combines a rough-as-fuck upbringing and street attitude with a genuine appreciation for and understanding of what makes good music – and what sells records. Her debut album On A Mission has been lauded by critics up and down the country, calling Katy “the best of a new wave, bringing the sound of the underground to the charts” and “the singer to take London’s urban scene into the spotlight”. But when Katy calls me from her mum’s Peckham kitchen, she explains that it was never meant to be this way.
“At the time when I was writing the album I liked going out, I liked clubbing – that was just such a big part of my personality – and I just wanted to incorporate the kind of music that was such a big part of my life at the time,” she explains. “I thought the album might sell, like, 1,000 copies. Then we put the video for [debut single] ‘Katy On A Mission’ on YouTube, and it had like 500,000 views in a couple of days. I couldn’t understand it.”
Although she’s as surprised as anybody by the reaction to the album, it’s clear from speaking to Katy that she certainly didn’t stumble upon this success by accident. When I ask her about ‘UK Funky’, the grime-house fusion genre that’s sweeping Britain at the moment, she speaks with authority on the subject. “Funky came about when DJs who’d been used to playing only garage started playing house music too, but because of the influence in London of grime and bashment and 2-step, it came out sounding not really like house at all – [so] we called it ‘Funky’”.
When you listen to On A Mission, you can hear the staggering range of influences Katy B takes in when she’s making her music. As well as the obvious elements of dubstep and drum ’n’ bass (due in no small part to the album being produced by UK dubstep trio Magnetic Man, among others), there’s also smokey lounge and café del mar tones on tracks like ‘Movement’ and ‘Hard To Get’. Meanwhile, ‘Power On Me’, ‘Easy Please Me’ and ‘Go Away’ contain the kind of high-NRG, bass-driven production that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Flux Pavillion tune. Interestingly, the latter three songs all deal with a lyrical theme that’s common on the album, that of frustration with men; be it with their annoying, cheesy come-on lines, or their reluctance to open up and show their sensitive side. I ask Katy if she’s had some rough luck with the fellas recently… “I’m not a man-hater – I know there’s obviously some lovely guys out there – but I definitely have been messed around,” she says. “Everyone’s had their heart broken, and having your heart broken makes for writing good songs.” This response typifies her singular focus on the end result – throughout our conversation, it’s clear that Katy B sees all of life’s little distractions as possible influences on the most important thing: her music.
Katy is coming to Australia for Parklife Festival later this year, alongside her UK dubstep comrades Magnetic Man, Nero and Example. When I ask her how she thinks an album described as so inherently British will translate to an Australian audience, she doesn’t seem worried. “I think it’s got a universal appeal to it. People in Australia love to dance, just like people in England do. I went over to Poland to play a festival recently and I was really nervous, because it was one of the first shows I’d done outside England, but they were just going mental, really full-on proper raving.”
So, how does Katy stack up as the new champion of chart-friendly British urban music? Intelligent: check. Soulful: check. Edgy: check. But crucially, is she hard-working? Or will she be sitting back and riding this unexpected success for as long as she can? “No way,” she says, resolutely. “I don’t want to be playing the same set next year as I’m playing this year. I’m gonna definitely get back in the studio as soon as I can. I can’t wait.”
What: On A Mission is out now through Sony
With: Death From Above 1979, Digitalism, Crystal Fighters, Duck Sauce, The Gossip, Flux Pavilion, Mylo, SebastiAn, Simian Mobile Disco and more
Where: Parklife 2011 @ Kippax Lake, Moore Park
When: Sunday October 2