Tea and cake with Katy B – the new queen of pirate radio and dupstep pop.


Photography by Gabriel Green


Last summer saw her first solo single, ‘Katy on a Mission’, shoot straight to number five in the charts, followed by a number four hit with ‘Lights On’, on which she collaborated with Ms Dynamite, so there’s no doubt that you’ll have heard the goods, but did you know that the young, doe-eyed Katy B is behind them? Born Kathleen Brien in Peckham, London, 21 years ago, Katy is the latest hot ticket in the underground dub-come-funky house scene and it’s nearing impossible to hit a club without hearing her tunes, but the underground is rising and filling the airwaves. The likes of club/house duos Count & Sinden, Chase & Status and Nero have been getting some serious mainstream action for several months now, taking some of the spotlight off the conveyor belt of indie.

“Everything comes in cycles, doesn’t it?” Katy states as she gently nurses a cup of lemongrass tea. Her hair is half up in rollers and she has a light brush of blue on her eyelids. We’ve interrupted a session with her make-up artist, Gemma, who she always has with her. Katy doesn’t mind our intrusion though, or at least she doesn’t show it beneath her smiling, soft demeanour. “The director who was doing my video on Wednesday was like, ‘Wow, this sounds like the stuff I was raving to 20 years ago’,” she continues, “and he said it was too soon for that to come back around, but then he was like, ‘Oh wait, it’s not. God that makes me feel old’. So I guess it’s just that time, it’s what people wanna hear. It’s refreshing because they haven’t heard it in a long time, but I’m guessing it won’t be long before another indie band resurgence comes about.”

From the age of 16 Katy knew that what she wanted to do with her life was to sing. So she began offering her vocals to anything and everything that needed it, while attending the prestigious BRIT School in south London, followed by a pop music degree at Goldsmiths University, which is famous for turning out the likes of Blur, the fast-rising post-dubstep producer James Blake and Placebo’s Brian Molko. However, before she got to university, she’d already had her first house track out (the DJ NG tune ‘Tell Me’) at 17 years old, on which she featured as ‘Baby Katy’. The track was picked up by Ministry of Sound, and then Rinse FM boss man Geeneus, who went on to produce Katy’s debut album ‘On a Mission’, which is set for release on April 4th. But taking a step back, Katy explains why she first fell underground.

“The thing that was easiest for me to do was to work with people who made music in their bedrooms,” she says, “do you know what I mean? I did more house, garage and grime tracks because that was what was available to me – that was the sound that people were making when I was that age. So, one thing led to another and it snowballed.”

Katy blushes as she tells us that she never expected to hit the mainstream market. “No, no, no, seriously, because the stuff that Rinse and Tempa have put out before – like Sweeney’s album, Benga’s album, things like that – obviously they’re big, they’ve always been massive at what they do, but it hadn’t been in the charts, so I never thought that was going to be an option. And ‘Katy On a Mission’ wasn’t an expensive video, just filming a rave basically, and it went to number five! I remember them [Geeneus and Benga] calling me up and saying, ‘I’m really sorry Katy, but I think you might be a pop star, like, tomorrow’.” She grins at us incredulously before admitting that she’s always wanted to be a successful singer, but never in the public eye. “But I can’t complain,” she shrugs, “I get to gig and sing to make my money and that is the most wicked thing, so I don’t really mind. It’s a bonus I suppose.” Although it hasn’t quite reached the stage of fans running after her for pictures and autographs in the street, she did recently get recognised by a shop assistant selling her a pair of Uggs. “This girl was talking and then half way through she was like, [here Katy gasps and rushes her words to give us a good impression of the girl in the shop] ‘I’m sorry, I just can’t hold myself together any more,’ and then she asked me twenty questions in the space of two minutes and didn’t let me answer any of them,” she laughs. “It was really weird, but I think I’m in a bit of denial that anyone might recognise me until they do, but it’s always lovely and really nice.”

By the time Rinse contacted Katy – Geneeus sent her a message over Myspace – she was already a regular in the clubs, singing with DJs. “How it was first, actually,” she describes, “was they were gonna get all the producers from Rinse to put together a compilation of unreleased stuff and they wanted someone to sing over all of it to link the tunes together – otherwise it’d just be a grime track, a drum ‘n’ bass track, and it wouldn’t really flow. But then it suddenly turned into my own thing, because it was a bit disjointed using a different producer for every single tune and we really enjoyed working together – me, Geeneus and Zinc – so it turned into my album. It’s cool, because it kinda happened naturally. It’s been a great journey.”

The journey she speaks of is one that began almost four years ago because Katy had to juggle studio time with university, the clubs and the gigs with her band, The Illersapiens, who play with her on stage now. “And you’ve got to imagine,” she starts, “Geeneus, who produced it, runs a radio station, he’s a DJ, a producer, he runs a record label, he’s a promoter, he has something like ten different jobs, so it was really hard. Sometimes it seemed like it was the bottom of priorities,” she confesses. “But actually, now has been the best time for me as I’ve finished my degree. So, even though it did take quite a while, it was good because it allowed me to progress.”

Like her singles, the album is a party record and most of the tracks on there are about going out dancing and not wanting to go home. “It’s about those years from 18 to 21, while I was doing my degree, while I was recording the album and all the issues that were going on in my life,” she explains. “So, from going out dancing, partying with my friends to love and everyday things…” She pauses here to rethink her answer for a second. Katy is one to gesticulate wildly as she talks, so it’s easy to read her emotions. “I think it is just about going out, actually,” she lights up with a chuckle. “It’s just what it’s like to be a young woman. But definitely, yeah, I was a little raver. I still am.” Smiling away, she digs into some cake before offering us some and we can see exactly why the music scene has become completely enamoured by Katy B. She’s young, rife with talent and unmarred by the ugly side of the industry.

Wiping the crumbs from her lips, Katy happily chatters on, revealing how she approaches writing music. “Because I work with a lot of producers, they usually give me templates first. I’m not one of those people who could be on the train and an idea comes. That has happened a few times, but I don’t get loads of creative, spur-of-the-moment ideas where I have to write all the time and every day. Like I said, if a producer gives me a beat, I’ll sit down in my room – I have to be in that space to focus – and it’s whatever the beat makes me feel. If it makes me feel like I wanna dance, if it makes me feel happy or frustrated or sad then that’s what I’ll write about, genuinely. But the only time I do it is when I need to, so if I do need to make an album or a song then I’ll make the time for it, but I haven’t really just genuinely written for a while. When I was younger and there was no reason to write any songs, I suppose I would do it more just for fun.” As soon as these words have left her mouth she looks shocked and blurts, “Well, I still do it for fun. Sorry,” she giggles, “I don’t want it to sound like I’m a machine or anything.”

Before she had even released her debut single, Katy was in the studio recording ‘Lights On’ with Geeneus and Zinc, and it just so happened to be at the same time that garage singer Ms Dynamite – best remembered for her 2002 ‘Dy-na-mi-tee’ single – was in he building. She overheard it, loved it and asked to be a part of it. “I was star struck,” Katy gawps. “I’m a big fan of hers and ‘A Little Deeper’ [Dynamite’s debut LP] is amazing. It was really good because that was before any hype with ‘Katy on a Mission’ so it was good to know that she genuinely liked what I was doing.” As well as Ms Dynamite, the album also features collaborations with Magnetic Man (‘Perfect Stranger’) and Benga (‘Katy on a Mission’), but Katy tells us that she would love to work with Neptunes. “I just think they’re wicked,” she clarifies. “They can turn something like Britney… come on, ‘Slave for You’ and ‘Boys’ are big tunes, whereas ‘Hit Me Baby One More Time’ isn’t necessarily a good pop song. And all their stuff with Kelis – I’m a massive Kelis fan, I worship that lady and I love all her albums, especially the first one ‘Kaleidoscope’, which they produced.”

Among her other influences, lies the likes of Destiny’s Child, Faith Evans, Mary J Blige, TLC, neo-soul like Erykah Badu and of course the sounds of pirate radio stations. “From grime like Wiley to drum ‘n’ bass, to lots of vocals on house records and garage, where you might not necessarily think ‘who is that singer?’,” Katy says, “but that kind of vocal has definitely influenced the way I write. I don’t necessarily think Crystal Waters is my favourite singer, but all of those unsung heroes.”

So, how does she feel to be recognised for something that so many people don’t get attention for?

“I don’t know,” she answers, “because before I wasn’t always a featured artist on a lot of house and garage tunes, so I feel like it’s good. I’m doing it for them, you know?” She laughs as we ask her if she’s excited about the album finally being released. “I can’t wait,” she beams. “Do you know what? I haven’t even thought about the fact that it’s going to get reviews. It just hit me this week and I just was thinking, shit, oh my God, what if someone does say it’s pissy shit? But I still listen to it now and I like it, so you can’t be nervous really, there’s no point, is there? I didn’t intend for it to be put out on such a massive scale, it was supposed to be an underground thing. We’ll just see what happens, I’m excited, yeah, definitely excited.”

Now there’s just an empty plate where the cake once was and leaves left in the bottom of our teacups, but there’s still one thing we’re dying to know, and that’s what we can expect from Katy B down the line. “The future?” she asks with a furrowed brow. “The problem with me is that I never plan for the future, I don’t even plan for tomorrow.” She gives us one last charming smile and we leave the velvety-voiced club singer, just a little bit in love.

By DK Goldstein

Originally published in issue 25 (vol 3) of Loud And Quiet. February 2011

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