Just how big does Kathleen Anne Brien want to be?
The entrance to the studios of Rinse FM, just off the courtyard of the now-defunct bar and venue 93 Feet East, is an unprepossessing affair. An unmarked door below an iron fire escape opens onto a flight of stairs, and the only giveaway that you’re somewhere with any cultural relevance is the occasional old poster for a club night or a compilation CD curated by the station, blue-tacked to the wall. For all Rinse’s colossal musical influence in the past 15 years, and growing success since going legal in 2010, there isn’t even a sign above the door; as radio station record labels go – and not just ones that have played pivotal parts in steering the passage of British electronic music since grime crawled out of jungle in the late ’90s – it’s not one to show off.
At the top of the stairs is a non-descript room that feels more like the ever-changing council flats that the station used to call home than the beating heart of hipster East London. From a studio next door comes the muffled sound of a track being mixed: a low-level thump throbs along the floorboards, sporadically stopping and restarting; every now and then, the door cracks ajar just enough for the rest of the tune above it to jump out. It’s the only remarkable thing about the entire scene, and that detail makes Rinse’s message clear: like so many pioneering musical forces before them, their only concern is for the music, maaan – and the pop-star accoutrements of style and champagne, commercial adoration and Scrooge McDuck swimming pools can go hang.
All of which makes Rinse’s most successful charge, Kathleen Anne Brien – known to everyone but her mum as Katy B – such a curious prospect. Tonight, fresh from the adjacent session and dressed in jeans, printed sweater and some high-tops, she cuts a figure in keeping with her employers’ aesthetic. But alongside that, Brien is also a bona fide pop star, with top-ten singles, a face that gets stopped in the street and a performance CV that lists Radio 1’s Big Weekend and countless national TV slots. A pop svengali’s dream, she’s happy singing over other people’s songs, collaborating with behind-the-scenes songwriters, coming up with killer pop hooks and doing it all in front of screaming 14-year-olds. Not for Brien the noble struggle against the artistically corrupt mainstream, or desperate drive to make wilfully odd music: Katy B is the BRIT School-educated singer who cites Destiny’s Child more readily than Diplo, and makes no apology for it. “I listen to Radio 1, who like to play songs,” she says, emphasising the last word. “And I love songs. I’m not trying to make really serious, leftfield music – like I’ve said before, I’m a massive Justin Timberlake fan, and I love R’n’B. Pop music is a massive part of me anyway – it never wasn’t. It was always going to be half of my influences.”
But it’s the other half of Brien’s influences that intrigues: here’s a singer who began her performance life as a funky house hype girl, singing over tunes on pirate radio and in dark, underground clubs, a world away from the Mickey Mouse Club production line or the micromanagement of Simon Cowell. For all her love of chart pop, you get the impression that if you cut Brien, she’d bleed dubstep, UK garage and house: she talks with breathless enthusiasm about her formative experiences in the London club scene over the last eight or so years, and comes across as both an authority and wit on everything dance music – from the splintering of genres to the dancing itself: “early dubstep was very sparse, very masculine… proper sausage dancing,” she observes with a nostalgic chuckle. “And all these girls at funky nights would be dressed up in these tiny little skirts and amazing heels and would be dancing – skanking! – hard!” From a certain angle, her pop chops seem like a distant pinprick.