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One of the most refreshing quotes about dance music I’ve read in years was Katy B’s comment about dubstep, and whether dubstep is what she makes. She curtly said: “I don’t care”. And why should she? She’s a great singer that makes perfect, tense, exuberant music that gets played on the radio about the moments of abandon, sex, danger and boredom of the night. But it’s the active refusal to be bothered with such small things as genres that impresses me. Interestingly, much of her life has been spent studying pop music, from the BRIT School to the Red Bull Music Academy to Goldsmiths’ music course.
A Peckham girl, born and bred, Katy went to the BRIT finishing school for popstars during the day and frequented FWD at night; studying pop at Goldsmiths, and recording with Rinse FM director Geeneus all the while. What makes her music so thrilling is the way she poses these pop opposites – overground/underground, academic/instinctive, dance/pop, manufactured/authentic – and casts their dull dictates off like she’s skimming a club flyer, mid-stride, behind her. She is smart, way smarter than people give her credit, and her music – from the drastic rush of Katy On A Mission, to the woozy surge of Lights On to the tense drag of Easy Please Me – are pitch-perfect songs of control and power. She’s spent long enough learning about pop to know that the secret is guts and honesty and not caring about anything else but the tune. Because there are so many more desirous places to go than where you’re from, among them the loud, dark rooms we go to with friends, rooms full of threat and sex, great music and long queues, strangers you fancy.
Earlier this year I popped down to interview Katy B at the Rinse studios on Brick Lane. The location is still hidden but the layout doesn’t look much like the council blocks of old, with a reception that feels more like a staff room at a decent comp than the beating heart of the British underground. After a wait, I went through to a sound room, where Katy was curled up on the sofa, half prima donna-at-rest, half slouchy teenager. In conversation, Katy’s direct, open and as quick to laugh as she is to show disapproval as she is to digress.
I really like the record.
Thanks. Um, which one?
The album! Do you like it?
It’s great! Yeah, I’m happy with it.
Can you tell me something about the recording of it?
Well, I signed to Rinse when I was 18, three years ago. The original idea was to do an album with me singing over the top of beats by all the DJs who also produce at the station [gestures to the studio next door] – kind of like a “Rinse Allstars Presents”, with my vocals there to link it together. But then we realised that me, Geeneus and Zinc work so well together that it needed to be a full album, and so we worked on it last year at the Rinse studio upstairs.
I was curious about how the roles broke down with you, Geeneus and Zinc.
It was pretty straightforward, really. We all get on really, really well on a musical level – they are those people you can just fire ideas off and you feel really comfortable with, and know your strengths and weaknesses. How the process broke down was that they’d make the beat, and give it to me to do a vocal on the top, but it wasn’t as clinical as that sounds – there would be total input all the way, like “Speed it up!” or “Why not whisper that bit?”
You went to BRIT School and studied music at Goldsmiths. How did those experiences shape you as a musician?
BRIT was amazing. Just being around so many people, all into music, where that’s the default. It’s such an inspiring place, where people are making their own demos and you think, “I should make my own demo!” And the school shows were amazing – we once did the Beatles’ ‘Sgt Peppers …’ and ‘The White Album’ back-to-back, using all the instruments and the backing vocals and everything. Goldsmiths was great too, and it was good to go straight into more music instead of getting a part-time job. I wish, sometimes, that I could have concentrated a bit more on it though – I was doing all this at the same time, and that was a real distraction.
You mention that Geeneus and Zinc understood your strengths and weaknesses. What do you think they are?
That’s so funny – when I was at Goldsmiths, we had to all sit round in a circle like some AA meeting and talk about what we did well and what we did badly. Strengths – I’d say songwriting, definitely. And weaknesses? I’m very disorganised, which gets me into a lot of trouble.
One of the things that fascinates me about ‘On A Mission’ is the way that all these really people with underground pedigree like yourself, Benga and Geeneus all got together to make this perfect, pure pop record with zero hangups. Would you agree?
Yes. I mean, I didn’t grew up listening to grime as soon as I left my mother’s stomach – the music I grew up listening to and loving was pop music. Destiny’s Child, Beyonce, stuff like that is what I loved, so it wasn’t strange at all for me to make pop, and when I was growing up, daydreaming what I’d grow up to be, it was always a successful pop singer! I mean, I do love this music [gestures around the studio] but it’s what’s about, it’s what people around me are making.
That’s interesting. So, it’s less of a tribal affiliation, more that this is what pop music is here and now?
[Said with certainty] Yes. Exactly.
You signed to Rinse when you were 18, and actually came out with As I and Tell Me in 2009, but your first singles proper went top five last year and you’re releasing your album now. What’s changed since then?
I’m just busier. Just busier. It’s not like I’m now hanging out with Kate Moss or doing coke off someone’s back or anything. I’m just really busy. [Pauses] I never expected to do so well, at all – On A Mission and Lights On were written as club tracks, and I never thought that they’d do anything outside that world.
Yeah! Maybe I’m in denial. [Laughs] In denial about being a popstar. My manager phoned me when Light On came out and before saying anything else was like “Katy, I don’t know how to tell you this, but I think you’re a popstar.”