Awakened by the Sound of the Morning – the Katy J Pearson interview

Katy J Pearson is powering her way through what’s shaping up to be a huge summer for her, promoting new album Sound of the Morning, out now via Heavenly Recordings.

Having already delivered a string of well received record shop live dates, prestigious support slots and festival appearances – including her latest Glastonbury performances – this talented Gloucestershire singer-songwriter also has headline tours lined up in the UK and mainland Europe.

You may have seen her perform the cracking ‘Talk Over Town’ and rousing ‘Float’ on BBC 2’s Later…with Jools Holland in mid-June, and since then caught the promo video for ‘Alligator’, the latest single from a winning second LP released last Friday, including cameos from Paul McGann, reprising a somewhat familiar character from Withnail & I, and Tom Gould, of the band Pottery.

There was Sea Change in Totnes, Wide Awake in London, France’s Art Rock in St Brieuc, and Kite in Oxford on the lead-up to Glastonbury, and then a night guesting with First Aid Kit at the Lloyd’s Amphitheatre in her adopted home city, Bristol.

Written and recorded in late 2021 and available now in download, CD, regular and limited purple and clear vinyl LP formats, the new album was co-produced by Ali Chant (Yard Act), who was also at the helm for her debut, Return, and Speedy Wunderground’s Dan Carey (Fontaines DC).

Her previous album, released in November 2020, garnered plenty of critical acclaim too, Katy selling out shows up and down the UK and praised for ‘the arresting quality of [her] Kate Bush-meets-Dolly Parton vocal delivery’ by The Times, the single ‘Take Back the Radio’ described as ‘a whoop of pure joy’ amidst the bleak toll of lockdown in The Guardian.

Something certainly resonated, and Katy has already proved she can dip her toes into a multitude of genres, not least through guest slots on Orlando Weeks’ Hop Up LP and collaborations with Yard Act and trad-folk collective Broadside Hacks.

As for the follow-up, as her label put it, ‘It’s still Katy J Pearson (read: effortlessly charming, full of heart and helmed by that inimitable vocal), but it’s Katy J Pearson pushing herself musically and lyrically into new waters.’ 

On the new record she’s increasingly ploughing darker furrows, albeit with plenty of light within, Katy ‘taking the listener’s hand and guiding them through the good and the bad, like the musical equivalent of an arm around the shoulder.’ And as she added, ‘I want people to feel things with my music, but I don’t want to cause my listener too much trauma. Counselling is expensive, so you’ve got to pick your battles.’

She’d already put in a solo in-store lunchtime slot at London’s Third Man Records and appeared on James Endeacott’s Morning Glory for Soho Radio on the day we spoke, and was getting set for a full band show that night at the Fighting Cocks in Kingston. And the pace of that full-on itinerary continues for the rest of the year, it seems, her in-store agenda continuing from there with a mix of lunchtime and evening visits to Rough Trade, Bristol; Pie & Vinyl, Southsea; Resident, Brighton; Rough Trade, Nottingham; Jumbo, Leeds; Rough Trade East, London; and Friendly Records back in Bristol, the size of her band seemingly alternating throughout, presumably dependent on floor space.

“I feel like now’s when everything kind of starts kicking off. But it’s kind of nice, because last time {for the first LP} it was just me in my room doing all my promo through Zoom, then celebrating the record coming out with a Zoom party!”

How was your 2022 Glastonbury Festival experience (three years after her last appearance)?

“That was amazing. We did the Park Stage on Saturday, the Croissant Neuf stage, the Greenpeace stage … I also sang with Orlando Weeks, so did four gigs there then we drove back to Bristol on Sunday and supported First Aid Kit. Then I came back on Monday and went to Gatwick to go on holiday to Greece, getting back from Crete last night, straight into London.”

And beyond September’s UK tour, you’re off to mainland Europe.

“Exactly. I think I have a week or so off at the end of October, then I’m doing a European headline tour, with Pavement dates around it. I’m really excited though. It’s gonna be a big old hustle.”

My youngest daughter is certainly looking forward to seeing you at the Cornish Bank in Falmouth.

“Ah, I’m really excited about that show. A lot of my friends have played there and said such good things. It looks beautiful, it’s by the sea, and should still be quite warm when we play there, so I might have a little dip.”

It has to be done. And you’re a bit of a swimmer, aren’t you?

“I love it, yeah. I’m a seasoned swimmer!”

And when you’re not up and down the country and overseas, Bristol’s your home from home these days?

“Yeah, I moved there five years ago, and I’m going back tomorrow for the night then back on tour for the in-store dates. It’s a wonderful city to live in. I’m from about 45 minutes from there, but my parents are moving to Devon, so I’ll be able to jump on a train to Totnes and see them down there.”

The new LP’s getting better and better with every listen, and one of your many strengths for me is how you seem to confound expectations of what you might be about. You’re not so easy to categorise and put a label on.

“Ah, thank you. That is definitely the aim!”

Take for example the all-encompassing new day hug of opening track – and title track – ‘Sound of the Morning’, where I’m transported back – it’s probably Molly Shields’ flute that does it – to Nick Drake.

“Ah, the pastoral vibe, yeah. Haha!”

And who’s that with you, vocally, on ‘Sound of the Morning’?

“That’s Samantha Crain … who I love.”

There’s a bit of a Sandy Denny or even Merry Clayton thing going on there. Gorgeous, and your voices blend so well.

“Yes, she’s got a wild vibrato! It’s like, ‘whoah!’ I reached out to her and she happily obliged. She’s amazing, and her new record is really good.”

Recommendation lodged. And you go that way with soothing mid-point number, ‘The Hour’ too. Is that folk roots feel within you? Is that where you started out before heading for a full band sound?

“It’s interesting you say that because for ages I was kind of jumping around about what I would define my genre as. But if I really think about what I was listening to as I was growing up, it was very folk-orientated. And I kind of forget to kind of mention that and every time I see the word folk. I get a bit annoyed, thinking of Three Daft Monkeys playing at Wychwood Folk Festival, kind of gypsy folk and party folk. When, actually, folk is such a broad term that I can accept I’m in that realm.

“When I was growing up, I was into a lot of James Taylor and a lot of that Crosby, Stills and Nash era Americana folk-rock. And recently, I’ve listened to a lot of Vashti Bunyan. I’ve just read her memoir, and she says she doesn’t like to be referred to as folk … but there is a side of her that is. So in that kind of realm, I’m happy to be defined as that.”

You must also get plenty of Stevie Nicks comparisons, on account of that gorgeous voice. But there’s far more to you than that.

“Oh, all the time! Which I’m so flattered by, but I feel hopefully over time I can carve away from that comparison. Because she’s so great in her own right and I don’t want to feel like a reincarnation of her. I’m me!”

Someone else that springs to mind for me is Maria McKee, albeit more in Lone Justice days or on her first solo record. And as the writer of Feargal Sharkey’s big hit, ‘A Good Heart’, she clearly has pop pedigree, something else you share.

“I do feel it’s such a mixture of things. I can slide into the folk element and also really enjoy writing pop songs. And that’s where, when I first started taking it seriously with my old band, my label at the time wanted me to go and I kind of went with. Then I realised the real fine pop wasn’t for me, but I think I managed to find a happy medium between it all.”

While she says ‘band’, Katy started out alongside twin brother Rob – who remains integral to her current set-up – in ‘melancholic pop duo’ Ardyn, starting out as Kitten and Bear, this coming-of-age outfit’s first EP landing in 2015 via London indie label National Anthem.

And if you were in any doubt as to her crossover pedigree, look no further that ‘Talk Over Town’ – described as a track that attempts to make sense of her recent experiences, of ‘being Katy from Gloucester, but then being Katy J Pearson who’s this buzzy new artist’, and a contender for single of the year for this scribe.

“Ah, thank you! I like that song a lot. Although with that, I can’t remember even when that was conceived. I know I wrote it last year sometime, but …”

Towards the end, and this didn’t really come over when I saw you on Later … with Jools, when the backing vocals come in there’s almost a Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood vibe, deep in the mix. Maybe that’s a future direction for you.

“Ha! I wouldn’t have a problem with going in that direction. I wouldn’t mind writing something like ‘Summer Wine’. Such a banger!”

You’re on a cool label too, Heavenly Recordings, alongside the likes of Amsterdam’s Pip Blom. In fact, I hear a few similarities in delivery on a couple of the new songs.

“Yeah, she’s fantastic. She writes some really good kind of like grunge-rock pop songs.”

Then there’s Cardiff’s Cornish and Welsh speaking inspiration, Gwenno, on the label too.

“Ah, I love Gwenno’s new record – it’s amazing. I’ve been listening to it loads this past week. I’ve really warmed to it and I think it’s a really nice mixture of songs, with the production so tasteful.”

Talking of influential female acts, not least following her recent resurgence with the use of ‘Running Up That Hill’ on Stranger Things, I certainly hear Kate Bush in your work too.

“Oh, I remember hearing Kate Bush for the first time, my Dad showing me her when I was 14 or 15. I’d just come out of my pop vibes, having listened to a lot of Taylor Swift, a lot of Stacie Orrico, trying to work out who I was. I’d listen to her constantly on the CD player in my room. Then my Dad kind of realised I was growing up a bit and my tastes were broadening. I remember discovering Bombay Bicycle Club, The Maccabees, then finding Kate Bush, being like, ‘Oh my God, that’s what I want to be like!’”

I suppose in a way that takes me back to the Stevie Nicks comparisons, because I was surprised when I heard first you had Stroud, Gloucestershire links. I felt you had more of a US Eastern Seaboard sound.

“Yeah, a bit of a twang lingering! I remember when I was 15 or 16, being obsessed with Joanna Newsom, and kind of replicating her voice. And it kind of ended up where my parents were like, ‘You’re sounding a bit too … I think you should tone it down a bit. And I was like, fair enough.”

Who suggested you got Paul McGann involved for the ’Alligator’ video?

“That was my suggestion. Dad brought me and my brothers up on a lot of Mike Leigh films and the like, and in that similar kind of humour zone we’d watch Withnail and I almost religiously, my brother obsessed with it too. And when I played a show in Bristol for the War Child charity, Paul McGann was compering, and I freaked out, being such a fan girl!

“Then I met him just before going on stage, and after the show we had a little chat. I’d just read he lives in Bristol, and – now with his email address and number – thought I’d see if he wants to be in a video. He got back straight away, said yeah, came down, and was such a legend.

“We asked him to reprise his Withnail character, got him the jacket and glasses. Seeing him put on the glasses, look in the mirror, he was like, ‘I’m freaked out’. I was too! It was Withnail! And my brother snuck on the set and was following him around like a dutiful Labrador. But I was so shocked by that, the fact that I can watch the video and I’m like, ‘It’s Paul McGann!’.”

Regarding the song itself (another which I reckon gets better with every listen), written with Dan Carey at his studio in Streatham, South West London, Katy said it was inspired by her ‘worst morning ever’, Katy stressed after a £500 electric bill landed, in tears at the studio, the song soon surfacing, ‘born from the idea of dissociation when experiencing anxiety’ but wrapped up in a euphoric chorus, video director Edie Lawrence working on its themes of paranoia, anxiety and intrusive thoughts.

Mind you, as I put it to her, for me it’s somewhere between The Ting Tings and Sheryl Crow.

“Ha! I like that comparison! That’s a good one.”

The new album is teeming with quality, from the more reflective ‘The Riverbed’ (whisper it, there’s a Fleetwood Mac quality there too) to the ‘Wow’ factor, Kate Bush style, of the intricate, ‘80s synth-underpinned (with some glorious brass seeping through, but never over-played) ‘Howl’, Orlando Weeks repaying the favour of her contribution to his record with a vocal guest spot.

And I get the impression these songs are very personal to you, not least on ‘Confession’, where it seems Kim Wilde and Lene Lovich have sneaked into the studio to complement your Bush craft this time.

“I really felt that just the process of doing this, doing music and releasing the first record, gave me the self-confidence to be more outspoken. When you’re starting out, you kind of make sure you don’t speak out about things because you’re feeling it’s early days, but I think now I’m cementing myself more, I feel l have more of a platform, it feels right to be more open about my experiences in music as a woman and represent experiences for many women.

“When I wrote, ‘It was a very long time ago …’ the lyric represented for me when people are drunk at a party or confiding in someone, telling you something really traumatic but downplaying it, saying, ‘Oh, it was ages ago, it’s old news.’

“I think that’s such a representative thing of how the #MeToo thing spread across the film industry … but completely blindsided the music industry. There’s this weird kind of boundary in place, and I still don’t feel fully comfortable to rap out anyone. It’s not something I feel comfortable doing, but that song is a start in my way of trying to connect with other women who have similar experiences.”

Then there’s the afore-mentioned, multi-layered, bob-to-the-top ‘Float’, penned with long-time pal Oliver Wilde of Pet Shimmers. On my first listen, playing it quite loud, I told Katy that when that spoken voice came in towards the end, that discombobulated ‘float’ …

“That’s me! I was singing into this microphone that made it sound like it was on the radio, it was kind of like a megaphone that mimics a radio …”

… Well, I was getting immersed, and when I heard that I thought for a moment someone had walked into my house and was talking to me. You made me jump.

“Ha!”

As we head towards the finish line, the more straight-forward pop hook of ‘Game of Cards’, an earlier single, is followed by the glorious slow-build of ‘Storm to Pass’, which I feel carries an Emmylou Harris with Daniel Lanois vibe, the late roll-out of the brass taking it further into bright new morning territory, kind of where we started on track one. In fact, I could almost hear Kate Rusby (another Kate … they’re everywhere) or The Unthanks reinterpreting that. Maybe it’s the horns.

“Ah, I love The Unthanks! I think it felt like it needed to go somewhere ethereal. It kind of reminds me of a mournful Salvation Army band.”

I could certainly hear it tackled at a Christmas concert by one or other of those artists. As for the final track, that driving, motoric drum intro gives rise to a sumptuous, never too brash cover of ‘Willow’s Song’, which totally caught me out first time … in a good way. Is that a song you’ve known a long time?

“Not particularly. It’s a song I discovered about two years ago through Dad. Then I watched The Wicker Man when I had Covid, and loved it, and all the songs are amazing.”

It made me go back and read up again on that soundtrack, reminding myself about the band Magnet, and composer Paul Giovanni.

“It’s extraordinary, isn’t it. And I would love … one of my ideas is to kind of rework The Wicker Man soundtrack in a more contemporary way, maybe do one of those albums where contemporary artists cover each song. And I love that song.”

The original is sensuous and out there, of course (be still my beating heart), but you’ve made it yours, in a sense, quite an achievement in itself.

“I think I wanted to do that, and I remember when we finished tracking it, I was like, ‘Oh God, I hope there’s not a similar kraut-rock punk version! And luckily, I listened back and so many people have covered it, but not like that!”

I hadn’t realised until today how many cover versions there were … but yours is rather different.

“Yes, so I’m relieved that I didn’t cover it in such a kind of a cautious manner, I guess. And no offence to anyone else, but I’ve put some new clothes on it!”

You certainly have. Some might say that’s not Britt-ish, or what Ekland expects. As for your live set-up, what can we expect, line-up wise, on this tour?

“The main line-up is drums, bass, keys, lead guitar, three vocals, then we have trumpet. And for some shows we also have saxophone and flute, and another extra female vocal. So sometimes there’s eight of us, sometimes there’s five, sometimes six …”

Meanwhile, my mention of her Cornish Bank date led her to tell me she contemplated studying in Falmouth after art college on her old patch in Stroud … but then her music career took over.

“It was either go to university to do art … or take this record deal with a major label.”

Fate, I guess. And I think you’ve got the best of those two appealing worlds now, your artistic flair truly explored, coming out in your music.

“Yeah, exactly. And I’m very heavily involved with that, so I feel I’ve got a nice balance.”

Katy is next set to appear at the Bluedot Festival at Jodrell Bank, near Macclesfield (July 22nd), Latitude, Southwold (July 23rd) and Deer Shed, Thirsk (July 29th); Winterthurer Musilfestwochen, Switzerland (August 10th), Green Man, Crickhowell (August 19th), and Beautiful Days, Ottery St Mary, Devon (August 21st).

Then come her September tour dates at Trinity, Bristol (8th); Cornish Bank, Falmouth (9th); Cavern, Exeter (10th); Joiners, Southampton (11th); Chalk, Brighton (13th); Olby’s, Margate (14th); Electric Ballroom, Camden, London (15th); Brudenell Social Club, Leeds (17th); The Cluny, Newcastle (18th); Voodoo Rooms, Edinburgh (20th); Mono, Glasgow (21st); Gorilla, Manchester (22nd); Float Along, Sheffield (24th); Rescue Rooms, Nottingham (25th); Clwb Ifor Bach, Cardiff (27th); Hare & Hounds, Birmingham (28th), and The Bullingdon, Oxford (30th).

For tickets head to www.seetickets.com, for details on the LP, check out Katy’s Bandcamp page here, and for more about Katy, you can head to her Heavenly Recordings page. You can also keep in touch via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via https://www.facebook.com/writewyattuk/ and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
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