Saturday 10 December 2016

Soul sister

She’s been hailed as the queen of dubstep, but Katy B doesn’t see herself as a woman in a man’s world, she tells Ailbhe Malone - she’s just doing her thing and seeing where it takes her

Ailbhe Malone

Published 01/04/2011 | 05:00

Soul sister Katy B is determined to plough her own furrow
Soul sister Katy B is determined to plough her own furrow

Sitting in the reception room of recently legal radio station Rinse FM, Katy B is wearing a pair of box-fresh Reeboks, jeans and a fluffy pink jumper.

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Her auburn hair falls softly to her shoulders and her make-up is fresh-faced, save a cat-eye flick on each eyelid. Her producer -- Geeneus -- perches on top of a table next to her. Over their shoulders, a group of DJs are live in the Rinse studio, recording a marathon show. Rinse is the cosy heart of the London underground -- in the corridor is Katy's mountain bike and along the hall are the studios where she recorded her debut album, Katy on a Mission.

Fresh off a nationwide support slot with Tinie Tempah, 21-year-old Katy -- real name Kathleen Brien -- holds court. Lounging on a leather sofa, she gestures around her, "I find myself at Rinse nearly every day of the week, even though I don't work here. It wasn't always like this, but it's better now that everything's in the same building. The radio's there, and the office is past us, and there's the studio where I recorded everything.

"It was Rinse's idea to release an album, actually. The whole reason I got involved with Rinse was that they wanted to do a disc where they'd get all the DJs from the station to make a compilation album with loads of original material. But because it was all kinds of different genres, and it was all over the place, they wanted someone to sing over it. But then that was kind of disjointed, so over time it just turned into my own thing."

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Asides from being a BRIT school alumni, she is also a modest multi-instrumentalist ("I can play the piano, the French horn, and the recorder. And steel drums. I tried to learn violin, but my friend snapped the bow once when she was messing around. I played French horn at my secondary school, and when I left there it was like three grand to buy a horn!') and subsequently a graduate of Goldsmith University's degree in Popular Music.

"It was so difficult," she explains. "Pop music is such a massive part of our culture. My tutors had written books on Bob Dylan. How genres are created is so interesting -- I did an essay on funky house, because you could pick any genre and that was what related to me, finding out how a certain type of music is created is fascinating. At Goldsmith's, they work on who you want to be as an artist and where you come from and so on. So it was really helpful really."

Katy is probably best known for being the vocalist with dubstep supergroup Magnetic Man (comprised of Skream, Benga and Artwork). Her soulful and straightforward voice follows in the grand tradition of Shara Nelson (Unfinished Sympathy) -- pure emotion cutting across the bass beats. Katy's got an uncanny knack for distilling a lyric down to its core -- her current single Broken Record sings of a dysfunctional relationship, its refrain "and I know that we make our mistakes/But you're holding every breath I take".

Simplicity is what she aims for, Katy explains. "I love soul music. I remember when we were going around all the labels, one of the bargaining things was 'can you let me into your stockroom to nick all your CDs!' I love labels like Stax, and old soul. I feel like soul music is wicked, because you can tell when you hear a soul singer that it's coming straight from their heart. That's what I like.

"There's no holding back. And it's not pretentious or too complicated. It's real and it's raw. What I love when I hear music is that either it's got a beat and it uplifts me and I want to dance to it, or the other stuff that I appreciate is stuff where someone can express what they feel. And you feel like you're not the only person in the world that's going through this stuff. I love it. And even, like, Lily Allen, she does stuff like that. That's what I want in a lyric. Something that's to the point -- but not obvious, like 'I love you baby/we'll be happy forever'."

It's at this point that Geeneus, who has been quietly playing on his iPhone, posits that: "I've been thinking about this a bit, because people always ask if she's the queen of dubstep or whatever, I think that what you are is the representation of a normal person. It's not a manufactured thing."

Enthusiastically, Katy agrees. "Yeah, I'm not this eccentric nutter who shaves her head or something. I still wake up in the morning and ride my mountain bike to the office. I guess the album was written from when I was 18 to 21, so it was just three years of going out, being with friends, having that point where you get your independence.

"I wouldn't say that I'm flying the flag for young people in London -- I'm sure there are loads of people saying 'Oh, she's nothing like me'. But I think I've got a very London sound. It's music that's inspired by genres that have come out of the UK underground, so yeah -- it's a London sound. Mind you, I don't know if I'd dance to my own song in a club. It depends on how drunk I am! I love hearing it in a club, seeing it get people excited -- that's one of the best feelings ever. That's why it's wicked doing club music. But I don't know if I feel like I'm the voice of the youth. The stuff I'm writing about is, I guess, what young people do."

Despite Geeneus' observations, Katy has indeed received the dubious title of 'queen of dubstep'. As one of the few prominent females in a mainly male scene, she gets tired of being singled out by the press, she explains diplomatically.

"People mainly see it as a dubstep thing, but the other genres that have come from the underground-- I don't see myself as a female, flying the flag for females in the scene. I just see myself as a person doing their thing -- the same as Geeneus or Benga. I mean, maybe more females can relate to what I'm singing about. I come from more of a funky house background -- if you go to a funky rave, you'll see that it's mostly girls there, in their dresses and their high-heeled shoes. It's very feminine."

Only one question remains. With an album entitled Katy on a Mission, does she have an overwhelming masterplan? Are the next few years mapped out already?

Bemusedly, she admits: "I don't have a masterplan at all. I am thinking about it, but you never know what the future holds. I didn't think that my album would cross over on this kind of scale in the first place, so I'm just kind of excited about what the future holds, rather than trying to plan it.

"I was speaking to someone in New Zealand the other day, and he was saying that my song was one of the highest played there. It's mad to think that the furthest away country in the entire world likes my stuff. It's wicked! I feel flattered that people are liking it, but I don't feel any pressure. At the end of the day you can only do what you do to the best of your ability."

Katy on a Mission is out now on Columbia Records

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