Katy B is not a pop star. At least, that's not the impression she leaves: instead it feels like speaking with a charming but ordinary young woman who enjoys singing and going clubbing with her friends. It's just that she happens to have an album, “On A Mission” (Rinse, 2011), that has peaked at number two in the UK charts, as well as a trio of singles ( “Katy On A Mission”, “Lights On” and “Broken Record”) charting at numbers four, five and eight respectively. Some have made a point out of her education at the same performing arts academy that turned out Adele and Jessie J, two of British pop's notable successes in the past few years. Really though, this piece of trivia isn't especially representative of her background or her music.
More telling is the backing she has from the team, more or less, behind Rinse FM's reputation as the world's most forward thinking pirate radio station. Coinciding with its graduation into legal broadcasting last year, Rinse and a number of its DJs have begun to use their knowledge of the underground to break into the mainstream. Skream, Benga and Artwork prepared the way with their collaborative album as Magnetic Man, swelling the bombastic tendencies in their brand of dubstep to stadium-filler size. It's no coincidence that their biggest hit to date, “Perfect Stranger”, features Katy's vocals. They combine again on parts of her album, with the majority overseen by Geeneus, the station's founder, and former drum 'n' bass producer Zinc. The resulting synergy of UK funky, house and dubstep with gutsy, girl-next-door songwriting has exceeded expectations further. Partly in response to its success, no doubt, in May the Guardian newspaper even placed Geeneus at 35 in their survey of the music industry's most powerful figures.
Thanks to the British charts' long standing dalliance with club culture, most waves of dance music have carried a few enterprising individuals to the top. Ms Dynamite for instance (who contributes vocals to “Lights On”) is arguably a close forebear. Like her in the days of the 2step garage boom, Katy imbues form and personality into a potential that's otherwise relatively amorphous and anonymous. She's good at this perhaps because she aims just over the heads of the wider public: her music sounds at heart like that of an insider, made in the first place for other ravers. Glimpses of the nightlife offered in her lyrics and her sound, however, have proved seductive enough to entice sleepier members of the populace.
As she finishes her current UK tour - in time for two appearances at Sonar on 17th June - it seemed like a good time to track her down on the road for a few questions. When you were growing up, what was some of the music that impressed you? What was usually playing in the house?
I was into anything from the Spice Girls to Elvis, who I had an obsession with, Michael Jackson and “Westside Story”. My mum's music collection is really random, anything from Abba to the Pet Shop Boys to Joan Armatrading to Dolly Parton. But my dad is really into blues and soul and Motown - a lot of singing music, a lot of stuff with harmonies in it, like the Four Tops, and the Beach Boys as well.
Can you remember when you first wanted to sing?
When I was younger I think I sang all the time, but when they're a little girl I think everyone does. When I got to 11 or 12 I started playing the piano and writing songs.
Going forward a number of years, how did you first fall in with the people at Rinse FM?
I'd done a couple of tunes that were getting played on pirate radio just through people I knew from my area. I made a tune “I Try” [credited to Jelly Jams] with one of the DJs on Rinse, Geeneus, because he heard my voice and was looking for a singer to work with. They had this idea where they wanted to get all of the DJs on Rinse to put together a compilation album of original material and then get a singer to sing over all of the tunes. Because it would be different genres they needed something to link all of the songs together, so that's where I came in. Over time it sort of turned into my own album.
What's your approach to lyric writing? It sounds like it's usually a real life experience that sparks the idea behind a song.
Oh, definitely, and also whatever the emotion of the tune is like. “Lights On” has kind of a happy vibe to it and it makes me want to dance, so I thought, let me write about dancing. I remember when I wrote it, the weekend before I was actually in a club when the lights came on. The MC was like, “Big up anyone still raving with the lights on.” And I was thinking, why hasn't anyone written a song about this? “Katy On A Mission”, when I heard it I just thought, this sounds like a bit of a club banger. And so I thought, how do I feel when I hear a club banger? I just closed my eyes and put myself in that moment when I'm on a dancefloor, drawing on my past experiences and trying to describe them in the song.
Do you have clubs that are favourite places of yours?
Yeah, definitely. When I was writing this album there were a few different clubs that I was going to a lot. Obviously I have to mention FWD [Rinse FM's sister night] which I used to go to all the time. When I first started working with Rinse I think I was like 17 or 18. Some of my friends had already been and were trying to get me to go. And Rinse were like, “Come down for free,” so my popularity went up with my friends! I used to bring my mates out every week. I'd get there kind of early because I had work the next day, then get the night bus home. It was so long but it was great. I didn't really have any money really because I was 18 at the time, so I couldn't really even afford a drink. It was like four pounds for a beer so I was dancing completely sober in that little room feeling the music with that wicked soundsystem and it was brilliant. And I remember at the time I was going to a lot of funky things as well: E3 in Mile End, and also Fridge in Brixton and Plan B. They used to have a funky thing on a Sunday in the basement, so I'd go out clubbing in Brixton on Sunday. I had a good time in those years.
As a woman, what did you think about the balance of genders? Was it ever an issue for you?
It depends. I guess if you look at the underground as a whole there definitely are girls - if you look at the funky thing there's loads of girls that go, and in the house scene too. In dubstep and drum 'n' bass there definitely are a few more boys, but a lot of my friends and I would go out in a big group of like six girls to dubstep things. Or a drum 'n' bass thing or whatever. So I feel all right about it. There's enough girls to keep me company.
It must feel like an achievement, having a number 2 album and top 5 and top 10 singles. Did you ever expect that to happen?
Definitely not. It was really weird, because when I first started working with Rinse I thought this album was going to be released on a much smaller scale. The albums they've released like Skream and Benga, they are such massive albums, and they were such a big deal to me when I was listening to that music. People would be queuing round the block at all the raves that any dubstep DJs were playing at. But the thing is, it wasn't ever in the charts. So I never imagined it to be there, if you know what I mean. When I was writing it I had more the clubs in mind than the charts. And then when we released “On A Mission” it was really weird, it just sort of a had a life of its own.
Are you quite cutting edge in a way, because you're bringing something to the charts and to daytime radio that hasn't really been tried there before, and you're writing songs to it?
I don't know. People are always like, “You're the only one doing this music.” But actually there are so many other girls that are doing the same thing as me. I could list off so many names, like Shea Soul, Clearasoul, Fatima, Ny. The list goes. So it's strange.
Do you find Ms Dynamite is someone you can look up to, as she has perhaps done something equivalent in the past?
Yeah, definitely. When they said she was going to come on the “Lights On” track I was like, oh my god. This was before “Katy On a Mission” came out or anything, before any hype. So it meant a lot that she wanted to come onto the track. And there was no big label fee like, “We'll pay you forty grand to come on the tune,” or anything like that. It was really nice to meet her as well, because when she's on stage and stuff she's so energetic and like, strong. I mean, she is a strong woman. She seems so confident and I thought I'd be really intimidated by her. But she's so sweet and so lovely that when we went into the studio I just felt relaxed instantly. It was really nice to have her around as well because I guess lot of the people I hang around with are DJs and producers so it was really cool to have another female there.
Do you think you'd have been able to do this album and succeed as well a couple of years ago? Or do you have a sense that it has been made possible by the moment we're having now?
I think it is to do with the moment, exactly. When Jelly Jams came out we sold like 100 copies but we still carried on doing it because we loved it. It's been great timing because I finished university, finished my degree, and then “Katy On A Mission” came out straight away. So it was great that I had something to do and I wasn't unemployed! And then Rinse FM got a license at that point, and Magnetic Man's album came out, so it was like everything just happened. It came together, but really naturally. It wasn't planned. I think was a right place, right time kind of vibe.
What's the format now for your live shows? Who do you have on stage with you?
On my live shows it's a full live band, really. I've got a lot of friends who are drummers or guitarists and things like that, so I feel really comfortable playing with bands. I feel more comfortable than being on my own. So I was like, can we get a horn section, can we get backing singers, can we get everything? I've got trumpet and saxophone, I've got drums, and synths and bass. And the MC as well to help me hype up the crowd. “Hard To Get” is the only song on the album that has horns on it, but when were performing it I was like, we've got to get horns. Then we put horns on “Katy On A Mission” and “Perfect Stranger” and it just gave it a really nice quality. And I want people to feel when they come and see my music that it's a live experience, rather than just me and a DJ.
Are you looking forward to Sonar?
I am, very much so. I've really wanted to go over the years but just never got round to it, so it's really nice to be playing there.
What are your plans for the rest of the year? Have you had time to get back into a studio yet?
I've done little pieces here and there, like P Money's album that he's recording at the moment. I did a little hook for that the other day. I have got another beat actually that I need to write to today. I've just been skiving so I need to get on that! But to be honest, I've just been on tour. It's really weird because when I was recording I was just like, I want to do loads of live shows, I'm not doing any, I'm really sad! Now I'm doing live shows I want to get back in the studio. It's one of those things, isn't it. PlayGround is media partner of Sónar She has a top 2 album in the UK charts and a double appearence at Sónar 2011. Everybody loves Katy B, garage's new princess. We talked to her about her origins, her future and her taste in music.
Review: '' On a Mission''