For Katie Gregson-Macleod, 2023 will go down as a year of change. Following on from the frankly unfathomable success of her breakout single ‘complex’ last summer (40 million Spotify streams and counting…), it’s only over the past twelve months that she’s been given a chance to take stock. “Most of this year has been dedicated to me trying to find my feet in a new city, a new environment and a new version of the industry that I’d never experienced before,” she nods from a Shoreditch cafe.
It’s little wonder that Katie needed a breather. Wind back the clock to August 2022 and things looked rather different for the Scottish singer: still in the middle of a History degree at Edinburgh University, working as a barista on the side, making music was then just a hobby, providing some much-needed relief to her more academic world. It was during the summer holidays, back in her Inverness home, however, that she uploaded a clip of what would become ‘complex’ to her TikTok channel and her life was changed forever. By the time 2023 rolled around, she’d already signed with Columbia, worked with super-producer Greg Kurstin (Adele, Harry Styles), been nominated for an Ivor Novello, and - having left university for the time being - packed up and moved to London to be a musician full time.
“I think it was necessary to be honest,” she says, digging into mushrooms on toast as she reflects on the time she’s taken out to adjust. “In hindsight, I had that worry of, ‘Did we not take advantage of the moment enough? Did we not do enough shows?’ There’s a point of anxiety around it; you’re under so much pressure to go at a thousand times speed all the time - which I did last year and it was a mind-fuck. But actually I think it was so necessary to slow down and do a bit of cherry-picking, to keep it quite stripped back, and now I’m feeling so ready.”
I was writing really deep shit when I was seven. I was writing like a divorcée!”
While it may still be early doors in Katie’s career, in a way she’s been laying the groundwork for most of her life. “Oh I was a little twat!” she jokes, thinking back to her younger years when her creativity first came to the fore. “I was a drama queen. There were short stories, poems, songs, all from a young age. I don’t think they were anything to write home about but I was non-stop on that side of things, I loved being creative. Me and my cousin Jamie were those kids in the family that would make everyone watch our performances.”
With an English teacher for a dad and a pianist for a mum (“I refused lessons,” she notes. “I was like, ‘No, I know all about this!’ but I didn’t know shit and I wish I could play piano better now”), there was, as she puts it, “an appreciation for words and music in my house from a very young age, so I was obsessed”. And, much like her current habit of delving into the more confessional side of songwriting, her pre-teen self attempted the same.
“I was writing really deep shit when I was seven, and now I’m like, ‘What the fuck was I on about?’ I was writing like a divorcée!” she chuckles. “I think I was listening to too much Adele and Amy Winehouse…” Was it a case of her younger self faking it ‘til she made it? “It’s funny how you imitate being inspired until you are; I don’t know who the fuck broke my heart when I was eight - I don’t think anyone did! - but you would’ve thought that,” she raises her eyebrows. “But I definitely noticed a difference when I turned 17 or 18, where I just had so much inspiration all of a sudden. I think I kissed the person that I’d fancied for a long time when I was 18 and then I remember it was that day that I started writing every day - and it hasn’t stopped since then! That was the catalyst!”
Chatting just a few days before she heads to Glasgow to begin rehearsals for her long-awaited UK headline tour, you get the sense that, even though the incendiary success of ‘complex’ is still clearly impossible to fully comprehend (“A lot of this year has just been people being like, ‘Have you processed it yet?’” she grins. “‘And I’m like, ‘Girl, that is never happening!’”), Katie is feeling more at ease with the whole thing.
Does she ever wonder what could’ve been had she not uploaded the video that day? “Fuck my life, man! It was sat in my drafts for two days!” she laughs. “The thing is, my life would be so different but I think the goalposts have just changed,” she goes on. “The big thing everyone talks about is transferring that moment into a career and expanding upon what is built there. It is fleeting; a viral moment is just that, a moment. We were very aware at the end of last year that some [fans] would stick around from ‘complex’, but the song would have a life of its own and I wouldn’t necessarily be attached to that, which is lovely. So, the main thing this year was almost acting as though it hadn’t happened, in many ways; making another EP, expanding the sonic landscape a bit, playing some shows. Just continuing the traditional path in the wake of that very untraditional and bizarre moment.”
I definitely don’t have that [barrier] during the process of writing, probably to a detrimental degree.”
And so, making good on that promise, last month she released her latest EP - and third to date - ‘Big Red’. Continuing her knack for the kind of observational, intimate lyrics that transport listeners right into the middle of any given scenario, its premise - which follows a four-month relationship from first date through to breakup - feels intensely personal throughout. There are ties to her new London life, where she shares a flat with fellow rising star Nell Mescal, such as on ‘Girlfriend’: “I just decided on the Jubilee line / I've landed on the real thing, tried to fight it / I listen to Nell when she tells me / I can't lay my life on a mood ring”. “I can’t stop referencing tube stops,” Katie laughs. “I get home from a day of doing stuff in London, and I think to myself, ‘What have I seen today?’ It’s just the tube! Every song references a tube stop nowadays.”
TFL aside, does she ever feel a subject could be that bit too personal to make it into a song? “Sadly not! I wish there were moments like that…” she jests. “I had that thing when I was releasing this EP where I was like, ‘Fuck, that is so specific’ and then that person [who inspired the songs] asked to hear the EP. I was like, ‘Fine…’ but I took ‘Girlfriend’ out of the playlist because I was like, ‘Well, that’s fucking embarrassing’. I don’t know if you can tell but I’m not their girlfriend?! That did not happen!
"But no, I definitely don’t have that [barrier] during the process of writing,” she picks up, “probably to a detrimental degree, but it’s very fun for me. It makes it so much more exciting. This stuff is so personal and it makes it a really therapeutic thing; the songs are almost just diary entries, very observational and anecdotal.” That level of eagle-eyed detail even trickles down to the EP’s title itself - named for the bar on Holloway Road in which the protagonists have their first date. “‘Big Red’ is certainly a prime example of that,” she laughs. “I literally went there one time! I had been there once when I wrote that EP - I’m such a psycho!”
Now, with another EP-shaped string added to her musical bow and a slew of live shows to round out the year, Katie’s sights are already set on her next big task: her debut album. “Well, I’ve been writing it for a long time, a loooong time,” she emphasises. “Since before ‘complex’ came out. So, I’m finishing the writing process; every day I make a tracklist in my Notes app. I’m just obsessed with the idea of the album; I’m very interested in having it feel a certain way, and having those highs and lows that an album allows you to have. That’s where my sights are set and no one can convince me otherwise.”
As featured in the December 2023 / January 2024 issue of DIY, out now.