Interview: Katie Harkin talks new solo project Harkin, and playing in Sleater-Kinney’s live band

The former Sky Larkin member is heading in a totally different direction with her new solo venture.

Katie Harkin’s resume is mightily impressive. From the three widely adored albums she created with her band Sky Larkin, to stints touring with fellow northerners Wild Beasts, and most recently the newly-reunited Sleater-Kinney, she’s clearly in demand.

Earlier this year, she announced her first release as a solo artist under the name Harkin, a cover of ‘National Anthem Of Nowhere’ by Apostle Of Hustle as part of new Leeds label Come Play With Me’s 7” singles club. Harkin’s version of the track is an immediate, aggressive cut which shows her entering darker territory.

After so many years in her own bands and adding new elements to huge, existing acts in the live arena, Katie Harkin is going it alone. Speaking after her first solo tour in support of Torres, and before she rejoins Sleater-Kinney on tour in the US, she’s clearly revelling in making time for herself.

“I’ve been sitting on [the solo project] for quite a while, and I was very protective of it for a long time. I wanted to allow it to be porous and absorb the things that would make it stronger before I had to put the walls up once people knew about it. It’s been a really fascinating process to just do something for the sake of doing it. I had no responsibilities but equally I had no backup.”

Harkin had been “jumping on a few bills here and there, just to scare myself” earlier in the year, but the real push came when Tony from Come Play With Me approached her about contributing a track to the singles series. “I had been looking for a way to support the work that my friend Meadow does at Sensory Leeds (a charity that helps young people with sensory disabilities in the city), and it seemed to be the perfect fit.”

Speaking of the recent tour with Torres, Harkin comments on how it allowed her solo songs to become new beasts through debuting them live, and how the whole thing meant everything and nothing all at once. “[The tour] felt really freeing and raw, because I had no reason to do it other than for the songs. It was an amazing opportunity to be able to play some songs for the sake of playing them for once, and to see what they would mutate and solidify into. I was on my own and didn’t have a support network, so the stakes were equally really high and really low.

“It’s always a gamble when you get in the van with people you don’t really know, because you’ve got to spend a lot of time with them, but in addition to loving Torres’ music in advance, the whole gang are just brilliant people, and it really affirmed that this is something I should be doing. I’d probably done less than ten gigs before the tour, but knew that Sleater-Kinney would be on hiatus over the summer, so I saw the tour as a way of forcing my hand, in that I had to have half an hour of songs written.” This sense of urgency is one that has advanced Harkin’s solo career simply by taking a chance. “I told myself that if I was going to do this, and make something of this solo career, I had to throw myself into performing in front of rooms of people at a frighteningly early stage. I threw myself to the lions in that respect, but luckily this time I was performing to rooms full of very nice, friendly European lions.”

Being able to debut songs in front of attentive, engaging audiences with Torres is something Katie has used to take these songs further and let them grow through the feedback airing the material in the ‘real world’ has given her. “Some of the songs were only a few days old, so I hadn’t even played them through an amplifier, and it’s very different hearing your voice reverberate around a venue than it is being at home. It felt so risky but it was interesting to look around and think “which beat do the crowd groove on?” – “oh, it’s that one!” at such an early point in these songs’ lives.

“It’s hard to articulate when the house is still half-built, but in terms of a blueprint, it’s looking to take a completely different shape to what I’ve done before.”

— Katie Harkin

One thing Harkin emphasises is her need to keep her separate projects exactly that, despite a clear, infectious commitment to these new songs. “[Touring with Sleater-Kinney] is pretty all-consuming, and I also wanted to be quite strict with myself, because while I’m out touring with them I want to be able to experience that completely. During the time I was touring with Wild Beasts, we went to nearly thirty countries in twenty months, and in that time, Sky Larkin wrote and recorded [2013’s] ‘Motto’, and it is the hardest I’ve ever worked and it nearly finished me. I don’t want to do that to myself again, so I’ve been trying to find the balance between being completely committed to the idea of the solo project, but not spend myself too soon. It would affect how I perform with Sleater-Kinney, and the legitimacy that I’ve felt from them, which has been extremely empowering.”

“When any musicians play with each other, there’s a certain amount of pure muscle memory. The sounds you’re playing are physically changing you, and there’s so many ways you can be influenced by playing music with new people. That kind of biological subconscious influence is really interesting to me.” As separate as Harkin can try and keep her different jobs, experiences from each inevitably bleed into each other, and will find their way into forming her solo material. “I’m trying to play my own songs now, but I’ve still got the body that has played all of these songs with all these different bands, and that will obviously influence what I do now.”

Regarding movements going forward next year after work with Sleater-Kinney slows down, Harkin seems equally excited and open to new ideas. “It’s hard to articulate when the house is still half-built, but in terms of a blueprint, it’s definitely looking to take a completely different shape to what I’ve done before. I started out wanting to make a slow jams record, but as I’ve been progressing it’s gotten faster and faster. We’ll see where it goes next.”

There’s no sense of necessity to what Katie Harkin is doing now, only sheer passion and wild abandon. “The tour felt brave and stupid, because it was gloriously unnecessary. That’s why I loved it. I’m revelling in it, and just following the songs, and the rest will fall into place. I just have to be committed to the songs.”

Harkin plays tomorrow night (29th October) at DIY Presents: Wichita Recordings’ ‘Still On The Line’. Waxahatchee and Theo Verney are also on the bill. Full details here.

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