In mid-June of this year, Katy J Pearson fulfilled a lifelong dream. When she was a child, the Gloucestershire-born, Bristol-based singer-songwriter used to watch Later… with Jools Holland religiously, the show becoming a tool by which she’d discover new music and see her favourite artists in action.
Playing an electrifying rendition of ‘Talk Over Town’ with her band on Later… last month, Katy’s friends held a viewing party for the episode at Bristol’s Louisiana venue. “I started crying at the intro music to the show,” she remembers a few days later when we meet in London. “And everyone’s like, ‘Oh my god, why are you crying at THIS bit?!’ But seeing myself on Jools Holland was like an out of body experience. It’s the biggest achievement of my existence. It’s such a validatingly crazy thing that I’ve just done.”
So, how did we get here? Emerging in the mid-2010s with major label project Ardyn, Katy and her brother Rob made bright, melodic pop music under the name. Though it gave her a start, in retrospect Katy describes the “corporate” environments they were pushed into as “calculated” and “very soulless”.
It wasn’t a surprise, then, that when she re-emerged in 2019, the music also took a turn, with debut single ‘Tonight’ favouring shuffling acoustic guitars and accentuating her unique, twangy voice. On 2020 debut album ‘Return’, Katy’s sound started to take shape further, its tracks ‘Take Back The Radio’ and ‘Fix Me Up’ becoming low-key indie hits, full of addictive choruses and a gorgeously unpretentious outlook.
“On the first record, I was clutching at straws at times,” she reflects now. “I wasn’t feeling fully confident as an artist, and was worried what the album would mean for me identity-wise.” One identity that was thrust upon her from day one was the idea that she was a country singer. Most of this, she says, came from the ‘Tonight’ video, which saw her line-dancing on a cliff top with a rhinestone-emblazoned jacket. “It really pissed me off,” she says of the conclusions people jumped to. “They saw what I was wearing and said, ‘Oh, she’s a country singer!’. When you actually think about the first record as a whole, I don’t think it’s that country at all.”
And so, on second album ‘Sound Of The Morning’ - the fantastic, jubilant follow-up to ‘Return’ - Katy wanted to “stamp out” any easy categorisation of her music. “One lady made me laugh. She said I sounded like ‘country folk punk’,” she chuckles. “When people ask me what I think I am, I have no fucking idea!” It’s a puzzle that makes sense, because while labels are convenient and easily translatable, none quite fit for Katy J Pearson; on ‘Sound Of The Morning’, she sounds just like herself.
Her second album, recorded across and in between various lockdowns, traverses genre boundaries and takes the singer out of boxes others had put her in. With notions of being country, folk, punk or all of the above far from her mind, instead the focus was purely on writing the best song possible. And these are damn good songs.
Lead single ‘Talk Over Town’ employs the widescreen, chugging rhythms of The War On Drugs, while ‘Alligator’, written with Speedy Wunderground’s Dan Carey, is a slinky alt-pop gem. On ‘The Hour’, she strips things back on a fantastically haunting, sparse folk ballad, while ‘Howl’ is a delicious earworm.
The latter song was written when Katy was in Ardyn, with the track dismissed as “too indie” by her label. “I wrote it six years ago at my parents’ house, and we had some builders round who were big BBC 6 Music heads. They said, ‘Ah that’s a great song, we could hear that on Radio 6’,” she recalls. In taking the song back and repurposing it for the new album, Katy encapsulates the energy and intention of ‘Sound Of The Morning’: it’s the story of trusting in your own convictions after having them rubbished for years, and of releasing the best music possible regardless of others’ opinions. It’s no wonder the songs here sound so true and free.
At the heart of the new album is collaboration. While ‘Return’ saw Katy largely block out any outside voices and make a true solo album, she rediscovered the joys of letting people in for its follow up. Alongside Bristol-based engineer Ali Chant, she worked with Dan Carey in his south London studio and wrote songs with her brother, Bristol scene stalwart Oliver Wilde, and more. At her live shows, she plays alongside members of caroline, Black Country, New Road, Drug Store Romeos and beyond, and it feels like a true gang on stage.
Hours after we chat, meanwhile, Katy’s off to the Roundhouse to sing alongside former Maccabees frontman Orlando Weeks. Repaying the favour for Katy’s turn on his 2021 track ‘Big Skies, Silly Faces’, Orlando adds his deliciously distinctive vocals to the chorus of ‘Howl’ on the new album, while Black Midi’s Morgan Simpson also drums on a handful of tracks. The list of familiar faces on show here feels endless, and adds to the chameleonic musical landscape of the record, with no sound or vibe discounted.
“Although I am seen as a solo artist, it’s quite a big collective of people that contribute to my music,” Katy reasons, calling it a ‘community’ of artists rather than giving it the dreaded ‘scene’ tag. “It’s been the most brilliant place, and we’re all out to support each other. There are some parts of the industry that are really competitive, but this community that I’ve ended up part of has been the most loving.”
One act also in Katy’s orbit are post-punk band-du-jour Yard Act, who remixed her track ‘Miracle’ and have invited her on stage at numerous gigs. “Their fans might not have heard of me, but they’re really lifting me up,” she says of the Leeds band. “They’re doing so well, and it’s so lovely seeing these people that are doing really well and wanting to really give me a foot up and get me the exposure that they think I deserve. I find that really, really wonderfully kind.”
Finally, though, she knows she deserves to be here. “It’s so important to feel like you belong,” she reflects on her journey, and the penny drop moment of her Jools viewing party. “Seeing myself on that screen, I thought, ‘Fuck, I really know what I’m doing’.
“Oh COME ON Katy, you’ve done like 300 million gigs,” she mocks in response to the self-doubting part of her brain before deciding: “It’s a wonderful feeling to feel that assurance that I am meant to be there.”
‘Sound Of The Morning’ is out now via Heavenly.
As featured in the July 2022 issue of DIY, out now.