A star on the horizon

From producing two albums in a Newcastle bedsit to being shortlisted for the Mercury Prize is a pretty steep trajectory. But if anyone can keep their feet on the ground, it's Kathryn Williams
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The Independent Culture

So, a big hip-hip-hooray, then, for Kathryn Williams, who made it onto this year's immensely prestigious Technics Mercury Prize shortlist after cutting a first album for £80 - £80! - on her own bedsit label, Caw, then scraping together the £200 entry fee. It was a bit of a naughty gamble, she says. She should, actually, have used the money to tax and MOT her car. Both are coming up for renewal. This is a worry. Or, as she says: "It's a cloud of anxiety that's definitely beginning to drift inland."

So, a big hip-hip-hooray, then, for Kathryn Williams, who made it onto this year's immensely prestigious Technics Mercury Prize shortlist after cutting a first album for £80 - £80! - on her own bedsit label, Caw, then scraping together the £200 entry fee. It was a bit of a naughty gamble, she says. She should, actually, have used the money to tax and MOT her car. Both are coming up for renewal. This is a worry. Or, as she says: "It's a cloud of anxiety that's definitely beginning to drift inland."

She has a nice way of putting things. Still, she could go ultra-big now, with an ultra-big label. She could pack in Caw, which she set up in the spare room of her Newcastle terraced house "when no one was interested in me". Now, every A&R man in London is after her. But she won't have it. "They phone me at nine, 10 at night. They expect me to be very excited. They think I've taken a stance against big record companies so they say: 'I'm from this small independent called... ahem... Sony.' When do they think I was born? And then they say: 'We think we can take you up to the next level.' Well, why would I want to go up to the next level?"

"Why wouldn't you?" I ask. "More money, more exposure, sod the tax and MOT, a new Fiat Punto with power steering and those lights that go up the side, a booking on Des O'Connor Tonight..."

"Because I'm happy at this level! Because they say: 'We really like that song. Can you write more like it?' That's not what song-writing is about."

This could make her sound like a sanctimonious old bore, I know. But she isn't. She just has... well... balls, frankly. She just likes doing what she's doing the way she does it, and has enough talent and self-belief to pull it off. She might be wholly admirable and fab. Certainly, her music is.

Her first album was the £80, critically acclaimed Dog Leap Stairs, although it was the second and current one, Little Black Numbers (made for £3,000, still a fantastically measly amount), which earnt her the Mercury nomination for best album of the year. Now, how best to describe her sound? Well, it doesn't make my dentures rattle. The cat doesn't shoot out the cat flap. The cat carries on snoozing, happily. I would say it's quite Suzanne Vega-ish: beautifully haunting songs ("I like my lyrics to give people a bit to chew on"), with, yes, beautifully haunting lyrics ("There is a mood on your mouth/ Sparkles like a jewel") sung in a beautifully clear, haunting voice framed, mostly, by just cello and guitar.

The London listings magazine Time Out has called her stuff "beautifully restrained and utterly communicative". NME has described her as "box-fresh and immediate". The Times says: "Her voice is out of this world. Very clear. Like water or glass or air." Blimey, Kathryn, you really are the bees knees at the moment. "Yeah. And it's brill. I'm really pleased. Although I'm sure it'll all go against me one day." Never mind, I say, you can always pull yourself back into the news - and charts - by, say, dating Robbie Williams. She says: "Oh no! I'm not into that." She then adds that, as it happens, she is very happy with her boyfriend, Neil, with whom she lives. Although he is now involved in anti-racism work in South Tyneside schools, he used to own a bakery. "He still bakes at home, though. I wake in the morning to the smell of fresh buns or potato cakes. I grow a couple of inches a year. But never mind, it's happy fat."

She doesn't think the marketing department of a big record company could cope with her at all. "I don't have an image, do I? The marketing department would say, what are you? A femme fatale? Nope. Your more - um - comfy."

Comfy? If, by this, she means "dowdy" then no, I don't think so. We meet in London, at the Islington office of her PR company. She is 26, and rather pretty, with dark brown ringlets and lively eyes. She arrives with her cellist, Laura Reid, who is 22 with very blue eyes and beautiful skin. Laura is wearing a plain black top, a trendy denim skirt and Nike trainers. I ask her why she's not wearing Monsoon. I say I thought all lady cellists shopped at Monsoon. That, possibly, they were the only people who ever shopped in Monsoon. So what's with you? Are you a fraud? GET TO MONSOON! Kathryn says: "Yes, Laura. You must get something frilly and floral."

I think Kathryn and I might be new best friends. Certainly, we are both very into that Big Brother thing on Channel 4. "Who are you going to vote out this week?" I ask. "Andrew," she says.

"Not Caroline?" I query. "Who, if nothing else, is guilty of terrible crimes against lip liner?"

"She is a pain in the arse, but she's not snide, is she? Andrew is a snob, and conceited, and a conceited man is - ohhhhhh - the seed of the devil!"

She has a good way of putting things, like I said. I tell her Mel's worrying me, although I can't quite work out why. Kathryn is clever and perceptive and, I think, puts her finger on it when she says: "She's one of those women who panders to men and doesn't care about the respect of women."

"Yes. It's the Paula Yates syndrome," I agree.

"Exactly," she confirms.

I think we are definitely bestest friends now. I think that, if she had a sleep-over, I might even get invited.

I had rather expected Kathryn to be a bit waify and melancholic and ethereal, actually, but she absolutely isn't. Aside from Big Brother, she adores big action films. "A renegade cop, a renegade fireman..."

"A renegade florist?" interrupts Laura.

"Yeah, a renegade florist. I'm a sucker for them all. Cliffhanger. Loved that. The cheesier the better. I'm a big fan of the Die Hard films"

She is a big reader. "I'll read anything I can get my hands on. And if I don't like it, I'll put it down. I recently put Jack Kerouac's On the Road down. I thought: life is too short to read this man." Laura says she doesn't read as much as Kathryn. Perhaps, I say, that's because you are too busy looking for something delightfully high-necked and embroidered in Monsoon.

"Oh yes," says Kathryn. "That would get her pantaloons all hot."

Kathryn was born and brought up in Liverpool. Her dad, Dave, used to sing in the folk band Abbey Folk, while her mum, Margaret, worked at a bank. They're both dead chuffed about the Mercury business. "When I told my mum, I could hear my dad in the background going: 'I knew it. I knew it. I knew it.' He's really excited." Were you? "I just thought: bloody hell!"

It wasn't a musical household as such, although quite a lot of music did go on. Her dad would sing her and her sister Emma to sleep. Or not. He was a lusty singer. "We'd get incredibly excited; then he'd say 'goodnight' and turn the light off." There were piano lessons, but the only thing Kathryn liked about them was her teacher, Monica Pratt, and the only thing she liked about Monica Pratt was calling her at home in the hope that her husband, Alan, would answer. "He'd always answer the phone with: 'A Pratt here'." She then says that, as young girls, her and Emma wrote songs and performed - "God, this is embarrassing" - as 'Yak Attack'. I say that's not nearly as embarrassing as my sister and I, who knew the whole of Joseph and His Technicolor Dreamcoat off by heart.

"But we wore pink tops and white skirts!" cries Kathryn.

"OK," I concede. "That is more embarrassing."

"I think it's sweet," says Laura.

"Shouldn't you be out shopping at a certain retail outlet that begins with an M?" I ask. "Hmmm?"

This quietens her down nicely, I must say.

We talk, of course, about the first records we every bought.

"Mine was Cat Stevens' Teaser and the Firecat for 20p from a jumble sale," says Kathryn.

"Lisa Stansfield," says Laura.

"David Cassidy," I say. They look at me pityingly. I suddenly feel incredibly old. OK, I continue, quickly moving things on, first big crush?

"Daley Thompson," replies Kathryn. "I had a sticker of him on my school bag."

"Johnny Depp," says Laura.

"Ross Poldark," I say.

This time, they both look at me blankly. "You won't have heard of him," I add hastily. "He's terribly avant-garde." Phew. I think I cleverly clawed my way back from that one.

I ask Kathryn what she was like at school. "Oh, reasonably uncool," she says. "I wasn't picked on. Well, not after my dad taught me how to elbow someone. You get someone to relax, then elbow them from behind. I once kicked a boy in the nuts when I was in junior school and he kicked me straight back in the same place. I thought, well, I'm not doing that again." Did you ever write poetry? "Yeah. Really angsty, teenage rubbish. Really terrible." Can you remember any of it? "NO I CAN'T! NO WAY!"

She went to art college in Newcastle - she is a fine watercolorist, by all accounts - but quickly discovered she was more comfortable with guitar than paintbrush. "I stayed in bed for a year writing songs. I'd then invite a few friends around to my room to hear them." After graduation, she went on the dole; who knows where she would be now if a friend hadn't booked her to play at local arts centre, without her knowledge. Kathryn was only told the night before. "I didn't sleep at all. I was a wreck." How many came to your first gig? "Oh, about double the number of bar staff. But that gig then led to another gig..." She's had to work in a greengrocer's to keep herself going. And a baby-wear shop. "I was so unmotherly at the time, it hurt. People would say: 'Oh, look at this. It's so cute,' and I was like, Oh, for God's sake." She would rather skate over her time as a hotel cleaner. " One day one of the toilets was blocked so I asked the other chambermaids - who were these really tough women - what to do. They said, just stick your mop down, and twist. So I did. The most terrible smell came out. Honestly, you've never smelt anything like it. I passed out."

Her live performances sell out now. And it's getting easier. "I used to be violently ill before going on, and want to run away. Now I'm all right as long as I can see an exit. Then, I know I can run for it if I feel sick." She doesn't think she will actually win the Mercury Prize, which will be decided on 12 September - "I'm the token indie outsider" - but she doesn't care. "The gamble has already paid off." But if you did win, what would you do with the £20,000 prize? "I'd tax and MOT the car, buy myself a nice new pair of trousers, take my boyfriend on holiday, and make a new album. In that order."

Plus, possibly, she'd treat Laura to a certain something from a certain shop. What was it now? Monsoon?

'Little Black Numbers' is out now (Caw, £13.99)