Cathy Davey: The rise of a little voice

She may be shy and self-deprecating, but Cathy Davey has put together a very confident debut album, says Alexia Loundras
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"I just want to sit at home and touch my chairs," says Cathy Davey, doing just that. Curled up on a large wicker armchair in her bright Dublin basement flat, the Irish songstress exudes all the comfort of a cat sleeping in the sun. Even her grin - a thin, sleepy crescent across her delicate features - looks somewhat feline.

"I just want to sit at home and touch my chairs," says Cathy Davey, doing just that. Curled up on a large wicker armchair in her bright Dublin basement flat, the Irish songstress exudes all the comfort of a cat sleeping in the sun. Even her grin - a thin, sleepy crescent across her delicate features - looks somewhat feline.

Although she smokes almost constantly throughout the interview, Davey seems calm and relaxed. She has just returned from a week's holiday in Barcelona and is basking in the fuzzy, honeymoon warmth of a six-week-old relationship, but sitting in her airy living-room is what gives her most pleasure. Her flat is her sanctuary, and she misses it desperately when she's away. Sparsely decorated with quirky art and bric-a-brac furniture, it houses her most prized possession: her 8-track. And, in a year that has been filled with tours and long stints at English recording studios, being at home is simply heavenly.

So all is good in her life. But with the imminent release of her excellent debut album, the PJ Harvey-meets-The Cardigans Something Ilk, it's just about to get even better.

"I'm dying for my album to come out," says the 25-year-old with all the excitement of a child waiting for Christmas. Something Ilk - which Davey aptly describes as a "rocky piano, swingy, jazzy, jangling, everything- thrown-in" album - has been gestating for almost a year now. And Davey's desire, need even, to share the finished product with someone, anyone, has reached critical levels.

"I was always writing poetry and songs on the piano," remembers Davey, lighting a cigarette. "But I did it for myself - I always thought I'd never give it out to anyone." Inspired by The Muppet Show, Simon & Garfunkel and, she says, "anything that was lying around, including Guns N' Roses", the young Davey immersed herself in her own creative world. The daughter of a musician father and sculptor/poet mother, she was encouraged to explore her artistic side. In fact, with her father off making music and her mother engrossed in her own work, Davey was hardly given the choice to do otherwise. "Being in that environment puts everyone in a headspace for being creative," she says.

Writing songs and having your talent nurtured is one thing. But recognising your own potential is something else. Especially, if like Davey, you're prone to being overly self-critical. "I thought I had such a weedy, quiet voice," says Davey, shyly. "It was squeaky and I had no idea why anyone would be interested in listening to it. But that didn't bother me because I wasn't going to do anything with it anyway." Yet, while at art school, Davey had an epiphany that led her to reconsider. After hearing Davey sing, a college friend introduced the singer to the similarly fragile vocal delights of Stina Nordenstam. "I'd just been saying how I thought no one would like my voice," remembers Davey, "then I heard this record. All of a sudden I was like, no way! I don't have to have a Raaaagh! loud voice. It was a nice turning-point."

So, she set aside her insecurities and played a handful of gigs. But still she was not entirely convinced - the sound she was making just didn't match up with the sound in her head. Something jarred. She didn't want to be up on stage alone with her guitar - she didn't see herself conforming to the twee, singer-songwriter cliché. "Strictly I am a singer-songwriter," concedes Davey. "The words have become kind of dirty and I don't want to make them any dirtier, but I'd spent so long writing songs that sounded like 'music' - as opposed to one person with a guitar - I was afraid of being bunched with a group of people I didn't I relate to."

But getting together a band was not an option either. "I've always thought of myself as a solo artist and I make no apologies for that," she says. "I wanted to pay musicians to see through my ideas." And she wasn't going to play live again until she could.

Davey refused to perform live for the labels wooing her, and signed with the Parlophone off-shoot, Regal purely on the basis of her demos. Once she could afford to pay salaries, she brought together a group of experienced session musicians to be her band, and with the help of the producer Ben Hillier (Blur, Elbow), set about bringing the sounds in her head to life.

Like Davey, Something Ilk is a living, breathing mass of contradictions. It's lithe and lush, bitter and barbed; filled with ambiguous stories of desire and betrayal. Inspired by Tom Waits's music and storytelling, it is both sumptuous and raw, and shot through with an alternative pop sensibility. Davey's stalking, delicate voice bleeds emotion, while Hillier's excellent experimental production further animates the songs with quirky aural delights.

"There were instruments everywhere," says Davey on working with Hillier. "You could bang a fork on a bit of wood and he'd be happy. When someone encourages you to do that, it feels like all your Christmases in one."

But while the album sounds assured, there were moments in its recording when Davey let her self-doubting demons get the better of her. "It's hard not to think that making your first album is the most important thing in the world," she says. "It's not, of course, but while you're in it, the outside world seems to stop, and I lost my marbles during that."

The weight of expectation Davey placed on herself was overwhelming and her health - and confidence - deteriorated. "When you come out of your bedroom and there's A&R, PR, and an album to make, you think, there's no way I'll come out of it sane," she recalls. "Your head goes berserk, but that's because you're tired and vulnerable. But then I realised, I'm so lucky to be doing this." She laughs. "And I made myself get over myself!"

By allowing herself to fall back on those around her and to rely on their opinions instead of just hearing her own self-criticism, Davey felt the pressure dissolve. "We've grown together and I really benefit from their support," she says of her band. "And despite how hard it felt at times, making the album was the best summer of my life."

'Something Ilk' is out now