Katy B - Watch out Jessie J, there's a new kid in town
A year ago, no one had heard of Katy B. Now, after three Top 10 singles, she's on the verge of stardom. Charlotte Cripps meets dance music's hottest new act
Friday 15 April 2011
Dance music has a new pop star: Katy B, 21 from Peckham, whose debut album On A Mission has just stormed into the charts at Number 2. Her brand of London's underground club sound, mixed with pop and hauntingly beautiful vocals, has already given her massive chart success, with three Top 10 singles.
But surprisingly this time last year nobody had even heard of Katy B outside of the underground club scene.
Now Plan B wants to duet with her and NME herald her album as "the British pop debut of the year", adding, "Sorry Jessie J, but it's one-nil to Peckham".
When I meet Katy B is she is sitting in front of a mirror at a rehearsal studio in East London, having her curlers removed; her long auburn locks fall in ringlets, more suitable for a role in The Tudors than a rave.
She is in the midst of rehearsing her first headline UK tour, which begins later this month, with an all-male, six-piece live band, complete with horn section.
With an easygoing charm she is quietly grinning like a Cheshire cat, as she stands on the threshold, of becoming a household name.
But she says, her album is a "mash-and-merge" of London's underground club sound; she doesn't want to be hemmed in by one dance genre. The album mixes dubstep, garage, drum'n'bass, house and UK funky, with pop and R&B.
Dressed today in a French designer Isabel Marant rugby shirt and jeans, she says, with a shrug: "The days of an open mic night when I'd rock up in an old jumper are over." On stage she performs in tight but comfortable sweatshirt dresses by Markus Lupfer, with embellished stones and beads.
But there is nothing dubstep diva about Katy B, who is genuinely overwhelmed by her sudden success.
She has just supported Tinie Tempah on his UK tour, as well as won a support slot with John Legend and The Roots. "They are one of my favourite bands. He had been checking out my music videos on YouTube." While her biggest fan, Plan B, says: "A lot of people who do dance music don't get a lot of credit. It's always the producer who gets it, but she's got a lot of talent."
Things changed overnight for Katy B whose real name is Kathleen Brien, when her pop-dubstep underground hit, "Katy On A Mission", landed at Number 5 in the UK charts, last summer. It was produced with dubstep star Benga, and released on Rinse FM Records. "When I heard the beat I put myself in a dubstep rave. That is me wandering around with my friends," she says.
Katy B then released her second UK Number 4 hit single last December, "Lights On", featuring Ms. Dynamite, about dancing at a club, when everyone else is going home.
Then followed her Magnetic Man collaboration on the hypnotic Top 20 hit "Perfect Stranger", which finds her connecting to somebody on the dance floor: ("When I stepped into the crowd, Something told me that I'd meet you today, Your energy when you touched me, Lifted me off the ground, Your words for me are like music, I don't know, Who you are, All I really know is, There is something in your heart, That makes me feel, It's a new start ...")
Katy B grew-up in Nunhead, South London, with her dad, a plumber, who "played bass and sang Frank Sinatra late at night" and her postwoman mum, as well an older brother. She still lives at home but says she is going to find a new place to live when she has time. But she is in no hurry – "I love living with my family," she says.
She has been passionate about making music ever since she started to play the piano at the age of six.
She was raised listening to R&B including Alicia Keys and Destiny's Child, which inspired her to sing, as well as neo-soul such as D'Angelo and Erykah Badu.
Her musical training started at Croydon's Brit School, at the age of 14 until she was 18 year's old, where Adele was in the year above her, and her singing then took off.
Soon the teenager Katy B was frequenting clubs – "I go to a club to relax and hear the music on a big sound system. I don't go to pull a guy," she explains.
By the age of 17, she appeared as Baby Katy on DJ NG's "Tell Me (What It Is)". This UK funky club tune bubbled under the radar for a year, until it was signed to Ministry of Sound, while she was still at the Brit School.
Meanwhile she was also singing over dub step and garage cuts at pirate radio station, Rinse FM, which finally got its broadcasting licence last year.
Founded in 1994 by Rinse FM boss and co-owner DJ Geeneus, now Katy B's long-term production partner, it is run with the closeness of an extended family. It has been nurturing the dubstep, grime and UK funky of London's underground, ever since it opened its airwaves
"If 'Katy On A Mission' sold only 100 copies, I still genuinely believe they would still back me," says Katy B. "It took three years for them to believe in me and they have stuck with me."
When she was 18, Geeneus along with drum'n'bass producer Zinc, who also produced her album, invited Katy B to help them sonically link together an album that was showcasing Rinse FM's DJs.
But soon they fell in love with her voice, lyrics and melody lines, realising the project was in fact turning into a potential debut album for Katy B. "I was thrown into writing my own stuff," she recalls. "It just happened."
A day's work includes giving her a beat to draw out emotion, which she then forms a melody and some lyrics around. "More recently we have been going into the studio with a blank canvas to see how that goes."
Having been offered major label deals in 2009, she released her first single "Katy On A Mission" with the label Rinse in 2010. The same year, she completed a degree in Popular Music at Goldsmiths, University of London.
"It opened my eyes to a lot of music that I wouldn't necessarily have got into. My time there included full band, orchestra and choir performances of The Beatles' 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart Club Band'. It was amazing to do all the harmonies. Never in my wildest dreams would I have done that on my own. We learnt a lot about world music. It made me a better musician because really my only influence was club music."
It's not all about clubbing either; Katy B has been labelled the new Lily Allen because of her honest appraisal of her personal life. "Every single song has a little story," says Katy B. "It is satisfying to write how you feel and get it out of your system."
Her new single "Broken Record", currently Number 11, is about thinking about someone all the time. "Then you finally get them and you're scared of losing them," she says.
The track "Easy Please Me" is about exactly what she wants in a boyfriend: ("You don't have to have a lot of money, All you've got to have is fire burning deep in your soul... Now I won't call you 20 times a day, Cause I've got my own shit to do, When you see my name flashing on your phone, I want you to feel butterflies for me not doom...Now one thing I can't stand is arrogance, There's no way that we would ever get along, But one thing I love is confidence, And humility to know when you've been wrong, Now I love a bad boy mentality, But I don't want to be visiting no jail...").
She says working with Ms. Dynamite on "Lights On" was a spontaneous decision. "Ms. Dynamite happened to be in the studio at the same time I was working on that tune. Genneus asked her if she wanted to jump on the song."
But she doesn't want too much to change now she is at the top of the charts. "I liked my life before this. I was quite content. I don't want to lose myself," she says. "Maybe I'm a bit in denial. When I wrote those songs I didn't think for a second they would enter the Top 40, let alone the Top 10. I made them for the clubs."
'On a Mission' is out now. The UK tour takes place between 29 April and 18 May (www.katyonamission.com)
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