Katie Harkin (Sleater-Kinney, Sky Larkin) on Songs About People the Protagonist Hasn’t Met Yet – [Updated]

An exploration of the form, including responses from Shamir, Jenn Wasner (Wye Oak), Tom Fleming (Wild Beasts), Corin Tucker (Sleater-Kinney) and more.

Katie Harkin’s invented a new genre about longing for people the singer hasn’t met yet. Read her thoughts below, followed by reflections from Shamir Bailey, Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner, Tom Fleming of Wild Beasts, and Corin Tucker, and check back throughout this week for responses from other Talkhouse contributors. —Amy Rose Spiegel, Editor-in-Chief, Talkhouse Music

I have been writing songs to you. I have been writing songs to others. I have been writing songs to myself.

Writing my first solo record has naturally made me consider the kinds of songs I want to add to the pile. It’s been a stop-start process, which has meant I’ve had plenty of time to reflect. It’s been in these moments of downtime that I’ve come to realize that one of my favorite things about music is its capacity to combine the infinite with the instant.

One day—as with scores of others—I had a personal “Eureka!” moment whilst listening to Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe.”

It was in a moment of reflection that—among the vocal charm and superhuman strings that make “Call Me Maybe” a beloved, timeless, massive choon—I got stuck on one lyric: “Before you came into my life, I missed you so bad.”

It’s a lyric that transcends time itself. It should be filed under Science Fiction in the dusty library of pop lyrics.

 Side note: A dusty library of pop lyrics should exist IRL. If I get to be a dusty old woman, I will gladly docent.

Sure, there are plenty of love songs directly inspired by science fiction. But where Al Stewart’s “Sirens of Titan” is an echo of the Vonnegut novel by the same name, songs such as “Call Me Maybe” are science fiction in and of themselves, warping reality and disrupting the timeline. Jepsen had alerted me to a specific category of pop songs that I hadn’t previously noted. Let’s call them “Songs About People the Protagonist Hasn’t Met Yet.”

A six-week U.S. van tour leaves you enough staring-out-of-the-window time to either spin yourself some theories or unspool completely.

One of the side effects of playing music as much as I have recently been able to is that, sometimes, in order to perform it for people, you travel in states of almost enforced contemplation. Only on a plane does someone strap you into a seat and demand that you turn your phone off. A six-week U.S. van tour leaves you enough staring-out-of-the-window time to either spin yourself some theories or unspool completely.

When it comes to my feelings about music, I can relate to sports fans. I love the game. I have favorite teams. I’m into noting the stats. Even if I do not consciously approach my own songwriting in this way, I’m buying the trading cards.

I began to make a list. I polled friends and kept my ears open for more instances of my new pet theory. The results are in.

The most obvious SAPTPHMY are the ones that leave me cold. Michael Bublé just hasn’t met me yet. Savage Garden knew they loved me before they met me. Maybe it’s too thinly veiled. Maybe I’m too far from the intended demographic. Maybe it’s, y’know, the music. These songs just don’t make my head fizzy like CRJ.

Queer longing, meanwhile, fits in neatly with SAPTPHMY. “I felt you in my legs before I ever met you,” from Tegan and Sara’s “Nineteen,” perfectly reflects how it is possible to know an emotional truth even before direct experience lets you empirically prove it. It’s a kind of songwriter’s VR for feelings. The same goes for songs written for a younger audience. One of my friends suggested “Somewhere Out There” from the 1986 Disney kids film An American Tail, with the note, “Gets me every time.” Hope endures eternal.

When Avril Lavigne’s “I’m With You” was on heavy rotation, I was sixteen, young enough (and closeted enough) that “I don’t know who you are but I / I’m with you” moved me. But old enough not to admit it. I didn’t think I believed in guilty pleasures, yet it still makes me cringe to confess: even though I wouldn’t have said I liked the song at the time, something about it made my gut drop. At their best, though, SAPTPHMY bestow on the listener a unique kind of hope. At their worst, their internal-hope generation seems predatory, almost exploitative—using the listener’s loneliness as fuel for the song to function.

As an eight-year-old watching Top of the Pops, I was told “there’s no beginning, there’ll be no end” for fifteen weeks in a row when Wet Wet Wet’s cover of “Love Is all Around” sat at Number One for what seemed like eternity. In spite of myself, an atemporal love of its lyrics, like Avril’s, is indelibly marked into my cultural memory. Perhaps this is why I found myself so drawn to SAPTPHMY.

I am not a woman of faith, but put a beer in me and I’ll tell you that devoting what I can to music is the way I express my relationship with the eternal. I see the track laid behind for us, and work in the hope that what I’m doing could perhaps be some small lasting rail, sleeper, or spike.

Here’s a final SAPTPHMY to play us out from a woman who has given us at least a whole viaduct’s worth of musical tracks, Björk: “I know by now that you’ll arrive / by the time I stop waiting / I miss you.” Beer me.

Having toured since her teens, Katie Harkin‘s reputation as an in-demand multi-instrumentalist has seen her pass through thirty countries whilst writing and releasing three critically acclaimed records with her own band Sky Larkin. Her work garnered the attention of friends and fellow former Leeds dwellers Wild Beasts, with whom she worked across their Smother tour, and reverberated across the pond to urgent cult trio Sleater-Kinney, who recruited her as a touring member upon their triumphant return to the live stage. Most recently, Harkin has performed across North America with Jenn Wasner of Wye Oak‘s solo project, Flock of Dimes and across the UK with Low. Now, (as she unveils her debut solo project) the collaborator steps out as the singular, her new setup giving further platform to her idiosyncratic, muscular guitar-playing and revealing a body of work that is equally propelled by a life on the move and anchored by her romance for the North of England.