Katy J Pearson is a Bristol-based singer-songwriter. Her sophomore album, Sound of the Morning, is out July 8, 2022 via Heavenly Recordings.
(Photo Credit: H Hawkline)
Katy J Pearson is a Bristol-based singer-songwriter; James Smith fronts the Leeds-based rock band Yard Act. Katy’s sophomore record, Sound of the Morning, is out tomorrow (via Heavenly Recordings), so to celebrate, the two friends hopped on a Zoom call to catch up about it. Their conversation was so great that we couldn’t let any of it hit the cutting room floor — sign up for our newsletter now to catch part II exclusively in your inbox in the coming weeks.
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music
Katy J Pearson: How’s it going?
James Smith: Alright. Where are you at the moment?
Katy: I’m back in Bristol. I’ve got a few days off, which is very nice, but I also don’t really know what to do myself.
James: Do you need somebody to tell you what time you need to be in the van? Is that what you’re missing in your life?
Katy: Yeah, I want tour every day, someone telling me what to do.
James: Yeah, I think the music industry does try its best to create useless babies out of musicians and artists, doesn’t it?
James: You generate enough money to pay other people to do all the things that you should be able to do as a normal human being, like drive a van and book a flight, but you’re so exhausted by doing Talkhouse interviews and the like that you have to just give all the money you earn to other people to do normal life admin for you. [Laughs.] That’s what I’ve learned the music industry is.
Katy: Yeah. What a weird decision to make. You’ve hit the nail on the head. When you get home and you see your wife and your ween and you’ve just been on a huge tour, does your brain feel like mush? How do you change from one kind of reality to another?
James: Yeah. I mean, the pragmatic nature of having a young child means that basically the admin kicks in and you’re basically just stopping them sticking their fingers in sockets. So that distracts you from letting your brain wander. Your brain doesn’t have time to think, which is nice.
Katy: That’s the thing, you’re his dad and you’ve got this primal responsibility in your core. It doesn’t matter where you’ve been, as soon as you see your son, you’re right back to business.
James: Yeah. And that’s good. I put my phone in a drawer because otherwise, every time it buzzes, I pick it up and look at it and I’m like, Now’s not the time for that.
Katy: I was thinking about that — with our managers and with everyone in the industry, there’s no boundary about when you switch off. I can be replying to a WhatsApp message at, like, 2 AM from my manager that’s about something that I’d need to reply to because it’s urgent.
It’s like, I’m seeing my friends I haven’t seen in years and I’m there on my phone like, “Oh, I’ve gotta reply to this.” You haven’t got that boundary in place. It’s hard.
James: How do you cope with that? Have you drawn any boundaries about personal time as things have got busier for you?
Katy: I do try to, but I’m still failing quite a lot, I think. I am so used to being on the go all the time that it’s easier for me to keep pushing and just let it all kind of come at me than stop. So I feel like there will be a point when I’ll finally be able to change in between chill and work time. At the moment, it’s very hard to do. And even when I’m like, “Hi guys, I’m going away,” there’s still things that need to be approved, otherwise things don’t get done. And so it’s kind of like a sacrifice now for chill time later. But yeah, I feel like I haven’t found the happy medium yet. Definitely not. [Laughs.]
James: Yeah. I don’t know if there is one. And I don’t know what that says about us as people who get involved in it or or what it says about the industry. It’s funny the amount of times that I fire off a message to someone like our booking agent or our press agent, and I get an instant reply saying, “We’re currently out of office away for three days, don’t expect a reply,” and then half an hour later I get a reply from them. It’s like, “Alright, so you’re still working!” [Laughs.] But it is that thing where I think people try and fail to encourage change in the industry. I mean, it works in a way where like, you make hay while the sun shines. If you want that control of saying no to things and turning your phone off and missing offers, that’s fine. But the brutal reality of the industry is that it just moves on. You’re not owed a career in music just because you do it. And there’s no job security in it.
Katy: Oh, absolutely
James: You work your ass off — I know you do, because we end up at all the same festivals, and I know that you never stop. And also the difference is, you technically are a solo artist. I know you got your boys and the band is a band, but you’re pretty much carrying this alone, right?
Katy: Yeah, big time. I kind of forget that sometimes. I remember when I saw you at Wide Awake [Festival], and I came off stage and burst into tears and I was really wobbly because, you get so used to doing this job because you love it and we love writing the songs, we love getting the praise, and we love succeeding and managing to make this a career. So when things start going well and everything starts coming at you, I think you kind of forget sometimes that the fact that we can just get up on stage five nights in a row, perform to all these people and do it literally like it’s nothing, that is crazy. And I think you kind of forget how detrimental it can be to you, the amount of adrenaline that you’re using up, the amount of vulnerability for a performance you’re using up.
Yeah, I think it’s it is really hard work. And because I am a solo artist predominantly, I’m the one carrying interviews. So after a show I’m getting interviewed, photo shoots or whatever. And you know, sometimes I’m sat there and I’m like, What the fuck is going on? [Laughs.] I have an out-of-body experience. Because it doesn’t matter how long you do it, you’re still just the same inner child you were when you were five in your garden at your parents house.
James: Yeah, definitely. Is that when your love affair with music began? When you were five in the garden at your parents house?
Katy: Well, I feel like I had a really crazy upbringing and it was pretty up and down because of being a triplet, and my family were very eccentric and everything was all over the place. But music was definitely a stability and driving force through my whole life. I remember listening to “Little Lies” back when I was, like, eight when I got my bunk bed, and I had a tiny CD player with a tape player in it. I remember listening to that on repeat.
James: What was your first instrument? Was it guitar?
Katy: My first instrument was actually the cornet. [Laughs.]
James: Oh, really?
Katy: I only played it for three months or something. I have this fond memory of me with my cornet, they have all these brass instruments out, and I said, “I want to learn the cornet.” And at the time I had two very bad lazy eyes, so I had an eye patch on one eye, these rose-tinted spectacles to help me with my reading, and then I played the cornet. And I knew the Star Trek theme tune, so I would play that. [Laughs.]
James: Jesus Christ. That’s an amazing image.
Katy: I only played it for three months. My parents got fed up. They were like, “Fuck’s sake, this is too loud.” I mean, a seven year old trying to play cornet in the house is not a vibe. So I remember seeing my dad, who was a guitarist, teach my brother the guitar. Rob just got good really quickly, and we used to muck about and write songs together. And my dad had Cubase, so we’d just write these songs and my dad would record them and be like, “Oh, they’re writing actual structured songs at, like, eight. This is a bit weird.” And then I got jealous of Rob playing the guitar, so I asked my dad to teach me. I remember going to him and I’d written this song called “One Day,” and I was like, 11, 12 — it’s like a kind of rip off Avril Lavigne song.
Katy: I recorded it on bass. But yeah, I think my creation of music started at such a young age, and I think the most wonderful thing about it was it was completely an innocent discovery. It was never forced. It was something I did for fun, like a game. What about you? What is your earliest memory of being like, “Oh, I want to write a song”?
James: It’s quite a little bit later on for me. I wasn’t really bothered about music in primary school, didn’t play any instruments, wasn’t interested in it. I did crash the cymbals at the end of “Black Beauty” in the school orchestra at Christmas Christmas concert. [Laughs.] And then funnily enough, my first instrument ended up being drums. I just wanted to play football and draw cartoons. That was all I was interested in. And then I saw the Gorillaz, the animated videos, and that got me into music.
Katy: Oh, yeah, I thought those were so spooky when I was younger. It was like uncanny valley.
James: Yeah, that changed my life, because before that I owned four CD singles, which were “Vindaloo” by Fat Les, “Free Lions” by Baddiel, Skinner & Lightning Seeds, “Livin’ La Vida Loca” by Ricky Martin, and “Mambo No. 5” by Lou Bega. They were the songs I loved, and they were the four CDs I bought with my own money. And then I bought the Gorillaz album with my own money — that was the first album I ever bought, and Eminem. Basically the sort of third wave of hip hop was really taking off at the time, and Eminem was everywhere.
Katy: Oh, yeah.
James: He was almost like a cartoon character himself, so that really drew me in. And my dad was really into hip hop and all the stuff on his shelf I started to kind of take, and he would say, “No, you can’t listen to that yet.” And there was other stuff he’d sit with me and kind of give me context of, and then there was other stuff where he just let me listen to it. And yeah, basically off the back of the Gorillaz thing, I wanted to start an animated band with my mates at primary school.
Katy: Oh, wild!
James: Yeah. They just told me I was going to be the drummer and I just said OK, even though I didn’t play the drums. I basically was quite easily influenced, I think. And so I got it into my head that I wanted to be a drummer. But we lived in a dinky house, and I lived in the smallest room of the house and didn’t have anywhere to put a drum kit, and my mum and dad were like, “We’ve got nowhere to put it and we can’t buy you one because you’re not even having lessons.” When I got to high school, I tried to get on the list for lessons and they said, because I didn’t have a drum kit, I wasn’t allowed lessons.
Katy: That’s so shit!
James: Yeah. So I used to go to the break room on my own every break and hang around and try and get a few minutes on the drums. The old kids used to be playing Slipknot and be really pissed off at me for trying to get in there. I basically proved myself and they finally gave me lessons, and then after two years of having lessons, my mum and dad bought me a kit. But to fit it into the house, my dad had to build — I came up with this plan I gave him, this design I’d drawn of a single bunk bed so it would fit underneath the bed.
Katy: Ah, good idea.
James: My dad is shit at carpentry, and bless him, he made me this bed with pure love, but he built it too close to the ceiling and he never varnished the ladder, so I had loads of splinters. [Laughs.] But, yeah, that was it. I just became obsessed and I started playing in bands. I was desperate to form a band, but no one was asked at school. You had Rob, which was amazing.
Katy: Yeah, I was really lucky. I remember when I was in primary school, we formed a band to play at our end of primary school summer concert, and I was playing my dad’s bass singing “Get Back” by the Beatles.
Katy: But our drummer broke his arm for the gig, so he called the band Ed’s Broken Arm and played drums with one hand. And then we had our friend rapping over “Get Back.”
James: With Beatles lyrics?
Katy: He had his own little rap on the end, after the second chorus. And I was 11, so tiny, holding this huge full scale bass with really heavy strings, so I was obviously not even fucking playing it. Embarrassing.
James: Do you pocket all your songs? Do you remember everything you’ve ever written?
Katy: I mean, yeah. I think what is brilliant is when we were growing up and still living at home, our dad was so passionate about the fact that we were so into music that he documented so much of what we did, and he’s got all of our old demos on his desktop computer.
James: That’s amazing.
Katy: We’ve got CDs of old songs. And then a lot of the stuff we did with Ardyn, the second band that me and Rob did—
James: Tell us about that. I know Ardyn because of our sound engineer, Pete [Flinton] — you went on tour with Wild Beasts, and Pete was doing sound for Wild Beasts at the time, so he knew you.
Katy: Yeah! Our first ever London show was at the Roundhouse to support Wild Beasts. We were actually shitting ourselves, like just one year out of college. When we were 15, we ended up doing this battle of the bands in Gloucester. We were against these three other bands that were a lot older than us, and we played two of our own songs and we won. We were like, “What is going on?” And when we opened up this festival, we got spotted by this manager who came up to us and we were like, “Who is this guy?” I was like, “Mum, this guy keeps calling us. He’s offering all these big things…”
He and this other manager came down to our house, and the other manager was called Richard Donovan and he was head of Polydor and he like signed like like all the big artists I knew, like the Killers, Razorlight, worked with Kate Bush in the ‘90s and the ‘80s. And I was just sat there in this cul de sac with my parents — my dad with his little recorder, recording the conversation to make sure we didn’t get fucked over.
James: Wow, smart move.
Katy: Yeah. From that day, they started managing us. We were at school, but we had these two music moguls behind the scenes making sure we were still working on music. And then when we got a bit older, they sent us into the studio with Rodaidh McDonald, who did all The xx stuff. I left college early — I basically almost failed my art degree because I left early to go do this recording. I was like, Fuck it, I’m going to do this instead.
From this EP, we ended up getting signed to a major label called Methods when we’d just turned 19. It was a really bad decision because we were so young, we didn’t know what our identity was, what our sound was. Looking back now, I don’t regret it because I think all my friends went to uni and I had this crazy baptism of fire where I was working full time in London for two years, co-writing every single day, 10 hours a day with all these writers. And it was absolutely nuts and a lot of it I hated. The industry is fucked and there’s a lot of arseholes and creeps in the industry that I had to kind of battle with.
But it got to a point where they knew we weren’t going to write what they wanted and they sent us to LA to try and write some big hits. We worked with Dan Wilson from Semisonic. We wrote the most awful song with him, and the lyrics were so shit. I was like, What the fuck is going on? Like getting blood out of stone. We just couldn’t do what they wanted. And they finally were like, “Yeah, you know, you need to try and write a hit.” And we’re like, “We’re not going to.” So they finally dropped us, which was amazing.Me and my brother went out to celebrate, had a beer.
We were in a legal battle for a year and a half to get the songs back that we wanted, like “Fix Me Up,” “Miracle” — songs I’d written in that time. I was like, “Give me my fucking songs back. You’re not going to use them.” It was so lucky that they dropped us because if it was the other way around and we tried to get out of it, I wouldn’t have those songs on my album [2020’s Return].
James: Wow. So you went into the deep end early and swam with the sharks.
Katy: I swam with the sharks for too a bit too long. But I think I’m so bloody happy I did it, because I learned so much and such a kind of self-assurance. I knew exactly what I didn’t want. And when I got dropped, we were both so emotionally burnt out. We both had nervous breakdowns at separate points, both living back at home. And then I finally was like, Fuck, I need to move out. I need to move to Bristol and make a new life for myself. I’m just so happy that I persevered, because I have nightmares and wake up in sweats thinking, Oh, my, imagine if I hadn’t done that. Would I even be here talking to you about my career?
James: I think the idea that you can force a hit is so bollocks. You don’t know what people are going to react to. This idea that you can do the formulaic thing that creates an illusion on the brain, because the brain’s tricked into thinking it’s heard a hit song because it ticks the boxes. But with all the great songs, they’re not formulaic. They might be formulaic, but there’s a magic and the essence that you can’t force out of people. Some of the great songs are completely unconventional and make no sense. Elton John songs that are, like, six minutes long — they take ages to get to the chorus, and then the chorus goes down. “Rocket Man” is weird.
Katy: Yeah, exactly. And it makes it so baffling when I’ve been in these rooms and someone’s like, “OK, we’re going over by 20 seconds, so we need to cut that bit so the chorus comes in after 50 seconds.” It’s so mathematical.
I remember we were working with one guy for ages, and I have a younger brother and he knew this. He was like, “Right, guys, you know I’ve been working with you guys for so long now, and I really think if we want to write something that’s truly good, that’s going to hit, we need to get down to the deep stuff.” And then we were like, Oh, god, OK, what’s he going to say? And he was sat at the piano and he was like, “So I think we should talk about your younger brother. Do you feel guilty that he’s disabled? Because I think we should write a song about that.” Me and Rob were like, “No.” And we both left.
Katy: I rang my manager and I was like, “This is emotional blackmail.” Writers are literally are prodding artists like that to get a response, and I think there’s so much wrong with that. It’s not natural at all.
James: I don’t know about you, but have you ever sat down and gone, “I’m going to write a song about this”?
Katy: No. Never.
James: Exactly. You can’t force it. You write and then you figure out what it’s about.
Katy: I’m so glad you said that, because I think so often when journalists ask what a song is about, I say, “Well, it’s a subconscious feeling about something. I know it’s about something that is deep inside me and it’s connected to me, but I couldn’t tell you exactly what it’s about, you know?”
James: Completely. But you got through all that and you shunned the wankers and you’re absolutely fucking soaring now. What advice would you give to young women starting out who want to get into music, who see you and hear your music and go, “This is amazing. How do I do this?”
Katy: I think my advice would be lock yourself away in your room and write on your own for as long as you bloody can, and find one good collaborator you feel safe with that you know you trust. Do that for a bit, wait till you’ve got ten songs, gig the fuck out of your music. Gig, gig, gig, gig, gig. Don’t stop gigging. You need to flipping do the toilet tour — it’s all part of it. It’s fucking hard, but you should definitely do it. Also as a young woman, have that have your primal survival mode on at all times in all situations. Make sure you have a good team around you and also make sure you practice saying “no” in front of the mirror until you can say it properly to people in the room when they’re pushing you to write something shit. Practice saying “no” 100 times a day. No is a very important word.
James: Solid advice.
Katy: What about you? What advice would you give to young men and women of the world, on music and what the fuck to do?
James: Advice I’d give to young men is, just know that you do have leverage as a man, and you won’t see it a lot of the time because it’s expected of you to be in bands and stuff, so the carpet is rolled out for you bit. Just be aware of your space. It doesn’t mean you have to shrink yourself — just don’t step on toes. I had a lot of guilt about our success for a little bit because I felt like it was just, “Ah, four white men again with their guitars and everyone loves them.” But at the end of the day, I’ve worked fucking hard for this. I’ve come from a place of privilege, but I’ve also not come from a place of privilege. And you get one life and you have to live it.
Katy: Oh, absolutely.
James: But just constantly assess where you are and just do everything you can to support the women around you that are making music. That’s all you can do. Well, there’s probably more you can do — that’s the minimum.
Katy: That’s a great start. [Laughs.]
James: And women — I was a music teacher before this, and time after time the girls that I taught had the more interesting ideas, and they all felt they weren’t doing it right because they weren’t fucking playing Green Day songs. If any young person — or any person, any woman of any age — wants to get into it, you can do it and you should do it as well, I’d say.
Katy: Yeah. It is achievable. You’ve got to just fucking have a strong armor on.
James: Yeah. Kick against the pricks.
(Photo Credit: left, H Hawkline)