Life after SAY with Kathryn Joseph
- Deborah Chu
- 10 September 2020
Ahead of the 2020 SAY Award, we speak to the 2015 winner about how the award impacted her life and career, and the state of the music industry under COVID
'It was the absolute best night of my life, and I've had a baby!' Kathryn Joseph laughs. The night in question is the 2015 SAY Award ceremony, which she won for her debut album, Bones You Have Thrown Me and Blood I've Spilled. 'I was just so sure there was no way I was going to win it, and I was already stressing about having to speak [on stage] about being on the shortlist, so the fact that I managed to do that was –' More laughter. 'I was drinking a lot, because I thought there was no chance I was having to get up there and do that [speak] again.'
And she would have to do it yet again in 2018, when her much-acclaimed second album, From When I Wake the Want Is, made the shortlist. The intervening years since her first win have been a flurry of activity under various forms and guises, including her Out Lines collaboration with James Graham and Marcus Makay; composing the music for the stage adaptation of Emma Donoghue's Room; and her immersive, stylised live performance piece of From When I Wake, created alongside innovative Glasgow producers Cryptic.
But in 2015, all that was not yet on the horizon. 'I basically didn't have a career before the SAY Award,' says Joseph from her lockdown base in Aberdeen. 'And then that happened. It completely changed my life. I feel like I owe everything to that happening. I feel really, really proud of having won it, and proud of our country for having it. It's something that should get more recognition, I think.' She's keen to point out in particular how the SAY Award stands out amongst its peers for its radical accessibility – there is no entrance fee, and the artist and/or band only have had to make Scotland their creative base for three years to qualify as a Scottish musician. (Compare this to, say, the Mercury Prize, which recently disqualified critically acclaimed London-based musician Rina Sawayama because she does not hold a British passport.)
This accessibility is a much-needed levelling of the playing field in an often unequal and precarious industry, allowing the music to be appreciated on its own terms. Joseph reflects, 'Someone like me, who didn't have any online presence really at all at that point, yet because I still made a record that got passed around and got heard – it's about that record and how that matters still.'
The winner of the SAY Award will collect a £20,000 cash prize, with nine runners-up each awarded £1,000. At a time like this, under the shadow of COVID-19, such a monetary boost could make or break one's career, especially as the arts and cultural industries continue to grapple with the shuttering of venues and restrictions around live events. 'I think [the prize] already is a lifeline for whoever wins it anyway, but especially now,' Joseph says. 'I think we all felt very paranoid about doing this as a job in the first place. You're not going to make very much money, no matter how successful other people perceive you to be. We're all just doing it because we love it. It's a very odd time to feel part of that, but also weirdly for me, I'm buying more records than I've ever bought. It's a weird circle, where we're realising how much we need it, but also how much we need to keep it safe at the same time.'
Money matters aside, in Joseph's view, that fateful evening at the 2015 SAY Award served as her introduction of sorts to the wider Scottish music community. 'I didn't know many people in the music industry at that point, and so many of them who were there, looking back, are some of my absolute best friends now. For me, the people I met have been absolutely the best part of this,' she says. 'I always felt so paranoid because I hadn't worked my way up, I hadn't been making records for ages, and I kind of like, wandered in as a fully formed older woman, going "hi!"' Joseph recalls. 'But instead everyone has just been so kind to me and so welcoming. I felt totally part of it, and I met people I will know for the rest of my life. It's a very special night. There's something really beautiful about the way that Scotland cares about the music, and the people who are doing it are just really good humans.'
Until that day when the normal flow of life returns and such vital encounters can take place again, Joseph has been making the most of her 'new normal', cycling to the sea and riding the waves of a creative burst under lockdown. 'I hadn't really written anything since the last record. I was at that point of being like, oh dear, maybe that's it and I'll never write another song again. Then weirdly, lockdown happened and I started to write again,' she says (as we rejoice).
So there's still much to look forward to, even in these bleak times – new music, new ways of connecting with others. As we discuss the SAY Awards this year, which will be taking place online for the first time in its history, Joseph reflects again on where it all began for her, five years ago. 'It's such a beautiful night,' Joseph notes wistfully. 'I'm sad that it won't be happening with the people there for whoever wins it, because it's a really special and beautiful thing to feel part of. But I think the way human beings are, no matter what happens, you adapt and everyone's just like, this is how it works now. And everyone can be united online. I think it'll be an even more amazing thing.'