Interview: Katy B on bringing everything to RockNess - including the kitchen sink
The chart-friendly, female face of dubstep
‘When I was 13, listening to Choice FM, I would listen to a lot of R&B from America, and whenever a British person tried to do it, it didn’t really work, they just sounded like they were trying to copy that whole style. Now the music sounds British, something real rather than an imitation.’
She may only be 21 but Katy B knows her genre, and can see how far the current UK scene has come in the past few years. Where British R&B and urban was once a bad joke, the long gestation of grime and dubstep has now produced a raft of genuine stars who dominate the UK charts. Katy B is unique among them as the only female artist with a track record of consecutive top ten hits, not to mention a number two album, Katy On a Mission, that was only kept off the top spot by Adele’s crushing popularity. Like her chart-mates – Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal, Tinie Tempah – she treads a fine line between urban integrity and pop gimmickry, but it’s a formula that has brought her legions of fans, few of whom would doubt her credibility.
‘Things go in cycles. It’s like fashion, like flares go out then skinny jeans come in, people want something fresh,’ adds Katy (real name Kathleen Brien). ‘It’s the strongest ever urban scene at the moment and I hope it can progress and keep getting stronger and be the base for something larger.’ True, home-brewed urban music is manna to UK record buyers right now, but Brien’s success is down to more than just people’s boredom with the American alternatives. Her regular collaborators, Magnetic Man – a supergroup comprising dubstep figureheads Skream, Benga and Artwork – recently turned themselves from gritty, South London trendsetters to a crowd-friendly chart outfit and festival booking (they also play this year’s RockNess on the Saturday). The trio, and producers like them, have only just finished laying the path to crossover success – now Brien is perfectly positioned to walk down it.
‘The [album’s] producers were Geeneus & Zinc. Between them they’ve made grime, jungle, house, UK funky and dubstep, so it’s a real mash-up hybrid of all those genres with my songwriting over the top,’ she explains. ‘Sort of a kitchen sink drama. I wrote it while I was at uni, so it involves everything in my life from raving to love, my friends and partying. You’ve got tracks like “Katy on a Mission” and “Lights On”, which are very upbeat, it’s all very electronic but some of the stuff is quite sad and much darker.’
Though ‘raving’ doesn’t appear in the plays of the original kitchen sink dramatists, Brien needn’t worry too much about her literary allusions when she has such evident pop smarts. Prior to studying popular music at Goldsmiths Unversity, she was at Croydon’s BRIT School, and has followed Adele, Amy Winehouse and Kate Nash out of that institution into the charts. To her credit, she has a background of involvement in bone fide underground hits, originally featuring on a number of house tracks as Baby Katie (including the Geeneus cover of Kevin Saunderson’s classic ‘Good Life’) before the aforementioned work with Magnetic Man (‘I love working with those guys, they’re hilarious’), then guesting on squiggly, electro thumper ‘Hold Me’ for The Count & Sinden’s Mega Mega Mega album. It was her collaboration with Benga, however, ‘Katy on a Mission’ – a resonant, bassy dubstep track – that ended up going top ten. By the time she toured Scotland this May, she was so in demand her Glasgow date was upgraded from King Tut’s to the Arches.
When we speak she’s crammed into the back of a van hurtling down the motorway towards Plymouth, where she’ll be finishing off her dates supporting Tinie Tempah, but still manages to be endearingly enthusiastic about the current music scene and the position she’s found herself in. ‘It’s been wonderful. I’ve got the best job in the world.’ Her highlight? The opportunity to collaborate with one of her musical heroes on single ‘Lights On’, another top ten hit. ‘You ask any female MC out there “who is your favourite MC?” and they’re gonna say “Ms Dynamite”. No question about that at all. She was definitely an influence on me; she’s a wonderful person, so humble and lovely. She’s a wicked role-model and she’s inspired me a lot because she came from pirate and garage and crossed over. She found it quite daunting as well so she’s been wicked to have around.’
A full live band will back her at RockNess, but it will still be Brien’s vocals that step into the spotlight – her distinctive delivery adding emotional depth and personality. She got a taste for festival crowds when supplying vocals for Magnetic Man in Reading Festival’s rammed dance tent last year, but this will be her first time out with her own music. ‘Because my music is quite energetic it’s a lot of fun performing the songs. It’s gonna be a great atmosphere; I can’t wait.’
Katy B plays the Goldenvoice Arena, RockNess, Fri 10 Jun.