“I Was A Proper R&B Girl, Really”: An Interview With KATY B

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South London bred dance pop singer Katy B is really fabulous. In a genre where strong, meaningful vocals are often sacrificed for mindless bass drops, Katy B stands out as a singer with chops so urgent they touch your soul, and club beats so sick they’ll get you turnt all the way up.

Katy B, a powerful singer with fire-engine red hair, studied music in the famous Pop Music degree program at Goldsmiths, University of London, not far from where she grew up in Peckham, South London. In February 2014 Katy released a #1 sophomore record Little Red, out on Rinse, Columbia and Sony Records. It’s hard not to relate to tracks like “5 AM,” an addictive upbeat tune about dancing your worries away in a club all night long, or going-through-a-bad-breakup-but-gurl-you’ll-be-alright anthems like “Still.”

We caught up with Katy just before her headlining performance at Birmingham Gay Pride and talked about pizza, her love for Aaliyah and growing up in South London.

You’re headlining Birmingham Gay Pride — which, yay! Do you feel it’s important to support your gay fans?

100%! Two of my best friends are gay and the first clubs I ever went to were gay clubs, and I still go to gay clubs as much as straight clubs. My friends are gay, and one of my best friends is lesbian and a few months ago she didn’t even have that many lesbian friends, so I had to be her kind of lesbian wing woman and go to loads of lesbian nights, and it was really funny because there were all these people coming up to me, “Oh we always knew you were gay!” [laughs] I thought, “Well I’m not gay, but I’m an honorary gay.” So I’m really, really passionate about gay rights and just celebrating the culture in general. I have to say it’s very close to my heart, I feel very much a part of it.

What were some of the first gay clubs you went to?

When the G-A-Y was at the Astoria, I remember going there all the time. Heaven, Zanzibar, going out in Vauxhall, I used to go out in Vauxhall all the time. Pop Stars — everything. I went to lots of different things. I went to Horse Meat Disco the other night in Vauxhall, which I love. I love the music. Oh, and Dalston as well! Dalston Superstore, I go there quite a lot.

Oh nice! I live right down the street from there.

Sick!

Yeah, I’ve only been here a week and I just discovered the Jaded After Hours at Corsica Studios.

Oh, I’ve never been there!

Yeah, it’s nice! Basically the venue is right under the Elephant and Castle tube stop —

Oh, I’ve been to Corsica, but I haven’t been to Jaded.

As much as your record has a dance music tinge, it also feels quite personal. How do you translate these raw, personal emotions for the dance floor?

Being on the dance floor is quite a reflective moment. When I’m on the dance floor I’m trying to either forget all my worries or celebrate, one or the other. So I’m always thinking about something that is present in my life. A lot of the time I’ll get an instrumental from a producer and close my eyes and really try and connect to the beat, connect to what the music is trying to say to me. It usually taps into some type of nostalgic feeling, like a memory of a feeling that I felt. Or even just a conversation. A lot of times I get inspiration from conversations that I’ve had with my friends and them telling me about their worries.

Simon Emmet
Simon Emmet

But what’s your songwriting process? Do you keep a journal?

I never used to write things down, I never used to think, “Oh, I’m one of those people who will be sitting on the train and an idea will come into your head. But yeah, I’ve got a little book that I carry around with me for just ideas in general, really. Like if I have to think about putting on a show or brainstorm or whatever. But most of the time I’ll go to the studio or I’ll be in my bedroom at home and really have to focus. It takes a lot of energy out of me, writing a song. It’s not something I do easily, I have to really, really concentrate.

Being on the dance floor is quite a reflective moment. When I’m on the dance floor I’m trying to either forget all my worries or celebrate, one or the other.

What was it like growing up in South London?

I love South London because, especially where I grew up in Peckham, it’s really chilled out. It’s not uptight. You can walk down the street and there are brightly colored vegetables and the butcher will be playing music and there’s a hair salon called Beyoncé.

Yaaasss!!

It’s just really funny, it’s amazing.

Where is that? I’ve got to go there as soon as we’re done.

[laughs] Yeah, do it. It’s in Peckham. It’s just a really colorful, vibrant, and like I said everyone’s quite chilled out and laid back. It’s changed a lot now, it’s getting a lot more gentrified but it still carries on that character, like Dalston as well. I love Dalston. It’s sort of all different characters, and I love the market, Ridley Road, I get my vegetables there. It’s a nice mix of people, of art and people just trying to make a living, and there’s music, and everything’s a bit more in your face, rather than other parts of London.

Beyonce Hair Salon In Peckham, South London
Beyonce Hair Salon In Peckham, South London

I’m really curious about what you were listening to growing up, especially given the type of soul-infused dance music you make today. I know your dad was a musician, too.

My mom was really into pop music in general. There used to be a shop in England called Woolworths, and that would be our religion. Every saturday we would go and she would buy an album, and it wouldn’t necessarily have a specific genre, but it was just like whatever was the catchy song. Whereas my dad grew up in the 60s, so he loved a lot of vocal harmony things, a lot of Motown, The Four Tops, The Temptations, The Beach Boys, Nina Simone. He loves blues as well, so that was always there. My brother used to love love love really ghetto R&B, Timbarland & Magoo, all the early stuff. Really, really old school. But I also listened to Faith Evans, Mary J. Blige, stuff like that. I was a proper R&B girl, really.

There’s even a track on your record called “Aaliyah (featuring Jessie Ware).” How did that track come about?

Basically I got this this beat and it sort of catapulted me into the scene of being in this really dark basement club and there was a kind of sexual tension in this scene in my head. I was thinking about this girl who could dance really, really amazingly, so I created this character and I wanted her to have a name because I really like songs that have a name. I went on my iTunes and Aaliyah came up first and I just put that in there as a temporary name so I can write the song, but after a while she was my muse.

Simon Emmet
Simon Emmet

Well knowing that, I definitely have to ask what’s your favorite Aaliyah song.

Do you know what? I really like “More Than A Woman,” “We Need A Resolution” I think. Oh wait, but then. Oh gosh, [laughs]. Last year I added a little Aaliyah medley to the end of when I performed “Aaliyah” on my festival set. “More Than A Woman” — the melody is just so beautiful to sing.

You studied pop music at Goldsmiths, University of London, a program known for producing top notch talent. How did what you learned there impact your craft?

Goldsmiths likes to push boundaries. You can’t just do a song and sing a standard song — you’d have to do something, and you’d have to prove how you were doing it differently than everyone else. You had to really think about things deeply. It wasn’t very based on thinking about the industry, just the craft.

Okay, judging by your Twitter feed you love pizza. I love pizza too! Before I moved here someone told me that I absolutely HAD to go to Pizza East in Shoreditch. What are some of your London pizza recommendations?

Oh my god! Pizza East is so good. That have this pizza, it’s built with meatballs. It is the most amazing thing you’ll ever eat, definitely. TC mark

***Be sure to catch Katy B’s Little Red tour this October. Check here for dates.

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