To the untrained ear, the various strains of British electronic music can be something of a tangle — an intimidating stack of genres and offshoots that seems to grow every six seconds. For those of us too cowed to try to separate our garage from our wonky, there’s Katy B, a 22-year-old British songwriter who, along with a host of unimpeachable, high-cred producers, distill the best parts of the genre’s myriad strains, emerging with something that is sleek and warm and immediate. How immediate? She’s already netted a pair of Top 10 singles in her home country, both from a debut album that peaked at No. 2 on the U.K. album charts and netted her a nomination for the 2011 Mercury Prize. And while they initially scan as the best kind of pop — warm, bright and sensual — hidden deep in the tracks are scores of production tricks: the skittering rhythms of dubstep, techno’s cool bands of sound, funky’s rich, soulful textures.
eMusic’s Amelia Raitt talked to Katy about her entré into electronic music and her time at the prestigious BRIT school, which also launched the careers of Adele and Kate Nash.
On the early appeal of Jill Scott and Alicia Keys:
I like the musicianship in their voice. They’re really amazing singers technically as well. And, especially with Jill Scott and Alicia Keys, they write their stuff. I love female singers, because they understand — that’s the great thing about their songs, you feel like you just relate to them and that you have someone who’s speaking to you. So when you’re going through hard times and trying to figure out what it means to be a young woman, you look to music and you realize, ‘Oh they’ve been there before. They can relate and kind of explain it.’ It’s like therapy.
On attending the BRIT School:
There are 30 young people [in each class] who are all interested in music, and who all come from different places, and all have different ideas about music. So you’re all constantly giving each other CDs to listen to and chat with each other about — just really inspiring each other. I think it’s something really nice, that organic place to be. You’re not going there and working with producers who are 20 years older than you and who are telling you what to do. You’re all working with each other and you’re all the same age. Everyone sort of forms bands and starts working with each other; we did a big [collaborative] performance of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band one year. I sang “With a Little Help from My Friends.” Another year we did Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd. We were just learning a lot about the artists you’re supposed to know about if you want to be a proper musician — Stevie Wonder, the Beatles…everyone, really.
On discovering the rave scene and the benefits of performing sober:
There had always been dance tracks in the chart while I was growing up, and “garage” was around when I was about 11 or something like that. I think when I was about age 16, I started doing, like, appearances in clubs — even though I wasn’t old enough to be at the club. And that’s kind of how I got into it. I met more producers who needed singers for their beats. And I was like, “Yeah, ‘course I’ll do it.” I started going out more — and it was like a vicious cycle. That’s how I met Rinse, my [U.K.] label. I started making my album, and then because they put on club nights and stuff like that all the time, I just started going to them all the time, like every week. I remember being really nervous, and thinking, “Look at all these old people in the club.” They were all, like, really cool, and I didn’t really know what was going on.
I remember getting in a bit drunk. I remember the DJ’s girlfriend buying me some shots of vodka and then going onstage. I remember getting home, and my mom was like, “How was it!” and I was like, “Oh, it was fine, I had a bit to drink.” And she was like, “Don’t do that. You shouldn’t do that, because then you’ll start needing it to perform.” I always remember that — ’cause it feels good to have a bit of “Dutch Courage,” but now I go on stage sober. Because, just imagine if I did that every single time. I don’t want one of those people who are wasted on stage.
On collaborating with top-drawer dubstep producers Zinc, Geeneus and Benga:
They were making instrumental music in their own right for years, and so [when we first started working together] I’d usually just get an idea track — maybe, like, a sketch of the beat, and I’d write a little bit. Then they’d take it back and if it was dumb, just nix it, or just go back and put extra production on it. Like the song on that album, “Disappear,” me and Geeneus went into the studio at like 10 o’clock at night and came out at like six in the morning, and the whole thing was finished. He went back in to mix it and he really didn’t have to do that much to it. It was just this one little session.
I really like working that way. I think you need to know the person a bit and feel really comfortable with them. I’ve noticed that sometimes when I go to write things with people and I’ve not really known them, you don’t really know when you put an idea forward if you’re going to tread on people’s toes. It’s quite difficult. I worked with another singer in the past who I wrote a song with — another singer that I really liked — and it was like we were both compromising. We came out with something that wasn’t as good. It was a bit of a strange moment. I feel like to get good music, I need to get kind of intimate.
On why, as per “Easy Please Me,” these days she can’t find a man to please her:
I can be picky. I don’t like guys that wear a really low V-neck. You know those that have the hair coming out? I don’t like that. I don’t like it when — Oh my god, where I live in South London, they have no idea how to behave at all. They just shout things at you walking down the street. So stay away from those things, and it’ll be love.