Here’s one. What sort of computer is very good at singing? Answer: A Dell. That, readers, was a joke. Katy B likes jokes, so she has recently been asking her Twitter followers to tweet her some of their favourites. Consequently, in an attempt to “break-the-ice” during our State interview, your intrepid journalist ventures the following pathetic attempt at humour: Katy, how do you turn a duck into a soul singer? You put it in the microwave on full power until its bill withers! Ho-not-very-ho, eh? There follows a perplexed silence, which probably only lasts three seconds, but feels like several epochs. It is finally punctuated by Katy’s producer collaborator, Geeneus. “Hurhurhur!”, he guffaws. After several moments’ thought, Katy eventually acknowledges that she gets the joke but attempts to change the subject by saying “Oh I really love Bill Withers…” Hrrmmn. What is the best joke you’ve heard lately then, Katy? “Velcro! What a rip off!”, she says, practically slapping her thigh, a la Les Dawson.
We are in the lobby of a moderately swish hotel, and while most of the hotel’s guests sit in the restaurant eating lunch and reading the Sunday supplements, Katy B is tucking into breakfast (which in this instance consists of fish, chips and camomile tea with honey). In between munches, she is mulling over a particularly tricky question: “Do I have any secrets? Um…” After what seems like an age she just shrugs her shoulders. Curses! Is this the notorious Brit School “media training” paying off? Is she being evasive? This does not bode well for a “searching” interview, does it readers?. “Is it a scoop that she has the worst memory ever?”, offers her producer Geeneus. Oh dear.
It’s not surprising that Katy is struggling to speak today. She has been very busy of late. She has recorded ‘Anywhere In The World’ – a promotional single with Mark Ronson for the Olympics. She has been nominated for a Mercury prize, has had a top 2 album and three top 10 singles, and she has singularly failed to be nominated for – let alone win – a Brit (which all sensible people agree is a swizz). With whirlwind tours, endless promotion, and high-profile collaborations; she has barely had time to eat or sleep, and today is no exception. The girl is famished and prone to lengthy silences, which give the impression she is choosing her words very carefully. Geeneus, a cheerful bloke whose affable demeanour is in stark contrast to the often dark, brooding electro he creates as one third of Magnetic Man, is engrossed in his smartphone during the duration of our time together, but occasionally he looks up and emits a laugh so hearty you could make it interview Grace Jones and call it Russell. “Hur hur!”, he chortles, at regular intervals. “I don’t have so much time to relax now although we went out last night”, Katy explains, “and yes I did get drunk. It’s awful seeing people get drunk on the street at night time. But as I get older I’m finding the right level.” Geeneus: “You sleep every chance you get! Hurhur!” Katy: “Yes, I bring a little blanket around with me.”
Katy Brien – the “rien” has been excised from her pop star “handle” – is a very level-headed, down to earth woman who takes this pop business in her stride. Her debut album On A Mission was a huge commercial and critical success but this hasn’t fazed her one little bit (“Life’s pretty good right now”, she chirps, somewhat understating things one suspects). Mission accomplished you would think, but she’s already moved onto album number 2. The kindly PR lady who is working with Katy gushes about her client in the way a proud sister would talk of their younger sibling. PR people do this all the time. They are paid to enthuse over their artists and pull them out of interview situations if things get sticky. But this one doesn’t do this in a PR sort of way, she means it. Not many artists command the same kind of affection.
You don’t necessarily need to know a lot about pop music to be very good at making it. However, Katy B does know a lot about pop music. She studied it at Goldsmiths College, part of the University of London. This of course raises the very traumatic possibility of having to write about LMFAO as part of one’s homework. As it turns out, Katy was a complete girlie swot. “I got three distinctions”, she boasts. “I enjoyed it – I had 100% attendance cause I was so into it. I loved it. But at the same time I would get in trouble now and again. Not for serious things. I think I was a good student. Maybe I talked a bit too much. Sometimes I’d get told off for singing in class.” Was the work ever a drudge? “Interpretation of Music was the worst lecture ever”, she complains, “It was just this man saying ‘interpretation’ over and over about a hundred times. I remember talking to him after class one day and he was saying ‘How are you finding the course?’ I was like ‘I don’t understand it!’ Some of it was amazing. We got to arrange big band scores.” Managing to study must have been an effort given the other temptations the clubbing lifestyle has to offer. But it turns out college was about as “bohemian” as the extra-curricular stuff. “Goldsmiths was very ‘left’, very experimental,” she explains, “not commercial at all. It was great for me to go to somewhere which was very ‘outside the box’ and it definitely opened my mind. Although there were also a lot of older people on my course and they were very focused.”
Presumably pop was an obsession from an early age? “When I was growing up I liked pop in general”, she declares, “but in my early teens I got into a lot of R’n’B – a lot of Alisha Keys, Destiny’s Child, Faith Evans. A lot of American stuff but also pirate radio, British dance stuff I heard in clubs. When I say I like garage…I was about 11 when that stuff came out so a lot of it completely missed me.” Geeneus looks up from his phone and shoots me a glance: “I’m used to getting treated like ‘the old one’…” he comments, ruefully. The biggest influence on Katy B’s music, according to herself, is “UK funky. The producers I work with have done jungle, grime, funky – I’m a merge of all those things.” The music which emerges from these influences sounds like all of the best dancepop of the last 25 years in one glorious mash-up, has earned Katy B deservingly positive attention. But one wonders how Katy copes with negative attention: more specifically the tendency for bellends on Twitter to treat you harshly because you’re a famous pop person. “Oh yeah people do that”, she responds, “but you have to grow a thick skin. Sometimes someone will say something about my personality or the way I look. You just bounce back from it and remember it’s trivial talk.”
One thing which comes across quite strongly when you meet Katy B is her unflappability. She is entirely sensible, and although she likes to go mad on a night out like any sensible young person does, she seems unlikely to go properly bonkers due to the “pressures of fame”. Nevertheless it is the responsibility of the interviewer to unearth the sources of the drives behind an artist’s desire to be loved, is it not? So, did you have any odd habits as a “youth”, Ms B? “I used to pretend to be Dick Whittington.” Er, come again? “Yeah, I’d dress up and take a broom and tie a hanky round the end like he did. This was in Peckham. Sometimes I’d get as far as the end of the road. I didn’t want to leave home, I just liked the story. Sometimes I’d sit outside my house at night time and my mum would take me back in and lock the doors so I couldn’t do it again. I was about five.” How odd. Would you ever appear on I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here? “Nah. The only celebrity shows I’d go on are Come Dine With Me or Who Do You Think You Are. Have you seen that? It’s wicked! I’d go to Ireland. I could have been called Katy O’. My grandad was Irish but he dropped the O’ to get a job. And I’d contact my sister’s mum through a seance.”
And as our conversation comes to an end, Katy chomps her last chip and leafs through the pages of the Sunday supplement which is draped over the arm of her chair. She happens to be on its cover.
Mark Ronson and Katy B’s ‘Anywhere In The World’ is available now as a digital download.