Little Birdy’s all grown up: an interview with Katy Steele

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Perth’s very own Katy Steele has been a mainstay on the Australian musical landscape for over a decade. She first rose to popular acclaim with her band Little Birdy, whose infectiously catchy singles regularly found their way into Triple J’s Hottest 100 charts.

Katy recently released her long-awaited debut solo album, Human. Influenced by her time spent living in New York, and recorded in her hometown of Perth, Human represents a watershed moment in the artist’s career. Striking out in a new direction, the album dispenses with the indie lo-fi sound we associate with Little Birdy, and instead fills up on the richer sonic textures afforded by the studio.

Katy took time out to talk to Cream about the album and her excitement at entering into a new phase in her career.

 

Interview by Chris Prindiville

Photography by Cybele Malinowski

 

Some of your new album was recorded while you were living in New York. Do you think the energy of the city influenced the record itself?
Yeah, it was really interesting being over there. Once Little Birdy wrapped up, I pretty much packed everything up, took all my instruments – my guitar and my pianos – and just moved into a little apartment over there. I had always written by myself, but I learned how to do all the production stuff myself. I wasn’t very good at it, but it was about that growth; about throwing yourself into the deep end. That was the main reason for going there. I’d say it’s a very emotional record, from a place of searching, and trying to put into words what I was going through.

 

When you think of New York, you think of those sort of bands that have a certain studied ‘cool’ and ironic detatchment, yet your album is very expressive and quite open. Is there a reason for this disconnect from how we usually perceive New York?
I actually came back to Perth and recorded the whole album here. New York was more about exploration and trying ideas and writing. That’s the kind of writer I am – I do write open and honest songs – and the stuff I was producing over there just wasn’t cutting the mustard.

 

When you came back to Perth, to continue writing and recording, was there something different you were tapping into?
Yeah, I think so. I had a very interesting time in New York, so I needed to come back and take time to process it all. I needed to re-evaluate things and work on what my strengths were. It’s kind of hard when you’ve been in a band and you want to do everything yourself. I’m not a really great producer, though I had a massive hand in this record, but I didn’t do it all by myself. I collaborated with someone. I just focussed on writing again, and writing from a very pure place. That’s what I am good at. That’s my strength. If you’re going to record a soul album, or songs that affect you, you sort of need to go through some shit. [Laughs]. I mean, “I had breakfast today. There wasn’t enough cheese on my scrambled eggs” is boring.

 

Following on from that idea of inspiration, besides music, obviously, where do you take your inspiration from? Are there particular films, art, books?
Yeah, I think just, generally, life. When I’m writing songs, there’s something that kind of sparks in you. You feel this desire to go to the piano. I work in a way where I record something on the piano then come back and edit. It’s actually a very long process. I get very inspired by visuals, by fashion and art, also film and other music. With music, it’s good to not listen to too much stuff when you’re in the studio. For someone like me, I might hear a Yoko Ono thing and then think, “I want to do the whole record like that!”. Then you change your whole vision. It can be a bit dangerous.

 

So it’s important to limit those outside influences and be more focused on your own personal experiences?
Yeah, it’s more stick to what you know. And don’t be influenced by current fads.

 

Moving on to the album itself, what was striking on initial listening was its big sonics, particularly in the choruses. Was that ‘wall of sound’ approach a conscious decision you made while recording the album?
We got into the studio and it just sort of happened like that. The guy who mixed the record, Eric Dubaski, who produced Chet Faker, he really added another element. Sonically, there’s a lot going on, but there’s also not that much in there – it’s just the instruments we chose. We used a lot of mellotrons, a lot of strings, obviously heaps of percussion, lots of vocals, lots of choirs. It kind of just turned out like that. When I first starting recording, I had this idea that I just wanted myself on the piano, a live band and a choir. That was it. Then the whole thing kind of transformed once we starting exploring ideas. It was really exciting, actually.

 

Another highlight on the record is the gospel-inspired choruses, where you want to clap your hands and join in. Was this a style of music you picked up on while you were staying in the US, or is it something you’ve always listened to?
I don’t know what happened. I just got back from America and there was something in me that realised that I wanted the record to be focused around the voice. I didn’t want to do anything too clever. I wanted the songwriting to speak for itself. I started to play around with writing songs like that. When I wrote It Ain’t Me, I thought, “this is cool, man, this is something else”. I don’t know where it came from; it just felt right.

 

You talked about making the voice the focal point of the record. Is there something about higher voices – like yours – that make a record more thrilling to listen to?
Maybe more dramatic.

 

I was thinking of the latest Tame Impala record, where Kevin Parker is pushing his voice into that higher register, aiming for something like a more emotional type of sound. Do you think this a direction that indie pop music is going in at the moment?
I haven’t noticed that. I feel that a lot of dance music has that low-octave thing, which I did a lot on my album as well, with the low, pitched-down vocals. With my album, in particular, that is just the range that I sing in. I am actually singing a lot lower on many of the tracks than I would’ve done with Little Birdy. My voice has matured so much. You can hear where I’ve been in my voice now. I think that when I was younger it was just a more youthful voice.

 

 

 

Do you stay in touch with what is popular on the charts?
Obviously I am aware of what is currently happening. But everything moves so fast these days that there’s no point in trying to fit in, as once you try and execute that, there is going to be some new fad coming in. From the age of 17, I have always just been about my songwriting. I think it’s really dangerous to worry about what’s happening [on the charts] too much. I’m independent, so I don’t have to answer to anyone. I think the major labels have a different opinion on that. [Laughs lots]. That’s kind of why I do my own thing; and I don’t have to answer to anyone, really.

 

Do you see yourself as fitting into a singer-songwriter tradition?
Yeah, but I also see myself as pushing things further, especially with this album. It would’ve been really easy to do things with just guitar and vocals, and recorded that. That’s why I didn’t want to do that, because I think it’s very cliche. When you leave a band, and the lead singer goes away to do a record, and it’s an acoustic, folk thing – it’s so cliche. Everyone does that, and it’s so boring. That’s one reason why I recorded the album this way; the second reason is, where I go from here is anyone’s guess. That’s what is exciting. I’m an artist, and I have such a huge hand in the production, I write all my own songs, so I’m just excited to see where I can take it next. This is just the first phase. I’m a really prolific writer, so I want to be in a position where I can continually put music out there.

 

So with your next album, we should expect something completely different, again?
Yeah, hopefully. Like I said, the thing that always ties it together is my songwriting and my voice. I think the production will always be different with each album. I’m always going to do something different.

 

I get the sense that there is a desire for a bigger, richer sound in pop music. Do you think your album is riding the wave of that?
I think that it is so much easier now to produce music because of programs like Logic. Everyone is a producer these days. Most of the artists you hear nowadays have probably produced their music themselves. You can do everything yourself these days. That’s the difference. And you’re going to hear it more in the current landscape. No one has got $2,000 a day to spend on recording in a studio when you can have a studio in your bedroom. It’s a different world.

 

I remember about 15 years ago that there was a backlash against autotune, or vocal processing and effects, but that stigma seems to have gone away entirely . It’s just a part of the recording process, and seen as something which adds texture and colour. Would you agree with that?
Yeah, I totally agree. It’s exciting now what people are creating.

 

Can you see yourself going back to your Little Birdy guitar sound, or is that something you’ve left behind completely?
I can’t really imagine it happening.I’m already thinking about the new release. I would like to get back on the guitar. But whatever I do in the future, it’s not going to be anything like Little Birdy. I have such wide eyes now in terms of production and sonics. I know what I like and what I don’t like. There is so much you can do. There is no way I wouldn’t make things as 3D as I can. It has to be sonically really exciting. Even if it s just guitar and vocal, I’m still going to explore with production.

 

In terms of the production, was there a sound that you had in mind going in?
When we first started [recording the album], I wanted to keep all the bass, the subs and the bottom end, similiar to what James Blake does, where it’s all moogs and quite subby. Then I wanted to have all the pianos in rows, and quite grandiose, and have the vocal and the gospel choir. That was kind of it. That was how I wanted to do it. Like I said, I was working with Matt Geo, and because he’s a drummer, we started adding all these other rhythms. Then I started to realise how much I love vocal production. I was messing around with Pro Tools myself, and this program, Crystalliser, which detunes the vocal. It was really fun. He [Matt Geo] has all these analogue synths, so we kept adding layer upon layer of sound.

 

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Going back to vocals, have you ever thought of having a foil to your own voice, perhaps a male singer, with a deeper sound, in order to create something different?
That sounds great. [Laughs]. I haven’t thought about that in a massive capacity. I would love to have the choir at the live shows, but unfortunately its too expensive to fly them around. When I first started writing the songs, I did a few shows around Perth and I was doing the songs live with a six-piece choir. It was really amazing. It was such a beautiful experience. It’s kind of great that the recorded has evolved from that. I just think there is so much power to the voice. And couple that with rhythm and good songwriting, and I think you’re on to something.

 

With all this experience you’re getting being in the studio, is production something you might want to pursue further? Would you be interested in producing someone else’s record?
Yeah, definitely. I’m going to have an EP out in April, so I want to keep lots of working coming out. I’m going to try and produce that possibly by myself, which is really exciting for me, as I want to set myself another challenge. I’ve been through some challanges myself, so it’s good to have something to aim for, I reckon. I’d love to do some work for another artist. I do a lot of co-writing, and write a bunch of pop songs behind-the-scenes. There is so much stuff you can into behind-the-scenes.

 

You mentioned going through some difficult experiences, did you conceive this album as a ‘coming back into the light’ sort of statement?
It definitely has that feeling. That is basically what happened. When I was overseas, I was really struggling, to be honest. I was writing a lot of music. But you can’t write good songs when you’re not in the right space mentally. So I got back to Perth and it was about wanting to put something positive out there. Then also realising and wanting to say, “it is hard, and it’s okay, you’ll get through it”. It’s important to realise that there is light at the end of the tunnel. That’s what I want people to get from this album. I want them to feel something, to feel that it’s okay to have a fucking shit day. There’s lots of good out there. That’s kind of what Where’s The Laughter is about. It’s about trying to find the good in your day, because it’s hard to get by sometimes. There’s a real vulnerability to the music. I feel better now because I put this music out there. And I hope that it’s going to help other people. At the end of the day, the main thing is, is that it helped me. It got me where I’m at now, and I’m ready to move on to the next phase. I’m thankful that people are going to hear that. if five people hear my album, that’s cool, my job is done. it’s all about documenting your emotions, I guess.

 

So when will you be touring the album?
In Australia, around January and February.

 

How about internationally?
I’m looking to take the album overseas. I might be going to the UK in November, but it’s not locked in at the moment.

 

It will be interesting to see how you translate those sounds from the album onstage.
We’ve got it pretty tight at the moment. It’s a pretty modern way of approaching live shows. We have a really cool band, and we’re using lots of samples. There is also a backing track that will kind of fill things out a little bit. It’s pretty much played all live.

 

‘Human’ is out now through Love And A Shotgun Records.

View the latest clip from the album, ‘Everywhere With You’, above.