Katy J Pearson’s New Album, ‘Sound of the Morning’ will Take You By the Hand and Guide You Through the Good and the Bad – the Musical Equivalent of an Arm Around the Shoulder, Really.
Katy J Pearson would like you to know that she is not a country singer. Sure, there was an influence of the genre to the now-26-year-old’s celebrated debut Return – an album that saw Pearson snowball from Bristolian newcomer to a critically-acclaimed breakthrough star, selling out shows up and down the UK – but there’s also much, much more to her magnetic blend of soaring, widescreen melodies and warm, intimate storytelling than just three chords and the truth.
“There was one music video [for ‘Tonight’] that I did in the beginning where I line-danced and was wearing rhinestones, and from there it just turned it into this real thing,” she laughs. “Every review would be ‘country-tinged’ whereas actually, there was literally one country song on the record really. But I think that’s what’s good about the new record, that I think it’s not what people expect from me. When people ask me what the new album sounds like, it’s just… a bit different?!”
Happy to wax lyrical about the relative merits of Townes Van Zandt, Elton John, and Fugazi within the same breath, there’s always been a lot going on in Pearson’s musical palette (FYI she’d call her debut more of a folk-rock LP, if anything). But though the critics might have skewed the specifics of Return – released via Heavenly Recordings in November 2020 – the acclaim for the album still came pouring in. Having had a previous taste of the industry via a major label project that quickly turned sour, the difference this time around was tangible: praised for “the arresting quality of [her] Kate Bush-meets-Dolly Parton vocal delivery” by The Times, labelled as “finding humanity in every moment” by DIY and with lead single ‘Take Back The Radio’ described as “a whoop of pure joy” in the Guardian, amidst the bleak toll of lockdown, something about this curiously optimistic album began to really resonate.
“It was terrifying getting to the point of releasing a debut after making music for eight years, like woah!” she says with an exaggerated grimace (random noises and excitable gestures are par-for-the-course in a Pearson anecdote). “But weirdly it feels like it couldn’t have come out at any other time. It felt like everything people were saying to me [during lockdown] was everything that I’d been feeling when I wrote that album; it was a very personal album for me, and it was released at a time when a lot of people were in their house, feeling isolated. It was the antidote to a lot of peoples’ lives.”
It feels fitting then that, having provided an aural balm at just the right moment with her first album, its follow-up should reflect a world brimming with curiosity, back in action, and wanting to expand its horizons. If Pearson’s extracurricular activities recently have shown that she can dip a toe into a multitude of genres – providing guest vocals on Orlando Weeks’ latest album Hop Up; popping up with Yard Act for a collaboration at 2021’s End of the Road festival; singing on trad-folk collective Broadside Hacks’ 2021 project Songs Without Authors – then second album Sound of the Morning takes that spirit and runs with it. It’s still Katy J Pearson (read: effortlessly charming, full of heart, and helmed by that inimitable vocal), but it’s Katy J Pearson pushing herself musically and lyrically into new waters.
Written and recorded in late 2021 after a self-prescribed period of downtime spent walking, going on daily cold-water swims, and “just chillaxing massively”, even the credits on Sound of the Morning profess a new thirst for experimentation from the singer. Joining Return producer Ali Chant on desk duties this time was Speedy Wunderground head honcho Dan Carey, who worked with Pearson on some of the album’s grittier tracks. “Dan got a completely different structural, songwriting style out of me which is what I wanted: something a bit more confident and in your face,” she nods. “He could see that there was a part of me that wanted to branch out, I just didn’t know where and how far to push it, but it was exactly the kind of progression I was looking for.”
The slithering bass riff that underpins ‘Alligator’, offsetting its cathartic chorus is a case in point. “I was in such a bad mood that day because I’d had this huge E.ON bill to pay which was £500. I was on the phone to my dad, like, ‘Dad! I’ve fucked it!’” she recalls. “I walked into the studio and just burst into tears, and Dan was like, ‘Let’s just write a song’. We started writing this really jangly thing and that became the start of ‘Alligator’.”
Perhaps the biggest surprise, meanwhile, comes in the tense, Carey-produced ‘Confession’. Written after a conversation with her mum sparked by the #MeToo movement, it’s an anxious rattle of a song that’s both abstract and painfully timeless. Yes, in this specific instance, “it was a very long time ago when it happened”, but as the song’s repetition seems to suggest, it was happening then, and it’s happening now and it will probably keep on happening.
“When I listen to that song, it’s abstract but it feels very personal and strong to me and hopefully to the women around me. I think that song has so much anxiety and tension in it because every day, women are faced with triggering aspects of things that have happened to us – especially in music, I’ll be going to a gig and there’ll be some fucking creep there,” she explains. “It’s completely universal for so many of us, and I’m glad I’ve got a song that represents that because, as I’m getting older as a person and as a woman, I want to sing about this because I’m fucking angry. It’s nice to have an angry and an unnerving song on my album.”
That Pearson decides to follow such a dark sonic moment with the sparse, traditional folk lilt of ‘The Hour’ (penned in its stripped back form, she chuckles, because the acrylic nails she was wearing at the time didn’t allow for anything more complex) is typical of Sound of the Morning. It’s an album that’s as comfortable revelling in the more laid-back, Real Estate-esque melodies of lead single ‘Talk Over Town’ – a track that attempts to make sense of her recent experiences, of “being Katy from Gloucester, but then being Katy J Pearson who’s this buzzy new artist” – as it is basking in the American indie pop of ‘Float’, penned with longtime pal Ollie Wilde of Pet Shimmers, or experimenting with the buoyant brass of ‘Howl’, in which Orlando repays the favour with a vocal guest spot.
Even the fact that Pearson has allowed herself to embrace these other voices and viewpoints makes for notable personal progress. “On my first record I was so against collaborating because I’ve been undermined so much as a female artist in the past, writing-wise. So being in a situation where I’m working with my friends who are also super talented musicians is such a different way of doing things,” she says.
It all makes for a record that’s increasingly unafraid to explore life’s darker parts, but that does so with an openness that’s full of light. As an artist who professes to “always strive for the bittersweetness of things”, Sound of the Morning does just that, taking the listener’s hand and guiding them through the good and the bad, like the musical equivalent of an arm around the shoulder. “I want people to feel things with my music, but I don’t want to cause my listener too much trauma,” she notes with a cheeky glint. “Counselling is expensive, so you’ve got to pick your battles…”
The record ends with a cover of ‘Willow’s Song’ by Paul Giovanni, taken from the 1973 soundtrack of The Wicker Man. Reinterpreted with a krautrock inflection, it might not have been from her pen but it’s a strangely appropriate way to summarise Katy J Pearson’s appeal: someone who takes classic, timeless ideas and spins them into new forms. It also leaves the door tantalisingly open for what’s to come – as she says herself, “I think it’s really nice to finish the album on something that isn’t mine but is still this ending moment – it’s like it’s saying, ‘What is she going to do next?’”
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