[caption id="attachment_12569" align="alignnone" width="640" caption="Katy B performs at the V Festival in Chelmsford, UK, August 20, 2011. Photo: Mark Holloway/Redferns"][/caption]
Over the last few years, as dance music became preoccupied with thumping wobble, the concept of the proper dance diva seemed a thing of ‘90s house nostalgia. But while most producers had their heads primarily in the low-end, the masterminds behind the iconic London radio station Rinse FM were working with a secret weapon: Katy B, a talented, powerful soprano barely out of her teens who could belt out angelic vocals strong enough to overpower a sub-woofer. Teaming up with Rinse proprietor Geeneus, in 2009 she dared cover Inner City’s classic “Good Life” -- and, though it was one of her first tracks as Katy B, she made good on the promise, revitalizing a classic with fresh juice for a new generation. After collaborating with dubstep supergroup Magnetic Man and releasing her own debut album On a Mission, Katy B is now better known than any of her producers -- and her music exalts both the dance music diva and the regular girl just itching to get to the club.
After playing her first-ever New York show this past summer -- a three-song set in the penthouse club of a swank hotel overlooking the city -- Katy B sat down with Hive to discuss being a teen prodigy, the recent evolution of club music and, of course, what goes down on the dance floor.
How did you start singing in the way you do? You started out performing as Baby Katy. Did you always sing dance music?
Yes, I started when I was about 16, so I started quite early. I’d always kind of always done little bits and pieces, like if anyone needed a hook on a grime tune, I’d be like, pick me, pick me! I played piano which was like classical music, and I did random instruments, like French horn. I’ve been involved in loads of music-type things like choirs and I started bands at school. I was in a live hip-hop band and a live soul, jazzy sort of thing. But by the time I started making music and getting together what I wanted my sound to encompass all my influences, rather than just make a jazz record.
So how did you hook up with producers like NG, and later Geeneus and the other Rinse FM guys?
Just through people I knew. I’d done a tune with my friend’s brother and that kind of led to other people and then I did a tune with NG, “Tell Me What It Is,” and he was on Rinse FM at the time, so that’s how I met Geeneus. Then Geeneus had this idea where he wanted to use all the DJs from Rinse FM who were producers as well and put together a combination album, but he needed a singer to link them all together, a relatively unknown one. It was more about the station and the producers. But in the end, it turned out to be my album. It took quite a long time, and I worked really well with Zinc and Geeneus, so yeah, it just turned into my own thing.
You’ve been working on On a Mission for a long time?
Yeah, I was like, I think when I first started doing demos I was like 17. “Hard to Get,” the last one on the album, I wrote when I was 18. It’s mad, isn’t it?
You have the diva vocal thing going. Growing up, did you listen to garage and house?
Yeah, a lot of those songs I’ve based my singing on -- those kinds of house tunes where you might not necessarily know who the singer is.
There weren’t that many divas or singers in dance music for a while there, until UK funky house came along. Was that just a natural progression for you?
Some of the first tracks that I did were cheesy garage. UK garage was a really vocal kind of dance music, but when that died a lot more of the DJs that were playing garage started playing house again. When that got more popular with the kind of people who used to listen to garage, then those DJs and producers tried to make it, but it didn’t sound like house because it was coming from London where people had influences like grime and soca and all these different things. So it just sounded like “UK funky.” This was before it was called UK funky, and I was like, yeah let me do a tune like that. I wanted to write a song like ... do you know Dennis Ferrer, do you know that song “The Cure and The Cause?” [sings chorus.] It was a big house tune all over the world -- but for that particular crowd it was something different. I wanted to write something like that which was just a regular kind of house tune but it sounded like something totally different.
How old were you when that happened?
I must have been like 17.
You were in school at the BRIT School at the time? Is that place a big deal?
I don’t know, I think more like recently. I’m from South London and it’s in South London, so it wasn’t -- I mean, I knew a lot of older people who went there because they said they wanted to study music there, so I really wanted to go. I think now that Adele’s come out of there, and Amy Winehouse and people like that, there’s been more press about it and stuff. But my secondary school was more oversubscribed to get in. Finding a good secondary school in London is hard. So it wasn’t so bad at the time to try and get in there.
Let’s get deeper into making On a Mission.
You know, they’re all producers who make quite instrumental music anyway, they would give me the beat first and then I would write the song on the top of it, so it was whatever emotion [their music] sparked in me. Some beats that people give me make me feel really frustrated and I just want them to get somewhere, and I’ll usually write about what’s frustrating me in my life. “Lights On” for instance, that song just sounded really happy and just made me want to dance. So I just wrote about my predicament over the weekend of the lights coming on and not being ready to go home yet. I guess it’s whatever the music says to me.
In your songs and videos, you sing about dancing and love and really things like normal people can relate to. You seem really chill and living your life and hanging out. Is that who you are?
Yeah, definitely! I’d feel like an idiot if i sort of ... especially because my songs are about normal things, I don’t want to dress up in a lion’s suit or something and pretend it’s like really weird. It’s not, I want it to connect with people and I want them to feel like they can relate to it.
Are you writing new songs right now?
I have been given beats from producers that I’m meant to be writing too so I need to do that. I’m meant to be writing. But I haven’t had any time these last few days. Also, I think I’m going to Ibiza, I think we’re going to get a villa out there and put a studio on it and have a work and holiday thing in between dates cause I’ve got a couple of shows.
Wow, that’s real.
Yeah, the songs will be like I’m in the suuuuuun!
On a Mission is out now on Columbia Records.