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As the dust settles following her 2020 debut album, Return, the boho’d silhouette of Wild West Country gunslinger Katy J Pearson heads for the Mersey shores.
An afternoon gig? In a library? In Widnes? Stranger things have happened over the last 12 months, but if this is the so-called new normal then count me in. With over 800 of them locking up for good since 2010, our libraries have known sacrifice long before the viral apocalypse reached these shores.
But there’s something far more noble at play here. Get It Loud In Libraries aren’t just signalling the gig drought’s end, they’re helping to bring live music – and the wider creative opportunities it affords – to our metropolitan peripheries; our towns and suburbs that have, for far too long, become something of a live performance no-man’s land that never get as much as a whiff of a tour van’s exhaust pipe.
Beyond references to Spike Island and Widnes train station’s claim to Paul Simon’s Homeward Bound, the music annals of the Liverpool City Region Borough of Culture 2021 are somewhat muted. But if any venue is to welcome KATY J PEARSON’s West Country Americana to the Viking shores of Halton, then Widnes Library’s as good a start as any.
Having departed the charts-churn pressures of a former major label to join the Heavenly Recordings family, the self-crowned “70s Texas mom” is ready to hit the highway after releasing her country-pop debut in November 2020. She phones in to reveal all.
Hello Katy, it’s been quite a year. What were your initial thoughts when you released Return as we went into that second lockdown back in November?
It was challenging for me, because it’s taken such a long time to finally release my album and of course you have so many expectations about what that’s going to be like. But it was really frustrating when I realised that it was going to be coming out in lockdown when I couldn’t celebrate with my label, friends or family. But there were so many positives that came out of it. I felt it got more of a reach because so many people had pulled their campaigns. As a new artist I had nothing to lose by doing that, so we were like, ‘Let’s do it’. I kind of just got over it and realised that, you know, I’m still releasing my album; I’m still getting to hold it and, to be honest, looking back now, I’m so happy with how it’s gone down.
The album is not without its own backstory, which has been well documented, regarding some unfortunate experiences with a former major label and its pressures of hit-making. Is it fair to say we see something of a new beginning in Return?
Definitely. I’m 25 now, I didn’t go to university – I went straight into working with a major label when I was 19. I had just left my foundation art course and me and my brother were living such a weird kind of life where all our friends were at uni doing uni stuff and I was, like, doing really serious music stuff. They were my first few years of being a young adult and having to really get challenged and, in a way, if I’d just had it easy, I probably wouldn’t be doing this now, because I think having that challenge made me even more determined that this was what I wanted to do.
Has this migrated over to your creative process? Are you more in-tune with who you were all along now that you have a much more independent scope?
One hundred per cent. I have such a good team around me, and I feel so comfortable just doing whatever I want. I think all I needed to do was to get that first album out and know that I could do it and achieve it. And, in terms of directing my music videos, they were all collaborative except for Something Real, so I was very much involved. It’s just given me that confidence that, you know, I can really get stuck into all aspects of the project and not just be the writer and singer. I can spread myself all over it.
Speaking of your videos, from sunset-glazed equine shots to line-dancing and rhinestone-embroidered suits, they provide such a cinematic backdrop to your country storytelling. What’s it like bringing your music to the screen and how did you manage to choreograph Cher the horse in Fix Me Up?
I just think filming music videos when you’re on a shoot with a crew and you’ve got your friends involved as extras is so fun. We filmed Fix Me Up at this lovely horse-riding centre in Clapton-in-Gordano just outside Bristol on the way to Portishead – there was a really lovely couple that ran it, and they were the sweetest. But with Cher the horse, she was like, huge. I was quite scared because she was just so done listening to my songs and kept neighing really loudly and I was just holding her reins thinking, ‘I’m gonna die’. But it was all fine and Cher was an absolute star.
Your music marries country inflections with earworm pop melodies, and you’ve even covered songs from the likes of Lucinda Williams and Jackson C Frank for your Covers & Others series. Where do these country heroes come from? Is it something that was incubated growing up around the plains of Gloucestershire?
My parents were really into their music and my dad especially. He gave me music and brought me and my brothers up on the classics like The Beatles, The Beach Boys and Joni Mitchell, so I had a strong start and, because I was listening to them from such a young age, I was such a big fan. But in terms of the folk and country stuff, I’ve always loved it and as I’ve got older and got to know myself more – as we all do when we get older – I’ve kind of just met certain people that have shown me more of that kind of music. I really love Doc Watson, Bert Jansch and Jackson C Frank. In the darker days of lockdown, their music was a very safe bubble to retreat to. Lucinda Williams is the most fantastic, too, and I actually didn’t hear of her until I got signed to Heavenly. Jeff [Barrett, founder] came down and said, ‘Oh, you sound like Lucinda Williams,’ and I was like, ‘Who’s that?’ And I listened to her and that was it – I just loved it!
You’re set to stop by Widnes Library as part of your tour. How hopeful are you of returning to the live circuit in general, and how does playing in a library sound?
I feel more hopeful than I did before. I think all of us who create music – and music fans in general – are just quietly hopeful. But we’ve got to go ahead with it now otherwise the music industry will just disintegrate. People really need live music. This album has been out for quite a while now and I haven’t played it live to people who have heard it, so I think performing in these new places and venues that I haven’t been to before in front of people that know my music is going to feel so crazy. We’ve all been in our own little bubbles, so to have a live crowd enjoying it is going to be a really special thing.
Katy J Pearson plays Widnes Library on 6th June. Return is available now via Heavenly Recordings.