Image by Jackie Lee Young
Tough as it is, Katy Kirby is pushing through the white noise of the past year. It takes consideration to find safe, socially conscious ways to carry on creating and stay connected. This is what Kirby is doing when we catch up over Zoom. She’s in Alabama (post-COVID test, mask in tow) to scope out spaces “in the middle of nowhere” to make a friend’s record in. She’s helping him produce it. “He’s like my oldest friend, so if I do a horrible job, he’s stuck with me,” she half-joked.
Working on her own debut album a few years ago was also a process of figuring things out. There were setbacks and fall-throughs that she described as “a series of painful failures” to see the songs through, true to their form.
“Over the years I had met a couple of people — this has happened twice now — who I’ve been excited about working with,” she said. “We’ve gotten started on songs, and they’ve stalled and then been left to decay in some sort of purgatory. I was young, and didn’t know what I was doing at the time, and didn’t know how to make that not happen. When I started trying to make this record I just had zero idea what I was doing. I would try to demo things myself, or do ‘producer-y’ work of visualizing and arranging a song in my head, imagining those textures sort of over the words and structure. And I had no idea how to do that.”
To overcome it, she turned to those close to her. “My partner at the time was incredible at helping me find ways to do that — ways to teach myself how to do that, which I’m very grateful for. They actually co-produced the record,” she said.
While none of those involved had ever tackled a project of this scale, Cool Dry Place, set for release February 19 on Keeled Scales, was created by going through the motions: a labour of doing, and re-doing. “With people with you, or behind you, who you really trust and enjoy, it’s very fun — the working out and scrapping process, rather than demoralizing,” she said. “So the series of painful failures were of the physical kind. Of those songs literally disappearing on me. But also genuinely just me, and us, sort of learning how to make a record.”
Now based in Nashville, the indie-rocker returned home to Texas mid-pandemic, like many whose work had run dry and were struggling with rent. She spent early lockdown making friends with unfamiliar records and genres, old and new.
“Something I’m often guilty of feeling is that I have homework to catch up on in terms of consuming art that I want to consume, in a good way. It allowed me to go down a few rabbit holes that I wouldn’t have otherwise,” she said. She cited M for Empathy by Lomelda as one of them, along with lap steel guitar instrumentals (which, to her amusement, charted high on her “Spotify Wrapped”).
“When SXSW got cancelled is when all of that became real to my little community at least,” she said, hinting at the ways the absence of physical music is felt across the board. “I was usually a little picky with shows. Sometimes I want to be in bed early, but I would go see frickin’ Jesse McCartney right now,” she said, laughing.
Kirby hadn’t felt entirely part of the wider industry pre-COVID, instead nurturing her local creative ecosystem. “The people who are here with me in Alabama right now are the people I’ve made a lot of music with,” she said. “It doesn’t feel quite as brutal or uncertain as it did in those first few months.”
Much like her songwriting, the last 10 months have been bittersweet — fruit-bearing in terms of state-of-mind and re-purposing of time. “I’ve written songs that have taken so much more time and so much more work to complete that I don’t think I would have felt I had the time to try to write, if not for COVID,” she mused. Pausing to let in her newly adopted dog, the mellow and adorable Gizmo, she continued: “It comes back to that idea of not having homework. And sort of being able to conserve some energy that I might have previously used sociopathically trying to charm people at shows. Or in the grocery store, or wherever I run into them, [channelling it] back into anything but that.”
Perspective is prevalent and changing throughout Kirby’s tracks, in a subtle way. The earnest gut-wrenching exists symbiotically with an ironic callousness on tracks like “Traffic!”; its quirkily upbeat production brushes off and pokes fun at the aching beneath it. But outside of their sonic context, her words come as blows. “And I see you in the future / You look just the same but older / And I wave to you but I don’t slow my pace,” she sings on “Tap Twice.”
“The less I process something or the less I’ve sat with something, the more likely I am to write from a place of, or to make a song that sounds like “Traffic!” I think my initial impulse isn’t to take my sadness very seriously. I tend to get a little flippant with it. I’m not sure why that’s my go-to, but it is,” she offered. “Songs like ‘Portals’ and ‘Eyelids’ are technically the healthier version of me thinking about things that are upsetting or difficult.”
The presence of friends adds a genuine quality to the album tracks, making it feel like a record made together, if born alone. Earlier this year, Kirby solo-recorded five songs from the track list for Audiotree, most of which are full-band on the record.
“I really love some of those recordings because the majority were tracked live with all of us in a room,” she said, a happy accident that came about as they tried to track drums and rehearse at the same time. “There’s a couple of moments where it felt like A Band, rather than a solo project, which I loved.”
With both an upcoming album cycle and a vaccine roll-out looming, how does Kirby feel about the next phases of life, and the potential for a return to the old ones? “I love trying to charm the pants off of people at shows. I love people… but I think a lot of the wonderful things that have happened with this record, in producing it and releasing it — networking doesn’t exist entirely right now. Except for talking at people on Twitter, there’s not really a way to network. And things have been fine! I’ll still be psyched to go to things, whenever things are a thing again. But I think the main shift that will remain in me is that I’ll leave things much sooner than I would otherwise, or whenever I want to leave. That’s the main pain point that I have defeated, personally,” she concludes.
For now, she’s spending the rest of the day in Alabama with Gizmo and her friends, smoking cigarettes and chasing down the nearby ocean.