NME Radar: Breakout

Cat Burns: uplifting songwriter that wants to “help Black queer artists” tell their story

By exploring what’s going on in her head and heart, the fast-rising star’s powerfully honest songs are resonating worldwide

Each week in Breakout, we talk to the emerging stars blowing up right now – whether it be a huge viral moment, killer new track or an eye-popping video – these are the rising artists certain to dominate the near future

“Helping you get through shit, one song at a time,” reads London singer-songwriter Cat Burns’ Instagram bio. It’s a mission statement that the 21-year-old upholds through her candid and healing pop, which extends a helping hand to young listeners that may be experiencing hardship. Over a warm, deep blend melodies and soft electronic pulses, she confronts and unpacks weighty themes including anxiety, queer acceptance, and furtive relationships. Her music is also staggering in its directness: “You fucked it for yourself / This is the end of me and you”, she sings on ‘Go’, a post-breakup anthem that channels ‘Alright, Still’-era Lily Allen with real verve.

Burns’ music is connecting deeply with a huge TikTok audience because the emotional content of it is her own. On the app, she posts both original material and stunning, pared-back covers, and in the process, has gained almost 1 million fans on the platform. It’s a loyal following that’s as large as the one behind her fellow NME 100 star, PinkPantheress. Alongside the likes of Lava La Rue, Frances Forever, Claud and Smoothboi Ezra, she is foregrounding her story as a young LGBTQ+ artist in her songs; much of what she shares rings true for those who may have arrived at their identity in online circumstances.

Following encouragement from both her internet and IRL friends, Burns’ latest single, ‘Free’ recalls her experience of coming out to her family, and is a celebration of self-acceptance and not “living a lie for a life” anymore. The joy-filled track’s artwork is significant, too; it’s a photo of Burns as a child with her mother, who she describes to NME as “the free-spirit that encouraged me to sing.”

And now she’s using that voice – rich and confident, proud and determined – to address the world she finds herself in. Burns is looking towards her biggest headline shows to date at London’s Omeara in May, and is currently working on her ‘Emotionally Unavailable’ EP, which is set to arrive this spring. Ahead of its release, she tells us about what it’s like to be a viral star, overcoming rejection, and why she wants to uplift her community.

You started out by covering other artists’ songs. When did you find the confidence to start releasing original music?

“I put out my little projects whilst I was at school, so I was always quietly working on my own music. But when I saw that the covers really started to pick up traction online, I continued to work on them in order to get people on board with me, and then I eventually started posting my own music. To see that my own songs and my covers get the same amount of love has given me a lot of confidence in my songwriting ability. It’s made me realise that people engage with me for my lyrics and artistry, not just for my voice.”

Why did you choose to share your story on ‘Free’?

“I just wanted to help other people by being so honest about my own experiences. It’s been really lovely to receive messages from people who used the song to help them come out to their parents, or that it helped their family to understand their identity. I literally wrote the song in an hour, so it’s crazy to see how it has impacted people in such a profound way.

“Someone actually messaged me and said, ‘I feel really uncomfortable in my home since I came out, but I feel like I live in my own little world when I listen to this song.’ I was very aware when I was writing this song that not some people may not be in situations where it is safe for them to come out, so I wanted to give them a place to escape to when they listen to it.”

Do you want to inspire other young LGBTQ+ artists to be confident in using their platform?

“I think I’m part of a wave of LGBTQ+ artists that are encouraging others to be more open. We’re singing about more complex things within the themes of love and relationships, such as dating someone who’s not out yet. A lot of artists have started to become more comfortable telling those important stories, both lyrically and visually, which has allowed me to be more open. Personally, I want to help Black queer artists to be like, ‘OK, let me tell my truth, too.’”

cat burns TikTok singer
Credit: Reuben Bastienne

What have you learned about yourself on this journey so far?

“I hadn’t come out before I used TikTok, so I guess I didn’t even know myself properly. Through connecting with others online, I’ve progressed massively in how I present myself, even down to the way I dress. I’m now a lot more happy in life, and free in how I express things. I’ve also learned so much about LGBTQ+ history, which has been invaluable to my songwriting.

“I’ve also definitely realised that there’s a level of acceptance across online communities that wasn’t even there five years ago. There’s still a long way to go, but seeing other people find the confidence to say things like, ‘Yeah, I’m non-binary,’ or ‘I’m still working out who I am’, has been really moving. People are using spaces like TikTok to explore their identities, and seeing that has definitely given me more confidence in myself. People are also a lot more respectful of individual pronouns, so there’s now space online to be whoever you want.”

Is that why it’s so important for you to use gender neutral pronouns in your songs?

“I like the idea that anybody can listen to my music and feel like it’s been written for them. When I write some songs, they are clearly from the perspective of a girl talking about another girl, but it’s still easy to use gender neutral pronouns in the lyrics. By doing this, I’ve become a better, sharper songwriter and I know that my music can now feel relatable to anybody that chooses to listen to and engage with it.”

Do you think that there’s scope for pop music to become more inclusive?

“100%. I would love for more artists to use gender neutral pronouns, so that it can stop being such a taboo thing. I think it would make a lot more people feel a lot more included in their music, and for some listeners, finding that relatability in their favourite artists’ songs could be therapeutic.”

cat burns singer tiktok
Credit: Reuben Bastienne

Two years after it was released, your single ‘Go’ seems to have gained a second wind on TikTok. Why do you think it’s resonating right now?

“People love a song that they can sing at the top of their lungs – and ‘Go’ is that. It’s exactly what you want to hear when you’re going through a breakup, and need some power and confidence. Lyrically, it talks about learning to exit situations without having a fight; it’s OK just to leave, and I think people are resonating with that simple but important message. The chorus is so catchy – it’s a real singalong.”

You’ve previously spoken about how you struggled to get signed when you were starting out. What did you learn from that experience?

“After being rejected by labels, I just knew that I really wanted to prove myself. I would say that their apprehensiveness was understandable, because they hadn’t really seen a Black female do what I want to do. When I was first going to [the labels], they just didn’t really know what to do with me, as there hasn’t been someone like me yet.

“When I started to grow my following on TikTok by teasing my own songs and showing that the demand was there, labels started to notice what was happening. I was like, ‘I’ve been telling you this the whole time!’. But I’ve always backed myself as I know what I’m doing is authentic, and people really want to hear it.”

What do you want your forthcoming EP to say about you as an artist?

“This EP represents a time where, when it came to love and relationships, I was very guarded. It’s definitely a step-up, both lyrically and melodically, from anything that I’ve released before. There are songs about just anxiety, dealing with growing up, and coping with old friendships breaking apart. I’m ready to be more emotionally available in my life, and I want my work to represent that.”

Cat Burns’ ‘Emotionally Unavailable’ EP will be released soon