Cathy Jain: dreamy teen pop from the coolest kid you know

Each week in First On, we introduce a shit-hot artist you'll see opening the bill for your favourite bands. With Taylor Swift in one ear and a guzheng between her fingertips, 17-year-old singer-songwriter Cathy Jain wants to represent both her heritage and her present with charming tales of teen life

It’s a late summer’s evening, and a couple of cool kids are listening to music by the river. One of them loves it and the other’s just pretending she is. “I’m nodding along to the beat to meet their expectations of me,” says Cathy Jain, the 17-year-old songwriter and producer who tells this story in her first single ‘Cool Kid’, a lo-fi anthem for teenage anxiety. “It’s about how we create an image of ourselves for other people. Is this being fake? Or are you just adapting? I think it’s a very natural thing – it’s just a different kind of authenticity, and maybe that’s OK.”

Jain is constantly thinking about how others perceive her. For the last year, she’s been writing and producing music in her bedroom (out of necessity, like the rest of the world – she’s never considered herself a bedroom pop artist) and has big plans for her future. “Sometimes I put too much pressure on myself,” she says. “I’m always thinking, ‘This song is really good but I need to do something better. Did I do something different? Is this too different? Will people not like this as much?”

That vein of insecurity is what fuels Jain’s music – it’s a kind of nervous energy that vibrates (be it through a laid back groove or something more psychedelic) and reaches out to her audience, full of young teens who see themselves in her thoughtful, unfiltered thoughts. “Relatable” is the first word Jain uses to describe her work, but then, just as quickly, she switches gears. “It’s also dreamy and fantastical. I’m really into fairy tales – I’ve written so many songs about pirates and princesses!”

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It’s less surprising when you hear that Jain has been making music since she was nine years old. Her prolific output and ambitious vision for her future quickly brings to mind another young artist who took ownership of her music as soon as she could.

“I am such a huge Swiftie,” Jain gushes, when NME mentions some hints of Taylor Swift in her softly-spoken, laser-focused songwriting. “She’s the reason I write songs and play the guitar. Her talent is just out of this world. Ever since I was eight or nine, I’ve just been listening to every song, reading her lyrics, memorising them and trying to put my own feelings and emotions into words like she does.” There’s also something in Swift’s work ethic that keeps Jain inspired. “I can definitely see parallels – I never want to stop. I feel like I always need to be moving forward.”

While Swift owes a lot to Nashville, Jain has China. She only moved to the UK (and a small town in Cheshire) during high school, and is still connected to her roots. Listen closely to some of her more gentle, ethereal tracks, and that’ll be the guzheng you can hear in the background, a traditional instrument Jain plays to a professional level. “I both consciously do it and incorporate it naturally, because I love having the guzheng in my songs – I think it adds such a different dimension.”

She admires similar artists who experiment with tradition and innovation, nodding to The Japanese House’s “strange and innovative” production. “I can hear Chinese and Japanese instruments and she’s turned it into an electro-pop sound, I’d love to try that myself.” The fusion of genres also comes from Jain’s upbringing, listening to pop from around the world – Norway, India, Sweden – as well as a bit of Chinese opera thrown in for good measure too.

Credit: Cathy Jain

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The influence and support from her family is major. Jain might be working with producers in Goa and London, but her mum remains her best and harshest critic. “She will tell me straight if I don’t sing something right, but that also means that when she genuinely likes a song it’s such a relief!” Their close relationship also means that when things get personal for Jain in her lyrics – like on ‘Cool Kid’ – her mum will already know what really rings true. “I share everything with her every single day, so having someone who understands me both as a person and an artist feels so important.”

Jain’s circle is soon going to get a little bit bigger though, with her first major gig coming up next month in London. Right now, the biggest task is putting together a band – after reluctantly singing in one that exclusively played ‘70s dad rock at school – ahead of the big performance.

But with such widescreen determination, Jain is already thinking much further ahead than that. “I have so much content I feel almost a sense of urgency to get it out there, but I’m trying to learn not to rush things.” How much content? Five whole albums full, if you were wondering. “It’s constant!” she laughs. At just 17, Cathy Jain is still trying to navigate the push and pull of dreaming big and savouring each moment. Knowing when to fight hard like all of the other cool kids, and when to just sit and enjoy the warm summer breeze.

Cathy Jain’s debut single ‘Cool Kid’ is out now

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