NME Radar: Breakout

Katy J Pearson: Americana-glazed rock where West Country meets Wild West

After her band was dropped by a major label, the musician’s bold solo debut sees her ditching men in suits for double-denim and line-dancing

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

Katy J Pearson has an emotional articulacy that is beyond her years. At 24, the West Country singer-songwriter’s debut ‘Return’ is an honest collection exploring themes of romance, depression and good ol’ fashioned country heartbreak. “I think most of the songs on the album have happened so naturally,” Pearson says, speaking to NME from her home in Bristol. “That’s why I’m so happy with all the ones on there, because none of them have felt forced. They’ve all come from a place that feels very genuine.”

After her previous band Ardyn – featuring brother Rob – was dropped by a major label, Katy moved from her family home in rural Gloucestershire to the city and went solo with Heavenly Records [Working Men’s Club, The Orielles]. Her debut album ‘Return, out November 13, is the perfect amalgamation of her personal style (which she describes as “‘70s Texas mom”) and her penchant for classic rock. Made up of songs she’s written with Rob over a four-year period, the collection swoops from folk-laced ballads to bouncy pop riffs, with a sense of West Country meets Wild West to her Stevie Nicks-esque vocals. It’s cracking stuff.

NME caught up with Katy to reflect on the new album, thriving in Bristol’s vibrant creative scene and how she learned to finally write for herself.

So where did ‘Fix Me Up’ come from, then?

“It’s a song that me and my brother wrote while we were in our old band and we were trying to break out the kind of music we had been making. I started playing the beginning, he started playing the chords and it kind of came out that one evening. It’s a song that I’ve always wanted to release but until I was signed to Heavenly, it didn’t seem right.”

“It feels like I’ve been carrying a baby for four years. I still agree with the sentiment of the song – I’m 24 now and wrote it when I was 20, but all the elements are universally relatable so even though it’s an old song it still feels new.”

How does it feel to announce ‘Return’ while in lockdown? 

“I think this time is so bizarre, especially for young people when you’re at the point in your life and you’re ready to properly dive into things. We were going to announce the album before lockdown in April, or push it back until the new year, but I’m really happy it’s coming out earlier because I think it really gives me something to work towards over the summer. I guess I’ve got nothing to lose because it’s my first album and there’s no rules at this point.”

When ‘Tonight’ first came out, you were described as a ‘country musician’, do you agree with that label?

“Country music is known for extremely strong songwriting so I was really flattered but when I think about the whole album, there’s only hints of it. I’m inspired so much by ‘70s songwriters that I don’t know if I would want to completely stay within ‘country’ because there are elements where it’s more straightforward rock. When you get into the album, you definitely get poppier stuff too. I think when ‘Fix Me Up’ comes out that’ll feel like more of a progression.”

How did moving to Bristol affect your writing?

“I think if I hadn’t moved to Bristol I would not be doing KJP. I was like a fish out of water because I had never moved to a city by myself, but it was so good for my writing because I just had myself to rely on, and I knew what I didn’t want to do after going through my experience prior to that. I’ve been here almost three years now and it’s got such a good music scene. Everyone’s so supportive and there’s no bullshit.”

“I wrote ‘Take Back The Radio’ while I was in Bristol with my brother. He started playing the chorus and I thought it was really cool, so I started singing, “take back the radio” along to it. We did a big demo and sent it to Heavenly but they said it needed some more work. So, Davey Newington (of Boy Azooga) came into the studio, which was really exciting because we both have such mutual respect for each other. Then at that point, Laurie Nankivell (from fellow Bristol band Squid) had just moved into our house and had a few days off before going on tour, so I asked if he could play cornet on the track, and he absolutely smashed out the park. I was like, ‘Oh my god, I’m so lucky to have these people around me.’”

Credit: Seren Carys

There’s a quote knocking around that says you’re “not making music for men in suits anymore”. Does that relate to your prior experience with Ardyn? 

“It’s quite funny because I don’t think any of the people that I worked with ever wore a suit. It was very business though, we were under so much pressure to achieve this massive thing of writing a big hit and it just wasn’t right for me.

I really do write myself now and what’s so lovely with Heavenly is that I don’t feel so self-conscious to send something that’s rough over to them. Before, nothing was ever good enough, which is completely fine because it is important to be pushed, but I was getting pushed in the wrong direction by my old label. Me and my brother were thrown into this situation at such a young age. I’m so glad it happened and I’m thankful to the people that took a chance on us because I don’t think I would have progressed to doing this. I hate to be so cliché, but I do think everything happens for a reason.”

You still write frequently with Rob, are there any songs on the album that are particularly poignant?

“I really love ‘Tonight’. I wrote it in the studio, but it sounded really electronic because it was just on Logic, then my brother came in and started playing it on an acoustic and he altered the second chord which completely changed the whole song. It made such a difference and it really helped to spur it in the direction I wanted to go.”

‘Hey You’ is written to a friend experiencing depression, how did you approach such a sensitive subject?

“At the time I was so worried about the person it’s written about, and I was grown up enough to properly connect with my emotions, but I was scared to be vulnerable and to write something so literal. It was actually very empowering though, and it’s been the best way to connect with the listeners. Some songs like ‘Take Back The Radio’ are so random, and it’s good to have a mixture, but I did want to keep this quite personal because it’s good to be vulnerable with your fan base.”

You’ve also tried directing some of your music videos, ‘Tonight’ being a particularly fun one, how did you find that experience?

“With ‘Tonight’, I was told I had 10 days to do the video so I decided I’d go to Devon, line-dance and wear a suit. It’s so vague, but it was so exciting to be driving the idea behind the video, and it went down so well. My dancing is horrific when I look back – I didn’t practice at all and they all thought I’d been doing lessons! My friend was absolutely cracking up while we were filming and I was trying to keep a straight face, but you know, this whole project has been so good for me to show who I really am.”

Katy J Pearson’s debut album ‘Return’ is out November 13 on Heavenly Records

Want more NME?

Subscribe to our mailing list here to be kept up to date on all things music and pop culture.