NME Radar: Breakout

Katie Gregson-Macleod: pop’s next heavyweight is reinventing the power ballad

With humour, heart and a powerhouse vocal, the Scottish artist is on her way to becoming a songwriter for the ages

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

Few artists on Earth know how Katie Gregson-Macleod is feeling right now. In early August, the 21-year-old vocalist and pianist was working part-time at a coffee shop and preparing to return to university to study History. But, by the end of that month, she had blanketed TikTok with an early demo of her breakthrough track ‘Complex’, a candid and arresting piano-driven power ballad steeped in romantic malaise, where it went on to become one of the buzziest songs on the planet overnight.

The song has taken on a new life in the months that have followed, with Gregson-Macleod’s songwriting continuing to help her fans emotionally purge. Dialling in from her family home in Inverness, she tells NME about how she’s only now beginning to come back down to Earth following a recent whirlwind promo tour across the US. “I’m feeling emotional today, because someone tagged me in a post where their Spotify Wrapped data explained how they’ve listened to my song 2660 times,” she says, visibly tearing up through the camera lens. “I only released the song in late August! [‘Complex’] was only supposed to be a demo, so I can’t even fathom how it’s managed to go this far…”

But most of us can understand the kind of heartbreak Gregson-Macleod felt when she wrote her new EP, ‘Songs Written For Piano’. So gutted by guilt and grief, she simply couldn’t sing about anything else. Her skin-prickling songs nod towards the endlessly frustrating cycle of being a hopeless romantic, imbuing Tate McRae’s offbeat melodrama with an indie sensibility and her rich, lightly brassy voice. “Lean in closer, I want to get a better smell of her Number 5 / It’s a womanly scent / I am just a child in your arms,” she laments on ‘To Be Eighteen’. Gregson-Macleod may be heartbroken, but she utilises that ache by twisting the emotional scars to suit her mood.

After independently distributing her music during her time at college, including 2021’s ‘Games I Play’ EP, Gregson-Macleod signed with Columbia Records (Harry Styles, Girl In Red) in September – and the old, often tired cliché about artists having their whole lives to make their major label debut certainly rings true here. The new EP’s earliest song, ‘I’m Worried It Will Always Be You’, dates back to Gregson-Macleod’s teenage years when she used songwriting as an outlet from the loneliness she felt growing up in the Scottish Highlands.

But despite the relative pain that’s embedded within the ‘Songs Written For Piano’ EP, Gregson-Macleod fondly recalls certain experiences from its genesis. “These are the songs I’ve always wanted to write,” she tells NME. “And now the world can finally listen to them.”

NME: A handful of the songs on your new EP were written when you were a teenager. Why is now the right time to release them?

“I think these are songs that I’ve always been very personally attached to. I often dismiss my earlier music as being ‘young’ or ‘immature’, as I think that I’ve grown so much since then. But I think there’s something special about the perspective that you have at a younger age, or at least wanting to honour your outlook at different moments in your life. When you’re a teenager, there’s this kind of complete certainty that you have in your own worldview. Pretending I was always incredibly wise, or that I had all the knowledge that I have now, is something I’m trying to shed. I try not to change any lyrics to my songs because they are all unique to the time and place that they were written in – and I can’t ever replicate that.”

How do you feel your process of healing has impacted the creation of this EP?

“This project is very raw, as there are some songs here which have been kept pretty much in their barest form. It’s crazy just what this EP means to me: it allowed me to look at the bigger picture and understand what I have taken from different situations in my life. There’s some real magic in there: I think it’s a songwriter’s dream to put together a very stripped-back collection of songs, so I’m very grateful to be able to put them out in this form.”

Katie Gregson-Macleod
Credit: Megan Henderson

Given that you sing about such specific personal situations, have there ever been any consequences?

“I’ve spoken to the person that ‘Complex’ is about, and if you’ve heard the song… I don’t think that should happen again! But they were sound about it all. It’s probably very weird to have the story of your relationship – even if it’s not from your perspective – put on show like that. But, at the same time, I would do it again. I’m so candid, which is the issue: if I write a song about someone, I will tell them! I’ve had a song written about me before, but that one wasn’t listened to by 70 million people…”

How do you strike the right balance in your music between nostalgia and looking towards the future?

“I have a tendency to delve into things from my past, and I’m not afraid to share whatever needs to come out of me. I’m currently working on writing more about the present moment, even if it’s so much harder to do. Maybe I need to start being more of an optimist and write about what I could be feeling in the future – it’s all a process. But it all goes back to everything that happened around ‘Complex’: that time sparked a level of complete uncertainty as to what’s happening in my life. It was such a positive thing to happen to me, but it was shocking to the point where I felt like the ground beneath me was always moving. I wrote quite a few songs around that time and they were all about looking for answers, including ‘White Lies’, which I wrote in that period. ‘Complex’ was all statements, and now I just write questions.”

Your career so far has been largely defined by your fiercely independent streak. Where does that drive come from?

“I’ve always been incredibly stubborn, as though I have something to prove. It was the same at school, where I was very academic and also very into sports. I was a squash player growing up, which made me extremely competitive, almost to a fault. The pressure wasn’t coming from anyone else – I was putting it on myself. My ambition has pervaded all aspects of my life, particularly music because I care about that the most. When I was 16, it got to the point where I was consciously thinking about how to make a career out of music. That was something that I had to learn on my own because I came from a place where no one else is really doing things like that – and I’m proud that I pushed forward.”

Katie Gregson-Macleod
Credit: Megan Henderson

‘Complex’ is built from two stories: a personal heartbreak, and a wider discussion about the relationship between women and the saviour complex, a state of mind where an individual feels the need to ‘fix’ their partner. For you, are these ideas connected?

“For sure. I mean, there’s no better feeling as a songwriter than not only seeing people talk about your lyrics, but relate to and connect with them. I often forget what each individual lyric of this song is actually about, because ‘Complex’ belongs to everyone else now. I’m still getting to grips with how surreal it feels to have people singing my words back at me when I perform; I get emotional when I see just what this song means to other people. The moment in which I wrote ‘Complex’ was very healing, and it’s nice that such a specific emotion can be felt by other people. People have tattoos of the lyrics, and I’m just like, ‘Yeah, I still can’t believe that this song is something that I wrote!’”

“I’m not afraid to share whatever needs to come out of me”

How do you imagine the success of ‘Complex’ will shape the music you’ll write in the future?

“I’m really excited to see where this goes. I made music for a few years on the small budget I had, but now the world has opened up so much for me. I want to maintain what makes my music unique to me, but also take advantage of all the new doors being opened – it’s about finding that important balance. I’ve been growing a lot and that will come with changes as a musician, too. Maybe I’ll come out with a fucking hyperpop record! But seriously, I’m excited to just work on the songs that I wrote ages ago but never got the chance to make.”

After everything you’ve been through over the past few months, what makes you feel the most proud?

“Oh man, so much crazy shit has happened. Trying to come to terms with everything that has happened since ‘Complex’ is still really hard for me. But I’m proud of sticking by myself throughout the past few months. Although the industry is so weird and foreign, I’m just proud of myself for really being me. I haven’t let myself get swept up in anything, and I have made sure that I am going in the right direction, despite how easy and fast it would be to make a wrong turn. I’m just a very lucky person.”

Katie Gregson-Macleod’s ‘Songs Written For Piano’ EP is out now

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