Cults, Coming Out, and the Kindness of Strangers
Katey Brooks is a clear-eyed rebel in an industry that demands consistency. A devastating songwriting talent that has drawn comparisons with Jeff Buckley (Supajam) Brooks has no shortage of famous admirers and yet, she has resisted formula. Over a career spanning four continents, she’s journeyed from intimate living rooms to opulent concert halls, from dive bars to decorated studios with some of music’s biggest names. The wandering troubadour defies easy classification, with a back-catalogue incorporating soul, folk, blues and country. With her new album Revolute under construction, the mercurial songstress is more determined than ever to do things her own way. ‘Revolute will blend soul with Americana and even some country, to create something hopefully pretty different.’ Applauded by the press, this ‘rising singer-songwriter has the crowd eating out of her hands’ (The Independent), and is simply ‘not to be missed’ (Time Out). To watch her sing live is to witness emotional exorcism, but when you know her backstory, it’s hardly a mystery why.
Growing up inside a cult, as a child Katey found refuge in song. ‘It was a very chaotic upbringing, full of some pretty colourful, and sometimes unsavoury, characters. And that led me to feel quite squashed as a person. But when I sang, I felt free, and connected. For as long as I can remember, it’s been my way of getting what I need to say out.’
‘It would be interesting to know what would have happened if I had gone there, but I try not to dwell on that. I always think that you’re where you’re meant to be…’
She began singing gospel and old spirituals, and the songs of dead legends like Lennon and Elvis. As a teenager at an inner-city school in Bristol, she entertained her peers with soul renditions. When she was sixteen, she turned down a spot at the Brit School, the performing arts college where a lot of the UK’s biggest musical exports – Adele, Amy Winehouse, Katie Melua – hail from. ‘It would be interesting to know what would have happened if I had gone there, but I try not to dwell on that. I always think that you’re where you’re meant to be. And if I had gone, I probably would have ended up writing slightly less authentically to myself. But who knows, because if all the things that have happened in my life nevertheless happened, maybe I still would have written the way I do.’
After a painful childhood, Brooks became very ill when she was twenty and had to take time out. ‘I had to sort of start again.’ But while she was convalescing she joined a songwriters group led by her friend Patrick Duff (of Strangelove). ‘We would get together and play our songs to each other. It was really therapeutic.’ In fact it was around this time that Katey become convinced she had to do music full time. Hailing from Bristol, land of a legendary scene, she has worked with other lauded exports like her good friend Beth Rowley. ‘There’s no pretension in that scene. It’s fairly grounded despite the fact there’s some pretty prestigious artists. So one day I just put on my own gig at the (Bristol) Folk House,’ she laughs. ‘I sort of became an artist and promoter overnight.’ But after that decision, more struggles awaited.
‘When I was 22 my mum got ill and she died. And then not long after that, my lifelong best friend went missing, and she also died. That’s definitely had an effect on the course of my life, and my writing. People have come up to me after gigs, particularly after songs I wrote during that time, saying “there’s a lot of sadness in your songs” and it’s like “well, yeah.” But I guess I’m lucky that I have songs that I can write, as a means to deal with things.’
‘Pain just reminds me why I sing,’ she says. ‘And not just for me; for everybody.’
All of these hardships seem to have driven, rather than dragged Brooks under. ‘Pain just reminds me why I sing,’ she says. ‘And not just for me; for everybody. They say in a funny sort of way musicians are like therapists,’ she muses. ‘Because music is a universal language. Everybody has experienced some kind of heartache, especially in relationships, and music allows us to purge these feelings.’ Brooks has certainly had her share of romantic turbulence, not to mention the struggle to come to terms with not being straight. ‘In my most recent work I’ve finally been able to sing directly about the women I have loved; not just men or the mysterious “you”,’ she says. ‘I’m a private person in a lot of ways and I never wanted to be a poster girl for anything. But a few years ago I just thought screw it; I want to sing completely honestly. It makes no difference anyway; love is love.’ It’s these reflections that drive the wounded musings of blues songs like Never Gonna Let Her Go: Got love but it’s a sin so I’m told, God bless my soul.
For Katey Brooks, singing is more about heart than head. It’s about reaching to the most authentic place within oneself and screaming from it, which is probably why her live performances are so affecting. From Bristol to Byron Bay, she has been approached on the street by fans with interesting stories about the impact her songs have had. One fan came up to show the bracelet her fiancée had given her, with the lyrics of one of Brooks’ songs engraved inside. Another time a woman convalescing from a brain tumour sought her out to reveal that after 18 months of ‘feeling no emotion at all’, watching Katey live had enabled her to ‘feel her heart again’.
‘My realm is connection and emotion, something quite raw, I think.’
Those are the moments that you have to mentally ‘pocket’, Brooks says. ‘Because you have lots of struggles as a musician, and my moods tend to be quite dramatic, up then down. So I just think in those moments: “Okay, it’s worth it for having that response. That’s what I’m supposed to do.” I really do believe that my place in writing is to help others connect. My realm is connection and emotion, something quite raw, I think.’ Once in the French Alps, she came close to fainting on stage because she sang so hard in a rendition of Burn it Down, a gut-punching blues belter about a woman’s triumph over trauma: That man he took my life, with his hands and a knife, and he stole my body, oh he stole my life.
Brooks has an impressive roster of famous fans too. Joss Stone has praised her music, exclaiming how much she loves Katey’s voice and the fact that ‘you can tell she really means what she sings.’ Brooks has recorded with Bill Wyman of the Rolling Stones and Paloma Faith at Abbey Road, for BBC Radio 2’s Children in Need single. She has shared bills with a host of big names including Newton Faulkner, Ghostpoet, Martin Simpson, Deaf Havana, Lou Rhodes (Lamb), Mike and the Mechanics, and Mystery Jets. She has appeared on compilation with Anais Mitchell, Ane Brun and Marissa Nadler. She has played some of the world’s biggest festivals including Glastonbury, WOMAD, the 2012 Paralympics, and Australia’s National Folk Festival. And Stuart Bruce, who has recorded some of the greatest musical names of all time – from Stevie Wonder to Elton John and Van Morrison – is a fan.
‘What you see on Instagram is not all you get. I’ve slept in a squat, but I have also been lucky enough to stay in plush rooms overlooking the ocean.’
A word often associated with her ‘hauntingly beautiful’ voice (Record of the Day) is ethereal, and because of her incredible and effortless range, she has been likened to both Tracy Chapman and Florence (and the Machine). She plays a number of instruments but refuses to call herself a multi-instrumentalist (‘too much pressure’), and has produced several of her own records. What runs through Brooks’ musical and personal journey seems to be ‘a need to feel free’. She has recorded in both plush studios and ‘living rooms with duvets taped to the windows.’ She has written in the Occupied West Bank, on an abandoned Finnish island, and amidst the Welsh wilderness, travelling the globe with her guitar on her back. ‘There are a lot of hard times on the road. What you see on Instagram is not all you get. I’ve slept in a squat, but I have also been lucky enough to stay in plush rooms overlooking the ocean.’
‘I lost the album. I had to let that go. And it was really devastating. I went to a really dark place with that.’
So what’s next? The beautiful finger-picked, harmony-inflected sound of her 2016 I Fought Lovers EP received an enthusiastic reception from radio stations around the UK and internationally, including BBC Radio 2, BBC 6 Music and CBC Canada. Her eagerly anticipated follow-up album We the People was due for release this year. ‘For business type reasons,’ she takes a deep breath, ‘I lost the album. I had to let that go. And it was really devastating. I went to a really dark place with that.’ Another artist might be defeated but Brooks is characteristically philosophical about everything. ‘It would have been easy for me to go down a road which was much more commercial, but I don’t have any regrets. At least I’ve been me.’
‘I’m remaking the album. I’m starting again and I’m going to produce it. There will be songs from We the People and some brand new stuff as well. I’m really excited about it. It’s going to have a hint of something that the I Fought Lovers EP had, but a slightly more soulful, gospel, Americana vibe.’ And after that? ‘Later this year I’ll be touring Europe and Australia and Canada…That’s the thing about music, it brings people together, creates an intimacy that you wouldn’t normally get in other walks of life. It can connect you with yourself, the world, lead you to feel that you’re thawing out. I find meaning in music. And the meaning is connection.’