Tune in to the best British artist you’ve probably never heard of
At the close of Katy B’s third album, Honey, the South London singer turns to address the listener. “All I have is London streets, all I have is rhymes and beats,” she offers us on the pensive poem of an outro.
She’s just taken us on an exhilarating journey through dancefloors and diaries, from the euphoria of peak time to the emotional downs of normal life, but it’s here that she sounds at her most vulnerable.
“At least I have these songs to sing – they might not seem like anything, but to me they are my truth,” she explains, earnestly and slightly apologetically.
Kathleen Brien is supremely modest about her own skills. During the writing of her album last year, a chance viewing of the film Dreamgirls left her feeling as though, next to Beyoncé and Jennifer Hudson, she couldn’t even call herself a singer. (The next day, inspired, she laid down the hollering vocal of Turn The
Music Louder, which became her first No 1 in October.)
While recording the silkily swaggering third person reference of Lose Your Head – “no one moves the crowd like Katy, no one does it like me” – she claims she was so embarrassed she had to turn the studio lights off. But in her determinedly casual, down- to- earth way, Brien is cementing her position as one of the most unique and unreplicable British pop stars of her generation.
She may describe Honey as a project, rather than an album – it was originally conceived as an EP along the lines of the four-track freebie Danger in 2012 – but the 13- song collection is perhaps Brien’s most formally ambitious work yet.
Hitherto, the bulk of her work has been in collaboration with Geeneus – the boss of Rinse FM, the legendary London pirate radio station that went legit in 2010, and the Timbaland to her Aaliyah in terms of their producer-artist synchronicity. Honey, though, builds on Brien’s ability to easily bridge musical divides – between underground and mainstream, between a plethora of dance subgenres – to a logical end, bringing in a selection of producers to create a tapestry of her experiences.
Club music in 2016 is in a period of flux and fragmentation: the localised scenes that nurture the changing subgenres that drive it remain as healthy as ever, but globalised ease of access means that listeners are simultaneously tapping into everyone else’s local scene. On Honey, Brien curates her personal favourites with a gallerist’s skill, acknowledging both sides of the coin. From her hometown, she brings in its revived grime scene from different directions. Heavy Trackerz, the producers responsible for Meridian Dan’s 2014’s momentous German Whip single, create a bass-heavy, speaker-vibrating club prowl in Lose Your Head; veteran MC D Double E gets rowdy, bright young star J Hus turns smooth, and Brien herself sings with a feline swagger that we’ve never heard from her before.
Meanwhile, Mr Mitch – founder of the Boxed grime night – contributes a minimalist glass sculpture of a beat, a cloud hanging lightly but oppressively, which Brien transforms into a narrative of unhealthy codependency.
In a neat inversion of the usual producer-singer dynamic, Brien’s cherry-picked producers are her muses: in most cases, beats were sent to her almost fully-formed, and her songs were inspired by them.
JD Reid’s Chase Me is a wonky, off- kilter take on the ‘ 90s summer R& B that Brien grew up on; on it, she reaches for the Sugababes resemblance that’s always been latent in her – the street-smart midpoint between boredom and yearning – and makes it real, teaming up with fellow South London singer Sasha Keable to have a go at being a girl group of their own.
Keable’s lower range is a perfect foil for Brien’s clearer peal – the Mutya to her Siobhán, to take the Sugababes analogy further – and as their voices intertwine, the female solidarity becomes the subtext to the guards the song erects against boys.
Brien will probably always be defined by her London connections, but at heart she’s also a fan of dance music wherever she finds it. As she muses on
Calm Down, a glitchy collaboration with Four Tet and Floating Points: “When we ever gonna calm down? I know I should do, but I love the sound.”
Honey finds her excitedly expanding her palette beyond the capital. Montréal’s Kaytranada provides the sinuous soul of the title track, a loping groove dappled with percussion like sunlight through a window, that gives Brien the opportunity to sing the kind of sensual come-ons reminiscent of one of her musical heroines, the New Orleans R&B singer Teedra Moses.
Impressively, too, Brien’s ear to the ground has caught the rude health of the Midlands house scene, all murky basslines and relentlessly rough grooves, and has corralled two of its leading lights here.
Chris Lorenzo’s I Wanna Be is pure rush, the tension of its ludicrously long build dissipating in euphoric echoes as Brien becomes a disembodied and spectral presence in the music. Meanwhile, Hannah Wants’s
Dreamerz is a jittery revelation, a paean to friendship and mutual support that aims to do noth- ing less than stretch ephemeral pleasure into eternity: “We only got 60 days of summer, but if we just let it roll on…” Brien suggests, and for an instant, her ringing voice and Wants’s undulating synths make it seem possible.
Honey comes off the back of two particularly tough years for Brien. The making of her second album, 2014’ s Little Red, had been an arduous journey. Brien and Geeneus, who had created an effortless masterpiece in her 2011 debut On A
Mission, suddenly found themselves with a plethora of voices to answer to in the major label system, as well as studio sessions with major label writers and producers whom Brien didn’t gel with.
The effects could be felt on the final product, an album with its share of highlights but which still suffered from awkward sequencing, stand- out cuts relegated to bonus track status and, in toto, a slight air of uncertainty as to what kind of pop star Katy B could be.
In addition, Brien embarked on its promotional campaign under a cloud of personal tragedy: the coma and, a year later, death of her older brother.
As a response to that, Honey is a triumph: it’s an album that knows dread and darkness but ultimately seeks and treasures joy – whether fleeting or long-lasting, whether in female friendship or the kind of pure dancefloor pleasure often dismissed as shallow.
It’s a return to Brien’s roots that widens her raison d’être. It’s a brilliant pop album because it completely ducks any tedious triangulation between a mainstream vs underground binary that Brien’s always sought to erode, and instead simply returns to her forte: writing vivid poetry about life and love over the beats which inspire her.
Katy B doesn’t shout her artistic importance from the rooftops, and so natural is her music that it might be overlooked at first – but make no mistake, no one else could have made this album.
Alex Macpherson is a freelance journalist who writes for The Guardian, New Statesman, Metro, Fact and Attitude.
In her determinedly casual, down-toearth way, Kathleen Brien is cementing her position as one of the most unique and unreplicable British pop stars of her generation
Katy B takes listeners on a journey through the bonds of female friendship to dancefloor hedonism, on Honey.