Unsurprisingly, given that her debut album was called Honestly, London-based singer-songwriter Phoebe Katis is an artist who is always looking to explore the relationship she has with herself. On her second album, It’s OK to Cry, Katis continues on this emotional and musical journey as she lays bare her fears, anxieties, and vulnerabilities on an album that plays out as part diary, part self-help manual. In laying it all out for the listener to pick through, Katis also aims to give others the confidence to break through the carefully constructed pretense of social convention and wear all of those physical and emotional imperfections as badges of honor.
Once again produced by Vulfpeck’s Cory Wong, It’s OK to Cry shows profound musical growth. From the emotive funk of “Placebo” to the pastoral folk of “Sometimes It’s Meant to Hut” to the soulful pop of the title track, Katis skillfully balances contemplative, fragile melodies with catchy, uptempo hooks. Elsewhere, there is real experimentation as she wraps a speech from philosopher Alan Watts around finger-picked guitar on “Peace” and lets the music gently soar on the largely instrumental closer, “And So It Begins”. Below, Katis reflects on how far she’s come since releasing her debut and tells us more about the making of It’s OK to Cry.
Who were your musical heroes growing up?
My parents did a brilliant job at bringing me up on a broad selection of music. My mum and I were super into musical theatre and subsequently I got involved in the local MT scene from a young age. We also used to listen to the female greats at home – Barbara Streisand, Shirley Bassey, Minnie Ripperton, Carole King, Kate Bush, Aretha Franklin. Combined with this my Dad loves Santana, Buena Vista Social Club, Rolling Stones, Queen, David Bowie, the Doors, so an eclectic mix for sure! I was also glued to an Eva Cassidy piano + vocal book that I played non-stop for the majority of my childhood. Regina Spektor, Sara Bareilles, Alicia Keys were huge influences as pianist-vocalists.
When did you know you wanted to be a singer?
I think I consciously knew my dream was to be a singer songwriter from around the age of 11 when I started writing my own songs and getting really stuck in to performance at school. I loved to act so musical theatre was the door to my performance side. The Eva Cassidy songbook mentioned above, and a load of Disney movies, were definitely the door to songwriting for me. I knew I wanted to play piano and sing, and that’s how I performed my material from around 15 to public audiences.
Do you remember the first song you wrote as a solo artist?
Oof, I do, and it won’t be seeing the light of day any time soon! It was based on a dream I had I think… and sounded like something straight out of a musical… and I remember thinking the lyrics were really clever, and then I read them back years later and laughed ! The first song I actually played live and released and am still proud of I wrote when I was about 12… that one MIGHT see the light of day again… stay tuned !
How would you describe your sound to someone who didn’t know you?
I feel like there are two sides to my writing: one being feel good pop-funk, and the other being a more intimate folk-soul vibe. Each with a generous helping of vocal harmonies and conversational, honest lyrics.
How do you look back on Honesty?
I am super proud of Honesty. It was my debut album after many years of trying to “find my sound”, working with lots of amazing wonderful people but just not quite finding my feet as an artist. I had all but given up on the traditional piano-based songwriting style I had grown up listening to and that felt most natural, thinking the way to be a current artist was to be writing over beats and making music in the studio rather than on stage. But then I met Cory (my producer) and he showed me what had been sat in front of me the whole time.
I was writing current music, I just hadn’t joined the dots between the artists I loved to listen to (Emily King, Vulfpeck, Theo Katzman, YEBBA, Thirdstory, Lianne La Havas), and the music I naturally wrote. I was too busy focusing on finding the London electropop sound, which wasn’t my natural calling. Honesty is a combination of my old songs produced in the way I had always dreamed – live band in a studio, and experimenting with the way my music could sound in a pop-funk modern production style, but still be live band based (the track Touches for example).
How do you feel you’ve developed since releasing it?
Confidence. The making of that album, the release, the reception, the response when touring. It has been such an incredible confidence boost after I was nearly giving up on the whole artist thing. It reminded me of what I enjoy the most out of music – live band, the stage, an awesome receptive audience, and incredible musicians making everything so relaxed and easy to create. It’s Ok to Cry is a carry on from that process, a similar set up with the pop-funk songs and the folk-soul side, but more honed, more calibrated. I play keys more on this album, and I even played guitar on my tune ‘Sometimes It’s Meant To Hurt’, live in the studio with the master of guitar Cory Wong on acoustic next to me. THAT was terrifying. But thrilling.
Did you feel any pressure going into the making of this one?
I definitely felt the ‘ok this is your second album, you’ve gotta make it better than the last one!’. But having a veteran artist as a producer was a huge help, who had crossed this bridge many times with his own music. Cory reassured me of the quality of my new songs and how the style and story were much more succinct a second time around. I can’t wait to see what the listeners think!
How was your approach to making It’s Ok to Cry different to the making of Honesty?
To be honest, it was pretty similar. We found a flow that worked for us and decided to replicate it as much as we could. We pre-produced a lot of the tracks before I flew out to Minneapolis to record with the band at the Library Studios (awesome place). I wrote up all the charts and had backing vocals pre-recorded etc. We only had three days to track the album so it had to be a super smooth process. I knew what to expect this time around in terms of the players and Cory’s quick-fire production process, so was less nervous going in.
Did you start with a clear idea of how you wanted the album to sound?
Yes and no. We had a blueprint if you like from Honesty that we wanted to carry on honing, capturing the live band sound in a modern studio setting. But some of the songs, for example a track called “Placebo” was actually written off a loop my friend Conall wrote, so that was a really fun song to produce as it was different to the rest of the ‘live in the studio’ songs. I’m a big fan (as is Cory) of letting a song be what it needs to be and seeing what can be added during the production process, rather than mapping out every single element. Getting an idea half way through tracking for example and having the freedom to switch up instruments or add a new line is where a lot of the magic is, so we left room for creativity during the recording process.
How much of the album was written before recording?
All of it. We only had three days in the studio so we had to map out the recording time pretty precisely.
What was the first song you wrote for the album?
The title track “It’s Ok to Cry” came first I think… what’s fun about this album is all the songs were written last year (2019), compared to Honesty where the songs were written between the years of roughly 2014 to 2018.
Can you describe the typical journey of a song from the idea in your head to the finished product?
Ooo that varies which each song but typically I’ll have an idea for a sentiment or message for a song and then move to the piano or the guitar (or recently the vocoder) to work out a chord progression or hook. Then once I have a progression I like, the melody and lyrics come together most of the time. Once the song is written I get down a basic demo (keys/guitar, lead vox, harmonies, some simple drums) and sit with it for a few days before going back and seeing if I still like it and if there’s anything I want to change. Then if I’m happy, I’ll send it to Cory for his opinion, and it’s added to the list for the next record.
Which songs were the easy ones to come together and which were the most frustrating?
The title track ‘”t’s Ok to Cry” took a while to finish because I wasn’t entirely happy with the chord progressions. I played it with my band at a few different gigs to figure out what I preferred. The chorus chords were initially the verse chords, but then I liked them too much to just have them as the verse, so I wrote different verse chords. The chorus melody changed quite close to the recording trip I remember. The easiest song was “Better Than This” which I wrote two weeks before I flew out to record. It was the last song to make the cut and it fell out in one afternoon. I clearly had something I needed to get off my chest hence why it flowed so easily!
Was the writing and recording of the album always harmonious?
I wrote the majority of the songs on my own so only had myself to disagree with! The two co-written tracks were really fun to write as I love to write with other people. The recording days were fast paced and intense, but that’s how I like to work and also how Cory works best. All of the musicians were super patient and kind and of course insane players, so when I needed a seventh take of “Better Than This” they didn’t make me feel nervous or frustrated. The only disharmony were my own demons, but they were pretty quiet for the majority of the process I’m thankful to say!
How would you describe your individual approaches to making music?
I think you’re referring to me and Cory on this. We are similar in a lot of ways but different in the ways that count. We both like to work fast paced and from a live performance aspect. Cory has an insane skill at decision making that I am very jealous of as I can get stuck in my head with takes and the tiniest vocal nuances. We have similar likes and dislikes with musicality and influences so that’s always fun to see click in a production process.
Why do you think you complement each other musically?
As mentioned above we have a similar work ethic and influences, and natural musical instinct which is great to bring together and see in a flow. The most important part of my musical relationships is trust and instinct, something I think is paramount to any working relationship across any industry. I trust my instincts when I’m working in the environment Cory and I set up, which means all ideas are put on the table and although some are not as good as others, there’s no personal judgement about them. There are good and bad ideas, that are totally separate from and do not equal to the owner being a good or bad creative.
Have you ever considered intentionally fostering a little bit of antagonism and tension to get the creative juices flowing?
Ha! Fun question. A friendly push outside of your limits is always a great way to get creativity flowing especially if you (I) tend to fall back on the same techniques or processes. Again with the confidence in instinct thing… trusting the room to listen to new and different ideas often leads to creativity we’d never thought of before.
Were there any tracks that didn’t quite make the cut that you may revisit in the future?
Yes. Each album had quite a few tracks left over that didn’t make it. They may come back on the next record, we’ll see!
Do you think you have fully realised your vision of what this collection of songs should be?
There is definitely an element of any music that is never fully realised because it lies in the listener’s own perspective and what they get out of the songs. I have to the best of my abilities created this album in line with a vision I had, that of bringing to light the social suppression of emotions that western society is currently programmed into, and why this is not always the best policy. But there is always room for interpretation and that’s where the fun of creating music for an audience comes from. I love hearing about people’s different opinions on my music and what they get out of it. That’s what music is there for. To be understood personally rather than objectively.
What lessons do you think you have learnt to take into the making of the next EP/album?
I’m changing things up for the next project. I’m writing with a vocoder and more loop-based ideas because of Covid-19 and not being able to play with my band. I’m excited to see where this time takes my writing and production. I’m ready to try something new and this is the perfect time to get my head around the tech side of production and performance. I have learned to trust my instincts, so here goes nothing!
How does it feel to be releasing an album in the current climate?
It’s frustrating for sure not being able to host a live show as that’s what I enjoy the most about music. But the whole world is in this together and if there’s one thing that has for certain kept people’s morale up is the entertainment industry. I’m excited to be adding my contribution to that in this new virtual state, which is not hugely different from how music is consumed nowadays anyway. It is a crazy and worrying time, but music plays a huge part in keeping people connected. I’m hoping my new album can add to that.
How are you managing to promote the album and connect with your fans during lockdown?
I’m excited to be working out some new ways to reach my fans and friends to promote the album and to share the music. I’ll be live streaming on the day and hopefully getting some friends involved (safely of course!). It’s really great to be able to connect with press like yourselves at a time where the entertainment industry has seemingly halted, and I’m grateful for this opportunity to reach new readers and fans.
How are you coping personally?
Staying optimistic, staying safe, and working on new music. This is a tough time for so many and I am happy to play what small part I can in staying home and keeping our key workers and vulnerable safe. Finding a flow and staying energised and focused has it’s turns but I feel it’s so important to not have huge expectations for yourself as a creative during this time. I miss my friends and playing live music and being able to write together in a room but that time will come around again and we’ll all be safer and stronger because of these measures.
What’s been your most memorable show so far?
It’s a tie between opening for Cory in Paris in Feb 2020 and performing at the Troubadour in LA back in October 2019 on his west coast tour. Both were insane experiences. Paris was a beautiful crowd, my first time playing a show in France, and opening with a set of my own music to new friends and fans was a real thrill, as is playing with Cory’s band also. The Troubadour is an infamous venue that hosted some if not all of the musical greats. One story in particular is about Carole King (a huge influence of mine) being nudged on stage by James Taylor to sing and play her own song solo for the first time, a performance that subsequently boosted her confidence and led her to pursue her own career, ergo – Tapestry, one of the greatest albums of all time. To sing in those walls was a thrill. And my parents were there! Which was extra special.
What’re the best and worst things about being a touring artist?
Best things – the crowds and the band. Slightly bad things – the early mornings & long drives. BUT. I don’t mind them too much, I’m a morning person. And I love seeing sites of new countries from a car. So… not really any worst things.
What are your thoughts on the state of British music at the moment?
There is a lot of great music coming from Brits at the moment. There is a particular ‘sound’ that is very London to me which I love (Tom Misch, Carmody, Marie Dahlstrom, the Naked Eye). I’m a HUGE fan of NAO. She’s got an awesome thing going that is super London in my opinion and also bold and innovative across the world. There are also artists like Dodie and the 1975 who have very different things going on artistically but are equally hugely inspiring to me.
Which British artists would you recommend to our readers?
The names mentioned above for sure, plus of course the insane Jacob Collier, Lianne La Havas has new music coming soon (soooo excited!!) Georgia Van Etten, KA-LI, Native Dancer, NAO, Laura Marling’s new album.
What would be your three desert island records?
Fleetwood Mac – Rumours. Joni Mitchell – Both Sides Now . Emily King – The Switch.
If you could only keep one song from your career so far, which song would it be and why?
Hmmm, probably “Sometimes It’s Meant to Hurt”. I’m really proud of that song. It means a lot to me.
How do you cope in hot weather?