Some songs feel like they’ve been around forever. Much of it comes down to eliciting an emotional response beyond the basics of a pleasant hook or insistent beat – from the first listen, they’ve got you and they won’t let go. This feeling, intense and addictive, is so vivid that it can sometimes lead us to rank brand new music alongside childhood favorites. It’s not an easy thing to pull off, and it’s even harder to hang around once the rush wears off.
Katy Kirby’s songs feel like they’ve been around forever. His first LP Cool and dry place houses nine – all different from each other, all guardians. Some of the first big pushes are made by a sense of familiarity, his music inhabiting a similar space to other pristine indie-pop records from bands like Big Thief, Hop Along or Wye Oak, but his resistance comes from an approach to melody. which highlights patterns and subtle flip-flops on verse-chorus-verse. “As I’ve gotten a little older and less inclined to do things that sound like folk songs, structure has definitely become less important to me,” Kirby says on Zoom, surrounded by sunlight from an adjacent window. .
Kirby’s writing is informed by a very specific set of circumstances. She grew up in Spicewood, Texas, just under 40 miles outside of Austin, and was homeschooled in an evangelical Christian family. Her dad loved barbershop quartets and taught her how to harmonize, while she came to understand the singing mechanics of worship music in space that other kids set aside to learn the ropes. rock ‘n’ roll through the record collections of their parents and older siblings.
“My parents are incredibly innocent of most of the music that was happening when they were young,” she says. “They weren’t really engaged with it. I wasn’t really exposed to classic rock or jazz or anything like that. It was mostly worship music that was unique to evangelical America in the 90s and early 2000s. It was primarily the music of this sect of the evangelical church called The Vineyard, which released a lot of records in the 90s, and I think she founded a particular type of style, or a particular type of modernity, sort of like a pre-Hillsong Hillsong.
“They’re meant to be sung by a lot of people, so the people who write these songs are very interested in them being easy to pick up quickly. They’re still beautiful songs and melodies, but there’s a simplicity built in that I seem to have internalized. I can only imagine that I have. There were a handful of Christian songwriters who were very lyrical and that I remember being exposed to, like Andrew Peterson, this very intelligent and dense. I think him, and Amy Grant, and all these other people who are lively, traditionally structured songwriters, were what I was exposed to. Nothing was experimental or impressionistic, but it was very well written and well constructed.
Ebb and flow
As he neared his teenage years, Kirby pushed to give up the piano in favor of the guitar. She began experimenting with songwriting as a way to understand the complexity and ebbs and flows of her faith in high school and later during an extended stay and research at Belmont, a Christian college in Nashville, which involved five majors. , a period on the academic margins and, possibly, an English diploma. “I was writing to get out of a lot of that confusion,” she recently said Vice.
“I must have taken piano lessons for about 10 years or something absurd,” she says. “I convinced my parents to let me switch to guitar. Thankfully I had this really wonderful teacher. He was very good at teaching me things through songs that I wanted to learn. I think one of the first songs I learned was Blackbird by the Beatles.
“I think, quite honestly, that selection pattern and the way that song works with the vocals is probably something that I’ve internalized in a pretty hardcore way. I was never a good guitar student, but it was a much better instrument for pretend songwriting. I don’t think I wrote a song that I was proud of, or finished, until I was 16. I was just ripping chord progressions out of Asleep at heaven’s door by Rogue Wave.
On Cool and dry place Kirby asks a lot of questions to bring us closer – allowing us to go in admitting that she’s also figuring things out. The songs are solid and beautiful, but everything else is in motion as she seeks to function while dislocated from religion, playing with real and imagined scenarios while taking off romantic encounters that could have started differently, could have end differently. “It seems better to ask statements in the form of questions, and I’m also the child of two lawyers, so rhetorical questions are pretty in there,” she says with a smile.
“I always like songwriters who can get me to accept weird combinations of words or lyrics that I wouldn’t have thought would work if I had seen them written,” she adds.
“I had a professor in college who was a poet, and he was very good. He referred to songwriting as cheating, in the sense that you can give a lot more meaning to any combination of words depending on how you sing them or what else is going on in the context of the song. He’s absolutely right. I think pop music or melodies that are fairly easy to remember are the best way I have, for now at least, of getting away with lyrics that seem a bit riskier.
find the balance
Kirby’s approach to putting guitar parts together is equally balanced. His playing is the second perspective offered in a conversation with his vocal lines – rhythmic and complementary. “I played without a band for so long, I had to find tricks to break things up or make things feel like there was momentum, or there was a bit of a bang in things,” observes she. “I’m not necessarily a great arranger. I think I generally struggled to hear a full band behind something while I was writing. Usually I just have to incorporate all the harmonies or percussion elements that I think the songs need into the guitar parts that I write, because I’m not sure how else to do it.
On Cool and dry place Kirby’s playing is matched by the expanded work of guitarists Logan Chung, who also co-produced with engineer Alberto Sewald, and Hunt Pennington, and bassist Zook Tittel. “I’ve had two or three iterations of the band I play with over the last five or six years, and they’re all pretty good,” she says. “Hunt has a little more emo background, regardless of Explosions in the Sky. Then Logan has this kind of absurd, weird gift where he can pull out any riff you can name, 60s, Beatles, classic rock, whatever, with alarming precision. Hunt has this very specific path, he’s so good and very inspiring as a player, and Logan and Zook have this rock background.
The album was followed with a can-do attitude and a DIY spirit in a series of self-assembled homes and studios – with a detour involving a “fancy recording studio somewhere in Nashville” that they may have been cool to use – before Kirby added overdubs at his parents’ house over Thanksgiving in 2019. “It was really fun, just being there to add some extra textures,” she says. “It was a very nice week.”
Cool and dry place is a very guitar-oriented record, by turns brittle and abrasive. Kirby’s songs are thoughtful and slow, but they’re not necessarily sweet. The winding title track, perhaps the best moment here, turns into a jagged, post-rock noise at the end, and it’s dynamic, thrilling. Its harder edges are the product of both practical and aesthetic concerns.
“I don’t think anyone who worked on the record was good at electronic instruments,” Kirby says. “We are all more geared towards physical instruments. We wanted to preserve the sound of the songs when we played them live, and I also think a lot of the keys for me can feel like a ballad. I don’t know, I get allergic to it sometimes.
As for gear, Kirby put aside his Squier Jagmaster while checking in in another twist on the job. “It was buzzing a lot,” she notes. “I played Logan’s Danelectro on most of the album. Most of the guitars on the record are Logan or Hunt playing a Sonic Duo. All three of us have very small hands – it’s very heavy on a small scale. I don’t think I used any effects on my guitar, or very little.
“Walrus makes a pedal called Julia, and it’s all over the record. On Firefighter, it’s the guitar part that sounds a bit choppy. It was Hunt taking a bunch of passes on this song, and Alberto went back and cut them into something denser, more angular. It’s not a gear-oriented record, or if it’s all the gear isn’t expensive or good. Hunt’s Blues Junior was a bit broke and had a reverb problem, Logan was playing a solid-state amp his mom gave him when he was 14. All the guitar gear I own is under $500. We’re rambling little guys.
by Katy Kirby Cool and dry place came out now through Keeled scales.