From her earliest guest vocals recorded as Baby Katy, to her recent pop chart-centric work as Katy B, South London’s Kathleen Brien has been the peerless female voice in the man’s, man’s world of British dance. But growing up, Brien idolized the unapologetically feminine Alicia Keys. “I used to get her piano scores and use the chord sequences from the books and write my own melodies and lyrics over the top,” she says. “I tried to send her a song, I was 12 or 13. I really wanted her to hear it.” Brien enrolled at the notorious star-breeding BRIT School to study classical piano, but dropped the instrument for a less rigid medium: her voice. Casually warm and brimming with girlish confidence, she is the embodiment of raving Britain grown up on neo-soul.
Three years ago, guest vocals on a friend’s garage track reached Geeneus, founder of seminal pirate-station-gone-legit Rinse FM, who introduced Brien to his camp’s genre-defining stable of DJs and producers. British dance music became Katy B’s wheelhouse. Her rapid ascendancy to YouTube megastar status was fueled by club-geared collaborations with luminaries like Skream and Benga. “I was turning 18, which is the legal age here. It was wicked because I could get all my friends into the sickest raves for free,” she says. If there’s a naturalness in her singing voice, it stems in part from this carefree opportunism, where the perks of vocally dominating a scene are hanging out at a discount.
But that was an unofficial practice run for the long-anticipated UK release of her debut album, On a Mission. Its title speaks to the deliberate unfolding of Katy B’s career as a pop singer, and to the underlying professional seriousness that made her bold enough to scrap an entire album crafted with disparate collaborators for one predominantly produced by Geeneus and Zinc, her earliest mentors. This transition from playing classical piano, to guesting over dogged club tracks to consecutive top ten singles suggests grace and potential in her voice beyond the dance world she grew up in. “I know the songs have a pop format, but I never thought for a second they had a chance at entering the Top 40. I always aspired to be a successful singer, but not a famous one.”
The beat selection on her debut is conservative enough for her voice to exist as the pop sun, drawing in moments of experimentation only to outshine them with her vocals. Her first headlining tour even features a ten-piece band, the antithesis of underground. But Katy B’s voice glows brightest when the harsh bass and extra noise recedes. Maybe, if we’re lucky, it’ll eventually lead her back behind her piano. “I think it’s nice to sit down and have a little play,” she says. “I need to get back on it.”