With her understated manner and unstudied cool, south London artist Katy B is as down to earth as they come, but the bridges she builds between music's mainstream and underground are casually momentous. Emerging onto the scene five years ago, Katy brought club sounds into the pop chart with a fluid sense of ease, working with her producer Geeneus, boss of London pirate-turned-legit radio station Rinse FM, to create combinations of sounds that were unexpected but felt intuitive. In her music, dubstep and U.K. funky beats rubbed up against incandescent melodies to create songs that moved the heart as well as the feet, struck through with a rare intimate detail with moments of startling poetry that characterized her dispatches from dancefloors, night buses, and diaries.
In 2016, Katy's approach has the same keen eye, but her ambitions have grown in scale and scope. Her third album Honey, due this April, is her most formally ambitious yet. The album artwork reflects this: a roll-call of the globe's most in-demand producers and MCs, pointing to the south London artist's role as curator as well as artist. It moves from swaggering London grime to hard-hitting house; from critically fêted experimental producers like Four Tet and Mr Mitch to Major Lazer’s tropical house, as well as a new take on Katy’s jaunty U.K. number one from last year, a collaboration with London house artist KDA on “Turn The Music Louder (Rumble).”
Geeneus thinks of Honey as a reaction to the arduous process of making her 2014 album Little Red in a major label context: “We'd worked with big pop producers, and she'd done a lot of sessions over that time where she wasn't really connecting musically with people. We wanted to show that the underground stuff can stand up. Katy really does care about club music—she's not one of these artists that jump on a club song to get a bit of attention as a feature, then jump off and go and do something else.”
Katy's ear for the cream of the underground—and interest in placing it into a pop context—is the foundation of the project, but it's her own voice that makes it a fully coherent work in itself rather than the patchwork it might have been in someone else's hands. The FADER spoke to her, Geeneus, Kaytranada, Diplo, MssingNo, D Double E, and more of her collaborators to get under the skin of the 13 new tracks.
1. Katy B x Kaytranada, "Honey"
KAYTRANADA: I met Katy on the Mad Decent Boat Party in the Caribbean in 2014. I checked out who she was afterwards, and she was already huge in the U.K. I don't make beats for artists so it wasn't technically made for her, but it was suited to an R&B singer for sure…At the time I was doing those raw R&B beats that can make people feel nostalgic, and I knew Katy would like that soulfulness.
KATY B: I first heard of Kaytranada via his remixes. I actually started writing to a lot of his beats just as a songwriting exercise before I met him. He sent some new ones, and the "Honey" beat made me feel sexy, but more in control than vulnerable.
Most of the work with producers on the album happened over email. I realised how much I enjoy writing that way. In the past producers have told me what to do vocally, which is really annoying. I really relish the opportunity for someone to make something exactly how they want it and for me to be, ‘yeah, I'll have that, and make my own vocal, do my own thing.’
2. Katy B x Craig David x Major Lazer, "Who Am I?"
DIPLO: This was a working demo for Major Lazer, but we never got it sounding right for us—it went through many different sounds and different vibes, I might have 20 versions on my computer from reggae to dancehall to a slowed-down electronic beat. We even did a sort of Pat Benatar style 180 BPM version that I loved!
KATY B: [This song] was about my first boyfriend. I used to be in a band with him and when we broke up...I realized everyone I knew in London was in the band. I felt like I'd have to give up my band, my friends, my whole identity, start again from scratch. You don't just lose a person in a break-up. Others might lose their home, even their child and family—I think of people going through divorces when I sing it, too. It was originally a solo song, and I still don't really see it as me singing to Craig—we're the same person singing the same song.
3. Katy B x Wilkinson x Stamina, "So Far Away"
KATY B: When I hear this, I see myself at Outlook festival with my boyfriend, just feeling like we're on our own in the middle of the dancefloor, no worries or problems…I freestyled the bridge, and I can hear that I'm right in it, saying 'fuck off' to all life's problems, 'we're miles away from that, let's just dance to some drum'n'bass for eight hours.'
WILKINSON: It's a real honor to be on Katy's project. Myself and Katy have been working on and off for a year or so, and we just caught a vibe on this track! She suggested putting Stamina MC on the record, who has always been one of my favourite MCs since he made "LK" years ago. Katy is a natural writer and a real pro—she's like the voice of dance music in the U.K., and completely comes from our world.
4. Katy B x Sasha Keable x JD Reid, "Chase Me"
KATY B: This song reminds me of being a teenager at school in Peckham, a boy trying to move to me and me being a bit wary, ‘cause they might be talking to all the girls. [It’s about] learning to have your wits about you as a girl.
SASHA KEABLE: In any part of the world men come up and they're like, ‘hey, can I have your number?’ You're like, ‘no, no, fuck off.’ This is a real representation of what it's like to be a young girl, young woman, in south London. Or anywhere.
KATY B: Growing up, those are the songs I loved—Destiny's Child, Mýa, Ashanti, Aaliyah…
SASHA KEABLE: …Brandy, Lauryn Hill, all those power females. We're very much bowing down to all these women.
"You don't have to be into grime for the erratic stuff—you can be into it for feeling nice, feeling wavy. I had a place in my mind when I wrote my verse—it was looking plush, there was champagne."—D Double E
5. Katy B x J Hus x D Double E x HeavyTrackerz, "Lose Your Head"
G.TANK (HEAVYTRACKERZ): We have strong feelings about R&G [R&B-meets-grime], we're big fans of it, so when this came about it was like, yeah, sick—incorporating female singers on such heavy, bass-orientated music.
D DOUBLE E: The R&G vibe makes everything more fully rounded. You don't have to be into grime for the erratic stuff—you can be into it for feeling nice, feeling wavy. I had a place in my mind when I wrote my verse—it was looking plush, there was champagne. Like, have you ever been to Dubai? Every club is over the top...it feels like a palace. I do a lot of underground clubs where the floor is wet and people throw beers, so that plushness is different for me.
6. Katy B x Chris Lorenzo, "I Wanna Be"
CHRIS LORENZO: I produced the track as an instrumental but when I heard the first cut I was overwhelmed with how well it worked—Katy completely took the track to a new height.
KATY B: I'm up in Birmingham [Chris Lorenzo’s hometown] all the time these days. Clubs are opening up left, right and centre there—I was discovering stuff, I felt like I was 16 again. It's really healthy compared to London, where everywhere's closing down.
When I heard Chris' beat, I felt quite euphoric…like it'd be in that moment when you're with someone you like and end up kissing them. When you decide not to play it cool but just go for it.
7. Katy B x Four Tet x Floating Points, "Calm Down"
KATY B: There's a rave called Chapter every year at [Birmingham club] Rainbow and I went last year—and I remember thinking, ‘me and my friends are getting old now—well, not that old—but we're not calming down, we're still loving it, still love hearing music on big soundsystems.’ Those first lines—When we ever gonna calm down, I know I should do but I love the sound—I remember recording them on my phone while I was dancing.
Four Tet messaged me on Twitter and sent me that beat and I tried that idea on it, then Floating Points did all the strings. And after we'd finished [Floating Points] was like, “Come to my house for a cup of tea.” He was lovely and we just talked for hours about music. I feel like I should do this with every producer I work with.
At the beginning the beat had loads of white noise on it—I took it out, chopped it up, and arranged it differently. I didn't know whether [Four Tet] would be okay with that, but he was totally cool.
“When a beat is quite forward-thinking and innovative I delve deep…I feel like they won’t be the most exposed songs, so that’s where I hide all my vulnerability. Like, this isn’t going to be on a daytime playlist on Radio 1, so I can put my demons here.”—Katy B
8. Katy B x Mr Mitch, "Heavy"
KATY B: Mr Mitch and I see each other every day because he works at Rinse, so when we were getting beats I was like, 'let's ask Miles.' He's building an amazing club night with Boxed. I find his music really different—it feels like a really new sound at a time when lots of people are doing throwback stuff.
MR MITCH: The beat that Katy used is actually a different version of a track that I made to go towards her last album. It didn't make the final cut but when I got the track back I made it more me, I stripped a lot of the original work away from it and made it more minimal. When Katy and Geeneus asked me if I had anything for this project, I put it forward again and they were a lot more into it.
KATY B: The beat is very dark, so it made me want to write something quite sinister over it. I picked a love story, as you do. It's the feeling when you feel someone's manipulating you or has some power on you, but you don't...mind. Like someone putting a dark umbrella over your life, sheltering you but dimming your light, so they can keep you there.
9. Katy B x KDA, "Turn The Music Louder Pt. 2"
KDA: The original "Rumble" instrumental was just a groove that landed in my head fully formed. I was a bit lawless about how I constructed the layers of melody, I deliberately played it single-fingered on the keyboard. I definitely wanted it to have the hip-shaking quality which I associate with Notting Hill Carnival and Brixton Splash.
KATY B: I was at my friend's house the night before [recording this song] and we watched Dreamgirls. Watching Beyoncé and Jennifer Hudson, I felt so inspired. The next day I went into the studio and thought, ‘I've got to try to do something really big.’ A lot of the time I'm quite laid-back. So I got this beat and I just went for it. I wanted to do something really sassy and quite soulful. It was lots of fun.
10. Katy B x Kate Simko x Jamie Jones, "Dark Delirium"
KATY B: I knew of Jamie through all those house tunes back in the day that absolutely smashed it, so I was fangirling a bit when he said he'd work with me.
JAMIE JONES: We worked in a really different way, we hadn't gone in there with any beats—the original plan was just to go in and record some emotive melodies with the strings, we sort of did things backwards.
KATE SIMKO: I tried to orchestrate the music to go against her lyrics. There's a part where she gets a little more positive, but then she sings, You bring me into this dark delirium—so under that I brought in the darker, lower strings.
Our harpist Valeria Kurbatova improvised the entire harp part—she came to the studio after Katy had sung and played over what Katy had jammed out, and she just sat there and played for 25 minutes, which I edited later. I think the timbre of the harp itself can almost sound electronic, in a way. It can be the glue between the two worlds.
11. Katy B x MssingNo x Geeneus, "Water Rising"
MSSINGNO: I knew if I kept my idea simple and spacious it would work with her voice. As soon as we had chosen the beat she had written the first verse in 10 minutes. I love how the song has ended up—it's kind of a lullaby and ballad at the same time.
KATY B: In this song I'm really damaged, it was from a real dark place. Maybe when a beat is quite forward-thinking and innovative I delve deep…but also, maybe I feel like they won't be the most exposed songs, so that's where I hide all my vulnerability. Like, this isn't going to be on a daytime playlist on BBC Radio 1, so I can put my demons here.
12. Katy B x Hannah Wants, "Dreamerz"
KATY B: I wanted to write something about being with my core group of friends. We ride or die for each other. Especially with what I do, I know I can go [to them] and feel completely rooted. This song is for them, and for Hannah and her friends, too.
HANNAH WANTS: In a crazy industry—and world, in fact—where true friendship and loyalty are rare, you’ve gotta learn what’s real and what’s not.
13. Katy B x Novelist x Geeneus, "Honey Outro"
KATY B: The last couple of years have been really dark for me. I lost my brother, and for a year before that he had brain damage. He was in a vegetative state. It was even worse than him dying, it was watching someone just survive when they shouldn't be surviving. So at the end this is my thank you to God or the world or whomever for my voice, for having this way to express myself, because I really needed it.
GEENEUS: The last album was difficult in itself. Everyone had expectations. We went from a small team to everyone—MDs, publishers, everyone at the label—with an opinion on whether they liked a tune or whether we had a hit yet. It was a headache, and draining. We had all that going on and then Katy's brother had the accident—but we'd started the campaign. We did the whole campaign with her going through that horrible experience and only a couple of people at the label knew. Everyone was like, “Katy's not around enough,” but she was flying to Mexico to be with him, sorting out his stuff and being with her family—it was a really intense time. I've never witnessed anything like it in my life and to watch her go through it, still going strong and fighting, was amazing.
For this, I sat down with her and said, "I'd really like to do a poem or something." I'm always responsible for making the big hits and I didn't want to be on [Honey] for that, I wanted to take a backseat, so I wanted to do something a little more sideways.
KATY B: The honey of the title is different at the end. I'm a big fan of honey in general, I have jars and jars of it in my house. I'm fascinated by how beautiful it is, it's a real gift. The whole summer I was writing this album I was using all these amazing experiences. Then I knew I had to knuckle down, so I locked myself away in my hive and didn't go out, and the honey is my music.