When Katy Hurt walks into 81 Renshaw Street, a small retro music venue in Liverpool, you wouldn’t think that one of the UK’s most talented country artists had just walked in. She is unassuming, politely standing at the entrance with guitar case in hand. The open mic evening, for which she is the featured artist, is already underway. The compere finishes his penultimate song before quietly whispering over to her ‘Are you Katy?’ She smiles and nods. There are no airs or graces. When her guitarist, Gab Zsapska, and her manager follow her in, a few minutes later, they make their way over to an empty table at the bar and quickly become part of the two-dozen strong audience. She could easily be mistaken for one of the locals.
When we meet after her half hour slot, Katy is as effervescent and energetic as ever. You wouldn’t think she had been on the road for the best part of a month, trudging up and down the length and breadth of Britain to promote her new EP Unfinished Business. Only today, she has travelled all the way up from Somerset. Yet even after such a long trip, and a performance that is full of energy, she remains buoyant and passionate as she chats to me about her EP, country music, the music industry, and life as an independent artist.
I begin by asking her about the tour, observing that she seems to have taken a leaf out of Elles Bailey’s book and deliberately chosen to play in small towns, rather than just cities, around the UK.
“The whole point of this tour was to go to the places we’d never been before…, where I knew for a fact that I didn’t have an audience because… I’m never going to get one there unless I go. And those really small towns like Elles does, they have village halls and they have venues, [but ] they don’t really have much music. So we basically just spent a couple of months looking into where’s the most obscure, random places we could play.”
One of the most obscure so far has been a Navy Base. It’s also been one of the most challenging, because the PA broke and they were all… drinking and having fun and there was us in the corner trying to busk. Despite this setback, however, she admits that it wasn’t all bad:
“everyone came up to us afterward and thanked us for coming, we sold so much merch, and the subsequent shows we did in the surrounding area…, some of the sailors actually came down to the shows where they could actually hear us, so it turned out to be a really good thing”.
I’m struck by her positivity in the face of adversity. She is certainly a person who seems to approach things constructively, eager to learn from her experiences, good or bad.
“Doing this is not easy, and especially doing it independently. It’s painful most of the time because you’re constantly fighting an uphill battle…. [But] If you don’t do those crappy shows then you don’t learn enough about how tough you are…, you’re not going to be prepared for when all the rejection comes later”.
She tells me a story of a guy who came up to her after a show and challenged her country music credentials. It perfectly illustrates her resolve to turn rejection into self-determination.
“[He] was just like ‘I thought you were supposed to be a country artist?’ ‘I am. What are you talking about?’ ‘I was expecting Tammy Wynette. I didn’t want to listen to Jimi Hendrix’. I was like ‘Well, first of all, I don’t sound anything like Jimi Hendrix…’ ‘Just don’t’. What makes a person go up to somebody and tell them that? But I kind of took it to be that I must be doing something right…. If he didn’t care he wouldn’t have said anything…. So I was like, ‘Cool, I want to have enough of you out there pushing me to do better’.
Given the context of his challenge, and its pertinence within the contemporary country music scene, I couldn’t help asking Katy what, for her, is ‘country music’?
“Country music is such a broad genre and, to be honest, it doesn’t matter…. Is Willie Nelson a country artist? Because he was told he wasn’t. Is Johnny Cash a country artist? Because he was told he wasn’t. They were literally outlaws, all the people who you think would be a country artist…. All these people fought the same battle that we fight now…. There’s so many different artists playing so many different kinds of country music and, at the end of the day, they are all just trying to make music…. I think people get so pent up on ‘What is it? Does it fit into this box?’…. I think what country music has always done, it’s always just fought against being in a box, at the same time as being boxed in”.
This last phrase is interesting, and seems to sum up Hurt’s own approach when it comes to making music. On Unfinished Business, she is not afraid to mix rock and pop alongside more traditional country sounds. She is influenced as much by Green Day as Jim Reeves and Patsy Cline. And she wants to make these influences known. Much like Kacey Musgraves, who chose to reflect her broader musical influences on her latest album, Golden Hour. How significant does she think Kacey’s recent Grammy win is for changing people’s perceptions of what country music is and can be?
“In terms of the general public’s perception of country music I think that’s a massive win…. Her winning [for] Golden Hour I think is going to bring her music to so many more people and, through that, will bring country music to so many more people.”
She also believes that the C2C festival has made a big impact on how people view country music here in the UK. As the scene goes from strength to strength here, I’m keen to know who she most admires among her UK country peers. She mentions Laura Oakes and Two Ways Home, both of whom host regular shows showcasing some of the best talent on the UK country scene. But she reserves special mention for Ward Thomas:
“I remember playing a show with [them] in Ascot to four people about three years ago and to see how far they’ve come is fantastic. I really admire what they’ve been able to achieve in such a short period of time and how much they’ve grown.”
It is a measure of her personal integrity and selfless desire to see country music grow in the UK that Katy speaks with such genuine delight and admiration for Ward Thomas. I find this same delight and admiration in her voice when I ask her how integral Gab is to her and her music.
“I quite like to think of it, though we are nowhere near that level, but I quite like to think of it like Elton John and Bernie Taupin…. he’s such a great person to have on the road and, you know, he’s just my best friend. So getting to make music with your best friend every night is pretty awesome…. He’s extremely important to everything we do. He’s like the unsung hero in my mind”.
I end by asking her to expand on a couple of issues currently making the rounds on the Twittersphere. They are all topics that Katy has retweeted or tweeted about. First: Spotify and the effects of streaming. She describes it as both the worst thing (as an artist) and the best thing (as a fan) to ever happen to music.
As a fan, she admits, “I love the fact that I can listen to pretty much whatever I want, whenever I want”. But as a musician, she has come to accept that there is no money in it. She looks at Spotify more as a social media platform now, “a fantastic way for me to get my music to people so they can listen to it…, and then they can make a decision about me”. The problem currently is that people stop there. This is where things need to change. “The more people catch on [and] think ‘Well, ok, if I listen to an artist on Spotify, I’m not actually supporting them, I’m just listening to them, then I should go and support them’, then the better the music industry will be for it.”
When I ask about the second issue, gigs-for-exposure, we are interrupted by a guy who heard her play earlier this evening. He thanks her for coming to Liverpool to perform, despite being unpaid. After showing his appreciation, Katy watches him walk off into the night, before turning back to me and saying “That’s why I make music. Even he said ‘something for nothing’. But it’s not nothing. I’ve made new friends, made new fans, played in a cool place and got to spend the night doing a thing I like.”
Katy is unafraid to speak about the harsh realities of being an independent musician. When she does, it is with an honesty and insight that feels beyond her years. It would be easy to express her views with vitriol and anger. Instead, she tempers her words with a wisdom and understanding that comes from thinking deeply about both her experiences and the issues facing independent artists today. She acknowledges that fans are unaware of the hidden costs that come with being a musician. But those within the industry, “the people who supposedly work in music”, should know better.
“People need to realise that if you are actually talking to a musician who does this for a living, and you say that, you’re not just paying for them to stand there for thirty minutes – you’re paying for years of music lessons and practice time and equipment and travel expenses and accommodation…, to print CDs and… set up a website”.
It is worth taking this list in. It is worth pausing to reflect on what actually goes into enabling her to follow her dream and do what she is doing right now.
“There was a point last year where, to pay for the EP and the tour and the vinyl… I had six jobs at the same time and I worked triple shifts. I worked a morning shift (from 5am ‘til 2pm). I worked an afternoon shift (from 3pm ‘til 6pm). And an evening shift (from 7pm ‘til 1am)…. I did it all in one month because it’s the only time I had off, and I knew if I didn’t do that I wouldn’t be able to afford to do this.”
To help offset some of the cost of the EP, Katy turned to Pledge Music, the online music platform that has now gone bankrupt. Because of the way Pledge works, she explains, they only got half the money pledged by fans when the project hit 100%. They were due to get the rest once the orders had been fulfilled. Given its current, precarious status on the market, there is no guarantee that they will get the rest of the money – money, of course, that they have already spent in the belief that they would get it back.
Despite the very real possibility that Pledge Music may leave her in some serious debt, she remains convinced that, if run correctly, the platform can be an amazing tool for artists and play a very important part in the music industry. It is this calm and thoughtful temperament that I most admire about Katy Hurt. She is able to weigh everything up, assess the arguments on either side, take into account different perspectives, and acknowledge that taking things to the extreme is, on the whole, incredibly unhelpful. Such people are very few and far between. They are often unassuming. She may not be in the UK country music limelight. But don’t doubt that Katy Hurt is a major force in its continual rise.