A New York-based Texan, Katy Rea never really planned to be a musician. It was the small screen and the stage that initially took Katy to New York, pursuing performance as an actor rather than a songwriter. Instead, she kept that gift largely to herself, writing songs on her own, only her roommates knowing about it through the sounds they heard drifting through her bedroom wall. Gradually, taking influence equally from the roles she played and the people she met along the way, Katy found the confidence to begin sharing her music with others, recruiting bandmates to bring her songs to life. Twelve years on from when she first moved to New York, the dream became reality in the shape of her sparkling debut album, The Urge That Saves You.
The vast majority of The Urge The Saves You was recorded live, vocals and all, with Katy joined by a hugely talented backing band whose credits include working with the likes of Angel Olsen, Widowspeak and Fleet Foxes among others. While recording to a deadline added a thrilling urgency to the project, Katy found the post-production equally enthralling. Katy was inspired by a conversation with Sam Evian to “make the work her own in every way that she could”, and took it upon herself to swat up on production techniques, taking the reins to make the album sound exactly as she wished.
The results are thrilling from the fluttering Kate Davis-like folk of Say Goodbye (One More Time) through to the dramatic clatter of Lord Try. The record sounds wonderful, yet equally, it’s lyrically intriguing, Katy channelling some of her acting spirit to bring out her own story via the use of an array of characters and metaphors, acting as a series of veils to mask and meld the truth, giving away as much or as little of her own story as she wishes. We’re introduced to Jessica in the fabulous Floods In Houston, who channels her own rage of being a woman in Houston into defending others, and “breaks necks down as the discotheque”. Then there’s Lullaby For A Twenty Something, an almost letter to a younger self, where Katy asks, “maybe we were meant to be this blue?”
Two of the record’s finest moments are the tracks that bookend it, the opening title track and the closing We Come Back. The spoken-word title track is a sort of note to self, a reminder that where you came from isn’t where you have to end up, that you can save yourself by following your own path, “looking more like America, less like your vision, may premonitions sing, seasons be written and music be the urge that saves you”. If that’s the jumping-off point for a wild adventure, We Come Back is the, “heart of the album”, a song of learning and acceptance, of knowing who you are, and forgiving yourself for who you were, “they might say you don’t deserve it, unless you burn out, struggle for it, but I’ve learned love is not a fight, like a home, like your health, it’s a right”.
Following the release of this most remarkable of debuts, I recently spoke with Katy about quitting drinking, being “all in on music” and why she’s still, “discovering the lyrics as I sing them“.
FTR: For those who don’t know who is Katy Rea?
The simple answer: a woman from Texas who made her way to the Northeast. A friend, partner, daughter, an individual consumed with poeticizing the mundane, turning cynicism into something hopeful. A songwriter and sound engineer.
FTR: You’ve just released your debut album, The Urge That Saves You, what can you tell us about the recording process?
Joshua Jaeger (drummer and co producer) and I prepared the songs with a killer group of musicians to be recorded totally live at Figure 8 Studios in Brooklyn with engineer Nate Mendelsohn. We had very little time, so we were all pretty quiet and focused. I remember feeling a united sense of purpose and connection while working- we didn’t need to chat much. Joshua and I established early on that the most important thing was communicating story. I experienced everyone finding their own character and voice in each song. It meant a lot, feeling how purposeful everyone was. I was so sad when it was over, but also really inspired to learn recording so I could do it all the time. I finished the record with assistance and guidance from Spencer Murphy and Andrew Forman. It was a great collaboration and also a chance for me to develop my own sound in post production.
FTR: There are some great collaborators on this record, how did you decide who you wanted to work with?
Jonathan Sumner (Bass) and I played together first. He brought on Joshua (drums/co producer) who he’d played with in a great band called Lionlimb. Joshua and I just clicked. Then Joshua brought in Kevin Copeland (guitar lead) of The Big Net. Andrew Forman (guitar lead), Johnny Cola (piano), and Lessie Vonner (trumpet) were all old friends I admired greatly. Andrew and I started crushing on each other during the recording so that was cool!
FTR: Did you approach writing songs for an album differently to how you would approach writing a single?
I approach it the same. A group of songs written around the same time feels connected to a lesson I’m learning or a transition in my life, so I’m more attracted to making albums, rather than singles at the moment, but I do have a plan to put out a few singles as part of a covers record soon.
FTR: There’s a quote that really intrigued me in your press release, “we write the songs before we understand them”, do you feel like you understand the songs now? Or are you constantly learning what they mean?
I’m constantly learning what they mean and the meaning changes every time I sing them. I connect the lyrics to the present and tend to forget exactly what I felt when I wrote them. I try to connect with the new story rather than hold on to my past self in some kind of struggle. It keeps it fresh for me; discovering the lyrics as I sing them.
FTR: How did moving to New York affect your songwriting? Is this a New York record or a Texas record?
It’s both. Because it’s my first record, I felt influenced by classic songwriters that I grew up with, that my mom and dad showed me: Joni, Petty, Dylan, but there was an individual voice developing that certainly came out of living in New York. I showed up here very naive, sweet, dreamy, trusting, but through various experiences I had to grow up quickly. I moved to NY at 18 and found myself writing every single night. It took me almost 10 years to record and get a band together.
FTR: I read when you first moved to New York you pursued acting. What made you decide to pursue songwriting instead? Or would you like to do both?
Right now I’m all in on music, but I’ll consider an acting role if it’s thrilling!
When I entered acting, I was scared of the songwriting side of me. So I kept it very quiet. Only my roommates knew about it. I tried open mics, but it felt like torture. It was very difficult for me to be myself in front of an audience and it was freeing to be someone else. Looking back, pursuing acting was to make me a better songwriter. It was a way for me to explore human nature and learn about myself through characters. It definitely influenced my desire to write from other perspectives and exercise imagination, rather than always making my songs personal diary entries … which is cool too!
FTR: I understand you decided to quit drinking just before making the album, do you think it had an impact on the record that you produced?
100%! I was living in a bit of a dreamy haze since I started drinking as a teenager and it was difficult for me to take action. I knew what I wanted but needed to develop real self respect and for me that started with getting my mental health on track. Drinking for me is buddies with depression.
A band mate who is sober inspired me to try quitting and I tried multiple times leading up to recording the album. I was struggling with it during the recording process. I wanted to celebrate with alcohol so badly when it was done but the feeling of belief I had in myself suddenly outweighed that desire. Quitting helped me to see my place in the world more clearly and start going after it.
FTR: You introduce a lot of characters across the album, are they real people? And if not how much of yourself do you seem in them?
Well “Jessica” in “Floods in Houston” is my mother’s middle name, so I was stepping into her shoes when I wrote that. I was trying to relate to my mother and other women of that generation and writing this song helped me to explore her upbringing and greatly empathize with her. Some of the moments in the song come from tales of her life; others are somewhat imagined. Obviously, I see myself so much in her and learned to like those parts.
“We Don’t Believe” was influenced by the movie Roma, and trying to get in touch with the main character. I felt so much for her. Slowly the meaning of the song moved toward something more political – I was losing trust in leaders and found a great appreciation for the mother figures and real caretakers in our communities.
FTR: I really loved the way the album seems to come right back around on the closing track, We Come Back. Did you think it was important to have a song like that to bring this chapter to a close?
Yeah, it really sums up the album and my approach looking forward. That song really does feel like a premonition. I remember not understanding what I was writing as the lyrics fell out. I was looking to make peace with my past without hiding it – to look at her kindly like a child who has yet to learn. But also move on from her. The lyrics are mixed up for a reason: “can I fall on your blue shoulder, can I crawl through your soft light.” It should be “can I fall on your soft shoulder, crawl through your blue light….” I was mixed up! But that’s how it feels when you’re discovering yourself and developing direction. You leave, you let go, so you can come back to a wiser version of yourself.
FTR: With the record being recorded live, has it shaped the live show? Do you have plans to take this record out on the road?
The band and I play a good chunk of the record live, but because the band has different members now and I feel stronger musically, the sound and arrangements feel deeper when we play them at shows. It’s an exciting time and we’re incorporating a lot of new songs. We’re heading to SXSW 23’ and I’m trying now to book a tour around that.
FTR: What’s next for Katy Rea?
Recording and developing this new band! We’re really close and committed to making something we believe in. We’ll be recording the new album from my studio in Bushwick this winter. I’ve also had the opportunity to engineer a few of my friends’ records and I’m looking forward to their releases and engineering for more folks – my production co. is called dying is done.
The Urge that Saves You is out now. For more information on Katy Rea visit https://linktr.ee/katyrea.