Katy B interview: 'Success wasn't even on my radar'

She's the Peckham girl who won't dance to anyone else's tune: interviewed back on her old manor, Katy B proves the perfect modern British pop star

A January afternoon in Peckham Rye, south London. Clouds cluster and part over muddy green grass, pouring occasional light on the post-lunch dog-walkers. A 24-year-old is among them, balancing on perilous black wedges, clasping her white coat, on loan from Topshop, against the cold.

Two bulldog clips hold it in at the back. "For the photos!", she laughs, through perfect red lips: they match her nails, and her hair, and the fur of her tiny dog, Ruby. Katy B always walks her Cavalier King Charles when she comes home to see her mum, she explains; it offers a nice break from her grown-up life now. "I don't think the dog recognises me all glammed up, though – I'm usually in my trackie bottoms." Ruby cocks her head – the resemblance is hilarious. "Look at her. She's no rottweiler, is she?"

Here, in her old manor, doing the old stuff, is Kathleen Brien, aka Katy B, who returns next month with her second album, Little Red. It's been nearly three years since her debut LP, On a Mission, came out, blending the sounds of rave and dubstep into high-octane pop. Made on a shoestring, it got to No 2 in the album charts, and was nominated for the Mercury prize and the Ivor Novellos. It also put strong female vocalists centre-stage in mainstream dance music again; Jessie Ware and AlunaGeorge have a lot to thank her for.

Although Brien now lives in east London, everything began here in SE15, an area slowly succumbing to gentrification. "I quite like that in a way," Brien says, Ruby dragging her along. "I mean, I had a 40-year-old man taking my phone here when I was a teenager. And some crackhead snatching my bag." We walk past the kids' 1 o'clock club Brien attended as a child, a few streets from the house where her plumber dad and postwoman mum brought her up. "Maybe that doesn't happen now because I look older, and can handle myself a bit better." She bites her lip, has a think. "Yeah, that's it. Plus I like to be able to go get a coffee with a friend somewhere other than McDonald's."

A balance of hard-as-nails cool and down-to-earth warmth, Brien displays some other nice contradictions too. Fittingly for a Londoner, she is admired both underground and overground in music. It helps that she's never left her original collaborators behind: her new album, like her debut, was overseen by Rinse FM founder, DJ Geeneus, who is also – along with Sarah Lockhart – Brien's manager. But she also attended the Brit School for four years, graduated with a pop music degree in 2010, and on her new album has written with Guy Chambers, the man behind Robbie Williams's huge solo success. The result of these efforts is a ridiculously enjoyable, ambitious second album, full of soulful dance-pop and euphoric ballads.

She's recently shown some more unlikely mainstream tendencies too. Choosing a track to cover on a radio session, she picked Story Of My Life by One Direction: not the coolest choice for a club kid announcing her comeback. It gained her 15,000 followers on Twitter overnight. Cynics might see this as the move of someone happy to sell out, or a cannier soul than her celebrated "ordinariness" implies.

As we settle over tea in the park cafe, though, that assessment doesn't prove fair. Brien speaks cheerily, relentlessly without filters, but there's humility in her too – real surprise at where she's ended up. "I've always known that I wanted to do some kind of performing," she starts, "I never thought I'd do anything else. But I thought I might be a teacher. Even at uni, I thought I'd be a teacher." So what happened? She wiggles her hands around her head, looking baffled. "I think all this turned out all right just because I was constantly doing things."

Born in 1989, Katy B's childhood was chock-full of music. Mum took her to Woolworths every weekend to buy the latest No 1, while Dad had his own short-lived pop career in his youth, singing with German session band the Les Humphries Singers. They came third in the 1975 Eurovision song contest. Katy revealed all this on The Graham Norton Show last summer, tweeting his performance later with a helpful note: "He's the ginger one on the right."

Katy B - Crying For No Reason from Ross McDowell on Vimeo.

Long after the fame fizzled out, Brien's dad, now a plumber, built a mini-studio in their flat. Here, he taught his daughter to play guitar from Buddy Holly and Beach Boys books; proficiency in classical piano and the French horn would follow. Recently, she took him to see her play on Later… With Jools Holland. "Jools was all, 'Here she is,' and Dad shouted loudly, 'Go on, Katy!'" she laughs. Better still, she was singing after Paul McCartney, and he came and talked to the two of them after the show. "Afterwards, Dad was really teary, and 'I'm so proud of you.'" She mists over herself. "He's a really good songwriter, my dad. I should write more with him, actually."

In her early teens, Katy's older brother's music collection also made a huge impact. "Missy Elliott, early Timbaland, Ginuwine – proper ghetto R&B, I loved that." Then she heard garage, house and grime at parties with friends. "And that's when I started thinking, I know what I'm going to do: I'm going to sing on people's tunes." She knew a few rappers, so if anyone wanted someone to do a chorus, she'd be "all over it… going to people's houses and crap studios, singing into coat hangers with pairs of tights over them. I loved it!"

In 2003, at 14, Brien was accepted into the Brit School. It wasn't well-known as a fame factory back then, she insists – the only pupils in pictures on the walls were Katie Melua and Amy Winehouse, who was only there a few terms. She defends it to the hilt. "I didn't go because I thought, 'Oh, I want to be famous'. I went there because I wanted to learn about the thing that I loved doing, and I did." She did the same at Goldsmiths College, learning theory and arranging jazz, and did a lullaby project with her classmate, James Blake. She's very proud of his success, she says, beaming as if she was his mum.

Rinse FM's Geeneus got to know Brien around this time. At 17, she had sung on a garage track, Heartache, which became a pirate radio hit, and at 18 fronted a hip-hop band, Illersapiens, who became renowned for their Brixton improvised club night, Soul Jam. Geeneus was planning a CD to showcase the Rinse label's crop of dubstep producers, and decided a single singer would help bring the project together.

"I couldn't get over how easy Katy was to work with," he remembers. "Other singers had such egos, but she had none of that." He was particularly impressed with her voice – a strong, bold London-accented instrument that sounds even stronger on Little Red. "I've never known anyone not to like Katy either," he adds. "Even on tour, she'll not have the double bed on the tour bus while the others are in bunks. She wants to be the same as everyone else."

As the Rinse project progressed, Geeneus realised it had become something else: Katy's album, really. He tried to get bigger labels interested, but without any luck. "They just didn't get it, so we got on with things." They did so quite casually, he laughs, borrowing studio time off people, and making a few videos "for about £50. Then it got big overnight and we were suddenly all like, 'Shiiiiiit'."

In August 2010, Katy on a Mission, her first single, hit the Radio 1 A-list. A few weeks later, it entered the charts at No 5. Suddenly, this young redhead from Peckham was everywhere. She looked refreshingly different from other dance music stars: like a tomboyish Kirsty MacColl on her way to the rave. Some magazines tried to make her dress differently, but Brien, wonderfully, was having none of it. Today, she recounts a shoot with a magazine ("I'm not telling you its name") where she was brought some short dresses she wasn't comfortable wearing. "I hadn't shaved my legs either, you know what I mean?" What a brilliant, honest thing to hear from a young pop star. "But the stylist said if I didn't wear them, I wouldn't be in the feature."

What did she do? "I left [the shoot] – and I'd still do that today." Yes, there is still a lot of pressure on young female pop stars, she says. "But I think people want you to look like yourself at the end of the day, don't they? And I'm lucky that I work with people who respect that." It's not that she lacks glamour: in the video to her new single, Crying for No Reason, she wears a red jumper and leather leggings, and looks like a 50s siren, shining under the lasers.

For her second album, Brien wanted to stretch her songwriting skills. Guy Chambers was suggested to her as a partner by her publisher, which must have made for an odd mix down at Rinse HQ. "Nah, it was a really good experience," says Geeneus – genuinely. "As soon as Guy saw how much Katy knew, it was really chilled out. I mean, she's got Grade 8 piano or something, so he just let her go." Katy won't let anyone else take over her lyric-writing either, he says. "If they don't make a connection to her life, she just won't go there. Even if it's someone like Guy, she'll go, 'No, this means more to me.'"

Little Red certainly feels like a personal, emotional dance record. It's not named after Brien, she says, but the flashing light on a Blackberry, and the tensions it prompts in a girl when it's shining on her boyfriend's phone. Crying for No Reason is inspired by a friend's experience of heartbreak. Still is about grief when a relationship crumbles. 5 AM is about coming home alone from a club, needing someone to talk to, while Aaliyah is Dolly Parton's jealousy-heavy Jolene reimagined in the nightclub.

It still sounds huge and euphoric through speakers, but there is a real sense of melancholy throughout. "Yeah, there is," Brien agrees. "I felt melancholy making it too." Why? "Because on the first record, everything was happening for the first time. I was going out for the first time, I was falling in love for the first time… and when I wrote On a Mission, I didn't expect for it to be successful. That wasn't even on my radar." That meant this time around she didn't see her friends and family as much, and that hurt. "Everything just changed so quickly, and I just felt a bit like, whoa…"

But surely overnight success is the dream? Brien looks unconvinced. "I still want to be the girl who goes raving with her friends. But my manager's like, 'You can't go to Brixton McDonald's at four o'clock in the morning any more, you're going to get kidnapped.'" She smiles, a little coyly. "I still do it, you know. I just put my hood up more."

Little Red isn't all doom and gloom though: Sapphire Blue and I Like You are pretty racy. "They do sound quite randy, actually! But I think it's important to get that stuff in, and do it right." Brien says she is more and more interested in feminism as she gets older, and thinks that sex should be part of the debate. "One of the most important things women can learn is that yes, we do have sex, and yes, we do want to feel sexy, but only when we are OK with that. Don't push it. That's the moral to take on."

She is wary of other double standards in the industry, recounting an anecdote about trying to get support gigs with a female artist a few years ago, "and this bloke going, 'No, you can't, they won't let you, they wouldn't want another female to support a female.' I was like, 'What? Are you serious?' I got really upset." On Katy B's forthcoming tour, R&B newcomer Sasha Keable is playing before her, which makes her very happy.

Brien's also got a new attitude towards misogynists on Twitter, she says. "When on a Mission came out, I had men going, 'This makes me want to wipe my balls across the screen.'" Her nose wrinkles. "These days, I filter it out so I don't even seen it." Would she ever reply to a troll? Her look, all narrowed eyeliner, says it all. "I haven't got time to reply to everyone being nice. If someone says something nasty to me, there's no way in hell I'm going to reply to them."

These days, Katy B's much happier talking to One Direction fans, anyway. And hell, she even convinced Geeneus that that cover worked – she had seen it on The X Factor, and knew a good song when she heard it. "I was like, 'No, no seriously, trust me on this one, it's really good.'" Doesn't she worry about her old fans thinking that she's gone too mainstream? "You know, I don't even get that. I just want to be happy, and not think about what other people think too much – about what's cool and what's not and just sort of go for it." Katy B drains her mug, and sits back at the table, smiling, without a care in the world. A young buck and an old soul, a child of the underground and a total, total star.


Jude Rogers

The GuardianTramp

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