Katy B had an epiphany recently. At the age of 26, with two successful albums behind her and some money in the bank, she suddenly realised she was officially an adult. Not because she had bought a house, or given birth, or walked down the aisle. No, it was when she was sitting in a branch of Pizza Express. “I can afford to go out and not share a pizza, dough balls and tap water,” she says. “I can actually buy a bottle of wine.”
Katy Brien’s appeal was built on the idea that she was the kind of woman who might go out and share a pizza and doughballs, rather than get the best table at a Michelin-starred restaurant. She was – and is – a south London club kid, whose spiritual home is at the community radio station Rinse FM, rather than a velvet-roped VIP room. Her everyday accessibility won her friends: she is the pop star who talks body hair and bodily emissions (“If I feel I’m about to belch on mic, I’ll turn my back and do the wavy hands,” she told the Guardian in 2014). The sense that she was a real person translated to her music – not in a crass imitation of reality along the lines of Jennifer Lopez’s Jenny from the Block, but in the raw melancholy of her voice evoking the sound of sitting alone on the night bus with a bag of rapidly cooling chips, your cheek pressed against the steamy window.
After two big albums – her debut, On a Mission, was a No 2 hit in the UK, its successor Little Red went to No 1 – one might have expected her to go for the pop jugular with an eye towards replicating her UK success in the US. But her new album Honey is a curious direction for Brien to pursue. After establishing her singing abilities in the dance community, she segued into the mainstream at a time when there was a boom in British solo stars – Adele, Ed Sheeran, Sam Smith, Emeli Sandé and Jessie J – each with their eye on the US Billboard charts. Given that her second album, Little Red, featured Guy Chambers – Robbie Williams’s longtime songwriting partner – there was every possibility that she could have packed this new record full of mainstream-courting ballads. Instead, it is quite the opposite: revered electronic pioneers Floating Points and Four Tet are in the mix with up-and-coming MCs and vocalists such as Novelist, Hannah Wants and Kaytranada. Her longtime manager and collaborator Geeneus is ever present, not to mention garage megastar and 2016 comeback kid Craig David; an artist so admired by Brien throughout her youth that she even knew his birthday: “I knew he was a Taurus and he was born on 5 May because that’s how much of a Craig David fan I was when I was younger,” she says, cringing. “Quite stalkerish vibes.”
Much of the album happened over email, with producers sending tracks for her to write lyrics to. “I approach writing a lot like a rapper would do,” she says. “I love to hear a beat, then let the instrumental inspire me and dance around my room.”
Brien was hugely inspired by Erykah Badu’s 2003’s guest-heavy neo-soul collage, Worldwide Underground. “Hearing her talking about how she set up a studio on her tour bus and Lenny Kravitz would turn up with a guitar and play a tune – that’s exactly what this album is to me. Being in the club in Birmingham and meeting Hannah Wants and being like, ‘Let’s do a tune,’ or Rat from Rinse asking Four Tet to do a tune, then him hitting me up, then me going to his house for tea.”
Craig David passed down one message to her during the process, she says: not to put too much pressure on herself, and remember to enjoy music and her career. She is still “young, free, and single”, she says, so is relishing adulthood without having to accept the discipline of a fully domesticated life (case in point: she owns a NutriBullet but doesn’t really use it). Nevertheless, Honey deals with the burgeoning realisation that reckless frivolity must soon come to an end.
“I feel like it’s kind of gone full circle in a way,” says Brien of her present state. “Now that I know my responsibilities – I know how to pay my mortgage or water bill, I know when I can go out and stay in, and when I need to put my foot down and say I need time or space – it’s kind of cool.”
Brien has been clubbing since she was 16, though, and the lure of hedonism is ever-present on Honey. The serotonin surge of Calm Down describes the irresistible pull of staying out until the sun comes up. “When are we ever going to calm down? Know I should do, but I love the sound …” she sings. But there are apparently fewer people who feel like Brien now. In March, a report from the Office of National Statistics declared that young people had fallen out of love with nightclubs, allegedly due to a wave of venue closures, the smoking ban and millennials facing financial woes. And, of course, it is easier to meet someone on Tinder than on the dancefloor. The latter, Brien, in part, believes, is true.
“Everyone’s having Nando’s and Netflix and Chill now instead of going on the pull,” she says. “It’s funny, I’ve always gone to really geeky music clubs where it’s not really about [pulling]. But then surely there’s more community to clubbing? A lot of the club nights I’ve grown up with, it’s the same people who go to them every single time. It’s the same generation going there. That’s gotta be better than Tinder, surely?”
George Hull, who founded the electronic music festival Bloc, believes that clubbers and clubbing have lost their spirit. In March, he wrote a piece for the Spectator headlined “Dull hipsters in broad daylight – why I’m done with today’s dance music”. He described the dance community as “a monstrous cabal of overpaid circuit DJs titillating a precious and unimaginative bunch of wimpy pseudo-hedonists at a carefully designed ‘safe space’.”
Brien lets out a big laugh and shrugs. “There you go.”
Does she think Hull is right?
“I don’t know. I don’t even know what that means, to be completely honest with you.”
For all that she is open and likable, Brien is quite good at sidestepping. Her own world is accessible but her opinions are often masked. Maybe it would ruin the escapist abandon of her music if we were to know more about her position on Brexit. Instead, for now, her focus is fixed on installing a possible studio in her house (“get the incense out. Have lots of Moroccan cushions”) and trying to avoid going out relentlessly. Perhaps adulthood has not engulfed her at all. Is she still on the same mission she was on album No 1? “I’m always on a mission,” she says. “If you ask anyone who knows me, they will say I run everywhere. I’ll get up and run to the toilet. I’m trying to get somewhere. I don’t know where I’m trying to get, but … I’m still trying to get there.”
• Honey is out now on Rinse/Virgin EMI.