In her late teens, Gloucestershire-bred artist Katy J Pearson seemed to have it all. Ardyn, the pop duo she’d quietly formed with her co-vocalist brother Rob, had inked a coveted recording contract through Universal, who promptly flew the kids to Los Angeles for exotic songwriting sessions with top-tier tunesmiths like Semisonic’s Dan Wilson and Miike Snow’s Andrew Wyatt. To maintain momentum, Ardyn even moved to more bustling Bristol for new inspiration. Stardom seemed to be right around the corner. What could possibly go wrong?
Pretty much everything, sighs Pearson, who by 21 had lost it all and returned to Bristol alone, not knowing a single soul in town with whom she could commiserate. First, upon arriving from L.A., she’d been reprimanded by her hit-hungry label for not coming up with a suitably chart-friendly hit. The siblings’ experimental edge and unique familial harmonies that got them signed were apparently no longer enough, leading to a tacit company edict that any future scheduled collaborations were to be terminated, posthaste, if they detoured from pop parameters. “I was kind of pushed around by people that were older than me, and I felt like I had to give in to them,” recalls Pearson of the confidence-shattering experience, which ended in her begging to be dropped from the imprint. At the time, outsiders thought she was crazy for walking away from such an in-demand deal. “But now I think it’s all about really putting your foot down and saying no when something doesn’t feel right. It’s about staying true to yourself and the things that you believe in.” Ardyn was officially over before it began, and Rob—who had contracted glandular fever—moved back in with their folks. Alone in a strange new metropolis, his sister was a true innocent abroad. It took her a while to find her aesthetic footing.
But sure enough, two years ago, a wiser, reinvigorated Pearson, then 24, finally re-emerged with her first inventive solo album, the aptly dubbed Return, which swirled together folk-jangled acoustic guitar, synth-looped percussion and an unexpected vocal trill that felt almost Country & Western in tone. Her brother, upon his recovery, moved in with her in Bristol, and contributed guitar to her sessions, which produced the surprise smash “Take Back the Radio.” Ironically, the track clicked just as the pandemic lockdown shut down her scheduled introductory world tour. More bad luck. But the unflappable Pearson took it in stride, playing a handful of U.K. gigs and eventually making her first visit to America with a showcase at Austin’s South By Southwest festival earlier this year. Having settled comfortably into a now-booming Bristol music scene, and brimming with newfound courage, the vocalist has just returned again with an even more adventurous sophomore follow-up, Sound of the Morning, that’s positively bristling with cameos from all of her talented new friends.
The five-minute “Take Back the Radio” revolved around scintillating keyboards, not Pearson’s signature guitar, along with her chirrupy, almost Disney-cheery trill. But Morning is all over the map, starting with the flute-embroidered title cut, wherein her voice approaches a crystalline Dolly Parton purity, and it closes on a lovably eccentric cover—“Willow’s Song” from 1973’s original creepfest The Wicker Man, which warned us about getting too chummy with the locals long before Midsommar. The soundtrack selection exemplifies Pearson’s lovable eccentricity, which is always playful, never precious or pretentious. She can easily hammer out toe-tapping ear-candy janglers like “Confession,” “Float” and “Talk Over Town,” which rely on her trusty acoustic. But she’s more at home pushing her parameters on the stark, neo-psychedelic “Howl,” the falsetto-fluttery “Riverbed,” her stark, skeletal exploration of old-school English folk, “The Hour,” and a quirk-pop duet with producer Dan Carey (who runs the posh overseas imprint Speedy Wunderground) called “Alligator.” Anything is possible now, sonically, now that she’s in the hip Heavenly Recordings stable, Pearson, now 26, believes. And that’s exactly the point.
The changes in Pearson’s life have been dramatic, especially when it comes to composing. Rather than being contractually forced into a studio with strangers (which does work for some musicians, she admits), “I think it was great just having the power to choose the people that you really have a musical connection with, and what you work on together,” she says. “That way, you really spend time on it, instead of it being this task, like, ‘You must enter this room, and you must write something really strong!’ You’re actually sitting in a room with someone who’s enjoying it, and you’re doing it for fun, and then if something comes out of that, it’ll be while you’re not really thinking about it.”
Five years ago, this New Kid in Town didn’t have any real Bristol contacts; now, she’s got a virtual Rolodex full of all-star friends to work with. She’s now good buds with Pet Shimmers anchor Oliver Wilde; they have a comfortable co-writing relationship that resulted in “Float.” Carey has been a huge fan of her charismatic singing voice for ages, and he pounced at the chance to write and record with her. Other music-biz chums she’s grown close to: Squid, Ali Chant, Yard Act, Orlando Weeks, Honeyglaze, the list grows longer every day. “Rob was not as involved in this record—he had a bit of a setback and he moved back home for a bit,” Pearson says. “So it ended up being a lot more of me, hands-on, which was really good for me, because having a lot more responsibility in my own record meant that I had a lot more control, so I felt a lot happier with it. And each person I collaborated with brought something a bit different, so it was nice having an eclectic mix of songs to make this one body of work. It was really magical, looking at all these amazing people and realizing that they wanted to give me their time. It’s very flattering.”
As a kid on family vacations to Devon, Pearson would gaze up wistfully at Kate Bush’s cliffside retreat there and dream about becoming an artist of similar ambition one day. She still hopes to one day sit down and pen a number with the legend, whose “Running Up That Hill” is suddenly topping charts again courtesy of its use in Netflix’s Stranger Things series.
“Even if I just wrote a song with her and it never gets released—I’ll take it!” she gushes. Post-Ardyn, she came close to giving up on music entirely. But the more she attended local concerts, the more she would see the same faces at every show, Bristol performers who enjoyed seeing music as much as making it. When lockdown hit, and Return was consequently released to little fanfare, she got busy making music again herself, while going for long nature walks or tidal-pool swims just to spend time outdoors each day. Bristol was bursting with isolated, verdant locations to visit. “And my first show back after the pandemic was in Sheffield, in a big theatre, and it was electric,” Pearson notes. “People were so excited just to see the songs played live, and they knew all the words! And then a few months later, we played London. We did two sold-out shows at the Jazz Cafe there, and it was amazing, really surreal, and again, everyone knew all the words, and hearing the crowd singing them back to you was so special. Everything just clicked.” At first, releasing Return just as Covid clamped down seemed like a catastrophic concept, she sighs. “But now I think it was really beneficial, because people had the time to really listen to it.”
Pearson has already begun work on Album No. Three, and she has no idea what curious new tones, textures, and hometown talents she’ll pursue. “But everyone I know in music that lives in Bristol? We’re really close, communicative friends,” she declares, proudly. “I mean, I was on Later … with Jools Holland a few weeks ago, and what was so special was that The Louisiana, which is one of my favorite local venues, where musicians come and hang out, all of my friends in music—and I mean everyone—came down for a watch party. There were 150 people there, and everyone was cheering. It was so overwhelming, I actually ended up crying—I never felt so loved!”