Katy Vernon has come a long way to sing and write songs in the Twin Cities: across the ocean, clear from South London, England. That's one of the things she discussed in a rather candid chat about her life and profession as we sat over coffee at Pow Wow Grounds in Minneapolis.
She played that evening with her trio at the Amsterdam Bar & Hall in downtown St. Paul in one of three performing incarnations—she also works with a full band and does solo gigs, depending on the venue. Taking time that probably could've been spent rehearsing, Vernon gave a gracious interview. Actually, it was more of a pleasant chat than anything else.
Her debut, Before I Forget, truly is a beautiful piece of work. Reflective, bright, laid-back in the cut and brilliantly marketable with a distinctly engaging vocal style. The music is available where you'd expect, Internet outlets like ReverbNation and MySpace. And, it goes without saying, you can check in on her doings on Facebook. In addition, she gigs reasonably regularly playing, along with Amsterdam Bar & Hall, places from the extreme upscale (the Guthrie) to merely popular (7th Street Entry) to the more earthly (331 Club) and downright blue-collar (Lee’s Liquor Lounge). When and wherever Katy Vernon plays, you're doing yourself a favor to stop in and experience this gifted artist.
You have something of a dark back story.
For years it was hard to talk about it, but, it was something that fueled my songwriting. My parents passed away when I was pretty young. My mom when I was 12. I lived in a house with my dad and my brother and at 17, and five years later, my dad died. So, it feels kind of weird to say, but I was an orphan. It's kind of, lock yourself up in your room or do something with it. It was always something I found very hard to talk about, but it was always something I wrote about. That was my outlet. Not surprisingly, I guess. It was always an underlying thing, just the feeling of loneliness. I felt different. Singing about it, strangely enough, was just cathartic.
What on Earth possesed you to move all the way to Minneapolis?
I met a man from Iowa.
James T. Kirk country.
We met traveling around Europe, on a train going from Amsterdam to Berlin. I was bumming around with friends. It was no great love affair right away. We became friends. I liked him a lot. We stayed in touch. He was this clean-cut Midwestern guy. I was in drama college, so everyone I knew was pretty rough around the edges. He was [in the U.S. Air Force], based near Oxford. We started dating long distance, seeing each other every couple weeks. We got engaged.
So, it was the old saw, romance between a British lass and a Yank.
Yep. Just kind of took a leap of faith. Jumped right in. I kind of realized that I could choose to be happy with someone. That was the mid-90s. We've been married ever since. So, it was a good move.
What's biggest difference between being in Minneapolis and South London?
The obvious differences between America and England is the size. Like where you can get to in a day. London's a huge city, but England is so small. With everything being so close. The size really wacked me over the head. The size of portions everywhere. Food, drink. The size of the people. I don't think of myself as that small. But, next all these Nordic people. [And] the history in London. Everything's so old. I didn't really appreciate it until I was about to leave and looked around. It's one of the most interesting places in the world. But very expensive. London is horribly expensive and it's hard for me to even go back there. Obviously it costs so much to fly. When you're there, everything costs.
Before I Forget is your first solo outing. But, it isn't your recording debut.
Right. Ten years ago [there was] a CD with my band The Camdens called Halfway Around The World. This length of time between them is partly why I am so happy to be singing again. During that time I struggled with writers block and taught myself guitar and ukulele and re-launched myself solo.
A turning point for me songwriting-wise was learning the ukulele. That transformed my sad songs into something that sounded more upbeat. Just by the nature of that instrument. It really turned things around for me creatively and made me feel like people would actually want to sit and listen. I actually didn't take it up until two years ago! I saw Lucy Michelle play and she plays a tenor uke. I had always thought of it as a silly toy-like instrument, but seeing her play a bigger version made it more appealing. As soon as I started to play around on it I started writing. The song "Five O'Clock" was the first one I wrote. After years of staring sadly in frustration at my guitar I realised I just needed to play a different instrument! Now I like to switch back and forth between guitar and uke and it helps give the songs a different feel from each other.
The music. What motivated you to go professional?
Feeling like I had given up on part of myself, and I didn't want to do that any more. You know, it's full-time busy, mom, whatever. I would regret...it sounds cheesy, but if I didn't get my voice out there. There's something inside of you that wants to communicate what you're about. That's when I'm singing, and I enjoy using my voice as an instrument. To me there's no greater feeling than having a good musical experience. It's nice if people are there to witness it. That's nice, too.
Read Dwight Hobbes's review of Katy Vernon's Before I Forget (November 2012).