Born to evangelical Christian parents and raised in small-town Texas, Katy Kirby grew up homeschooled and started singing in church at an early age. Like many people, she started questioning her faith around the time she moved to college in Nashville, where she graduated from Belmont University with an English degree and a few original songs, some of which she continued to refine over the years. For her debut album, Cool Dry Place – out this Friday via Keeled Scales – she’s reworked the three tracks from 2018’s Juniper EP alongside six additional songs. The result is a shimmering and heartfelt collection of songs that spring from a place of radiant intimacy and attempt to not only capture but also latch onto those sacred spaces: “I tap twice on your doorframe and you let me in/ I tap twice on your forehead and a heart appears,” she sings softly on ‘Tap Twice’, while the title track sees her repeating the question, “Can I come over? Is it too late? Would you keep me in a cool, dry place?”
With lyrics that feel personal even when she assumes an outside perspective (‘Juniper’, ‘Fireman’), Kirby has such a delicate way of tapping into everyday moments of beauty and poetry that the codes of communication she comes up with in the process – her “secret language” – feel both new and familiar, wonderfully complex yet approachable. ‘Cool Dry Place’ opens with the lines “just another episode of tenderness/ in a long, long string of similar events,” and Kirby’s gift lies in the ability to hold each of them still just long enough so she can draw a line between them.
We caught up with Katy Kirby for the latest edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series, where we showcase up-and-coming artists and talk to them about their music.
How are you doing? Where are you currently?
I’m in Alabama right now, I’m helping a friend produce their first record. I’m quarantined here with a bunch of friends; a friend’s parents have this big farm and so we set up a recording studio on it and we’ve been tracking since then.
How’s that been so far?
It’s been amazing. I haven’t been able to play in a room with people in over a year. And everyone here is someone who worked on Cool Dry Place, so it was really cool to see them again and to get to play with them in person, I missed them. It’s overwhelmingly joyful.
That sounds really exciting. How do you feel about your album coming out soon?
I feel super excited, and I’m especially excited that almost everyone who worked on it with me will be with me in the same place on the day it’s released. So that’s just such an unexpected gift.
I hope it’s okay to kind of go back in time a little bit – I’ve read a bit in other places about your upbringing, but I’m interested in hearing more in your words about how you look back on those formative years and what your relationship to music was like at an early age.
I think the first band rehearsal I was ever in was probably for the church I attended, like worship team. I was asked to play bass as a 13-year-old or something. And that was a really forgiving place to learn how to be part of a band and to learn how to construct songs in a way that people respond to. Once you’re sort of deep into the worship realm you realize that there are a few songwriters who are writing a lot of the hits. And just seeing patterns there and being able to play with, like, a bunch of 30-year-olds, and it didn’t really matter if I screwed up a bunch, was a great place to learn stuff. Honestly, I have a lot of friends who have that same entry point as well. Church worship bands have given us a lot of talented musicians.
At the time, did you feel connected to the music or did that happen later on when you started discovering different types of music?
That’s a great point, I hadn’t really been exposed to many types of music other than things under that worship music umbrella or Christian pop music until I was like, maybe 13 or 14, and a friend’s mom started playing The Strokes and like, the Sufjan Stevens album Age of Adz when we were driving around. And actually, now that I’m thinking about it, she was in the worship band that I played in. And even now that I’m realizing, like, other types of popular music that I was exposed to outside of Christian was honestly the dads who were playing guitar and bass talking about Zeppelin or King Crimson or whatever, and me being like, “What’s that?” And so I think even in that way, I guess it was a jumping-off point, in the sense that was maybe the first place, at least in a small way, that I met other people who were also into music and were really excited by just how something sounded.
Honestly, Sufjan Stevens sounds like the perfect link to go from that to more alternative music.
Oh, for sure.
When did you start challenging those ideas in a more significant way, be it from a personal standpoint or in relation to music? Was that something that kind of went hand in hand as you grew up?
Weirdly not, it would be interesting if it was. And I mean, I definitely was getting into cooler stuff as I was growing up, and as one grows up, generally one starts being slightly more critical of their parents’ faith and that’s pretty normal, but the way that my parents engage with their faith and the way that the community I was in engages with religion is really open and flexible, for the most part. So it was really like a safe place to ask questions a lot of the time and argue about things. So there wasn’t like a big impetus for me to leave that community because I could ask questions and I could have doubts and be still be accepted, and I think that’s beautiful. But I was a very compliant high school kid. It definitely wasn’t like, I brought home a Led Zeppelin record and my parents are like, “That’s Satan music.”
Yeah, that’s the narrative we often hear, but it’s not always like that. I’d like to talk more about the record specifically – could walk me through the timeline of making the album?
Yeah, so in late 2018 I decided I wanted to make another record. I had put out an EP earlier that year called Juniper and I did it with no money, essentially. And it sounded better than I thought it would, and people liked it more than I thought they would. And that was really encouraging. And so I grabbed my friend Joelton [Mayfield], who’s the person I’m producing the record for, and we started talking about it. And it was basically a series of conversations on how we were going to do that and what songs we’re going to wind up there for the next, like, two years. But the bulk of the imagining of the album was done with Logan Chung, who produced Cool Dry Place and helped me demo it in 2019. And we were in his old house in West Nashville, the week that he was moving out. And so there wasn’t a lot of furniture in there, so we had space and time to just demo a bunch of songs. And just the two of us working together during that week or so is pretty much where the spirit of most of the songs on the record emerged. Then we started tracking in Nashville in August 2019, and we finished tracking over Thanksgiving at my parents’ house, which was super fun to be there for and have dinner with all of them. So it does seem we function best as a group, me and all the other people here, when we’re locked away in the middle of nowhere on my parent’s ranch or out here on a farm.
Do you feel like it was a very collaborative process?
It feels like such a collaborative process. Honestly, I continue to feel weird, almost, doing interviews and answering questions about the record when I only feel I did like a third or a quarter of the actual work that was required to bring it into existence. Especially when they’re like in the other room and I could yell at them. But yeah, like Logan Chung and Joelton Mayfield and Alberto Sewald and all the people who played on the record are just so brilliant and it wouldn’t have sounded very good at all without them.
How did you decide you wanted the songs on the EP to be on the album?
Well, to be honest, they seemed like really solid songs, and I still liked them after about a year. And so I wasn’t sure about it at first, but I think we decided on that because I really did think that we could do those songs the same, but a little bit better.
[Logan Chung enters the room] Hello. This is Logan. Uh, why did we put the songs on the EP on the album? Logan says, “I don’t know, because they deserve to be on it.” So yeah. And also, I don’t write songs very quickly.
Both good answers! Moving on to some specific moments on the album – and feel free to stop me if it’s all too much – but I love what sounds like a slight vocal manipulation on ‘Traffic!’ And how it seems to come right when you sing “I’m slipping into an accent.” I don’t know if that’s the exact moment where it comes in, but what was the idea behind that?
Yes, it absolutely is. We were very pleased with ourselves on that one. I think it just sounded really fun and sort of spiritually right for the song. The reason that it was on there initially is because Logan and I were demoing that one and I had a really terrible cold and a shitty job where I talked on the phone for 40 hours a week. While we were working on it, I asked him to just throw in the bad AutoTune patch on Logic or whatever, so that I wouldn’t be distracted by how terrible my voice sounded. And it felt really cool. And when we showed it to other people, they kind of thought that it was part of the song and it felt kind of tonally appropriate as the most pop song on the record.
Yeah, definitely. And then on ‘Tap Twice’, I just love the tenderness of it and how tentative it kind of is, and the line about a heart appearing is so lovely. But I’m actually curious whether there’s any special symbolism in oranges, because they’re also referenced on the title track.
That is a great question. Yeah, oranges are mentioned twice in the record and so are grapes. I did not notice that until it was out, and I was like, “Oh, damn.” Here’s the thing, so both of the mentions of oranges in those songs are very, like, organic – organic oranges, nice. I kind of wish there was some symbolism, and I mean, as a former English major, I kind of want to self-analyze and be like, “What are oranges a symbol for?” That’s probably not a good idea, though. But literally, my friend Tom had a terrible cold and was sort of in a broke college student place where he hadn’t eaten fruit in like, a week or something. And I remember bringing him a grocery store bag of apples and oranges and leaving it for him so he didn’t get scurvy. And that just felt like a fun line. And then later, for ‘Cool Dry Place’, the person who at least initially inspired a lot of the lines in that song was someone that I toured with for a while, earlier that year, just for a few days. But while we were in the car with the other two people in the band, we would go through this bag of clementines and pass them around. And what I would do is I would open one up – I’ve never told the story – but I would open one up and like, give each of them a piece until like it was gone. And I think doing that over and over again made me realize like, “There’s always 10 segments in an orange, crazy!” And so it happened in real life. I just live in a world with a lot of oranges.
And it doesn’t need to have a symbolic meaning, I just love those small details that stem from reality. And then on ‘Secret Language’, obviously, there’s the Leonard Cohen interpolation. But I also just love how you use repetition in the lyrics of that song, and it kind of reminds me of another line from ‘Cool Dry Place’ about the rhythm being more important than the melody. First of all, how did that repetition come about?
So ‘Cool Dry Place’ and ‘Secret Language’ were written years apart, like maybe three years. I would say that the repetition or the rhythm consciousness in ‘Secret Language’ is trying to reflect not knowing what to say; I tend to repeat myself because I have ADD and [chuckles] I’m a talker. But I think that repeating yourself in a sentence or saying something to yourself twice as if to remember felt aligned with what I was thinking about as I was writing ‘Secret Language’, like memorizing something to recall it. And that song is a little bit about prayer in general, and there is a lot of repetition in at least traditional prayers, which is not something I grew up with, but I think repetition in that way always feels – sacred is too strong of a word, but yeah, there’s something special about it.
Yeah, that makes sense. What about the significance of the rhythm being more important than the melody?
So the rhythm being more important than the melody was just – if I may quote the line right before that, “With all my extra rods and cones, I see/ That the rhythm’s more important than the melody.” So women have more literal like rods and cones in their retinas on average, which allows most people born female to see more colors, literally. And so I think that line is maybe me wondering if women specifically, or at least women that I know, seem to occasionally have more of a gut instinct about the timing of relationships being very important. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but it just felt like something that I had an instinct for that did kind of feel gendered. But it didn’t seem like the other party understood my reservations about timing in that relationship.
That’s interesting, I hadn’t thought of it that way. Another specific question – the effects at the end of ‘Portals’, I saw in the credits that there’s wine glasses and bowls and a pencil. And I related it to the previous line about punching through glass, but that sound comes later, so I’m wondering what the inspiration for it was.
Are you talking about the tiny little glass shattering sound at the end?
Nice, I’m so glad someone noticed that also. Also a very silly fact, I was talking to Alberto yesterday and he mentioned that sample in there for some reason. And we named that track in the Pro Tools sessions as Phillip. And I was like, “Why are you calling it Phillip?” And he’s like, “’Cause Philip Glass.” And I was like, “No, God, get out of here.” Anyway. They’re hilarious. I can’t remember if I was thinking about the “hand punched through a pane of glass” line when I was like, “We should put a glass sample at the end of that.” I honestly think that I was just like, “I just hear the sound of shattering glass at the end of the song for some reason. I don’t know, do you?” And they were like, “Yeah, sure.” I don’t think that lyric was ever brought up in those conversations, which is hilarious. But yeah, I guess the line or just like glass shattering in general and the idea of ‘Portals’ is just a nod to this notion that transformation is almost always painful. I guess if I feel like I’m changing and it doesn’t suck, I don’t quite believe it. I don’t quite believe that change comes without some sort of pain, usually. But maybe that’s a really messed up way of relating to growth, so who knows?
On a more hopeful note, I don’t know why, but when I heard it, instead of shattering glass, for some reason it kind of sounded like the reverse of that to me, like pieces of glass coming together and reforming.
Oh, that’s amazing. Like that one scene in Harry Potter where they fix the room with their wands and there’s like all of those like clinking noises of things coming back together. We talked about that a lot as we were fucking with wine glasses and things at my parents’ house while we’re recording that. Oh, wow. That’s amazing. I love the idea of just like a wine glass thing like [imitates swoosh sound].
I don’t think I have any other specific questions about the album, but I wanted to ask you what your current headspace is like and whether you have any thoughts as to what your next steps might be.
Honestly, I love the songs on Cool Dry Place and I’m still proud of a lot of the work that we did, but I’m kind of more excited to record some of the songs I’ve been writing. And honestly, I’m excited that it seems like the record’s being received pretty well. Because I feel like then I’ll be allowed to make a second record. And that’s good, because I felt like making Cool Dry Place was mostly me learning how to make a record. And that’s part of the reason it took a really long time, and it was really scary and really hard to learn how to produce things at all. But I really love doing it and I’m honestly just excited to do it again, but better.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Katy Kirby’s Cool Dry Place is out February 19 via Keeled Scales.