It might seem that British artist Katy J Pearson appeared out of nowhere, fully formed at 24 with her quirky but confident debut album “Return.” But looks can be deceiving.
Released Nov. 13, the album seemingly effortlessly blends folksy acoustic guitar chords with synth-looped percussion and effervescent, vibrato-edged vocals reminiscent of classic American country. Yet it’s the end product of nearly a decade of struggle that started with the pop duo Ardyn she and her co-vocalist brother Rob formed as teenagers while living at home with their parents in Gloucestershire.
“It’s taken me such a long time to get this baby up and out,” she says. “But I really get it now, that sometimes it really does take a long while to find art that’s worth doing and find your own voice.”
What the former naif has learned in the interim could fill a how-to textbook on navigating the treacherous music industry.
The fascination was romantic at first — as a kid on vacations to Devon, she would often gaze wistfully at Kate Bush’s cliffside home and dream of a showbiz career. When she and her brother formed Ardyn, the siblings’ ethereal harmonies set them on that path via an unexpected recording contract with Universal offshoot imprint Method.
But Pearson quickly discovered that youthful experimentation wasn’t welcomed. “It was very corporate,” she says in retrospect. “They weren’t bad people. They were just businessmen, and as soon as we signed, it was like, ‘Oh, can you write another song that sounds like that song that we signed you for? Ten more times?’ They weren’t really interested in any artistic progression.”
But the company had deep pockets. Before they knew it, the kids were being whisked off to Los Angeles to work with a cavalcade of renowned collaborators, like Semisonic’s Dan Wilson and Andrew Wyatt from Miike Snow, a process they found both humbling and enjoyable.
“But when we got back, we got told off for not writing a hit,” Pearson says. “They said, ‘We sent you to America to write something really big, and you’ve given us all this left-field stuff!’ And I was like, ‘What? But this is what I do!’ I was supposed to write something that only they like?”
After discovering that all future co-writers had been warned to stop Ardyn sessions if they turned too eccentric, she begged to be released from her contract. Luckily, the imprint let her go, and returned ownership of her material, as well.
The duo moved to more bustling Bristol, but after Rob contracted glandular fever and moved back home with the folks, Katy, at 21, was left alone in a strange new city and unsure of her own abilities.
Nearly eight fallow months passed with no inspiration, at which point she was seriously considering giving up music for good and becoming a gardener. After finding a writing-recording space at a community arts center called The Island, she decided to treat songwriting like an actual job. “So I’d wake up at 9 every morning, grab a coffee, walk to the studio and get to work,” she says.
The routine provided her with renewed purpose.
That’s when she found her idiosyncratic solo style, inspired by Kate Bush, Carole King and Win Butler’s co-vocalist wife in Arcade Fire, Régine Chassagne. “In Ardyn, I was singing in a more artificial pop way,” she says. “But now when I hear myself sing, I’m singing as natural as possible and my vibrato is there, and I’m writing things that suit my voice much better.”
Visualizing a perfect blend of the electronic and organic, she arrived at playful folk-synth janglers like “Beautiful Soul,” “Take Back the Radio” and the fluttery “Fix Me Up,” a pep song she penned to herself at her lowest post-Ardyn point.
“I was glad I found a happy sonic medium,” she says, proud that the posh imprint Heavenly is releasing it all.
Pearson admits to being blindsided by the pandemic, which shut down the spring tour for her and her band, which now includes her brother on guitar; he moved in with her in Bristol a year and a half ago, after recovery.
“We work really well as a team,” she adds. “But if he ever wants to do something on his own, I’ll never stop him.”
That’s the bullet point to “Return,” she says: Knowing when to say yes to a good idea.
“Because I was kind of pushed around by people that were older than me, and I felt like I had to give in to them. 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.”