Over the course of our lives we arrive at a long series of junctures, forks in the road that form natural grammar, the punctuation that tells us when to stop, breathe and take stock. Some paths we seek, while others find us. For songwriter Katie Brianna, the making of her gorgeous second album was a deliberate step down a bright new creative direction.
The choice was a simple one. Wallow in self-pity or seek triumph. Victim or the Heroine is the latter. “As I went through the process, it became a little clearer to me what the album was about and the place I'm at in my life and career,” Katie says. “Sometimes I'm confident, other times not so much.”
The name of the record is borne of a lyric from the lilting slow-burner ‘Thicker Skin’ (“Do I play the victim or the heroine?”). Katie deliberated over the right name for the record but kept returning to that question. “In the end that line rang true to me,” says the acclaimed songwriter. “I could sit here playing the victim, whinging about my life, but that ‘poor me’ attitude wasn’t doing me any favours. So that's where the heroine comes into it. I have to step up. Nobody's going to do life for me.”
It seems a lifetime ago that Katie Brianna released her debut EP in 2005, and was swiftly plucked from obscurity by the legendary Paul Kelly to record vocals on the track ‘Jindabyne Fair’, which appeared on his soundtrack to the critically acclaimed Australian film Jindabyne. In 2013 and 2014, overseas venues beckoned and Katie headed to Nashville to perform at the Americana Festival.
The distance Katie has travelled, personally and creatively, is evident in the nuanced adult tension of Victim or the Heroine. Mature and restrained, the collection of songs is elegant and serene, firmly rooted in the push and pull of modern womanhood.
When writing material for the album, Katie painted with a broader sonic palette, demonstrating there was more to her musical essence than the country folk sound of her 2013 debut Dark Side of the Morning. Despite the indelible influence of country music, there was a wider range of colours at the songwriter’s disposal. The result is an eclectic collection that unfolds with each listen, blooming in the radiance of Katie’s honeyed voice.
“I think this album shows that my music is evolving, and that I am evolving as a songwriter,” Katie says. “That my influences are expanding.”
The resulting album is a songbook of light and shade, woven with fatalism and introspection. From the dreamy ebb of ‘Thorn in Your Side’, to the sublime pop of ‘Chemical Lies’ and ‘King’, the songs are imbrued with restless reflection; an aching soul on her sofa with guitar in hand, sinking beneath affectations and owning up to her idiosyncrasies.
One of the record’s highlights is ‘Birmingham’, written in the English city from which it takes its name, a sensuous track laced with yearning and loneliness. “I think this one gets a little Fleetwood Mac in terms of production, and it’s a bit different from stuff I’ve done before’, Katie says. “I started writing this when I was on my first big overseas adventure with my sister to the UK and Europe. We were in Birmingham, so that name kind of stuck, even though there is no reference to it in the song. I think she had gone up to the hotel room and I stayed at the bar to be sad and was missing my husband. In the lyrics I talk about the places that I’ve heard about in songs, songs that he introduced me to. I mention Basingstoke which I had heard in a Robyn Hitchcock song and I thought it was pretty cool when we went through there on the train, and it made me miss him more”.
Katie enlisted award-winning songwriter and producer Shane Nicholson and recorded Victim or the Heroine at his Central Coast studio, with a few extra days at Sydney’s Love Hz. The studio band featured bassist Matt Fell, drummer Josh Schuberth and guitarist Glen Hannah, with Nicholson working his magic as a multi-instrumentalist.
“I wanted Victim or the Heroine to be more of a polished production, with more of a pop influence,” Katie explains. “There was never going to be any escaping the fact that a lot of my early influences were country - and still are - and I do have a bit of an inbuilt twang in my voice, so I wanted to keep that element in it too. That’s why Shane was the perfect producer. He understands both worlds, and where I was coming from.”
There’s ultimately a sense of intimacy that permeates Victim or the Heroine, the majority of the songs written on the couch in Katie’s Marrickville apartment, a space that moonlights as lounge, office and music room. The musician explores her life in each track, ruminating on love and relationships, sometimes infusing them with the experiences of those around her.
“I really feel like I’ve taken some great steps with my songwriting. That it’s matured,” says Katie. “I think I’ve come a long way as a singer too and am a lot more sure of where I stand musically and who I am – as clichéd as that sounds.”
Cliché or no, one thing feels certain: Katie’s decision to forge ahead was the right one.
Bio by Nick Milligan
10 Qs with Katie Brianna
Q1 You’ve just released your brand new album “Victim or the Heroine”…what makes you most proud about this album?
How much I have grown as a songwriter.
Q2 What is your earliest memory of music or being interested in music?
Every year I get older, I
remember more. I used to think perhaps it was singing along to Britney Spears,
Spice Girls and other girl groups but there are perhaps more fitting memories…
My dad used to play music quite loud in the living room. He especially loved
Neil Young, Creedence, Dire Straits, Santana and I grew fond of them too. He
had this old, sort of broken and out-of-tune guitar that I like to pick up
every now and then. We also had a piano in a similar state and I taught myself
a little of that.
Q3 Who would you most like to sing a duet with?
So many people. Ron Sexsmith & Paul Kelly are just a couple.
Q4 What advice would you give anyone considering a career in the music industry?
Tricky question. I only ever want to encourage people to play music, but a career in music is a hard slog. If it’s really want you want, then you can never give up. Work hard, make the most of every opportunity that comes your way (and go looking for them), be the best musician/singer/songwriter you can, and always be polite. But also, give yourself a break, and don’t compare yourself with anyone but the person you were yesterday.
Q5 Do you have an embarrassing / funny musical experience you can share with us?
I used to burp on stage a lot. I try not to do that anymore. Sometimes you can’t help it but it helps not to drink beer before you sing.
Q6 What other interests do you have away from music?
I love makeup, but I prefer to do my own than other peoples. It’s another creative outlet. I love reading of course, and seeing the world. I used to like to draw.
Q7 What is your career highlight, so far?
Singing a song that Paul Kelly wrote, Jindabyne Fair, for the soundtrack of the Aussie film Jindabyne.
Q8 What music are you listening to at the moment?
Right at this second I’m listening to Golden Smog’s Another Fine Day.
Q9 What is your favourite film?
I don’t have one. I don’t have a favourite book or a favourite song either or even a single favourite artist. There is too much brilliant work out there that’s impossible to pick just one.
Q10 If you could invite 3 people to dinner who would they be?
I don’t have a dining table.