Monday, April 16, 2007

From Selling Soap To Number One: The Quiet Triumph Of Kate Walsh


In the basement of the Slaughtered Lamb in Clerkenwell on a sunny Wednesday afternoon, Kate Walsh can finally take stock of a remarkable month. Today, her album Tim’s House is at number three in the iTunes chart, behind the Kings of Leon and Timbaland, but above Amy Winehouse and Take That. She has been at number one, and her music is now attracting worldwide attention. Tim’s House, the album she recorded in the Brighton home of her producer Tim Bidwell, using velvet curtains from Debenhams as sound insulation, sits just outside the iTunes Top 40 in the USA, and the Top 10 in Canada.
There is nothing predictable about this success. Walsh’s music is unassuming and poetic. To call it lo-fi is slightly misleading, but most of the work is done by her voice; a breathy, bird-like instrument, which sounds conversational, but is actually a model of controlled emotion. When she accompanies herself on guitar, most of the noise is made by the chords she doesn’t play. She sings about heartache, mostly. And, having come this far this quickly, all the signs are that her success will multiply.
It’s fair to say that Walsh hasn’t let all of this go to her head. Though messages of support clog her Myspace inbox, she can still walk the streets unmolested. As a small concession to her sudden popularity, she has handed in her notice from her job “selling posh soap to posh ladies” at Crabtree and Evelyn in Brighton. Today, her manager Jonathan sits at the next table, fielding calls from record companies, anxious to explain how they can take her career to the next level. But Walsh, chastened by a bad experience with the Newcastle label Kitchenware, is in no rush. “It would be silly to jump into anything. We know that people like it regardless of who’s backing it, so we’ll just keep doing it ourselves if we have to. We’ve got the choice. We can do that.”
The speed of Walsh’s arrival would have been scarcely imaginable until recently, and is a further sign of how the internet is revolutionising the music business. A year ago – in circumstances that have been the subject of some dispute - Sandi Thom won a record deal and a worldwide hit by broadcasting a series of concerts from her Tooting basement. Thom’s popularity on the Net may have been exaggerated in order to attract record company interest, but Walsh’s story seems simpler. Her distributor did a deal with iTunes to release the music, and iTunes offered her song Talk of the Town as a free download, thus creating interest in the album, which is available at half-price. “It was an experiment they wanted to try, and it works. Obviously, this must show the labels and the marketing people that instead of raising your price and selling less albums, reduce it and get more people listening to the music.
“It makes sense. People just bought the record. There’s no marketing, no hype. It’s lovely for me because I know that people love the record just because it’s there. They’re not being told it’s good.”
Walsh grew up in a music-loving household in Burnham-on-Crouch on the Essex coast. “I never had to be told to do my piano. I always loved it.” Her two older brothers listened to Orbital, the Utah Saints, and psychedelic 1960s music, and her father like prog rock, and tuned the radio to Classic FM. Her mother played piano, and had a fondness for Jimi Hendrix, the Who, Steeleye Span and Fairport Convention. “She’s great. About a month ago she came down to Brighton because she was going to go on a shamanic drumming weekend. She’s not a shaman, and she doesn’t drum, but she just thought she’d give it a go.”
Walsh’s memories of Burnham are reflected in the lyrics of Talk of the Town. “It’s like any small town. It’s not that I dislike the place, I just didn’t fit in, and I couldn’t hide the fact that I was frustrated being there.”
I ask her to describe it, and she pulls a face. “There’s a Co-op and a petrol station on the outside of the town. There’s no Dixons or Boots. But it’s very pretty. There’s a couple of bric-a-brac stores. Quite good ones, actually. You can get some nice vases.”
A shy adolescent, she recalls sitting alone in the fields with her black eyeliner on, smoking roll-ups and writing poetry, while listening to Radiohead’s The Bends. She says she “went off the rails” as a teenager and, lacking the discipline to do well at grammar school, elected to go to the local comprehensive, where her grades continued to deteriorate. She got into trouble – “just small town jollies” – and decided to sort herself out by going to boarding school in Bishop’s Stortford.
“You’re locked up you can’t go out, and every night there’s an hour and a half of supervised prep. So you do all your work. My grades were amazing when I left, and I was a more confident person. And I cherished my family. It just changed me. It really started to make me who I was.
“I had no reason to go off the rails. My family are lovely. I grew up in this really pretty town. Maybe it was just my frustration at not having an outlet, or not being with likeminded people. I just rebelled, and it’s always the ones closest to you that you hurt the most.”
Walsh is 24 now, but had her fingers burned by the music business when she 18. A classically-trained pianist, she had deferred her entry to the London College of Music and Media to work on her songs, when a producer called her and asked “what do you want to do with the rest of your life?” She recorded her first album, Clocktower Park in 2001, and spent a fruitless year living in Newcastle, but the album wasn’t released until 2003. She now considers it to be soulless and undeveloped. “I was still learning to be a singer-songwriter. I’m still finding my sound now. Back then I was 18, and it got taken out of my hands. I didn’t trust my own judgement. The production is so polished, and it’s not like anything I listen to.”
She started playing the piano when she was five, and had lessons until she was 16, when her teacher, Sue Hazelton died of cancer. Tim’s House is dedicated to her. “We were very close. She even ended up living next door to me at the end of her life. My piano at home was so out of tune, and she used to listen through the walls to me playing it. I used to go round and show her my poetry when I was 13. She was wonderful. She always said that I reminded her of her when she was my age.”
Walsh says she wasn’t dedicated enough to be a classical pianist. “Classical musicians are playing like a job all day every day. And when you’re 15 you don’t want to be playing piano all day.” Still, hints of her training can be detected in her music. The melodies come from her love of Debussy, she says, and she considers his First Arabesque to be her signature tune. “It takes you somewhere else.”
She imagined she would work on film scores, or songs for other singers, never dreaming that she could use her own voice. “For me, being a singer on stage, was like jumping out of an aeroplane; it was never going to happen. I’d never do public speaking. I’d never jump out of a plane, I’d never bungee jump and I’d never sing on stage. But now I love it.”
On stage, amid the sofas and the lampshades of the Electroacoustic Club, in the basement of the Slaughtered Lamb, Walsh certainly shows few signs of nerves. She closes her show with Your Song, a wispy ode to her “greatest love”, the man broke her heart two years ago.
The song is devastating in its simplicity. On the record, it is augmented by strings. Live, there is just Walsh and her slightly out-of-tune guitar. Tonight, in the silence before the final chorus, someone drops a glass, which smashes loudly. In that moment, as she prepares to share her heartbreak, Kate Walsh can’t help laughing.