In 2008, Kathleen Brien enrolled at London’s prestigious Goldsmiths College to study music, following in the footsteps of alumni like Malcolm McLaren, Blur’s Alex James, and Graham Coxon. Goldsmiths is famed for its avant-garde approach, but Brien, who had spent the previous four years alongside Adele at the performing-arts pop factory that is the Brit School, thought she knew what to expect. She was wrong.
“At the Brit, I was performing Beatles songs,” the singer recalls, flopping onto a couch after a three-hour photo shoot. “My first day at Goldsmiths, they showed us a film of people hanging themselves from hooks in the ceiling. Then they told us to write a song about it. Man, it was brutal.”
Perhaps, but it did help foster a fertile imagination, and today, Brien, now Katy B, is one of the U.K.’s brightest young stars. Her debut single, “Katy on a Mission,” went Top 5, and her album, On a Mission, established her as the first lady of the otherwise male-dominated dubstep world. Coproduced by DJ Benga with unabashed pop overtones, Mission reached the Top 10 in Britain and was nominated for the Mercury Prize.
Like all good pop stars, Brien is, in the flesh, pocket-sized and cherubic. At 22, she looks like she should still be living with her parents in Peckham, one of London’s grittier neighborhoods. It was there, she explains from the backseat of a cab after the shoot, that she grew up on her electrician father’s Beach Boys records before getting into dance music. At 16, her early tracks were getting airplay on influential pirate radio stations across the capital, bringing a hungry, R&B-honed sense of melody to the aggressively rhythmic genre.
“I couldn’t believe that my songs could be heard as far away as North London,” she says. “Of course, a while later, Myspace started up and you could hear my songs in Australia.” She has since toured much of the Western world and this year played Glastonbury.
Twenty-seven [countries] at the last count,” she beams, thinking about the upcoming itinerary. “I’m off to America in September, a British tour after that, and then Down Under.” Which is to say, her mission is well on its way.