Katie Harkin: Roots manoeuvre

Katie Harkin’s origins as a DIY musician with Leeds indie band Sky Larkin are coming in useful now she's released her new solo album and set up a record label that’s more than a record label

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Katie Harkin was on tour in Berlin supporting American artist Torres when the World Health Organisation declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic on 11 March. Within hours, Italy ordered the closure of all shops except food stores and pharmacies.

“I was writing in the Peak District, so the record does have the feeling of the mechanised north with the moors above it.”

“I’ve never quit a tour before and, like everyone else, it was hard to process events as they were unfolding. But it became very evident, very quickly that carrying on wasn’t the right thing to be doing anymore,” recalls the singer-songwriter and former frontwoman of Leeds indie band Sky Larkin.

Harkin returned home to the UK, bringing an unsettling end to five weeks on the road. Since then, she’s been in isolation with her family and partner in Sheffield. The couple were due to get married later this year, although, like most aspects of life, that’s been placed
on indefinite hold until the Covid-19 crisis abates.

“There’s a lot of things that I thought might happen this year that now probably won’t, but I’m very lucky to be safe and with my family,” she sanguinely tells Big Issue North over the phone.

One thing that coronavirus hasn’t delayed is the arrival of Harkin’s solo debut, an electrifying mix of melodic indie rock, angular post-punk and reverb-soaked meditations on identity, which doubles as the first release on the singer’s new Hand Mirror label. In light of lockdown, she considered postponing its release, but ultimately decided to share her music with fans now and come together to celebrate it at another time.

“Although I can’t tour and promote the record in the way that I’d hoped, I would love to say let’s have a first or second anniversary party rather than hold it back. That feels better for me. But there’s no right way of navigating this. We’re all being presented with challenges that we haven’t faced before.”

The arrival of her solo debut is a milestone for the 34-year-old Leeds-born musician, coming 15 years after she formed Sky Larkin with school friend Nestor Matthews. The group lasted for just under a decade and while they never enjoyed mainstream success their three albums and impassioned live performances won them many admirers, including Stereolab, Conor Oberst and Frightened Rabbit, who Sky Larkin supported on tour.

“I learned a lot,” she reflects. “I was really young when we started that band. There were definitely some things that happened that I don’t think people would try to pull now in the current climate, which I would be smarter and wiser to. But we achieved a lot for teenagers that started a band in the basement of my student halls on my first week of university. It’s ridiculous the amount of places we got to go to and the people we got to see.”

By the time that Sky Larkin called it a day in 2014, Harkin was physically and mentally burnt out. “The last gig that we played someone stole all our merchandise from the merch table while we were onstage. It wasn’t like we ended in some blaze of glory.”

But it wasn’t long until the singer was back on the road as a touring musician for one of her favourite bands, Sleater-Kinney (watch the band’s 2015 appearance on Late Show With David Letterman and you can see her playing guitar and keyboards).

She’s been on tour pretty much ever since, playing guitar, keyboards, percussion or providing backing vocals for Flock of Dimes, Kurt Vile, Wild Beasts and Courtney Barnett, among others. Other highlights of her post-Sky Larkin CV include duetting with comedian Sarah Silverman on an album celebrating Scottish indie rock band Frightened Rabbit and working on Waxahatchee’s brilliant 2017 album Out In The Storm.

She’s also composed music for Turner Prize-winning artist Helen Marten and British comedian Josie Long. More surprisingly, she popped up on Saturday Night Live in February 2018 as a backing singer for Dua Lipa.

“Her musical director was in a punk band and we had the same manager when we were teenagers,” explains Harkin of her appearance with the country’s biggest female pop star. “It just goes to show that the music community often has its heart in the right place. I felt very honoured to witness a British woman performing on Saturday Night Live.”

While travelling around the world performing with other musicians, Harkin was quietly writing songs for her first solo record. “I kept it secret for quite a while because I didn’t want to be influenced by what anyone thought I might do. It was luxury to be working on something there was zero expectations for.”

Her bulging contacts book meant she wasn’t short of collaborators when it came time to enter the studio. After laying down the basic tracks with Warpaint’s Stella Mozgawa and Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner in Los Angeles, Harkin travelled to Sheffield to work with British producer Richard Formby (Spacemen 3, Wild Beasts) before heading to Sonic Youth’s studio in New Jersey to finish the LP. The record was made over 16 days, dotted between touring commitments.

“It was a crazy journey. I definitely feel like I expressed my northern identity on this record. I was writing in the Peak District in between all of this touring, so it does have feeling of the mechanised north with the moors above it. There’s a lot of drones that I made on this record that are directly inspired by the expanses of the moors.”

She describes her self-titled album as being about her “hard won” sense of self. It carries the influence of Warpaint and Sleater-Kinney but will also appeal to fans of Wolf Alice, Sharon Van Etten and, of course, Sky Larkin.

“Part of that is growing up as a queer person. Part of that is growing up as a woman in punk bands. Part of that is being the only Brit in a group travelling around the world. It definitely distils that sense of identity.”

Her goal for Hand Mirror, which she runs with her partner Kate Leah Hewett, a poet and live arts organiser, is that it’s acts as more than just a record label and becomes an incubator for a wide range of artistic endeavours.

“It felt like the right time for us for to start building something that gave back to the creative community,” she explains. “If this was the 1960s, I would be starting just a record label, but in the digital landscape it didn’t feel appropriate to launch something around one product. So this is more about the community focus and trying to start something that like-minded people can gather around. We want to serve the community that has enriched our lives so much.”

With coronavirus restricting their ability to stage live shows, the couple have launched a Patreon account to raise funds. Starting at a £1 a month subscribers can access exclusive poetry, songs and interviews from a range of contributors, with top tier supporters receiving a bi-annual literary journal and merchandise. Plans for live events in the UK and US are in the pipeline.

“We want to connect people globally,” says Harkin. “It’s been really heartening seeing people reaching out and supporting it. Now we can start approaching other artists to be involved. We’re grounded for now, but to be able to do something that feels proactive and creates community bonds when it’s easy to feel cut off from each other feels really positive for me mentally.”

Her independent roots and experiences of touring with other “inspirational” artists have given her the renewed confidence to now step out of the shadows as a solo artist.

“I’m proud of being someone from a DIY background that’s been able to sustain myself in a way that I felt comfortable. The start that I had as a DIY musician taught me a lot of creative survival skills that have served me well in the long run. There’s certainly bucket list stuff that I couldn’t have possibly begun to anticipate, like playing at the Sydney Opera House, with Sleater-Kinney, or with Courtney Barnett. Those aren’t reasonable dreams to have. So when they happen, it has been incredibly wild and I’m absolutely grateful for them.”

Harkin’s self-titled debut album is out now on Hand Mirror

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