Asked to summarize the themes on her debut LP Cool Dry Place (out February 19 via Keeled Scales), singer-songwriter Katy Kirby says, “Failed attempts at connection, unspoken rules, care or preservation, learning how to take care of oneself and other people.” These ideas may seem abstract, as her lyrics sometimes are, but she has a gift for juxtaposing that vagueness with sharp, precise imagery. When this lyricism pairs with a tender, Sarah Harmer-esque lilt, the result is a smartly crafted set of songs built on the contemporary Christian music of her adolescence.
The Houston-born singer-songwriter says she’s spent “much of her lifetime falling out of love with God.” Yet, the evangelical music she played as a teenager is fundamental to the way she writes now. “It shows up in the melody and structure of songs I write. It’s hard for me to not do consciously. It is a weirdly unique sub-genre that’s five years behind the pop on the radio. But it has its own flavor,” Kirby says, adding that the accessibility of that music sticks with her because she can’t bring herself to make music so weird it will alienate people, namely her own mother.
She is, however, grateful for the way worship bands offer budding musicians an early start. “I respect that that’s the place a lot of people get started playing in bands because worship bands will let 13 year-olds play bass, the way I did. It’s an unsung place where musicians can grow up,” she says.
Pleasing song structures and palatable melodies form an unlikely infrastructure for her forthcoming record’s songs about privilege (“Nobody has it better than you,” she repeats on “Traffic!”) and the denouement of a relationship. The second single from Cool Dry Place, “Portals,” is devoted to the slow-motion car crash of an impending breakup. The song’s elegiac sparseness amplifies its palpable vulnerability. “I had a feeling that I wasn’t going to be with someone much longer, and I wondered what I’d be left with. Being a little bit more comfortable with my own fragility is something I got out of that relationship,” she says. The song opens with the irresistible couplet “I’m an alternate universe in Target lingerie/You’re a country song in three-four time.”
Kirby laughs at the imagery. “The Target lingerie is real life. I’m a cheap bastard. Anyone I’ve ever dated would know that that’s accurate. Wow, that’s such a perverted Easter egg to put in a song,” she muses.
Kirby, who majored in English at Nashville’s Belmont College, understands the power of escaping into a world one has created rather than lived, and lately, a big part of Kirby’s creative journey has been writing songs based on fictional situations. One such song is album closer “Fireman,” a quietly catchy track with soft country influences. The song is a shard of a complicated relationship. “We’re a slow burn kind of love but now the whole house smells like smoke,” Kirby sings, her narrator working through the relationship, eventually moving on to a scientist and back again.
“Feeling free to totally make things up was awesome and still can – and often does – give you that catharsis that people get from songwriting,” she says. “I don’t write for catharsis all the time. That’s not how I always process feelings.” As her writing has matured, she’s found a new freedom to pen alternate realities. “I began to think of myself more as an author than a historian,” she says succinctly. She admires the ability of the Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle to shun universality when writing songs, and adds that last summer, she developed an “almost embarrassing” fondness for The Eagles and their ability to pull off simple imagery.
Katy Kirby says she frequently pauses songs to replay a good lyric for the person she’s with, and Cool Dry Place gives ample opportunities for that. While it may not convert pop fans to contemporary Christian music, Kirby’s quirky, wise lines and tender melodies are enough to make anyone a fan of an atheist who used to play it.