‘The music scene felt so laddy and hostile to me’

‘The music scene felt so laddy and hostile to me’

The return of Harkin — Kate Harkin has spent years in the background of bands like Wild Beasts, Sleater Kinney and Courtney Barnett. Now, she’s stepping out of their shadow to go solo.

On June 24 2016, Katie Harkin was in a state of confusion; her brain spinning in circles as the realisation that we’d just voted to leave the European Union began to sink in. Amidst the rage and sadness, song lyrics began to repeat themselves in her head over and over – lyrics that were written in 1980 by the cult Sheffield post-punk band, Comsat Angels.

“And I can’t stand up and I can’t sit down
‘Cause a great big problem stop me in my tracks
I can’t relax ’cause I haven’t done a thing
And I can’t do a thing ’cause I can’t relax”  

A year later those lyrics still felt pertinent as she walked the streets of LA for the Women’s March. This soon led to her jumping in a studio, along with some friends – Jenn Wasner (Wye Oak), Stella Mozgawa (Warpaint) and Hayden Thorpe (Wild Beasts) – to record the track. “The lyrics speak to a global anxiety right now,” she tells me, just before jumping on a plane to Australia to tour with Courtney Barnett. “Also, given they are a Yorkshire band, I was delighted to sing a cover song in my own accent.”  

Now based in Upstate New York, Harkin is originally from Yorkshire where she formed Sky Larkin at 18. They went on to sign to Wichita and released three albums between 2009 and 2013. They remain an overlooked gem from the era, combining seamless pop melody with taut, angular rhythms. It’s a period Harkin looks back on fondly, whilst also aware of the uphill battle. “I’m proud of what a bunch of teenagers managed to achieve,” she says. “Back then we were weathering what people now call landfill indie. The environment felt so laddy and hostile to me.”

As well as fronting Sky Larkin until 2014, she toured in Wild Beasts before going on to join Sleater Kinney when they reformed. She played on Waxahatchee’s 2017 album Out in the Storm and the same year joined Kurt Vile and Courtney Barnett’s collaborative band. In 2019, she remains in Barnett’s band but is now – after signing a publishing deal with Rough Trade – embarking on a new solo mission as Harkin. Her debut single, “Mist on Glass”, is as pop-driven as it is guitar-led – the licks wrestle in tone between something you might hear on an unearthed 1970s post-punk record and something prime-era Kill Rock Stars might have put out.

It’s a track that “confronts identity, conflict and self-determination,” she says. It all began whilst being snowed in at a friend’s place in New York. “I started writing songs there and they immediately felt different. Being trapped there totally out of my own context shook something loose. I was incredibly protective over my solo project at first, I didn’t want to let anyone know I was writing. It felt like a privilege to be making something that was just mine, away from the group dynamics, deadlines and album cycles I’d experienced before.”

Although when she let slip to US singer Torres that she was working on solo material, she soon found herself opening up for her across Europe. “This forced me to write a set’s worth,” she recalls. “I owe her a lot for that push.”

The years leading up to Harkin as a solo project have been pivotal and inspirational ones, she tells me. “It astounds me that I’ve been taken into the lives of so many musicians I admire. There have been some beyond-bucket-list shows – I couldn’t even dare imagine playing the Sydney Opera House with Sleater Kinney when I went to see them on my own in high school. But it’s seeing how people I admire keep it together on a day-to-day basis that has been the most inspiring.”  

Before moving to New York, Harkin was living in a cottage in the Peak District. A sense of displacement from the shift between remote countryside and frantic cities has played a major factor in her new material. “Moving out of cities has certainly helped me keep my calm and boosted my creativity,” she says. “Touring allows me to date a lot of cities and they’re fun – sometimes – but the realities of city life often left me feeling like a creative consumer rather than an instigator. I’ve certainly seen lots of cities glaze over; in so many parts of the world, outsiders are moving to the fringes beyond the suburbs. Every city I’ve toured in has neighbourhoods of unsold condos. It feels like our cities are having identity crises in the digital age.”

The sound of “Mist on Glass” is itself an attempt to capture these two polarised environments. “I wanted a sound that combined the eeriness of the English countryside with the pace of the mechanised world,” she says. However, such geographical and technological transitions exist as a backdrop to a much more tangible one: Harkin’s switch from being in other people’s bands to writing and singing her own songs again. It’s a position that she feels as vulnerable as she does excited by: “It feels like voting – like it’s just the right thing to do. I’ve been lucky to tour with so many other musicians, but now I need to put my own neck on the line for a bit.”

There’s also a fierce determination that underscores Harkin’s fecund work ethic (when on tour with Vile and Barnett she ended up in the emergency room with nerve inflammation, yet still didn’t miss a show) and creative drive. “My only real goal in life is to play music every day and when I read things, like only two per cent of the UK’s entire PRS registry are women in the north of England, it makes me want to boil and turn into dust at the same time. There can be no quitting.”  

“Mist On Glass” is released today.

Follow Daniel Dylan Wray on Twitter.

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