After years touring with the likes of Sleater-Kinney, Waxahatchee and Wild Beasts, Katie Harkin is finally releasing her own album on her own terms, and giving back to the scene that has brought her so much
For Katie Harkin everything stems from and comes back to community. It was the connective power of music that attracted her to it the first place, and it’s the thing that has kept her wheels spinning in the industry all these years later. With her first solo album, Harkin, she’s using everything that the artistic communities have given her, and taking the opportunity to give back through her new label Hand Mirror.
A talented, self-taught guitarist, Harkin’s playing has seen her drift into several different orbits, starting with the Yorkshire scene that she and her band Sky Larkin thrived within for several years. In the time since the release of that band’s last album, 2013’s Motto, her skills have not gone to waste; she’s become an in-demand touring player,going out on the road as part of countless different bands from both sides of the Atlantic.
While this has been a job that has kept her away from home for a lot of the past few years, the novelty of playing with the likes of her teenage heroes Sleater-Kinney has not worn off for Katie, even after multiple trips around the globe with them. “I’m not over it. I’ll never get over it,” Katie effuses. “I think the day I’m over it I’d have to quit, you know?”
Clearly overjoyed to be able to travel the world doing what she loves, this endless touring is also a main factor in why it’s taken so long for Harkin to finally release an album of her own. Although, there was never any doubt in her mind that she would, but only on her own terms. “I felt like the best way to make this record would be to follow a natural path. I didn’t want to compromise anything.”
Harkin is also a by-product of playing in those various outfits, as it sits in the middle of the concentric circles of all the tours she’s become a part of; when it came time to record, she was able to call in Jenn Wasner (Wye Oak) and Stella Mozgawa (Warpaint) to play bass and drums. A powerhouse pair of performers, no doubt, but it’s the personal connection she has with them that was just as much of a pull. “They’re just the best people to hang out with,” Katie says. “As well as being incredible musicians, they’re the funniest people you could ever hope to meet, and just dear friends.”
There’s also a astrological connection too, if you go in for that sort of thing – and the playing on Harkin is pinpoint enough to make a believer out of anyone. “Jenn and I were born within 100 hours of each other, and Stella is only a month or so older. We’re from three different continents but we’ve had similar trajectories.”
Sonically, she says that her main inspiration for the songs on Harkin came from the verdant Peak District in Yorkshire, where she lives: “That untameable spirit was something that I wanted to capture,” she explains. This manifests in the drones that bulk out the songs on Harkin: “That’s what that howling is.”
She also finds momentum inspirational, which is handy seeing as she’s been on the road for so long. “I don’t really know how anybody writes songs that doesn’t drive, because I find it so useful for that,” she laughs. “Melodies and things like that come to me in motion.” She often found herself pulling over to the side of the road to make notes, or dashing to airplane bathrooms to sing into her phone (which usually ended up being unusable because of the ambient noise).
This propulsion drives the quicksilver first half of Harkin, the “day” side. These tracks soar with aerodynamic poise, mammoth rock songs that sound as though they’re about to burst out of the recordings. “I wanted the album to be born of a live room and that’s why I’m so thrilled to get Jenn and Stella involved. I knew that would be the best possible basis to then build the rest of the songs on.”
Despite these massive human and natural presences in the writing and recording, Harkin is undeniably a personal album for Katie. “I’ve always written as a coping strategy as much as anything else,” she comments. “The album has helped me with a sense of self that I was looking for.”
The seed of the album is central track “Dial It In”, which is rooted in a time when she went to stay in New York in the empty apartment of photographer Ashley Connor, who’s also a dear friend and took the portrait that adorns the cover of Harkin. Unfortunately, Katie found herself stuck inside due to the arrival of the polar vortex, and with no justifiable distractions, she started working on her solo album in earnest. That catharsis can be heard in the emphatic message of “Dial It In”: “If there’s nothing to stop me now / Why do I hold course? Why do I pause?”
This opened the floodgates for the creation of the album. While Harkin’s lyrics are often abstract, there’s no mistaking her individual experiences held within them. The opening “Mist On Glass” touches on the tension between her Yorkshire roots and her recent years touring and recording around the States: “At best I’m a European / At worst a duplicitous creep / Does my Calderdale sentiment / Ring out in American ambient?” While “Decade” is not explicit about the inciting incident, it is a meditation on how shame can hold power over someone for years, an insight which seemingly comes from a deeply personal place: “I know what love is / love is a nighttime fight.”
While Katie’s original goal of making an album of “slow jams” didn’t quite come off, it’s hard not to notice how sexy of an album Harkin is at points. Images like “You’re bristling, and I would leave you glistening,” or “If you’ve ever had any fun / You’ll know that what we did by the light of the fridge / Cannot be undone,” come across with profound confidence as they take flight on Harkin’s slick rock sound. As the album moves from the pacey opening section, into the “night” sound of its back half, we’re treated to more spare songs where Harkin gets a bit coy, as on “Red Viriginia Creeper”: “Up close to a bright beacon / It’s white hot / And I say you’re making me blush / but you don’t stop.”
While Katie is reticent to expand on these explicit lines in conversation, she will cop to “Nothing Night Can’t Change” being “a love song about the north of England – and that is my life.”
Katie currently shares her life with her partner, poet Kate Leah Hewitt, and out of their cottage in the Peaks they have launched their new label-come-community Hand Mirror. Harkin is the first release on Hand Mirror, but they have a lot more planned. “We always wanted it to be multidisciplinary of some kind, we wanted it to to be a community hub,” she says. “That’s why we wanted to not restrict it to music, because it’s more about creating a community, and Hand Mirror is the umbrella name over that.”
The current quarantine situation has stymied a lot of their plans for Hand Mirror, but has not derailed them. Katie and Kate have launched a Hand Mirror Patreon, where there are three different levels of support; £1/month getting you a specially curated playlist and a poem written by Leah or a collaborator; £5/month getting you a new song from Harkin or a collaborator plus access to live streams and special performances; or the £25/month top tier, which gets you a signed copy of the bi-annual Hand Mirror journal, in which you can expect to see “a range of commissions and collaborations from the community, initially from our immediate circle of friends”.
The hope is that as the Hand Mirror community grows, they will be able to start including work from artists further afield. “It feels nice to have something that reaches into the future, that promotes a regular connection with people,” Katie says. “This whole experience [of quarantine] has made me more grateful than ever for the connecting power of music.”
Unsurprisingly, it all comes back to personal connections for Katie, and that’s what has been keeping her sane while she remains cooped up inside, grounded for the longest period of time she can recall. “Just talk to your friends,” is her advice on how to cope. “Even if you feel like shit, they probably feel like shit too, and you telling them that you feel like shit might make them feel better.” Sage words – but listening to Harkin would probably be her next tip.
Harkin is out now. Purchase it from the Hand Mirror website.
(Harkin portrait by Tomm Roeschlein)