The Northampton songwriter has just released her brutally honest and long awaited debut album. She gives us the candid backstories to the deeply personal songs that make up the excellent Failures.
It’s the early weeks of the UK’s lockdown when I speak to Katie Malco, and she’s alone in her Northampton flat, with only her cat Morag to keep her company. “She’s terrible. All she does is sleep all the time. Even if I try to encourage her to play she’s like ‘can’t be bothered’. She’d rather just snooze.”
Without much human interaction – “I have actually not seen anyone in real life other than at the shops” – Malco has been spending the lockdown processing the fairly recent dissolution of an eight-year relationship, and writing it into demos for her second record. To many, it might seem unwise to dwell on something so painful and fresh when she’s stuck in isolation, but for her it’s perfectly natural. “To be honest, I struggle to do shit that’s not personal,” she admits. “I think that’s just how I do music.”
It’s also how she does conversation, I discover. As we go through Failures, her debut album, she is unafraid to detail all the pain and emotion that went into the writing of these songs. Even though these songs are quite old now – she calls the album “a documentation of growing up”, reflecting on her teens and early 20s – when we start to discuss them she’s pulled right back into that troubled mind set. “These are tunes that represent a time where I wasn’t my best self or wasn’t behaving acceptably,” she admits. “I named it Failures in a pit of doom. I was looking back and thinking that all these things are times I’ve fucked up, basically.”
One of the main reasons she’s able to be so candid in song is because she’s been playing since she was a child, when she picked up her father’s guitar. This guitar, though, happened to be a left-handed one. Seeing her aptitude for playing, her parents bought Malco her own right-handed guitar for Christmas – but it was already too late to switch. “I wasn’t going to waste the guitar, so I just thought I’ll turn it this way and learn that way, and that’s what I did.” She plays a right-handed guitar upside-down to this day: “I’ve never bothered to try the other way.”
She has this same matter-of-fact tone as she recounts the start of her songwriting. “I wasn’t taught, so I didn’t have any frame of reference as to what to play,” she recalls. “So the minute I played I just made it up and started writing songs straightaway.”
Some of the earliest songs she wrote on guitar were, unexpectedly, Christian rock songs – “which is funny, because I’m a massive atheist now.” In her early teens she and three friends from the local Rock Church formed a band called The Addiction. “I don’t think we were aware that’s what we were doing [writing Christian rock],” she reflects. “We thought we were just a band, but when I think about the lyrics of it now I’m like ‘fucking hell, It’s really coming from a place of worship’.”
Despite winning the local battle of the bands in Northampton – a performance that Malco still has on VHS somewhere – The Addiction didn’t last long. She and the other guitarist started seeing each other, which brought disapproval from their devout drummer. “He had been raised Christian, his family were very Christian and they were very judgemental,” she says. “He basically said ‘you’re going to hell because you’re canoodling’ – but he had been canoodling with loads of people! He said it was alright because he had God’s forgiveness. I think that was what stopped me and made me decide I wasn’t a Christian.
“I just gradually stopped going to church and then, to be honest with you, I just went right into taking drugs and getting drunk.”
This is where Failures picks up, with the scorching opening track “Animal”. It’s a song that documents a time in Malco’s mid-teens when she and her friends would stay out all night getting drunk to avoid going home. “Northampton is a weird place. There’s nothing to do and it lends itself to getting into bad things – a lot of people I know here are still doing that stuff quite often.”
Rather than a dour examination of a troubled period, “Animal” is a fierce and riffing track. “I’m really unsure why I felt the need to talk about some of my most difficult periods to a backdrop of fucking cock rock,” she sighs. But to this writer’s ears it seems to be the perfect soundtrack to reflect the adolescent bravado of those years – bombastic, heartfelt and giving absolutely no fucks about the future, singing “Carry me home, I can’t breathe / and let me fall into an empty sleep.”
“Animal” is somewhat of a red herring for what’s to come on Failures, though. The rest of the album continues the unguarded honesty, but Malco usually opts for more spare arrangements to reflect the complex webs of emotion that she is untangling. This includes the heart-rending “Brooklyn”, a song about going to visit her friend in New York and trying to persuade her to come back home. “She just upped and left one day, it was mad,” Malco reflects. “She’s more like family, she’s been a guiding light for me loads of times in my life. So it was quite hard that she left, and I think it probably says more about me that I needed her to come home.”
She also turns her honesty on her blood family ties in “TW”, detailing road trips to Scotland for the burials of her grandfather and uncle, who passed around the same time. “My dad and uncle hadn’t spoken in years, and then my dad had gone up to look after him in his last few days,” she tells me. “I was trying to acknowledge that grief unites you, and that all the other shit goes out the window because it just shows how petty all of it is.” Rather than dwell on the sadness of the event, Malco ensures “TW” glimmers through the gloom, sweeping away all that unimportant bickering with the affirming chorus: “We’ll celebrate your life / And I’ll celebrate mine / While I’m still alive.”
There’s also “Fractures”, a song that admits “We’re chasing the laughter / pasting up the fractures.” It was written about her long-term partner while they were still together, but has grown in significance since they broke up. “Sometimes when you write a tune and then you look back later you see a lot of meaning in it that you maybe didn’t intend when you wrote it,” she reflects. “I was examining the cracks that were happening quite early on. We were together for eight years, and we only broke up in October, so a lot of the album has taken on some different shades of significance now.
“And it’s probably why I’ve written a second album so quickly, because I’ve been fucking well depressed for the last few months.”
This bluntness is emblematic of Malco. “A lot of artists want to remain a bit mysterious about what they write. I don’t really get that. If you go see an abstract painting there will probably be a little plaque somewhere that will explain the meaning. It’s what gives the piece weight,” she says. “I don’t really understand with musical artists why they’ll put out a song that’s about something that a person might relate to, but they don’t really want to go into it. I’m more of the opinion that if you’re going to put out this art and it’s about something then why hide that?” she states, before adding: “I feel like a wanker calling it art, though.”
She maintains this unwary openness as we move into the songs on the second half of Failures. These move the timeline forward and detail a troubling period in the songwriter’s life of moving to London, drinking too much, dealing with insomnia and an unhealthy relationship.
“Creatures” is the first song on the record to go into this directly, as she sings about being unable to sleep and surrounded by troubling thoughts: “I see creatures / they’re my failures / watch them crawl / across every wall.”
“It was a period where I was coming out of being young and getting into early adulthood and being overwhelmed by everything that comes with being an adult,” she explains. “I don’t think I dealt with it very well because I’d just been getting pissed for so long. And then I got into this relationship and he didn’t go out or anything – he’s someone who played World of Warcraft and stayed in all the time. So instead of going out getting drunk every night, I just started drinking at home every night.”
Unsurprisingly, the partner was not happy about this turn of events and confronted Malco about it, who decided to try to stop drinking. “I stopped doing that and then it just felt like ‘fuck, there’s nothing to help me forget in the night anymore’,” she admits. “It’s probably related to why I had insomnia.”
This unhealthy situation continues into “Peckham”, a two-chord dirge that explicitly examines her relationships both with her boyfriend and with alcohol, as she sings: “There’s empty bottles all over the floor, from when I felt alone the night before / And I can’t tell you, I don’t want to tell you.” Malco reveals that this is a true story from a weekend when her boyfriend left town, leaving her alone – and she took the opportunity to revert back to her old ways. “Getting pissed on your own is the worst fucking thing because you just sit there in your living room and there’s bottles everywhere, and then you just fall into bed.”
She then wrote “Peckham” the very morning after this event. “I woke up the next day with a stinking hangover, on my own,” she recalls. “I just felt so low. I was disappointed in myself and I didn’t want to tell him I’d got smashed up on my own. I just lied, so I think that’s why I wrote the tune on that day, when I was hanging out of my arse.”
This story does have something of a happy ending though, with Failures’ closing track “The First Snow” – even though it repeats the image “they’ll follow you to their graves.” Malco calls it an “anomaly” because it comes directly from a nightmare she had on the night after the events of “Peckham”. “It was so vivid to me, and I got killed in this dream. I was dying really slowly and I felt the pain of dying,” she recalls. “I must have had heartburn or something.”
Even though the song is relatively abstract for Malco, it’s just as personal. “It felt significant and in a way it made me realise that I was treating myself like shit, and that I had this tendency when I was on my own to revert back to bad behaviours,” she says. “I learned from it and for a long time I stopped drinking.”
This resolution encapsulates why even though the title Failures seems harsh, especially for a debut album, it is fitting. These are not regrets – these are lessons; these songs examine moments and behaviours that Malco has been brave enough to face up to. She has put in the work to fearlessly document them in song, so she can examine them and do her best not to repeat them – and will hopefully provide a similar effect for listeners. This is why Katie Malco should be considered one of the most promising UK songwriters, and is what makes Failures one of the most compelling listens of the year. Whatever she puts out next, there’s no doubt it’ll pull us right back into her tumultuous psyche – and it will be all the more rewarding for that.