Music: An Interview With Katey Gatta

Katey Gatta close up shot with coffee

Katey Gatta can do more with her voice and an acoustic guitar than most people can with a full band, and if you’ve never heard her sing before, you’re about to find out why. Sweet and soft one moment and then sultry and soulful the next, her music is like an emotional hurricane… before you know what’s really happening, you’re left completely blown away. 

Based in St. Catharines, Ontario (Canada), you might first notice her as the innocent-looking girl not wearing any shoes up on stage… but when she starts singing… you’d better be prepared to stay awhile because her siren’s call will quickly draw you in and mesmerize you with her secrets.

I’ve known Katey for a few years now, and I’ve been fortunate enough to see her perform numerous times. So, it was fantastic that I was able to catch up with her and shoot the shit about her upcoming album, life as a full-time musician, and of course, grab some takeaway advice for anyone who might want to follow in her “barefooted” footsteps.

Hi Katey, long time no see! It’s been what, a couple years now, yeah?

Yeah something like that! Nice to see you Mitch!

Nice to see you too! So for those who don’t know you, tell us about Katey Gatta; tell a bit about yourself.

I’m a singer-songwriter based in St. Catharines, Ontario (Canada). My sound’s a mix of Etta James and Joni Mitchell. I’ve been playing music for the past 10 years in bars and restaurants, and I’m now transitioning into playing my own music full-time on the road. That is, whenever we’re allowed to go back on the road.

It seems everybody’s hurting right now in the music industry – not being able to gig and all – but that’ll be fun when it happens… I miss the road myself sometimes.

So how did you personally get started with music then? Did you start singing first, or playing the guitar?

Katey Gatta sitting in a coffee shop
Katey Gatta
Photo credit: Lauren Garbutt Photography

Playing air piano on my parent’s coffee table when I just a kid was the first indication… I’d just be watching sesame street trying to play along with it *laughs*. Pretty much as soon as I could talk, everything came out in song. My parents put me in lessons when I was very young, which was great. Actually, some of my first gigs ever were doing national anthems for major sporting events. I sang at games for the Toronto Raptors, the Buffalo Sabres, and the Toronto Blue Jays, when I was about 9 or 10 years old.

Really? That’d be interesting to go and see that footage sometime… that’s a pretty cool start.

Yeah, so the fear of large crowds for me really never became a thing… that was just a normal part of the job.

That’s awesome. So you’ve pretty much been a musician as soon as you could talk.

It’s really been a lifelong thing.

You mentioned a few other artists when you described your sound, but would you say it’s your music that sounds like them? Or your voice? If you were to describe the Katey Gatta experience to somebody and they’ve never heard you before, what would you say to them?

Well, my music is definitely folk-influenced and includes a lot of introspective lyrics. I find myself very inspired by 1930s – 1940s jazz artists, and I also really love pop & jazz standards from the 1950s and 1960s, so I’m trying to incorporate elements of that into my songwriting now.

I find whatever music I make reflects – at least a little bit – whatever music I’m taking in at that time. I’ve been on an Etta James kick for the longest time… I can’t seem to get enough of her. So, in her case, I find inspiration in the way she phrases things or how she uses the rasp in her throat… those elements just kind of find their way into some of my songwriting… and maybe the attitude behind it too.

That’s really cool! You know, it’s kind of funny you mentioned your 1930s and 40s influences because I was sitting here with my brother the other night, and I showed him the video of you and Dan (Serre) performing “That’s Okay, That’s Alright.” We both agreed pretty quickly that you could almost hear that old-timey radio static noise coming in to introduce the song. As in, it would sound appropriate for it. So it’s very cool that you mentioned those old influences.

That’s actually what we were trying to go for. And on that note, the thing I love about exploring older music is that it’s a never-ending well. There’s just so much to sift through and find – it’s just as exciting as trying to find new music today. Everybody might know about the popular hits, but there is also this plethora of other music that was made that was never on the radio – that music still got made, and it still influenced what other people did.

Katey Gatta and Dan Serre performing “That’s Okay, That’s Alright”
Video Credit: G3 Designs

That’s very interesting. Today, obviously, the digital landscape has really changed a lot of things – now music that’s actively distributed is not just limited to the songs being played on the radio.  With everything out there on streaming services, you can discover bands you’ve never listened to before and then go and get access to their entire catalogs of music. I think that’s pretty cool for music fans.

Yeah, it’s almost like tracing your heritage or your family tree. You can listen to a song, figure out who the artist was inspired by, go listen to them, find out who that person was inspired by, and just keep going further and further back to trace their roots. 

So how does your creative process work when you write music then? Do you have a regular routine?

I try to have routines. I try to write something at least once a day now, or at the very least, sit with my guitar and pick away at this or that, but for the most part, it just kind of comes. I’ve learned over time to try and not to really put too much pressure on the creative process while it’s happening. There are days when I don’t feel the most inspired, but I sit down anyways with my guitar, and I try and chip away at what I can. Sometimes I just play for myself, and on those days, it’s enough.

I find that having a dedication to making space for music every day is helpful, but I’ve never really had to do anything to kick start the creative process if that makes sense. I usually just try and be honest about what I’m feeling or what I’m thinking about. Sometimes even interactions I’ve had that day play a part – someone might say something to me in a conversation, and that will spark a song or at least an idea that I’ll write down and end up using somewhere down the line.

So for you, sometimes it’s the lyrics that spark something and sometimes it’s the music – you’ve always got a bunch of things on the go at once.

Yeah, but I do find I’ve been writing the parts separately more often. I’ll write out full sets of lyrics for a song and have no music written for it, but then the musical side of the song will go through a few different iterations until I land on what I feel it should be.

Right on. So, your prime influences – personal and musical – if you had to pick a few, you’d say…?

Well, in terms of someone whom I could model a career after… I would love to have 10 percent of Joni Mitchell’s life – even just 10 percent would make me so happy. Her creative output is so vast and so intricate… she’s amazing. I’ve also been on a Nina Simone kick because I just watched her documentary. The dedication she had to her craft… I just found it so incredible.

Katey Gatta performing solo with an acoustic guitar
Photo credit: Linton Armstrong

There’s also this woman Connie Converse, who was in Greenwich village (Connecticut) around the same time that Bob Dylan was doing his thing. Her story kind of goes like this:  she tried to make it as a musician, had little to no recognition, and eventually, she just got in her car one day and disappeared. Poof. No one ever heard from her again. But they found her demos 50 years later and released them, and her record of living room recordings became a sleeper hit.

So that one hits home a bit because there’s this big part of me that really likes the idea of just creating without the worry of consumption.

Yeah, no kidding! That kind of thing seems to happen a lot in the creative world. For example, right now, I’m writing a lot – not just for the Creative Wealth Project, but I’m writing a fiction novel too – and I’ve been really diving into some of my favorite authors’ works and their biographies. What I’ve noticed is that some of the most prominent influential works and authors cited by modern writers were during their lifetimes, actually living in poverty – for their entire lives.

These authors existed in a world where nobody knew or cared about their work, and yet long after they’ve died, their work ends up becoming hugely influential on not just other authors, but on many different creative people. Metallica, for example, wrote a few songs about the mythic Cthulhu found within H.P. Lovecraft’s lore – when Lovecraft was alive, nobody cared about him or what he wrote.  Yet many years later, his creations have gone on to influence one of the biggest metal bands in the world and hugely successfully authors like Stephen King… so yeah, it’s kind of cool how that works with art.

It’s very cool. I mean, clearly, as a musician, I would like to have enough success in that I can be a human that can put food on the table and pay my rent on time… and maybe get some guacamole when I go to Chipotle *laughs*… I’m not looking for much more than that.

But I also think there’s something to be said about great music, the kind of music I want to make – it’s often ahead of its time, and you don’t always recognize it or celebrate it as it’s happening. I think anything good should take a little time to grow on you; it shouldn’t be immediate. There should be enough layering within it that it takes someone a few listens or a few times through experiencing it or however it’s consumed to really grasp what’s great about it.

I think I agree with that sentiment too.

So you’ve been performing music now professionally for a while – and a lot. I know personally that I used to see you perform very regularly when I was bartending in Niagara, so what do you like about playing music for a living?

When we first met, that’s when I had just started playing music full-time. Up until then, it had always been a side thing that I did through university and my post-grad in college, and then I had a “real job” in Toronto for a bit. It wasn’t until I was about 25 that I thought it was time to give music a real shot. Switching to becoming a full-time musician, however, has come with its own challenges.

Never in a million years did I think I wouldn’t want to go to a gig – I never dreamed that would be something I would feel or say out loud – but now it happens. When you do anything – and I mean, I play over 250 dates a year – when you do anything that much, at some point, you’re going to get tired of it, and you won’t always love it as purely as you do when you play for yourself.

About a year into playing music full-time, I realized I had hit a wall in my development – and I knew I had hit it. When that happened, it was hard and a little humbling to force myself to go back to square one and start working on things that I hadn’t in a long time. Performing so often, you can be more acutely aware of your deficits, and it really transitioned my thinking from “oh, I know what I’m doing” to the realization that “okay, no, maybe I don’t.” The only thing left to do then is to put in the work and start improving.

That all being said, the sheer love of music is what always ends up carrying me through it all… it’s why musicians like myself don’t end up quitting; why we keep trying and keep pushing forward. For me, I have a harder time connecting with people on a human level than I do on a musical one… so it’s music that really lets me do that; it opens all those doors of an emotional connection for me. I’m horrible at communicating my thoughts and feelings in real-time. Music lets me process my emotions in real-time; it allows me to work through all my shit in songs and let strangers see who I really am beneath all the layers I use in everyday life.

I like that… kind of like you get to show off many colors without having to actually say what they are.

Exactly.

Photo credit: Left – J.P. Kelly, Top right – G3 Designs, Bottom right: Steph Montani

I know that you’re working on an album. I know this, of course, because I was one of the lucky few that got to listen to the demos… and I must admit when you sent them my way there were a lot more songs on that playlist than I was expecting to receive – but that’s a good thing – you get to choose from a vast catalog.

*Laughs*… that’s about half of the current catalog. There are still so many more songs that I didn’t include in that playlist that will sit collecting proverbial dust. To be honest, I’ve been horrible about demoing all my work. I’m great at creating mental blocks that lead to procrastinating and putting things off for the longest time.

I sat on a batch of songs for a long time that just seemed to keep growing, and when I sat down to start sorting through the tunes and figure out what would work on an album, I realized I had over 50 songs to demo. Shit. *more laughing*

Procrastination… it always seems to get the best of us, no? Are there any other projects that you’re working on aside from the album? I’m also guessing that because the album’s not yet done, you don’t have a tentative release date for it.

Right, there’s no tentative release date yet. I do know it’s going to be called Silk Screens though!

I’ve had a few other things on the go as well. I was lucky enough to collaborate with Danny (Serre) on his album that just came out under the moniker Six Men Get Sick. For anyone wondering, I keep referring to it as ambient post-hardcore… but Dan says he’s not so sure if that’s true *laughs*. So check that out for yourself and make your own judgment. But I helped wordsmith the lyrics, contributed some backing vocals, and helped with all the branding/design. His punk band (the Shitbats) is getting ready to release a record too, so I’ve been helping them out a little with some branding and website stuff.

Wow so keeping really busy then, that’s good.

I like to keep crazily occupied. Typically too, of course – well not right now, but when life goes back to normal – there are always regular gigs to play. For me, it’s always a balancing act between trying to work on my own stuff and not getting overwhelmed with everything else.

Considering how often you perform, do you have any favorite stories from your musical journey?

There’s a few I can think of.

Playing covers has let me weirdly weave my way into being a special part of someone’s life, which is special in its own way. I can’t tell you how many times people will come into the venue, and they’ve just gotten eloped, and I would end up playing their first dance. And they get to have this strange, spontaneous memory, you know? Those kinds of very heartwarming little moments that can make you feel closer to people you don’t know.

Someone also tipped me via cheque once on tour too, which was really funny. I was playing a show in Kingston at the Musikki Café (when I was on tour with Edmonton singer/songwriter St. Arnaud), and the show was just a “pass the hat” type of situation… anyways somebody in the crowd wrote me a cheque with the words “you sound better than Norah Jones” scribbled on it. They just handed it to me. That one was really cool. I actually still have it taped on my refrigerator.

Katey Gatta in retail store with cart
Photo credit: Lauren Garbutt Photography

Since I can remember, I try not to wear my shoes while I’m playing. It gets a little more difficult to maintain in the winter these days. Anyways, last summer, I was playing at the Niagara Brewing Company, standing on my little carpet or whatever, and this little girl with her parents was walking by, and she made her family stop to listen. Her mom explained how much she loved singing, so we picked a song she knew, and I asked if she wanted to join me. Next thing I know, she was right beside me on the carpet, ripping off her shoes and was ready to start singing. *Laughing* I like that one a lot.

That’s a classic! And very cute. Okay, so, this part – and the whole point of why I started The Creative Wealth Project – this is where I’m going to ask you about advice. Myself, I have worn many hats: musician, writer, I’ve worked in the sports industry, I’ve worked in the education industry… but as you know… there are so many mistakes that most of us make in this industry – we look back, and we’re always saying to ourselves: “if I would have just read about this somewhere or someone had told me that before, maybe I could have avoided that mistake…”.

That being said… what advice do you have for people starting out in the music game?

Personally, when I started, I tried to model a lot of the decisions I made after the Beatles.

I knew that they had played hours upon hours of cover gigs, and while sometimes I can admit that can be soul-sucking, I’d recommend to any musician who wants to get good to play as many gigs as you can. Don’t think you’re ever above a gig. You’re probably not. Everybody has ten thousand hours to put into getting good – everybody. The moment you think you’re hot shit and have nothing more to learn is the moment you start slipping. You should always challenge yourself to get better in some way, shape, or form.

I’d also recommend trying to be consistent with practicing… I was never somebody who practiced or spent time at home with my instrument unless I absolutely had to, and now I’m trying to fix that bad habit by creating better ones. You can always see a difference between somebody who sits with their guitar for three hours a day and somebody who doesn’t.

I think all of us musicians can relate to that last one *laughing*. That’s some great advice, Katey.

I do believe that’s pretty much all I had for you today, so I want to say thanks for taking the time to chat, and it’s been really great just catching up with you in general!

Yeah! Thanks Mitch! Thanks for reaching out!

Anytime Katey, keep in touch!

Well, we’ve talked about it, so now let’s hear it:

Check out Katey’s live off the floor performance of “I’m Not Shakin'” from her upcoming album Silk Screens!

Make sure you keep up to date with Katey by following her on one (or better yet, all of) the mediums below:

Website: www.ktgatta.com

She’s also generously offered the option to listen to her catalog of demos she’s narrowing down for Silk Screens… so don’t be shy to check out a private playlist here if you’re interested (click the icon below):

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