Katy Kirby pauses to collect her thoughts as she talks about her crisis of faith.
"I try not to think of myself as a person who just writes songs to emotionally process things, but I do think what you're hearing is me figuring out if I still had a relationship with God," says the 25-year-old songwriter over Zoom. She's telling me the story behind a song called "Secret Language," the stunning centerpiece of her debut LP, Cool Dry Place. "For most of my life, I genuinely did have a relationship with Jesus and really hardcore believed some of this stuff. It was a bit more than just a culture that I had been raised in."
Kirby writes blunt but inviting indie rock songs that contain quiet revelations about relationships, family, and her own doubts and insecurities. Her music combines Andy Shauf's knack for finding resonance in small moments with the driving and cathartic arrangements of acts like Luna, Big Thief, and Julia Jacklin. But her incisive lyrics and keen ear for deceptively simple and timeless melodies makes her one of 2021's most easy-to-root for artists.
"Secret Language,'' partly a novel interpolation of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," finds the Nashville musician singing, "I heard that you had given up / have you given up? / I heard you were the chosen one / they burnt you up, you’d had enough." This inner-monologue, set over a rustic backdrop of tender piano and guitar, captures a struggle that has defined not only her burgeoning music career but also her life: losing her religion and falling out of love with the God she was raised to believe in.
Born to evangelical Christian parents and raised in the small town of Spicewood, Texas, Kirby spent her childhood homeschooled and immersed in her faith. "All due respect to the ankle-length-denim-skirt crowd, but you would meet other kids who were homeschooled and think, Y'all seem nice, but, respectfully, you're very weird," says Kirby. She jokes that she's flattered when anyone is shocked to find out her unorthodox childhood education. "My mother is a very smart and wonderful person, so it mostly just meant having free time to read a lot of stuff I wanted to read."
"I do envy people who grew up with the Beach Boys and listening to their parents' cool record collection. I have no classic rock or pop foundation at all. Some fragment of pop music feels like it's missing."
Kirby found herself drawn to music from a young age. "My dad was always such a nerd about barbershop quartets, so one of my earliest and most treasured memories is him teaching me how to harmonize," says Kirby. "He made me plug my ears and sing a note while he sang the melody. I felt power emanating from me at five years old when I figured it out." The moment ignited a spark for Kirby, who spent much of her childhood devouring worship music, singing in church, and eventually, writing her own songs. "I wasn't too restricted by my parents in pop culture, but I don't think I saw an R-rated movie until I was in my late teens," she Kirby. "I wasn't even allowed to read Harry Potter or watch the Disney Channel, [though] honestly I kind of respect that decision: It may have melted my brain a little bit."
When her family sent her to a private religious high school, she began discovering a world outside her evangelical bubble. "My friend's mom was cool and would play the White Stripes, the Strokes, or Sufjan Stevens' Age of Adz while driving us to school, so I'd instantly go home and buy it with an iTunes gift card," says Kirby, adding that she would download the weekly free iTunes singles to expand her tastes. "I do envy people who grew up with the Beach Boys and listening to their parents' cool record collection," she says. "I have no classic rock or pop foundation at all. Some fragment of pop music feels like it's missing."
Around this time, Kirby started to question the conservative attitudes she encountered at school. "Some of the crazy things people said in classes didn't really sit right with me," says Kirby. "I remember someone genuinely saying that the Civil War was just about states' rights, which is so offensive. I keep thinking the more I grow up, Oh my god, I received a horrendous high school education." With these political disagreements also came doubts about the church. "My brain had only processed the world through these experiences of loving Jesus," says Kirby. "It was a shock how much it takes to really not believe in something and not experience shame over it."
She channeled her confusion and doubt into her songwriting, which she began taking more seriously into her teens. "Me thinking about music as a thing to do definitely intersects with me losing my faith, and I was writing my way out of a lot of that confusion," she says.
After graduation, Kirby moved to Nashville to attend Belmont University, where she wrote "Secret Language," as well as others she admits were "a bit on the nose." In 2014, she self-recorded and released an acoustic solo EP called 3—mostly as an "experiment to see what it felt like to release something," she says. Though it's now largely scraped off the internet, you can find some of these songs floating around the ether if you go looking for them. "I was a dummy and placed these songs under a Creative Commons license," says Kirby. "So now it just lives in a bunch of places. Every once in a while, I'll get an email from a happy couple saying, "Thanks for letting us use your song in our wedding video.'"
She continued writing songs she actually liked, formed a band, and put out another EP titled Juniper, featuring songs that would later end up on Cool Dry Place. The rollicking title track sees her dissecting the ups and downs of motherhood, with lines like, “You don’t need a reprimand to know / Just when a vengeful god will strike her blow / Bad weather warning on the radio / Get in before they lock the doors / You’re on your own.” Though not autobiographical, the song showcases Kirby's powerful ability to swiftly pinpoint pain.
"I made that EP for free, essentially—didn't really have anyone produce it and just kind of put it out to see if I could," says Kirby. It received more attention than she anticipated—and earned her a fan in Tony Presley, manager of the Austin, Tex.-based label Keeled Scales, which had put out releases by RF Shannon, Twain, Big Thief's Buck Meek, and others from America's pastoral folk, cosmic country, and indie rock scenes. "He emailed me and was like, 'You're doing great, kid. Let us know what you're up to,'" she says. That note—and Keeled Scales' signing Kirby and reissuing Juniper the following year—was enough to motivate her to pursue a full album.
Cool Dry Place, she says, came to life during a period of soul-searching. "I was living alone, basically working a lot of different shitty jobs and hanging out with my band and demoing," she says. She started a relationship with a fellow musician who helped her hone her vision for the songs she was writing. "I wasn't allowed to date really in high school, obviously due to purity culture stuff, so I didn't kiss a boy or a girl until I was in college," says Kirby. "The way I conducted my first relationships, and arguably the last few, has been a little bit intense. I just feel like I don't know what I'm doing. I think there's something about Jesus that turns you into a really intense person." She captures some of that intensity on the gentle "Tap Twice," which hones in on the shyness and tentativeness of a new romance. "I tap twice on your doorframe and you let me in / I tap twice on your forehead and a heart appears,” she sings on the chorus.
Other songs offer a window into Kirby's sharp sense of humor. The ebullient "Traffic!" boasts subtle modulated vocal effects, with Kirby roasting a partner with tongue-in-cheek lines like "nobody has it better than you" " Explaining the story behind the song in a press release, Kirby said: "I’d gotten involved with someone objectively cooler and hotter than me, but was getting annoyed with how wrapped up he was in his own basic angst and mild life setbacks."
As an arranger, Kirby is never flashy or maximalist, instead opting for delicate instrumentation and carefully constructed songs. On the opener "Eyelids," which clocks in at under two minutes and features just Kirby's voice and her soft guitar strums, that minimalism is front and center. "That song gave me a lot of grief for like, four to six months, because I kept wanting to add something to it, like a chorus, but I just couldn't come up with anything that felt appropriate," says Kirby. "When I showed it to a friend, he very gently suggested that maybe it was already done. It took me a while to realize that you can just stop working on a song."
That doesn't mean there aren't moments when the album undeniably rocks. On the album's sweeping title track, swirling guitars and bruising riffs strike a dramatic contrast with moments of pindrop quiet. "I hate acoustic guitars," she says. "I feel allergic to them. It always feels like I'm going to get pigeonholed in a category with coffee shop acoustic singer songwriters, which is fine but not what I'm going for." (She uses one sometimes, but also uses an electric).
All in all, the record is a masterclass in really going for it without showing off. "I had to let go of wanting to seem impressive and sonically sophisticated, but also swing for the fences in a writerly way and do things that I hadn't quite tried before," she says. Often, those risks take the form of lyrical experiments. Take closer "Fireman," a full-band number with her bandmates' voices entering the mix—and arguably the nine-song LP's standout. Here, she invents a character who is in a relationship with a man who has a demanding job. "When he wants to go out with the boys / I always say, of course / when he wants to be alone/ I kiss his head and close the door / my baby is a fireman," she sings. Kirby explains: "I allowed myself to be completely fictional and to almost like consciously avoid the sort of "confessional" category that women with pretty voices and guitars wind up in against their wishes."
Kirby and her band finished Cool Dry Place in the fall of 2019. They were expecting to debut these songs at South by Southwest and tour the album extensively, but then the COVID-19 pandemic came along and threw a wrench in their plans. "I had two jobs lined up about to start, and they both went away once the pandemic started, so I moved back home to Texas over the summer," she says. The free time allowed her space to write some new songs, process her spiritual journey so far, and have a conversation with her family that she'd been meaning to have for a while: "I came out to my parents as not believing in God in the same way that I used to," she says. "I don't want them to worry and believe my soul is in peril, but I don't want to be dishonest with them. They were actually really understanding."
While there's no set timeline for when Kirby will be able to take Cool Dry Place on the road, she's not slowing down. In addition to writing new material of her own, she recently adopted a dog named Gizmo, and is currently co-producing a friend's album with her band in Alabama. For Kirby, the album's release marks the closing of one chapter and the beginning of another. "It's just really the weirdest, and one of the darkest experiences that I've had, trying to rewire my brain to not have a loving God that's ever-present in it," she says. "My relationship with that part of Christianity was very comforting and grounding in some ways, but it also was something I really need—even though it took more effort than I could have ever imagined—to step away from."