Katy Vernon Q&A

November 2, 2020
Katy Vernon writes sad songs on a happy instrument.

“All of my songs are cathartic. It’s really been a journaling technique of mine from the start. That one was inspired by a very literal image I had. I feel embarrassed sometimes by just how much I wear my heart on my sleeve. Like way too much, almost like an entire suit of hearts. As soon as I thought of that it transformed the feeling of vulnerability from one of weakness to one of strength. Like a suit of armor. I wanted to celebrate that. So it’s a deliberate tribute to the small acts of bravery we all do daily and not painting yourself as a failure when you mess up.”

You are so brilliant on the ukulele that I thought you had been playing most of your life. But you only started playing seven years ago. What compelled you to pick it up?

I feel like I’m an average player at best (singing is my strength) but that is something I’m working on and I don’t allow it to be a barrier to my songwriting and performing. For too many years I sat in practice spaces watching other people play my songs and even with encouragement I shied away from accompanying myself. I let perfectionism and insecurity hold me back from my guitar playing and just concentrated on singing. Once I realized I needed to go solo to overcome these issues I sought out the advice of a Uke-playing friend, Dave Kapell. He had been playing for years and then after seeing Lucy Michelle play a larger tenor Uke I decided to try it. I think I just needed a new challenge to get me out of my own way. It could have been any instrument I guess but I think the Uke is beautifully suited to my voice. That was almost 9 years ago and I’ve never looked back.

My favorite ukulele player is Jake Shimabukuro. Do you have a favorite player?

Jake is obviously incredible and the best player I’ve seen live. Most of my favorite  players are people I’ve met touring. My favorite band is a German trio called Bad Mouse Orchestra. They sing stuff from the 20s and 30s and play so fast and tight with each other and sing such beautiful harmonies that it just makes the songs so fresh and fun. Another favorite player would be Matt Griffo from Chicago. One of the funniest comic players I’ve heard and a very good Uke player.

How does the music community in the Twin Cities compare to the music community where you grew up in England?

I wasn’t in the music community when I lived in the UK. I left the country right after college. I really thought I’d go into acting back then and although I loved singing and songwriting I didn’t see a pathway as a career in that. I joined a band shortly after moving to Minneapolis in the 90’s so I’ve really spent the majority of my life here. I had a huge life change and opportunity in 2017 when I applied to two large ukulele festivals in the UK. I never thought I’d be accepted but they both booked me so then I had to plan a six-week DIY tour. It really launched me into not only the UK scene but thanks to amazing booking of the Greater Northern Ukulele Festival (which Jake Shimabukuru played last year!) the international scene. I met players from all over the world and even though as I mentioned I feel a little basic on the Uke my songwriting helped me hold my own and it was a huge boost for my confidence.

I love your song “Suit of Hearts,” which reminded me of Elvis Costello. Was that song cathartic to write?

All of my songs are cathartic. It’s really been a journaling technique from me from the start. That one was inspired by a very literal image I had. I feel embarrassed sometimes by just how much I wear my heart on my sleeve. Like way too much, almost like an entire suit of hearts. As soon as I thought of that it transformed the feeling of vulnerability from one of weakness to one of strength. Like a suit of armor. I wanted to celebrate that. So it’s a deliberate tribute to the small acts of bravery we all do daily and not painting yourself as a failure when you mess up.

You say that you write sad songs on a happy instrument. Is it that contrast that appeals to you?

My husband wishes I’d stop saying that because he thinks my songs are happy. But truly it’s a balance and a self-deprecating way to describe what I do. I’ve always felt I had sad stories to tell. I started writing when my mum died when I was 12. Five years after that my dad died and I’ve dealt with grief, depression, and addiction since. So how on earth do you get up every day and sing about that! For me it’s about finding joyful ways to communicate and to share in the human experiences we all have. I love seeing people tapping their toes and bopping along even when the lyrics are downbeat.

You’ve done so much wonderful work on mental health for Dissonance, which advocates in this area. Why is this work important to you?

I personally feel the dissonance in my own life as I mentioned above. I struggle with mental health and went undiagnosed for most of my life. Now that I understand I have clinical depression and am taking medication for that I am more focused on helping others. It can be a lonely and selfish thing to always look inward and write about yourself. Working with Dissonance allows me to connect to community. I’m able to help promote other artists at our events and use music to deliberately reach people that are struggling with recovery or mental health issues. I’ve always felt like an outsider but now that I’m actively involved in this organization I’ve made new friends and realized I can even take on a leadership and mentoring role. After all, I’ve been around the block a few times.

How has your writing been going during the pandemic?

I wrote a song that went a little bit viral as soon as the lockdown started in May. It was shared a bunch online and even made the Portland news, but that was kind of a flash in the pan. Since then I haven’t felt very creative at all. I had to find a day job to supplement all the music jobs I lost and I also had to realize that there are other basic needs and priorities right now. I wrote a song almost out of thin air earlier this month though. It was one of those very rare things where an idea comes fully formed. I really like it and I’m just grateful for that rather than having any plan of how to do it again.

You veered away from your sound with your last album. Was it fun to let loose with a bit of a harder sound?

That’s interesting as it’s my first 100 percent ukulele record to date. But you’re right that it’s a harder sound. I wrote much of it on my first UK tour (I’ve now done three) and it was born out of trying to push myself to be more adventurous  on the Uke after those amazing festivals and to get better at the instrument. Then after the songwriting the sound of the record really falls to my band. Some of the same players have been with me since 2012 but we’ve really grown together. I always loved Madonna, Blondie, Lady Gaga, and wanted more of a pop sound. I write songs now knowing I don’t have to fill every beat and that I need to leave space for my amazing players. I also think now of the arrangements more when I write. I’ll plan a big drum build up or a trumpet solo and convey that best I can and then let the pros take over. It’s also about pushing the boundaries of what people think of a Uke player doing. It’s just a little guitar. Any style of music can and should be played on it.

What is next for you?

Trying to fight the ennui! I was just part of a new release called MeTooMpls now streaming. it’s a collection of songs by Twin Cities women and non-binary artists raising funds for Planned Parenthood. My song is called ‘Shine’ and it celebrates not only kicking down barriers in the music community but also lifting up others. That’s really my motivation for most things these days. I’m still looking for opportunities wherever I can to play and be heard but I’m a huge believer in creating those opportunities too and boosting unheard talent along the way. That aligns with my work with Dissonance and also Morningside After Dark (an event series in Minneapolis for writers and musicians) I already had to cancel touring this year and I don’t think anyone knows what 2021 holds. So I’m trying to do the thing I am worst at. Being patient.

— Photo by Sara Fish