A surface skim of Kathleen Anne Brien’s music to date would suggest she’s a singles girl. To her name she has five Top 10 smashes, including such dubstep-rooted bangers as the Ms Dynamite feature Lights On, Easy Please Me, and Broken Record, all of which perfectly straddled both her club-adjacent south London pirate radio roots and the higher echelons of outright pop stardom. Yet albums have equally been her domain; On A Mission reached Number 2, with the follow-up Little Red going one better, and Honey found her collaborating with everyone from Major Lazer and Four Tet to Craig David. Katy B then is a star of charts, both singles and albums, with both Mercury and Novello recognition to boot.
A decade on from the highs of On A Mission, and after a flirtation with the major label world, she’s back with Rinse, the label with whom her journey started, and a marked change in sound with a soulful EP called Peace And Offerings. Weighing in at eight tracks, it’s very nearly an album in its own right, and precedes more new material to follow in 2022. Its lead single, the sultry, lilting Lay Low, is billed as a track that “evokes a feeling of the seasonal shifts, the bloom and anticipation of an undeniable attraction to another”. “I think I consciously leaned into my RnB side more on this project,” she says. “With the clubs being closed, it reflects what I’d be listening to and vibing to at home…” It’s not “necessarily made for the clubs, I’d say it’s a soundtrack to a pre-drinks soiree with your girls. There’s no intense dancefloor stuff that I’ve had before. It’s a bit more chilled out.”
Which makes the presentational choice of her first London headline gig in five years something of a curiosity, now that the clubs are opening up again. Whatever Village Underground’s advantages, imagining time spent in this boxy brick cavern as akin to vibing at home is something of a stretch, with your girls or otherwise; in the heart of Shoreditch, it’s a place for a night out, even if tonight is Monday. Material made for home is thus given its rein out and about in what feels like a toe-dip back, an experiment; a melding of two worlds; possibly even two Katys.
She opens the set slowly, front-loading with the new songs and, with the attentive crowd willing her on, a laid-back vibe sets in. Floating squelches slowly through a tale of regret and romance. In Your Room is made to sway about to. The Jaz Karis-featuring Open Wound shows off the mood of the Katy of 2021, more about catching a moment and chatting about it casually among friends rather than dancing about. She enquires whether anyone’s heard the EP yet, and some whoops seem to reassure her. But her vocals are low in the mix, the lyrics often a struggle to make out over the pulsating bass. She fluffs the first line of Aftermath and giggles disarmingly, but has better luck with the next attempt. At one point she and the band come to a complete halt and she ambles over to stage right to nab a waiting drink. There’s a pause during which there is no reaction from the audience. Perhaps they’re just very relaxed.
Daydreaming On A Tuesday’s dubby, if not outright dubstep, feel is the highlight of the EP, and something of a bridge to her more familiar material, a deceptively complicated track that shows off both her abilities in mood-creation and emotive vocals well. Broken Record cranks up very gradually from a horizontal start. Reworked as a piano ballad of sorts – it’s easy to imagine Katy’s fellow Brit School alumna Adele making it her own – it gets the biggest reaction so far, with the concluding lines sung along in full throated style by just about everyone. Crying For No Reason follows and gets a similarly plaintive makeover, with drums joining vocals and piano only very late on.
The gradual cranking up is working a treat, as Honey track I Wanna Be whips out its instantly recognisable ‘90s inflected groove. Suddenly it’s as though we’ve accessed a former time, where unselfconscious dancing in close proximity to other humans was a thing people did. It’s a vibe, and not one anyone would wish to end. But a glorious Lights On brings things to a close. As the lights come on, faces are beaming like it’s 2011.