Katey Brooks’ origin story is one unfamiliar – and unfathomable – to most. Music was her sole escape from the chaos of growing up inside a cult. In addition to trying to process her childhood trauma, Katey also had to come to terms with her sexuality and the painful memories attached to it. After enduring some tragic personal losses and working through her internalized self-loathing, she emerged with her music and her confidence stronger than ever. Her heartfelt new single “In Your Arms” explores her recent breakup with a woman she was sure was the one. Even though a wedding might not be in her future for now, Katey is clearly committed to her craft and has vowed to rediscover the joy of making music.
Cliché: You grew up in a cult. What was that experience like as a child? How did you discover your love of music in such an unusual environment?
Katey Brooks: Scary and overwhelming a lot of the time, but also completely normal to me because it was the only thing I knew. Music was always around. There were often parties being thrown, or special performances being put on for the leaders. That was probably the one bit I enjoyed!
Why did you choose not to go to the Brit School, where some of the UK’s biggest names in music have honed their craft?
I guess at the time I didn’t totally digest that, and any part that I did, I was intimidated by. I was 16 and very attached to my life in Bristol by that point. I didn’t want to leave, and I also wasn’t ready to put my all in. I couldn’t fathom the idea of a career in music at that point either – it came a few years later.
You also struggled to come to terms with your sexuality, only recently making the momentous decision to start using “she” pronouns in your lyrics. Do you think your upbringing impacted your ability to embrace your identity?
Absolutely. When I was 5 years old I wanted to be a boy. I cut my hair and tried to use the men’s toilets. When one of the cult leaders found out she humiliated and shamed my mum in front of a congregation of a thousand people while I was asleep under her chair. I woke up to hear it. She said my mum was a bad mother, and that it was wrong and unnatural. I took that to mean I couldn’t be who I was and that my innate feelings were wrong. When I started to have feelings for the same sex soon after, I was, sadly, disgusted by myself. That’s always stayed with me and I have to work with it. I love being a woman and being gay these days, but there have definitely been effects on my relationship with both my masculine and feminine sides.
Were you reluctant to come out because you personally struggled to accept your sexuality, or because you were worried it would impact your music career? Or some combination of the two?
Definitely both for a while. And then I made peace with my sexuality and began to love it and see that it was beautiful and natural. But on several occasions I’ve been warned by industry professionals and people supposed to be helping me that I should steer clear of being too open, and should remain ambiguous because it’s “more mysterious” or more accessible for a wider audience – “you don’t wanna put off your male audience” was a common one. I was told I’d get pigeonholed. Sad isn’t it. One day I felt enough was enough. I don’t want a career if it means pretending to be someone I’m not. That’s not my path.
Tragedy has unfortunately struck you fairly early in life and you were forced to deal with both the loss of your mom and your best friend. How do you cope with sudden unexpected losses like that? How has pain shaped and influenced your music?
I think everybody copes in different ways, but for me I went into survival mode. I shut down without warning. I threw myself into work and just did whatever I could to keep going. I still find the grief creeps in through the back door when I’m not looking – It’s never gone, you just get better at living with it I think. And yes, one hundred percent it has influenced my music. For a while after my mum died even my vocal changed pretty dramatically. I sounded like I was crying out the song.
Talk about your new single, “In Your Arms.” Who or what is the song about?
Over the summer I broke up with the woman I thought I’d marry. It was extremely painful, but it was also extremely illuminating. I faced things I’ve run away from for a very long time – it was definitely transformative. One day not long ago I just heard the first line in my head “You’ll never know how much I love you”, and it spilled out of me in minutes. It was my way of telling her just how much I really did and do love her, despite her expressions of doubt about that fact.
Has the way that you experience love or the way that you sing about love changed now that you’re being authentic with your true self?
Good question and something I’ve not thought about before. I don’t think so, no. Whenever I’ve been in love it’s overruled any fears or conflict within me. And I’ve always been very honest about my feelings in my songs, even if I haven’t used the ‘she’ pronoun in the past. That’s the one place I feel safe to experience my emotions and say how I feel about someone.
You’ve often had fans tell you how much their music means to them. What’s the most moving story a fan has shared with you?
The year before last I did a show in West Sussex, UK. I was so convinced it’d gone terribly that straight afterwards I went and stood in the car park in the rain chuntering to myself that I never wanted to play again. My piano player Paul came out and said there was a woman who wanted to speak to me. Again I was convinced it would be to tell me what I was doing wrong, but I reluctantly went back inside to find her. She told me that she had been recovering from a brain tumour for the past 18 months, and that the show was the first time she had felt her heart in years. She thanked me with such warmth and depth. That blew me away and I’ve never forgotten it. I didn’t go back to the car park 😉
What does it mean to you as an artist to know that your music has such a profound impact on your fans?
Everything. Literally everything. It keeps me making and sharing it.
Many have compared you to Tracy Chapman and Florence of Florence and the Machine. Do you feel that such comparisons put more pressure on you to succeed or to maintain a certain sound?
I think I probably did when I was younger, but not these days, I just take it as a compliment. I love both and have enormous respect for both of them.
What do you hope the next year has in store for you?
Enjoying myself. There was a while where I lost that. I got caught up in where everything was going, and I forgot why I became a singer-songwriter in the first place. Now I just intend to make the music I love, share it with whoever wants to listen, and hope they take something good from it.
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Katey Brooks Finds Her Voice In Her New Single, “In Your Arms”. Photo Credit: John Morgan.