Katie Dey, Never Faltering

Cal Elizabeth Birchall

Katie Dey, Never Faltering

Cal Elizabeth Birchall

The Melbourne pop musician on her embrace of "ugly parts and beautiful parts," her admiration of Mitski's jumpscare songwriting, and her deep love of Casio pan flute.

Katie Dey calls in from her home studio in Melbourne, nestled between the various synthesizers and keyboards and computer monitors that make up a corner of her bedroom. “If I had the money to do it elsewhere,” she says about her creative process, “I would do it. But no, it’s all in my bedroom.”

Her modesty about the setting downplays the record we’re talking about, made in this very room: the stellar never falter hero girl. Expanding on the all-consuming fluidity of Flood Network and the achingly sublime Solipsisters, the experimental pop musician’s latest feels like a bold new beginning for an artist with five previous albums, an EP, and two collaborative records with Black Dresses’ Devi McCallion under her belt. There’s a newfound resoluteness in Dey’s perspective and approach this time around, splattering forth in a multicolor array like the cover painting made by Dey’s friend Jemi Gale. It’s there in the album title as well, taken from a quote from the long-running Pretty Cure anime franchise, and the title track that diverts from Dey’s penchant for keyboards and pianos for a full-on noise pop rager.

That fearless approach permeates everything on never falter hero girl, in how Dey freely wields the unexpected beauty and catharsis of MIDI instrumentation, noise, and the natural messiness of life and creation. Anchoring it all, as always, is Dey’s staggering voice, tender and raw and laid mostly bare in moments akin to last year’s forever music, but also rippling with effects that turn her words into an artificial quaver the next.

With “hoarder,” the new single out today, Dey delivers yet another stunner in her idiosyncratic songwriting style: self-critical, but sounding triumphant through it regardless. “I keep finding new things wrong with me/ I’m an old house built by the sea,” Dey sings with a buzzing twinge of vocal processing, returning to the refrain “It would take a miracle” every time the lyrics circle back to whether any of the problems she lists can be fixed. And yet, the chorus still bursts like a firecracker, Dey’s delivery of “If I stayed intact, would you be my hoarder?” inviting in spite of all the decay.

As we speak, Dey is unfalteringly considerate in talking about her own work, and especially the ways her music captures specific feelings or moments in her life. Her answers come from a genuine place of inward looking, a reflexivity that comes across like the record’s emotions still deeply reside within her, well after wrapping work on the music itself. But that doesn’t mean that she’s unable to be as light as the record’s ultimate outlook. When I bring up how “hoarder” uses a quiet-loud-quiet structure, she off-handedly jokes about its reminiscence to Pixies and “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” And, at the end of this long, pensive interview about her work, she cuts through the seriousness of the conversation by laughing and exclaiming, “I thought we were just going to talk about fucking Xbox games all day!”

Below, hear “hoarder” and read our conversation with Dey — sans Xbox talk — on never falter hero girl and its hopeful place in the musician’s work.

As someone unfamiliar with the anime that the album title comes from, could you tell me more about how that resonated with you, and what made you want to carry it into your music?

KATIE DEY: The title is from the currently airing season [Soaring Sky! Pretty Cure], which is a magical girl anime. I’ve dipped into various other PreCure series, but this is the only one I’ve ever fully watched. I just found “never falter hero girl” to be a helpful phrase in my life. It’s a note left to the main character by her hero — her idol. Something happens to her, and she leaves this letter that says “never falter hero girl,” and the main character holds onto it and keeps it on her, and it reassures her and reminds her of her mission to be a hero to the people around her. Sometimes you need to remind yourself to be your own hero.

It was a guiding principle behind the songs: to be a hero. But I guess it’s complicated to be a hero — some people don’t want you to be their hero — so the best you can do is to be the hero of your own life. It’s kind of a loaded phrase, too. It could be interpreted as a command, to never falter… or else. But, to me, “never falter” is an accepting phrase. I want people to take what they can from it, but to me, it’s about acceptance of your mistakes. The times you do falter, it’s going to be okay.

I’m interested to hear more about the song “never falter hero girl” itself, because it sounds so distinct from anything else — on the album and in your work as a whole. Hitting right toward the end of the album, it feels like it becomes a prevailing force over everything before it, and an acceptance of things that happened in the past. Was its place in the album a way of expressing those ideas?

DEY: Yeah, that’s exactly what I wanted it to be. The sequencing is very important to that song. I wanted it to be an earned thing. If I opened with “never falter hero girl,” it’d be so presumptuous. People would be like, “Who are you to tell me this shit? You’re telling me to just be a hero? Maybe your life is easy and you have no right. You don’t understand me at all.” But if I put it near the end, after all these songs where I’m trying to explain the things that I go through and have experienced, it might feel more like I’ve made the argument that you can go through this and still come out with this resplendent outlook. On rare occasions, you can burst forth as a hero, in spite of everything.

Right before this song, you have “malfunction,” which comes across as this self-reflexive low point the album needs to reach before “never falter hero girl” can land with that kind of effect. There was an early version of the tracklist you posted where that song was actually in the middle of the album. Was shifting it toward the end important to conveying that emotional arc in the album sequencing?

DEY: Gosh, why did I have it in the middle of the album? That’s so weird. But that’s definitely intentional. “malfunction” comes after “face first” — the rock bottom of the album. It’s acknowledging all these things that are so deeply wrong with me that can’t necessarily be fixed or changed, and trying to accept that they’re malfunctioning. You don’t get mad at machines for breaking down — it’s not their fault. You are a machine, in a sense, and so there’s no use in blaming yourself or getting upset with yourself. Once you acknowledge that, that’s the prerequisite to unleashing yourself, to knowing you can be anything you want to be. I didn’t want “never falter hero girl” to just happen without acknowledging the fact that, in some ways, we are broken, because it wouldn’t feel honest.

Both of those tracks have these passages you’re willing to make noisier and messier than some of your past work, and that’s true of the album as a whole. What appealed to you about embracing those sounds and building up to “never falter hero girl” as the point where it all lets loose?

DEY: If the theme of the album is about acknowledging every part of yourself and accepting that and embracing that, then I wanted the album to include both the smallest, quietest parts of myself and the loudest, noisiest parts of myself. It had to have both extremes. I didn’t want to suppress that aspect of my music. In the past, I used to be in punk bands. I cut my teeth writing rock songs. So it just felt appropriate to have this big, blistering rock and roll tune. My friend Jemi said it sounded like Avril Lavigne.

It’s an album of extremes — a burst of technicolor. It’s everything, nothing hidden. Ugly parts and beautiful parts right next to each other. They’re both part of you. In the past, I tried so hard to show only beautiful things, and tried so hard to hide. With this album, I didn’t want to hide anymore.

Tracks like “hoarder” emphasize that duality in microcosm, with that quiet-loud verse-chorus structure. What appeals to you about putting both ends of your sound into a single song and playing with both extremes?

DEY: On a practical level, it’s attention-grabbing. Sometimes you need to keep people on their toes. Mitski was talking about it on her videos about songwriting: She likes to jumpscare people. I think that’s a very valid and effective technique in songwriting: a good little jumpscare every now and then to freak people out and wake them up. On a microscopic level, songs are about tiny little surprises, even in one melody. You want to surprise your listener with every choice you make. Sometimes, you need to make the choice to subvert — if people expect you to go “quiet-loud-quiet,” sometimes you have to go “quiet-loud-quiet” and then go quiet again when they think it’s going to go loud again. It’s all very simple baby tactics of playing peekaboo with your audience. [Laughs]

One of the phrases I’d seen you describe the sound of the album is “ugly but free,” and I was wondering if that applied to your embrace of synthetic instrumentation on this album as well?

DEY: For whatever reason, I’m just drawn to those types of sounds — the cheapest possible MIDI, Super Nintendo-ass soundfont style of instrumentation. I was particularly drawn to Casio sounds, like Casio pan flute and cheap-sounding stabby, dry brass instruments with no reverb. But then contrasting that with the glossiest fake strings imaginable. I have a subconscious contrarian desire — I hear so much extremely expensive-sounding music that I want to prove to myself that I can still make something beautiful, even if I don’t spend thousands of dollars on it. I want to show to other people that you really don’t need all this stuff. It’s not going to make your song more emotional if you have the newest, latest, coolest VST synthesizer or the $5,000 orchestra library. And also I feel like it fits thematically to have these things that people would automatically associate with cheap karaoke versions of songs or polyphonic ringtones. It felt appropriate to have those sounds and to hear them in their full glory — not to hide them — and to acknowledge them as just as beautiful as anything else.

There’s something deeply earnest about being unafraid to embrace those sounds. I think about how a lot of the most emotionally honest music I hear these days are DIY people on Bandcamp working in their bedrooms on cheaper DAWs and pushing default VSTs to the limit, and letting creative passion drive them more than a desire to dump a bunch of money into something that sounds more “real.”

DEY: Yeah, or to make it sound more “professional.” Like, who are you fooling? Not that it’s bad to want to have those really expensive, beautiful things. Those are also really beautiful. But you can still convey beauty and emotions with something you didn’t have to pay someone tens of thousands of dollars to do. I didn’t want to do it in an ironic way. I didn’t want it to be like, “Haha, look at this Casio pan flute. How funny.” I wanted it to just exist. I truly just love the sound of a fake Casio pan flute. It’s one of my favorite sounds in the world. That, and the sound of pitch-shifters messing up and freaking out because they can’t tell what pitch is happening. There’s no reason to try to hide it or smooth it out or try to pretend it’s something it isn’t. I don’t see any purpose in doing that.

Does that play into moments like the end of “open book,” where you let the song build to a passage that might come off as “discordant” in a more rigidly trained sense? There’s something deeply affecting in how those “incorrect” sounds are presented honestly rather than being artificially made “pretty.”

DEY: Yeah, I think so. That song, to me, is supposed to convey a contradictory state of having an incoherent identity — having this feeling that you want to be understood for who you are, but not letting that be a possibility. That contradictory state of wanting to be known and wanting to be seen, but there’s all this noise that you don’t know how to strip from yourself. You don’t know how to express yourself in a way that’s easily readable to other people, as much as you may want it. There’s something there, but it’s hidden in a mess.

forever music was a big turning point where you changed your approach to vocal processing, as well as where your voice fell within the mix, and it seems like never falter hero girl follows in that album’s footsteps in some ways. How do you feel your vocal production has changed over time, and how does that affect how you go about songwriting?

DEY: With forever music, the idea was to be very unfiltered and have raw vocal takes. The thing with that album is that I ended up feeling the opposite of what I wanted. I wanted to be understood clearly, and I wanted to not feel the need to hide, but I ended up feeling constrained by the idea of being unfiltered. So with this album, I just wanted to follow what my heart told me to do with my own voice, and not feel like it was somehow the wrong thing to filter or alter my voice. I just wanted to accept the fact that, sometimes, that’s what I need to do to my voice. That was a freeing choice for my songwriting: feeling like I could just do whatever I wanted, and that I could be whatever I wanted to be in the song. There was no external limitation.

Something that listens closer to what the emotional state of each song demands than making an all-or-nothing choice for a whole album.

DEY: Yeah, definitely. On forever music, there were moments where I really felt like a song needed me to do something to my voice. But I felt this other voice in my head pressuring me like, “No! It needs to be raw! You’re being untrue to yourself somehow by altering your voice!” So I feel like I made the wrong decision on some of those songs.

With both this album and forever music, you’ve been working fully independently. How does that affect how you make your music at this stage of your career?

DEY: It gives me more freedom to make reckless, last-minute decisions like I did with this album. [Laughs] And decide in the last three days before sending it to journalists that I would entirely remix and remaster the whole album, and add extra parts. I wouldn’t be able to do that on a label, if they were making records and printing those. That takes eight months to print. [Laughs] The process has mostly been the same. It’s mostly where the money comes from, and now I need to do way more work by myself — my own PR and all that. But that’s nice. It makes me more focused on what the work is, and I can’t procrastinate as much, even though I still procrastinate a lot. I’m the only person responsible for myself.

In the PR materials you sent out, it mentions that time and memories are a significant theme of the album. Can you talk about how that factors into your songwriting, and what makes that theme meaningful to you six albums into your work?

DEY: The press release, you write afterward, because you have to make up something to explain to people what the thing is. But I just noticed that a lot of the songs happened to have lyrics related to forgetting and the passage of time — mostly “dance butterflies” and “fragments.” I had some health problems that I don’t want to get into that were affecting my memory, and it’s something that I think about a lot. Songs are a way of capturing feelings, as all art is. The way that I wrote songs, especially on this album, was that I would have an experience in my life that I felt I could take something helpful from, and I didn’t want to forget the things that were helpful to me. To be able to be my best self, I need to make a record of the things that make me able to be who I am. I’ve found in the past that you go through life and have problems and end up back in those same problems later in life — if you don’t remember these things, the way that you got through the problem in the first place is gone to you. I guess when I write songs, I want to try to remember the things that helped me get through certain problems.

It almost sounds like the PreCure note you mentioned at the start of this interview — that note to your hero to never falter. Every song, in its own way, becomes that reminder.

DEY: Yes, that’s exactly it! They’re all notes to myself to remember — “Remember this thing. Whatever you do, don’t forget this specific thing.” If I want to be helpful in the world, as a person and as an artist, I may as well share these things that have been the most helpful to me to get through my life and live as best as I can. If they’re important to me, then they have a pretty good chance of being important to someone else. I don’t want to forget those things. I want to remember.

never falter hero girl is out 10/27. Pre-order it here.

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