Katie Lou McCabe’s music transmits something well beyond the sonic shapes and sound forms. Her new album, Innersense, is a diaristic reflection that can almost feel like too much. All of McCabe is buried within the aural atmospheres and hypnotic vocal wanderings. Still, it is less a looking glass than an invitation to find our own experience within its visceral spirit. She shares so much of her journey that we cannot help but find our own.
I always like to start at the beginning, so what are some of your earliest memories or experiences related to music or sound? What are some of the real formative things from when you were young that have stuck with you?
Like any kid, I loved singing and painting. I have a lot of memories of going to summer camps for pagans and druids with my Dad. Every morning the bad spirits had to be scared away from the camp, so we would walk around banging pots and pans and shouting and screaming at the top of our lungs to scare them off. I think you can hear that still ringing in my sound today for sure. Also, in the evenings, they would do eisteddfods, where everyone sits in a circle around the fire and takes turns performing a song or a poem. My favorite thing was this old dude with hair down to his bum singing ‘raggle tangle gypsies.’ Like a typical kid, I would shout, ‘Again! Again! Again!’ as soon as it would finish. I remember thinking… ‘I have got to learn how to do that!’
What were your first creative interests and pursuits before music?
I am from the North Yorkshire Moors, and as a kid, I would roam wild up on top of the hills. I would come back covered in mud and blueberry juice, my hair full of bracken and twigs, and my mum would often have to hose me down before I came in the house. But if my voyage and adventure had been successful, there would be one more thing I would have in my hand that my mum would have to wash before it came in – the greatest prize of all – a sheep’s skull.
I collected them and painted them in the nail varnish gifted to me at Christmas. My window sills were covered in sheep skulls. I must have had over 20 in my bedroom at one point, all shining with patterns all over them in bright pinks and glittery blues.
And then, what was the impetus to start writing and recording music?
When I lost my little sister, music became my survival strategy. Before, it had been for fun, for playing and dancing. Now it was my therapy. The place where I could say anything, scream, cry, shout, and heal. It became more important than ever that I perform, document, and express how I felt. And what it meant because I was unable to actually talk in words to people about what had happened. Recording at first was just a way of really exploring my sound and what could be done with it. But as time went on and I started improvising, recording became vital because, without it, I could not keep the sound I had made.
I’m curious how your visual art and that side of your creative practice influence and mesh with your music writing and performance?
For my final presentation at music college, I wanted to create an installation that showed the meaning of my songs in greater depth. Lyrically my songs are not very explicit if they have lyrics at all. So I wanted to show people what they were about because they really, really are about things! They have subject matters as meaningful as any song with lyrics – people often don’t expect that. So the visual art helps me tell the story. First, it was shadow puppets that acted out the very precise plots of my songs, but then it grew into abstract visual art as I tried to describe feelings in more detail. After that, I did a few more installations, as it went down so well. Off the back of which, someone commissioned me to help make on-stage visuals for Paulo Nutini. This obviously gave me a lot of faith and confidence in my visual art. That it was good and it understood music.
So I continue to make visual art for myself and for other musicians that want to bring their music to life in that way.
Did your family support your creative endeavors growing up?
My mum took me to guitar lessons and bought me instruments. She helped me set up and acquire everything I needed in all my installations and has consistently supported my art throughout my life. My stepdad put on gigs in this shed in my Dale called’ The Band Room,’ which put on alternative Americana. He would get me on to support bands there. When I was 15, I had the honor of supporting Megafaun, who became my favorite band of all time during my teenage years. I also had the pleasure of supporting Michael Hurley, and just seeing amazing bands coming through this middle-of-nowhere little venue was a constant inspiration growing up. My stepdad also helped me get my records made, so yes, for sure, I have been well and truly supported.
So let’s talk about Innersense. Where was the idea for his album first borne?
I was getting a little bored of the way I was playing. I was improvising, which is pretty free, but even within the improvisation, my fingers were constantly edging toward safe territory on the fretboard. I wanted to break free from the scales and the habits and make something new.
Alongside this, my good friend John had been asking me to record with him for about a year. I had always blown him off, saying I had no songs.
At the time, I had a very supportive boyfriend who had heard me messing around, and he said, ‘Why don’t you just record that?’ I was like.. ‘What all my weird little nothings?’ And he was like, ‘Yeah, they’re great.’ So I told John, ‘Hey, you’ve been asking me and asking me, and you should really have been careful what you wished for because I am going to pretty much move into your place because my home is underwater and record an album.’ And he was into it, so that is what we did.
I gathered all the instruments I could find that I had never played before, and we would do the first take on the instrument I had the least experience playing. Then, I would pick up another and improvise over the top with that one, and we just went through all the instruments we had.
What does its title mean to you?
When you are playing instruments you don’t know how to play, you are relying on no muscle memory or knowledge. You rely exclusively on intuition, your inner sense of where your fingers should go. You hope and pray they are going to land somewhere you feel makes sense. And because you don’t know where to go, you pretty much exclusively go where you feel like going. So you are creating music with your heart, not your mind. This is learning. This is playing. Like a child. So it is a play on the words innocence and inner sense.
In this incredible video you created for the album – which, I think the music is “Soundmissed,” yeah? But the spoken word you added for the video, with this story of a flood… the line, “When the flood was high, I never felt safer,” just lives in my head. Can you tell me more about that story and the feeling behind it or within it? It’s so captivating and moving, especially in how it captures this overall spirit of the record.
Yes, this is “Soundmissed”! And yes, that statement was so so true for me. The flood felt like my protector. I have been left with PTSD symptoms from an abusive relationship, and ever since, I have always had the feeling that someone is coming to get me. I remember one night I thought I heard someone circling my hut looking for a way in, and I was trembling at the sound of these footsteps going ‘crunch’ ‘crunch.’ I lit a candle and carried it, hand shaking towards the door to get a better listen, only to find a slug eating one of the serenity poems I had blue tacked to my wall.. ‘munch, munch’ had been the sound I had actually heard. Hilarious but also, yeah, kinda sad. But when the flood was high, all my symptoms went away. It was the only time I felt fully safe because absolutely no one could get to me unless I carried them over the flood in my little boat. It was like a dream.
How do music and sound play a role for you in processing emotions and thoughts?
Again, this album, for me, was a re-birth of that early instinct I had that music could save me. I had been through absolute hell, and in many ways, I was still going through it. I couldn’t speak about what happened to me, not to anyone, as I was so ashamed. All the typical ‘I let it happen to me, and I’m supposed to be a strong feminist’ guilt. I didn’t want to admit even to myself what had happened, let alone anyone else. So I spoke to music. The album really is a road through all that for me. It documents my first wave of healing. All the songs from ‘Ripple’ onwards are my love songs to my life. To my art, to my partner afterward, trips with my friends caving and living in the forest in Norway but ultimately to loving and living again.
What surprised you the most about making this record?
I guess the fact I did it. I don’t know; I could have so easily not made it. I really didn’t think what I was doing was anything worth listening to. As soon as I got going with it, it was so obvious that I was making something I absolutely had to make. I couldn’t have not made it. It is so so important to me. This paradox of feeling like I don’t have any songs, I don’t really make music anymore, and my thing is visual art. To exploding all these weird sounds and expressing all these immense feelings. So much was inside me that I was totally unaware of. That surprised me.
What are some of your favorite sounds in the world?
Oh man, my favorite sound ever is a droplet of water falling from a stalactite in a really deep cave. Each drop has its own mystical, spherical reverb, and it feels like each sound is a jewel in time. And you know that each drop is building a mineral temple beneath it. There are also rivers in the caves, and they don’t sound like babbling brooks; they sound like grass swishing alongside your welly-boots, again soaked in this mystical reverb. When I go caving, I like to sit down with my light off and just sing to the cave. I love the way my voice smudges into all the other sounds down there. I feel like there are magical mineral fairies, and they like it when I sing. They think I’m funny.
And lastly, as 2023 barrels ahead, what are you looking forward to, or at least most hopeful for, this year?
You know what, I am such a solo guy. I make all my music alone. I make all my art alone. And it is because I use it as therapy for sure. But I want to get back to that first experience I had with music, where it was for fun and dancing. Fingers crossed, now I am feeling better, I will spend the rest of this year collaborating with some of the incredibly talented people I know.
In terms of my visual art, I have a very strong vision of a big canvas on the floor, me and my friend Joseph totally naked covered in paint, screaming at each other and fighting, and every act of aggression is actually an act of love like two kittens playing. And psychedelic projections fill all available white blankness of the canvas. And I can hear him laughing/crying out in disbelief at my absurdness and then succeeding in outdoing me.
I want this in music form, too… though it’s harder to visualize.
That is my funny little dream. I pray whatever I make (for 2023 at least) will be happy.