London’s brightest R’n’B star on independence, her new EP, and an important run-in with Anderson .Paak.
It feels slightly surreal, interviewing Kate Stewart with a hundred different pictures of Princess Diana staring down at us. We are in the aptly named Café Diana, the iconic eatery located only a stone’s throw away from Stewart’s native Maida Vale and, ironically, it just about the only place in London where I wouldn’t immediately see the singer, whose bright red two-piece blends into the café’s wonderfully garish décor. Luckily, she recognises me and, after a much needed cuppa, the looming Dianas are quickly forgotten, and we begin to talk.
Stewart’s new EP, ‘In The Beginning’, is good. Very, very good, in fact. Think Mariah Carey singing over a Blonde-era Frank Ocean instrumental, but if she was 23 years old, and born and bred in London. The production is minimalistic, stripped back just the right amount in a way that is almost more difficult to get right than just mixing in a hoard of extra drums and vocal samples, as many now do. The harmonies are beautiful, angelic even, Stewart following in the footsteps of Ariana Grande and Jorja Smith in showcasing extreme vocal talent amid a haze of honeyed R’n’B beats and riffs. There is a song for everyone here: “He’s Good” will be played at pre-drinks and club nights alike, while “Bad Enough” provides the perfect soundtrack to heartbreak.
Aside from all of this, however, there is a sense that this is a vital body of music for Stewart, and the progression of her career. Standing at 8 songs, it’s longer than many of the best ‘albums’ that have come out this year, and the decision to stick with the ‘EP’ label says a lot about the intentions behind the project. Until now, Stewart had been signed to Warner Music, making songs under the moniker KStewart. There was nothing wrong with this work – a series of pop-infused, radio-friendly singles and features – but it is clear from our conversation that it was not the music she wanted to make. With artists such as Chance The Rapper advocating the benefits of resisting record labels early on, Stewart’s position shines an interesting light on someone who, perhaps, made the decision to sign too early, and has had to deal with the consequences ever since.
‘In The Beginning’ serves as a rebirth of sorts. The decision to keep it as an EP coincides with this, as does the reversion to the less industry-driven ‘Kate Stewart’ moniker, and the EP’s Genesis-inspired title. This is what comes across most from the project; Stewart’s ethereal vocals soar like a phoenix rising, the songs serving as audible sighs of relief, and release, the singer relishing her newfound creative freedom and engulfing her potential, and then some. Impressively, she has finessed the transition from label-baby to capital-A Artist with ease, and – if this is just the beginning – people should be very, very excited about what’s to come.
We chatted to Kate about this transition, the EP, and having her eyes on becoming the best female vocalist in the UK.
Can you tell us a little bit about you and where you’re from? Did you always know you wanted to be a musician?
I’m from west, from Maida Vale. I grew up doing musical theatre – I went to a stage school in Chiswick, called ArtsEd, and I always wanted to be an actress. I wanted to do anything that was on the stage really, and that seemed like the easiest option.
That’s interesting, did you like stage school?
I literally just wanted to be on stage, whatever it was. I’m not really a dancer, but I had to do a lot of dancing at ArtsEd, which wasn’t me at all. Then I stayed on and did the college part of the school, and quickly realised that musical theatre ain’t for me! So I went on to ‘normal’ music.
Were your family into performing and music? Who did you listen to growing up?
Yeah, my dad’s a comedian – he’s very funny – and my mum used to be a dancer. My brother’s a producer and songwriter, so I was always listening to a lot of pop, to be honest: Whitney Houston, Destiny’s Child, Beyoncé, Mariah…
Would you say that your music fits into that R’n’B category that all of those people embody?
Definitely. Before it was super ‘pop’, but it didn’t feel natural to me to be making that kind of music, because I don’t really listen to it. It’s difficult to be influenced by music that you don’t even listen to. So yeah, I’d say it’s super soulful R’n’B.
How has it been since the EP came out?
It’s been good! I’ve been very shocked by how many random people have found the EP. Usually when I post a song, it’s a lot of people who already know my music, but loads of new fans have come and listened to it, so that’s exciting. I’ve been really overwhelmed by the amount of streams and love, and it’s only been three days, so hopefully it’s one of those EPs that keeps going round the houses! Obviously EPs are usually 3/4 tracks, but I’ve never put out a full project – I’ve only ever put out singles – and I loved all of them and couldn’t pick, so I put them all on. Why not!
The production on the EP is amazing, and very much stays true to that sort of minimalistic, stripped back sound that R’n’B does so well. Was that a conscious choice?
Thanks! I was signed to Warner before this EP, and I was pretty much only allowed to make mainstream pop music, which is very production-based. My favourite kind of music is very soulful R’n’B, like D’Angelo R’n’B, so I wanted to focus more on the singing and the voice rather than the production being so heavy around it. That’s why I’ve got a completely acoustic song on there. I’m into voices. Sometimes I don’t listen to lyrics, but I listen to the voice straight away, so – as long as that stands out the most – then that’s what I want.
On that note, you have that incredible ability to be on a track with really minimal backing and it still sound super interesting…Frank Ocean is someone who does that really well, and ‘Bad Enough’ really reminded me of ‘Ivy’ from Blonde, the way you work with the guitar and your vocals and that’s it. Is there a time to set aside production and focus on the bare essentials?
That’s my favourite song on the EP! Definitely. The next project I’ve started on is actually a lot more production-based, with a lot more songs that you could bump in a club, or in your car, or whatever. For this, I just wanted to keep it super minimal, make it all about the harmonies, because that’s what I love listening to. Also, I wanted to differentiate this from the KStewart project that I used to do, so I thought that I’d just strip it all the way back.
As you’ve said, your new EP is sonically quite different from your previous work, which came out under the moniker ‘KStewart’, and was quite pop-driven. When was the moment you realised that you wanted to rebrand, change course, and focus on the music you wanted to make?
When I was in my limbo, when I had just left the label and I hadn’t really started making the new sound yet, I found myself in the studio with Anderson .Paak. I met him when I was in London – I just went up to him and was like “I’m a singer” – why not, you know? We started talking became really friendly – he’s so humble, and a really safe guy. Every time I go to LA, I go and chill with him, but when I was in this limbo period with the music, he asked to hear some of my stuff, but I was like, “I have nothing to play you that I’m proud of”. That’s when I was like, ok, I need to make what him and what people that like his music would like, stuff that I’m proud of. I literally had like a hundred songs, and nothing to play him. I just couldn’t do it. It was a bit of a wake-up call, I realised I really needed to knuckle down.
You’re independent now, would you encourage more artists to take the leap into that territory?
One hundred million, trillion percent. I couldn’t recommend not signing more, at the start anyway. You need to just find your feet, and know exactly what you want to do. If a label fucks with that, then you’re flying, because they’ll help you with what you want to do. But if you’re not entirely sure about where you want to go, what path you want to take, it’s not gonna work.
What advice would you give Kate Stewart, or KStewart, when she was first starting out?
It sounds bare cheesy and clichéd, but I do feel like you just need to stay true to yourself, because if you don’t, you’ll just go down some other path. You’ll be taken down roads you don’t want to go down and, once you go down them and start doing something, you have to follow it. That’s the mistake that I made. I also listened to too many people, and wasn’t strong enough in that sense. But I guess I was also quite young.
A lot of people say that they’re inspired by London, or the place they live in – do you think that’s true, or is that just something people say?
It’s definitely true, I just don’t think it’s true for me. I don’t think I’m inspired by London necessarily, although I would never live anywhere else, I’m obsessed. I love London, but I don’t think I’m very inspired by it.
What are you inspired by?
Mainly just other music, and my friends. I always write about things my friends go through, because my life is not actually that exciting. So I literally just get their stories off them. ‘Bad Enough’ was something that a friend said to me; she was like “I want to break up with him, he’s shit, but he’s not bad enough for me to break up with”, and I was like “I’m taking that!”. So yeah, I take a lot of inspiration from my friends.
It’s nice that you say that, because a lot of artists would probably pass it off as their own experiences.
I mean, obviously I can relate, I’ve been with hella fuckboys.
But that one wasn’t your fuckboy?
Not that one, no! (laughs).
What do you think of all the different stuff coming out of London at the moment?
Recently, in Hip-Hop and Rap especially, we’ve got some amazing stuff at the moment: Slowthai, Octavian, all of those. And Jeshi’s sick.
I was actually talking to Jeshi, and he was saying that it’s a shame a lot of people classify rap from London as just being solely Grime, whereas actually there’s so much different stuff…
So much! I listen to Grime, but I have to be in a certain mood for it, do you know what I mean? But I feel like Hip-Hop in London is actually very sick right now.
With all of this stuff coming out of London though, you’ve chosen to not include any collaborations on the EP. What was the reason behind this choice?
I’d done a lot of features in the past, and I wanted to keep it me, to be honest. I also didn’t feel as if there was space – not because there were so many songs – but I just didn’t know who would have fitted with what track; there were no obvious people that I would have picked for this. But the second project will have collaborations.
Who would your dream collaborator be?
Anyone, dead or alive.
Oh, well a duet with Whitney Houston then.
That’s too easy then, what about alive?
D’Angelo, I fucking love D’Angelo…or Frank Ocean.
Can you talk to us about some of the themes that run through the EP?
It’s mainly about relationships. Before, when I was writing, I was with my boyfriend, and I wasn’t really going through much heartbreak. But then we broke up, and I found it’s a lot easier to write when you’ve actually had a situation that you’ve lived through, rather than trying to think what it would feel like. So I guess it’s a lot about relationships, very relatable for women.
Talk us through the process a bit; do you hole yourself up in the studio for ages, or is it very collaborative?
I don’t like having anyone in the studio with me. I hate it when people like ‘pass through’, and then sit with you – I’m just like “I’m trying to work!” I don’t want anyone that’s not musical in the room – even if they are musical, I just don’t like a crowded room. I’ve got a handful of people that I work with, most of whom are my friends, and I like to just go in with them. When I was signed, I was doing the rounds, six sessions a week, with random people, so I obviously know the people that I work well with now, and I just wanted to stick with them. It’s so much easier to work with your friends, you can just go in and it’s so chilled. You don’t have to explain to them what you do, and play them a bunch of music, you can just sit down and they know what to make. So I usually just work with one writer, one producer, and just let them do their thing. I think you just need to be relaxed, that’s the main thing in the studio. In LA, like five people will roll through, and you don’t know who any of them are.
Does that make you feel uneasy?
Yeah, it makes you feel uneasy, and also Americans gas you up so much. So you’ll be making a song, and it won’t be sounding amazing yet, and they’ll be like “Oh my gaad dude it’s the best tune I’ve ever heard”, and I’m like: “It’s not though is it.” I need you to be humble in the studio, I don’t like people gassing it, because then it makes you think that the song’s better than it is. Then you listen back to it at home, and it’s actually not that good.
Do you plan to release any videos in conjunction with the EP?
I’ve got a video coming out for ‘Bad Enough’, hopefully first week of December if the boys are quick with it.
Can you tell us anything about what it’ll be like?
I didn’t really want a storyline as such, I didn’t want a whole shebang. It’s just in this really really beautiful, crazy house that belongs to this woman called Sarah who’s an interior designer, and we just shot in there. It’s just a visually pleasing video – it’s not got any like crazy storylines, me like hitting anyone or anything like that (laughs).
Obviously, in this day and age, being an artist has, for better or worse, become about more than just the music, with fashion and visibility playing a huge role too. Is this something you give much importance to?
I’m super into my fashion, I really love dressing up and making an effort. Obviously day to day I just wear tracksuits, but I just feel like, when you’re on stage, you need to be as confident as possible.
On stage, do you go for comfort or glamour?
I definitely don’t go for comfort on stage. Once I went to see a singer, I won’t name no names, but she came out looking like she was going to Tesco, and I just hate that.
I guess you’re at work really.
Yeah, you’re at work! You wouldn’t roll up to your office in a flipping tracksuit!
I mean I do, but…
(laughs) You know what I mean, I just feel like you just need to be as confident as possible. I guess whatever makes you comfortable: if you want to go on stage wearing whatever, then do that, but me personally, I like to make an effort and dress up.
Who are some designers and brands you’re fucking with at the moment?
I don’t really know, really random people. This new Nike x Ambush stuff I’m obsessed with, that’s going to be so sick. There’s an outfit in that capsule that I NEED, I won’t quit until I have it (laughs).
Do you enjoy performing live? What’s the best gig you’ve ever played?
Live is my favourite. If I could just sing live and not do anything else, I would do that.
That’s interesting with the musical theatre background.
Yeah, I just love being on the stage, and I love singing – it’s my favourite thing. If someone said I could never write a song again, I wouldn’t be that fussed, but if someone said I could never perform live, I’d probably quit music. That’s what I love the most. I toured with ShyFX in the summer, and his crowds are wild, they’re wild, and always so up for it. So a lot of the festivals I did with him in the summer were amazing.
You’ve been around for a while, but your new stuff is quickly blowing up, with coverage from all over. Have you noticed any changes in your life since changing your name and since the single and EP have come out?
I think people have just realised that it’s coming from me, and not from a label or anyone telling me what to do. It feels much more authentic. When people can see that it’s coming from your heart, and not manufactured, they feel it a lot more. I’m getting a lot more comments about my voice and stuff, which is what I always wanted.
What would you say your ultimate aim was?
I mean, just to be as big as Whitney Houston (laughs). She’s my dream. I just want everyone to know who I am because of my voice. I don’t even care if people don’t like the music – as long as someone says “her voice is the best in the UK”, then that’s what I want.