by Nur Lajunen-Tal

Katie Thompson: Seeing Herself

by Nur Lajunen-Tal

Katie Thompson: Seeing Herself

Ōtautahi artist Katie Thompson has made a name for herself as an alt country singer-songwriter. Her latest single, I See You, sees her branching out into the alt pop realm, while still containing traces of country as well as rock. With this song, Thompson declares to the world that she no longer cares what people think of her, as Nur Lajunen-Tal finds out. Made with support from NZ On Air Music.

Katie Thompson last spoke to NZM in 2019 about her third album, ‘Bittersweet,’ which had her nominated for two awards at the 2020 NZ Country Music Awards. Following that release Thompson took a break from songwriting and performing, during which she released several cover version songs via her Patreon. Her return to the stage came with opening for folk-rock icon Don McLean at the Christchurch Town Hall in May 2023, a performance Thompson says was one of the highlights of her career.

“It was a great gig. The crowd was like in my top five of gigs that I’ve played. They couldn’t have been more responsive and to this day I’ve still got people coming up to me going, ‘Oh my God, you’re so great at bla-bla-bla!’ And I was like, ‘Thank you! This is strange!’”

Thompson’s first original single release in four years was Do You Think Of Me, a collaboration with her friends and band members Victoria and Andy Knopp, followed by I See You, a song co-written with alt-pop singer-songwriter and producer Emily C Browning

“I was getting back into things, and I was like, ‘Okay, I’m gonna be big and brave and I’m gonna co-write!’” she laughs. “It’s not something that I’ve really done too much of before. So I put my application in and indicated that I’d really like to work with Emily C Browning. She’s an amazing producer. I had only known her to say hi to, not really ‘sit down and have a deep-and-meaningful’, which is kind of what co-writing with someone ends up being! APRA facilitated that, and I felt good about doing it that way, because a little bit of self-doubt crept in with me. I was like, ‘I don’t really wanna take up her time!’”

After discussing song topics, Thompson and Browning settled on delivering the perennially important message of self-acceptance.

“I’m finally at a point in my life where I’m comfortable with who I am,” says Thompson. “I know myself well, and it’s great because it means I’m showing up to new friendships authentically who I am. I’m not putting on a front, and people can either take me or leave me. The great thing about being a little bit older and wiser is that the people that I’m meeting are in the same position, so we’re meeting each other from a really good place. We’re not having to pretend to be anything else, and we’re taking each other flaws and all and just making some really solid friendships where you feel free to be yourself.”

The authenticity of Thompson’s message is obvious, long-time fans confirming her new-found confidence comes across in the song and accompanying music video.

“I’ve had the comment quite a few times, and it may be more to do with the music video, or the combination of the video and the lyrics, but they’re like, ‘It’s the first time I’ve really felt like it’s you.’ Cos obviously, if they met me in real life, I’m somewhat animated!” she laughs. “And they’re like, ‘It’s the first time it hasn’t felt like there’s a front up.’ A lot of the time, directors encourage you to act and you’re in a role, whereas I said to [DOP and colourist] Adam Hogan, ‘I just really wanna be me this time, if that’s okay!’”

Thompson goes on to emphasise the importance of self-confidence for new artists in the industry.

“A lot of the time, with previous music videos and probably even previous recordings, I’ve kind of felt like I need permission to be me… You shouldn’t have to, but sometimes it can take a while to figure out who you are and what you wanna get across. I think when you’re starting out as well you obviously go to producers and directors and whatnot, and you’re relying on their knowledge and their expertise, and you kind of trust that they know best. I always like to encourage musicians to figure out what you want before going to someone else, because they will tell you what they want. It’s really important for musicians to know their own voice. I’ve been doing this for quite some time now, and it’s taken me until now to feel confident in my vision for what I want to be doing.”

Writing with Browning was very different fromThompson’s usual process.

“I think we literally just had a coffee, and we talked for like a good hour just discussing the topic, talking about what would we like to write about, and ended up sticking to this topic. We definitely brainstormed the song and the ideas behind the song first, and then we picked up the guitar, so definitely more lyric writing upfront than what I’m used to! I’m pretty good at melody so that’s typically what will come to me first, and I do everything at once. So it was interesting tackling it from a point of view of sitting back and thinking about the topic first and structuring out ‘what roughly do we wanna talk about here’, bringing it back to the guts of the song in the chorus, and then ‘how do we wanna move that song along in the second verse?’ It was probably a lot more orderly way of writing a song,” she smiles.

The verses within I See You are notable for their descriptive lyrics, and Thompson says this was also new to her.

“Emily likes to just create imagery with everything, or really detail what’s happening in the environment around you. If you have a mind that can create images (which I do not), you should be able to put that picture together in your mind of the ‘lush oasis in the living room.’ We’re giving really detailed examples of where the character is in the moment, which is not something I do. I just write songs! I don’t analyse things all too deeply, so it was really interesting. Emily would be like, ‘Go deeper on that. Make that more descriptive. What does it sound like? What does it feel like?’ And I was like, ‘Oh my god, stop making me think so hard!’ She wasn’t pushing me too far, but she was really making me work for it, which was good.”

The pair even went as far as detailing which 1990s band was playing in the protagonist’s head. “Humming some obscure Nirvana tune,” Thompson sings in the first verse, a lyric in no small part inspired by Thompson’s rock background.

“I grew up listening to Nirvana and Foo Fighters and all that. I know that I’ve timestamped it with my age group by saying Nirvana! You can pick how old I am just by me putting a Nirvana reference in there. It said ‘obscure,’ so this is the problem, because I don’t think there’s much obscurity when you talk about Nirvana. I’ve had a lot of people annoyed at me, because they either love Nirvana, and they’re like, ‘There’s no such thing as an obscure Nirvana tune!’ Or they’re like, ‘Oh yeah, what is an obscure Nirvana tune?’ What are their songs other than the one they know? Mine would be Lithium or Something In The Way. Just that whole album,” she says, pulling up ‘Nevermind’ on Spotify. “Great album!”

The single’s feel-good music video features Thompson singing to the camera, somewhat reserved at first but loosening up as the song progresses, even delivering a few dance moves towards the end. Thompson enlisted friend Phoebe Hurst, also known as recording/performing artist Phoebe Vic, to direct the video and help with the choreography.

“I’m definitely not a confident mover,” Thompson admits. “I asked her if she would direct the video and kind of encourage me to move, cos I see her perform live and she’s an amazing mover. If I perform live, I’m always hidden behind a guitar, for good reason! I knew that if I was gonna be moving, I’d need direction, so I’ve some behind the scene video of her. If you see me moving, she’s moving ten times bigger than the movements I’m doing.”

The video also features Thompson devouring a cupcake, which she put in as a surprise for her fans.

“I smash it in one go!” she laughs. “We put that in there towards the end because people’s attention spans are very short, and they don’t typically last for a three-minute music video, so we thought we’d put a treat in at the end for my fans. Phoebe and Adam liked the idea. I’m sure there’s a proper term for why they put eating in videos, but apparently, it just makes people feel awkward, and we did it just because. The moment the video was released I had so many of them message me going, ‘Oh my god, why would you do that?’ They thought it was hilarious, because I said, ‘Just keep watching for the end,’ and they were like, ‘Why, what happens?’ A friend sent me cupcakes as well, as a laugh!”

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