Cat Burns: “I want to inspire young Black queer girls”
As she gears up to perform at the BRITs this weekend, where she’s nominated for three awards, the South London chart-topper chats about her massive breakthrough.
Being a pop star is all glitz and glamour until you’re freezing your tits off in a garden in Willesden, London. Cat Burns is hunched over a picnic bench, huddled up in white hoodie and pickle-green cap, the frosty February air transforming her breath into vapour when she speaks. We’ve caught her during a busy week: this weekend, Burns will perform at the BRIT Awards, where she’s also nominated for Best Pop/R&B Act, Rising Star (which Flo have already won) and Song Of The Year for Go, her runaway viral hit that peaked at No. 2 in the UK Singles Chart last year.
Right now, though, she’s taking a chilly breather from a studio session, while her producer lays down the guitars inside. “The song’s at the very, very early stages,” the 22-year-old says, with a coy smile. “I think we have, like, one line.”
Burns is currently in the throes of a whirlwind that’s typical for an artist on her trajectory. She started gaining traction during the lockdown of 2020 with videos of her performing covers and original songs with acoustic guitar on her socials. Her early single Go, initially released in July 2020, had a massive TikTok boost last year, and now Cat Burns is one of the buzziest newcomers in UK music.
It’s not difficult to see why her music resonates with audiences. Burn’s pen offers candid catharsis for listeners, as she ruminates on topics that touch us all, from heartbreak and anxiety, to growing pains and disintegrating friendships. It’s a combination that made her the UK’s biggest-selling female artist of 2022.
When you rapidly climb the charts and amass millions of Spotify streams, a packed schedule of tours, TV appearances and award ceremonies soon follows. In 2022, she joined Ed Sheeran on the European leg of his tour, enlisted Sam Smith for a remix of Go, sold out a headline gig at Camden’s KOKO and rang in the New Year with a performance on Jools’ Annual Hootenanny. She’s already booked up for 2023, too, with another Sheeran tour across the US locked in, as well as a slot on Sam Smith’s Gloria tour and a few festival dates. Oh, and there’s a debut album on the horizon.
How’s she coping with it all? Well, she’s pretty chilled, actually. A Brit School alum, Burns was schooled on the nuts and bolts of the industry from a young age, and those big audiences are nowhere near as daunting as the crowds she faced when busking as a teen. As for the BRIT Awards, she’s just happy to be invited. “I’ll just be playing spot the celeb,” she says, laughing. “Winning is not even on my brain!” Best not to jinx it, eh?
Hey Cat, this is a bit of a big week for you, what with all the BRITs stuff. How are you feeling ahead of the big night on Saturday?
It’s really exciting. I went to the BRITs six years ago with Brit School, but I was just in the audience. Fast-forward to now, I’m performing and am nominated for some awards! It feels like a really lovely, full circle moment that I didn’t expect to have happened this soon.
Were there any stand-out performances from your first experience of the BRITs that have influenced the way you’re approaching your own slot?
It was 2017, so it was Ed Sheeran, Stormzy and The 1975. But Ed was the standout. I always like how minimal Ed is with his stage set up and stuff. So for me, I just want to be authentic and true to myself. I want to be able to show people who I am in a really clear, clean way. It’s just an amazing opportunity to be able to perform in front of artists who I’ve listened to for ages and make them, hopefully, aware of my existence.
You also worked with Sam Smith on a remix of Go. Did they share any nuggets of wisdom about navigating the industry when you worked with them?
Definitely. With Ed, I saw how he performs on stage, how much of himself he puts into every performance and how well his team worked together – it’s a really well oiled machine. And everyone’s just super normal! And Sam Smith has always just been so sweet to me. As soon as we met each other, we just clicked. They gave me so much advice on prioritising my mental health and learning how to say no, and different exercises to maintain my voice and make sure that I don’t go crazy, basically. They’ve both been really instrumental in showing me that you can be a super successful artist and still have be a decent, kind human being.
Obviously you first released Go back in 2020, but it climbed the charts last year after going viral on TikTok. What was it like to experience its incredible second wave?
Before it blew up it was on one or two million streams and I was happy with that. I thought: OK, it’s done what it’s needed to do. When it kept growing and didn’t stop, it was an interesting feeling because I wrote this song when I was 18. So I almost felt slightly detached from it. It was a song that I wrote so long ago, about a random situation – my guitarist telling me he got cheated on – so it was amazing to see how much it resonated with people. That’s the type of pop music I want to make – chilled, emotional pop that isn’t super toxic. So when Go became successful, I was just happy because it made me feel like I can keep making songs like that.
You went to Brit School, following the footsteps of Adele, FKA Twigs and Raye, to name a few. How did that experience prep you for the journey you’re on now?
I was there for four years, after auditioning in year nine, and I learned a lot about how the industry works, the different types of jobs you could get in the business, and whether it was something I really wanted to do. But I think there’s a common misconception that just by going to Brit School, you’re guaranteed success. I always kind of try to put it in perspective. If you name the artists that have come from the school, it’s actually very few in the grand scheme of it – they’re just massive artists. And there’s like 1000 students a year, so it’s not guaranteed that you’re gonna be successful. What it does do is give you the tools and the knowledge. That’s what I’ve found really helpful, to know what things I needed to get my foot in the door.
You dropped your first EP, Adolescent, while you were still there, aged 16. How do you feel when you listen back to those songs now?
It’s wild to think that I even did that! It’s a nice kind of reminder of just how much I loved – and still love – making music, and how I did a lot of things myself. I worked with a boy in school who had a studio in his shed. I would just go to his house on the weekends and after school, and we would just make songs together. My singing teacher at the time told me about a distribution company that I could use, so I put it out and then I was like, “OK, maybe I should put a show on!” So I put a headline show on by myself at this little venue in Herne Hill. Loads of people showed up, which was really amazing. When I think back to it now, I’m like, “wow, I really did that!” [It reminds me that] I’ve always wanted this and I have put the hard work in for a long time.
How did you find it breaking into the industry from that point onwards? You’ve spoken before about record labels not understanding your perspective when you were starting out.
I think because I’m a Black female artist in pop music, especially in the 2016, it just wasn’t heard of enough for labels to see a return in it. I always knew that there was a demand for it. I always knew that Black artists are multifaceted, and are capable and love loads of different genres. But it was hard to sort of get that initial support from labels. They were like: “We can see where you could be, but we don’t know how to really get you there.” When I grew my following myself and they saw that I was correct, that there was a demand and people wanted to see something different, I finally saw the interest come back. Numbers don’t lie!
What kind of response have you received for the Black community?
A lot of the time I get stopped on the street by young Black girls, who will say that they really like my stuff and that they felt inspired to pick up the guitar and play an instrument. That’s the exact reason why I’m doing what I’m doing. I just want to inspire other young Black girls, and other young Black queer girls, and show that there’s a space for us.
Last year you released your song Free, which is about you coming out to your family. That was a huge moment for you personally and the queer community. What was it like to work on that and put something so personal out into the world?
I wrote that with [songwriter] Jimmy Napes in an hour. It was a song for myself at first. But once I sat with it for a while, I thought it was a good time for the queer community to have it as well, as a song that, even if they can’t come out, they can listen to and feel free, even if it’s within their head – a lot of messages I’ve received about that song have been from people in places where they can’t come out publicly. Which is the exact sort of message [the song has], it’s saying “you can still be proud of yourself, no matter what your situation.” I’m glad it’s helped people. It’s amazing to see how many people it’s impacted.