In Studio Sessions:
Advance praise for ‘Suit Of Hearts’
I didn’t expect “Suit of Hearts” to touch me as quickly and as deeply as it did upon my first few listens, but it did and it grabbed me the way any great song or long-playing collection of songs does: What did I miss the first time? What did she say? What was that? Are there more riches to be had? Sure enough, the songs on “Suit of Hearts” are best heard again and again, and by doing so we the lucky listeners (the second track, “Listen,” btw, is a string-thing of peaceful easy beauty that advocates for my favorite thing, listening) get to know something intimate about my friend and sometime collaborator, the Singer-with-a-capital-S Katy Vernon, as she bares her soul and beautifully tells her stories of family, kicking the bottle, life, love, motherhood, the tightrope of show biz, and the joy of singing.
Great tunes abound, including the set-closer “Somebody’s Daughter’s Daughter,” a haunting cry for freedom featuring Katy’s late mother’s recorded voice); the should-be pop-dance smash “Latest Disaster,” the wised-up confessional “Catch Myself,” and the terrifically timeless saunter “Look to the Sea,” to name only a few off this supremely full-bodied and gorgeously produced (by Kevin Bowe) and played (the strings and Paul Odegaard’s trumpet are especially spectacular) gem. Katy’s voice is a thing of robust beauty, and she wears her heart on her sleeve throughout, but from what I hear here, it’s obvious that heart is so big, kind, and generous that it needed more fabric. “Suit of Hearts” is the sound of an artist simultaneously growing and in full bloom, and it’s exciting to hear. Jim Walsh
She’s come a long way literally and figuratively in her journey through the Twin Cities music scene, and now the ukulele-strumming British transplant is opening up on a personal odyssey that preceded her new album, “Suit of Hearts.” Dramatic, cliff-pondering folk-rock songs such as “Latest Disaster,” “Look to the Sea” and “Somebody’s Daughter’s Daughter” were written during a stayover in England as she fought past depression, alcoholism and the lingering pain of losing her parents during childhood. It’s a triumphant, feel-good record with wistful music to match from her longtime band and album guests the Prairie Fire Lady Choir and Laurel Strings, both whom will perform at the release party along with Dan Israel. Chris Reimenscheider – Star Tribune
Katy Vernon bares her heart on new album inspired by an all-around tough year
Singer/songwriter Katy Vernon’s optimistic new album, “Suit of Hearts,” was inspired by a whole lot of pain.
“I had a very rough year in 2016,” said the London native who now lives in White Bear Lake. “I crashed my car, broke my toe, broke my phone and was trying to hold onto my marriage. I recognized my drinking had been a crutch and I tried to give it up.
“Then I started to personally feel even worse, because I wasn’t numbing (my pain) with drinking. I was diagnosed with depression, which in a way was kind of encouraging. It wasn’t just personal shortcomings, it was something wrong with me that could be helped.”
Vernon marks the release of “Suit of Hearts,” which she calls the most ambitious thing she’s done, with a Saturday night show at Minneapolis’ Parkway Theater. She’ll perform with her full band and the Laurel Strings Quartet atop a bill that also features Prairie Fire Lady Choir, Dan Israel and Tori Evans.
Making it through 2016 convinced Vernon it was time to fully commit to being a musician. She had never toured before 2017 when she booked a six-week run of shows in the U.K.
“I wanted to dive in and explore the U.K. and see what that experience brought out in me,” she said. “I started writing songs more to kind of chronicle what it felt like to go home, reconnect with family and sights and places. I wanted to be brave, to go on an adventure and not be scared.”
It was a challenge for Vernon, who said she had never really been on her own like she was during her overseas trip. She met her husband, Randy, who was in the Air Force, by chance on a train from Amsterdam to Berlin. They married in 1993 when she was 21 and she moved to Minnesota where they started a family. (Vernon has two teenage daughters, Lily and Daisy.)
Vernon has focused on playing the ukulele in recent years and landed spots at two large U.K. festivals devoted to the instrument. Those shows served to bookend her trip, which included gigs in pubs and clubs along with some house concerts.
“It was scary to be completely on my own – very daunting, but also exciting. I had to live in the moment. I was in a different city every couple of days. For the first time, I really felt so encouraged on stage. People didn’t need to know me, they could just listen to the songs. I realized I have something to offer and that people were liking my music.”
She returned to Minnesota with a clutch of fresh material and renewed enthusiasm. She did another U.K. tour last year and will launch her third this summer.
Inspired by her trip, Vernon set up a Kickstarter to fund her new album and raised $10,000 in a month. She made “Suit of Hearts” with songwriter and producer Kevin Bowe, whose lengthy resume includes work with the Replacements, Joe Cocker, Etta James and Steven Van Zandt.
“He encouraged me to make the most of this big adventure,” she said. “He was such a team player, he really made me feel like I was co-producing. He’s been sober for a long time and he knew and respected that there were serious underpinnings to these songs. We didn’t have to belabor it.”
While much of Vernon’s past music has been folk rock, she took a leap into disco for the song “Latest Disaster.” The Abba tribute band she founded a few years back helped push her in that direction.
“My drummer told me he knew why I started the Abba band, because it cheered me up. It was like joining a gym. Singing Abba songs has made me a better singer and I wanted to inject some of that into my record.”
During the recording process, she stumbled upon the title she ultimately chose for the album.
“It was somewhat inspired by social media and the weird time we’re living in,” she said. “I’ve chosen to be very open about the grief I’ve dealt with and my recovery. I realized I wear my heart not only on my sleeve, but all over myself, with nothing to hide. And I thought, that’s a good album title. I need to delve into what it means to me.”
In the end, “Suit of Hearts” offers a range of emotions.
“The point was not to chronicle darkness and depression, but to show you can come out of it. There’s always hope, you can always get better.”
Katy Vernon shares her journey toward healing and recovery on ‘Suit of Hearts’
Katy Vernon puts the ‘U.K.’ in ukulele – Randy Vanderwood
In 2017, Vernon’s life was in disarray. She had recently left her job, quit drinking, and been diagnosed with depression. Amid all that emotional upheaval, she left Minnesota for a six-week run of shows in the U.K.—and began writing the best songs of her life.
“I started to get help for my depression, and I resolved to not drink to numb my feelings and self-medicate,” Vernon says now. “I allowed myself to really work through all that stuff that I was suppressing. I thought that I was really self-aware. I had written all these songs about feelings and being present—Present is literally the name of my last album. I’d done a lot of work on myself, but I was kind of missing the big picture, which was that there was something wrong with me that could be fixed, or at least helped.”
Vernon, who was born and raised in South London and moved to Minnesota when she was 21, brought that newfound sense of clarity with her as she ventured back home to the U.K. “I was really, really scared to do it,” she says of the trip. “I knew it would be a lot of time by myself, which as a newly sober person I didn’t really trust myself 100 percent with. Also, it was in the U.K., where you can find alcohol everywhere you turn. But I went with the encouragement of my husband, who said, ‘Go for it. You love music. You love playing. It will be an adventure.’ So, I just jumped on a plane and did it.”
Performing at two large-scale ukulele festivals inspired Vernon to develop a new style of playing and to challenge herself as a songwriter, developing techniques that she would use to write the songs that would eventually form Suit of Hearts, her third and best solo record.
“I was so happy to be there and playing, but I felt so intimidated. These were the best ukulele players in the world,” says Vernon. “I set myself the task of throwing everything I knew about songwriting out the window, and just trying to start over. I tried to write with all new chords, nothing I had done before. And a lot of grief and stress poured out of me. I knew I wanted to write my way out of that. I knew I wanted to write a happy album that would cheer me up, even though I had to dig deep in order to get there. I wanted to make myself feel better and see that light at the end of the tunnel.”
Intimate and unguarded, the songs on Suit of Hearts transform sad memories into happier moments. “Home” offers a glimpse of someone who feels like they don’t belong anywhere, feeling homesick for a place that doesn’t exist anymore, while “In Your Shoes (For Daisy)” offers support and encouragement to her daughters.
For Vernon, who has been an orphan for 30 years, the trip to the U.K. also took on a personal significance. With her cousin as a guide, she took a sightseeing tour of Wales, visiting the places where her mom grew up and locations that were important to her.
“I went back to the hospice where my mom died. That was the last place I saw her. I was 12 years old,” Vernon says. “But I was asked to put on a concert there. It was my first time walking back in that building. And there were all kinds of sad memories. But I was there to put on a concert for young people going through terminal illnesses, so I had to check my own issues at the door and not bring them in with me. So I sang, and it was a really lovely event. And that really changed my memory of the place. Those kinds of experiences are so good, to push yourself through and create a happier memory out of somewhere.”
Vernon threads layers of her mom’s speaking voice, from a long-lost interview with her on the BBC program Panorama, into the song “Somebody’s Daughter’s Daughter,” a way for the singer to have her mother personally involved in an album that drew so much inspiration from her.
“I sat on the same beach that my cousin was telling me was my mom’s favorite beach,” Vernon says. “And it was such a powerful moment, of realizing both the end and the beginning of my mom’s life, and all this stuff that I didn’t know about her. How joyful that all was for me. ‘Somebody’s Daughter’s Daughter’ was inspired by that day at the seaside. Because I thought, as lost and lonely as I feel, I did come from a family. There is a heritage there, I just didn’t grow up with it and I didn’t know it. And I felt really British, and connected to the land. And I realized that I’m not this broken, rubbish person. I came from something nice, I’m lucky enough to have a happy, healthy family myself. There’s a lot to celebrate.”
And Suit of Hearts is indeed celebratory, even hopeful despite the songs’ fractured origins, with lyrics focused on reassembling a life from its broken fragments. As Vernon sings on the title track: “You wear your suit of hearts/You tear yourself apart/But you’re not broken/Just a little rearranged/And none of us get out of here/Without a little change.” Vernon acknowledges the flaws and failures of her past, while rejoicing in the fact that she has changed her life—and her music—in a positive way.
“The little throwaway line I have in my Twitter bio says, ‘Singer of sad songs on a happy instrument,’” Vernon says. “It took me a while to even realize what that meant to me. And I think I was always a little embarrassed or insecure about how heart-on-my-sleeve I was about grief or any of those things that were difficult to sing about. But the more that I think about it, I’m the happy instrument. I’ve always loved singing and dancing and being a goofball, so that balances out this sad, kind of intense stuff I want to write about.”
Though a full band backed her in the studio, and the Laurel String Quartet and the Prairie Fire Lady Choir also appear on the album, Vernon proudly asserts that Suit of Hearts is first and foremost a ukulele record.
“In the past, I thought that I would be taken more seriously if I played at least half my songs on guitar,” Vernon says with a laugh. “But I realized that’s really silly. It’s still me. And I want people to realize that you can still front a band with a ukulele and it doesn’t have to be this twee, cutesy thing. It can really rock.”
U.K. expat Katy Vernon: ‘death, drinking, disability’ songs meet the uke
The combination of getting older and having a day job is an eternal struggle with which most artists deal. On her latest album, Present, Katy Vernon finds solace and contentment in her current life, somewhat appeasing those demons that force you to create while living a “normal” life.
The record is an example of the mystery that is the human mind and a reminder that music is about making people feel they are part of something — a larger tribe. On it, Vernon digs deep into the creative psyche, revealing the complex interchange of ideas between human beings.
City Pages sat down with the U.K. expat and current Minnesotan before her album release on Sunday at Icehouse to find the process behind her latest musical venture.
City Pages: What drew you to the ukulele when you first began performing?
Katy Vernon: I’d been writing and singing for a long time but was in a creative slump. I played guitar a little but I was always primarily a vocalist and the idea of playing solo was completely daunting, so without a band I felt pretty lost. I saw Lucy Michelle play a tenor uke that had a fuller sound and really changed the way I felt about it.
A friend, Dave Kapell, had been telling me for years that it would be a good instrument for me so we went shopping together, and I literally asked the guys at Twin Town for the one Lucy played. I wrote my first song in a couple of weeks and it just felt instinctive to me to play it. It suits my voice well and I like the levity it brings to some of my sadder songs. On Twitter I call myself “singer of sad songs on a happy instrument.”
CP: What do you think is a common misconception about the instrument or even people who play the ukulele?
KV: I think most people still think it’s pretty twee. Every time I write a song on it I’m trying to make it sound different. It’s at versatile as any other instrument. I also put together Uke Fest every year and that embraces the large range of how it can sound.
We had 16 different acts this year and none sounded the same. I think you can embrace people’s misconceptions and have fun with it. There’s a history to cutesy songs being played on the uke and that’s fine but there’s so much more it can do.
CP: How did you come to working with your producer Kevin Bowe on this project? How do you think he changed the songs?
KV: I knew Kevin a little and he invited us in to his IPR [Institute of Production & Recording] sessions, which is a chance for bands to track for free and students to learn recording. I don’t think he had any idea how ambitious we were going to be when we came in. We had just come off a residency so we were super tight and we did five complete songs during that morning.
The songs didn’t change during the recording process so much. I think the biggest factor was that we had really learned how to play together and tighten up our arrangements prior to going in. I could have agonized over every choice, and Kevin would get a couple of takes on everything and keep it moving. He told me to put all the stress on him, so I did. He’s incredibly encouraging and I felt completely listened to and involved.
One song that Kevin absolutely had a vision for and that we started over after the IPR sessions was “Pearl.” We had rushed that one and so when we re-did it he made a couple of keyboard sound suggestions and we added some single uke strums and it took on more of a Roxy Music vibe. I think if we had started at his studio in the beginning rather than going the IPR route, he would have had even more creative input, but I really wanted a band sound and I feel like we got that. He took what we were all already doing and made sure we didn’t overthink it.
CP: You mentioned you write a lot about tough situations in your life, such as losing your parents at a young age. How did/does music help you move forward when you’re faced with tragedies like this?
KV: It’s always been my outlet. I found it hard to talk about a lot and at some point people expect you to just be okay and stop talking about grief, but it’s always with you. I found pretty early on that I could put my feelings into song and then luckily people enjoyed them.
It might sound like a break up song or something else that people can relate to and although I know it’s cathartic for me it’s an even exchange of pretty singing and enjoyment for the listener. So hopefully it doesn’t sound totally self indulgent. It’s just a huge part of who i am and also a way to keep my parents memory and presence in my life.
I knew after my last record that I didn’t want another whole album that focused on that though. I’m trying to grow. The record is called Present because I’m trying to live in the moment more and not look back so much and not stress about the future either. Some of my deepest fears have already come true but I have so much to be grateful for.
CP: How do you self-edit to make it not cheesy and trite?
KV: On paper I might sound cheesy, English girl with a pixie haircut singing songs on a ukulele! But anyone who’s ever seen me would know that’s not the case. I pour my heart out on stage, and I just try to be really true to how I want to express myself. I definitely self-edit anything cheesy out.
I think that’s why I found it so hard to write happier songs. Whenever I write I just want to say something I don’t think had been said a million times. Love songs and happy songs are hard without breaking into the cheese. Songs about death, drinking, and disability are more my style.
CP: Tell me about the song “Lily.” How did you come to writing that piece? What headspace were you in when you were writing it?
KV: This was my happy song success story! The chorus came to me almost fully formed in the shower, I think a lot in there, and I loved the idea of someone painting the world with happiness. My daughter Lily wakes up every single day with a powerful joyful attitude that is so foreign to me that I just marvel at it! She’s also incredibly creative and really great at art. She drew the back cover art for this record.
Once I had the idea for the song I had to do some serious Crayola research to look up all the color names I wanted to name check. I’ve never done that with a song before so it was a fun project. Of course now there’s pressure to write a song about my other kid, Daisy, but she came in to the studio and sang backing vocals so that made her happy.
CP: Any other songs on this album that you’re particularly proud of or you embody when you’re on stage?
KV: “Pearl” is my favorite song on the record for now. It was such a turning point writing wise. I was really struggling with anxiety and grief and needed help trying to lessen some of the stress in my life. I actually turned to hypnosis therapy for help.
After leaving one session I had a strong sense of releasing some of my issues and sat down and wrote that song. It came flooding out of me all at once and is a really hooky beautiful song that I just love performing with the band.
I’d also say that the song that embodies me most right now is “23.” It’s about singing for myself and not fitting into the cookie cutter mold of whatever people judge as music industry success. I realized one night on stage that I’m not auditioning for anyone. I’ve got the gig. I gave it to myself after almost giving up. I don’t want to tell my kids they can do anything they want in the world but not tell myself that. It’s my own personal anthem!
CP: What are you excited to share at the album release show?
KV: In addition to unveiling all the new songs we will also throw in a few really beautiful covers that people haven’t heard us play before. Most importantly the evening will showcase how great the band [Clay Williams on guitar, Simon Husbands on keyboard, vocals, Chris McAtee on drums, Reed Pagel on bass, and Paul Odegaard on trumpet] is.
They have my back In every way and are some of the best players in town. No matter how I feel when I get on stage I know I will always feel better when I’m up there because playing music with them is pure joy.
TPT Almanac ; TPT Almanac Full Band
Thank you to ‘Almanac’ for having us on as guests. Click to view Almanac Appearance
Recently featured on WCCO News: http://minnesota.cbslocal.com/2014/11/15/women-who-rock-katy-vernon
& MPR News.. http://www.mprnews.org/story/2014/10/03/ukulele
TPT Almanac http://video.tpt.org/video/2279389099/
Back to the City. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PPfcdm_9jKA
The UK singer-songwriter transplant that now calls our skies home, Katy Vernon, is strumming those four happy ukulele strings on her new release Present. The record jumps off with “23.” It’s a vibrant introduction to the dark material hiding behind those bright tones and shimmering vocals. Vernon may be warm and fuzzy on the surface, but take a closer listen for a darker tone. Add her to your Sunday calendar for her show at Icehouse.
Album of the year (Country/Folk) L’Etoile Magazine 2015
Top Ten Album of the year #6 Pioneer Press 2015
Top Ten local song of the year #8 (PEARL) The Current 89.3 2015
Top albums of the year Rift Magazine 2015
ALBUM OF THE YEAR (Country/Folk): Katy Vernon, Present 2015
PRESENT – Review by Jon Hunt, letoilemagazine.com
“When Katy Vernon released her debut Before I Forget a few years ago, I called it an unrepentantly happy album — the delightfully folky songs’ inner sadness was bolstered and balanced by tons of totally contagious hope. It would have been super damn easy for her to just release Before I Forget vol. 2 and be just fine — people love “girl with ukelele singing sweet country-tinged folk songs” and a lesser artist probably would have just rested on those particular laurels. Instead, and quite amazingly, this record is a rich, fully-formed, brightly colored work of the kind of British pop that was popular in the late 80s and early 90s — think World Party, think The Wonder Stuff, think latter-day Tears for Fears, even. Dammit, that is ambitious, and a little unexpected (the influences come as a bit of a delightful surprise to me, as I adore that era of music), and as a result, Present is a kind of mini-masterpiece of melancholy and very British pop music, full of richly-drawn, delightfully developed melodies, gorgeous singing and lyric-writing and tons of great playing. The big hit: “Pearl,” which would have sounded absolutely right on any radio station in 1990, all electric-piano punches and sweet jangle and a wordless hook that will drill into your skull. Equally great: “All Fall Down,” which has a kind of righteously twangy guitar up atop and a gorgeous verse melody. There’s still uke, don’t worry — “Lily” is a delightfully cheery and jaunty piece of British music-hall, and “Heart Is In Your Hands” uses the instrument to oddly sad (and stunningly beautiful) effect (it’s usually quite a cheery thing, no?). It’s just not the main instrument anymore — that honor belongs to Vernon’s gorgeous and slightly-wavery voice which is itself quite a marvel, especially on “Heart,” which has a truly and marvelously heart-wrenching chorus. I’m happy to be a little surprised at this album’s ambition — the album elevates Vernon way above mere novelty (where she never was to begin with, thank you very much, however much people wanted to pigeonhole her into that) into a damn important local songwriter, and one to be reckoned with. Doubters take note: this is one of the three or four best local albums of the year however you want to cut it.” Jon Hunt, letoilemagazine.com
“With her first album, Vernon made it known that she was a standout singer and songwriter, even in the sea of talent that exists in the Twin Cities. Present shows us her emotional depth and precision, along with heavy doses of insight, pop sensibility and irresistible charm. The woman who writes sad songs on a happy instrument is feeling pretty good about life. This album will make you feel that way, too.” Chris Reimenschneider – Star Tribune
“Her roots have been firmly planted as one of the Twin Cities’ most beloved folky singer/songwriters. Her newest album, “Present,” at once shows off her blooming relationship with her local band — with whom she will promote the album Sunday at Icehouse in south Minneapolis — as well as it touts her happy home life in White Bear Lake. One of the standout songs, “Lily,” jubilantly compares her eldest of two daughters to her favorite Crayola colors, while the ballad “Heart Is in Your Hands” celebrates motherhood. And the romantic gem “Loud” — well, let’s just say it sounds a bit randy.” Star Tribune, October 23, 2015 – by Chris Riemenschneider
We don’t know if you can even call British ex-pat Katy Vernon folk anymore — sure, she still twangs the uke and carries a nifty folk sensibility through this album. But Present shows her growing by such remarkable leaps and bounds that she could be equally considered “rock,” or “80s-inflected sophisti-pop” if you’re into such narrowcast labels. There’s no question that it caught on, too: tons of airplay for “Lily” and “Pearl” and a million ever-growing shows proves that there’s something about her sensibility — sad, sure, but optimistic, and sweet and just a little bit cute — that appeals massively to Minneapolis audiences. Which is great: she’s also that rare artist that got where she is later in life through sheer chutzpah and hard work rather than any kind of artificially-manufactured buzz. And smart-as-hell music — there’s no denying the beautiful, brainy lyricism of a song like “23” or the delightfully wistful “Out Of My Depth” or the coyly bouncy “Play.” This is what happens when you’ve got a ton of talent and you came up in the UK in the late-80s — you absorb all that cool and eventually filter it into your sensibility, yeah? Guessing there’s more/better to come, too. – Jon Hunt – l’étoile magazine
“Present is a kind of mini-masterpiece of melancholy and very British pop music, full of richly-drawn, delightfully developed melodies, gorgeous singing and lyric-writing and tons of great playing. Rich Larson – Southern MN Scene
Before I Forget: Released 2012
“Before I Forget might be Katy Vernon’s first solo outing, but it won’t be her last. With her strong vocal presence and sharp songwriting, she has the strong possibility of becoming a force in the indie/folk genre. This album is worth a listen, and I highly recommend it.”
By Nick Habisch, Rift Magazine
“Before I Forget” showcases her willowy siren voice and ukulele-plucked, autumnal back-porch folk songs.
Chris Reimenschneider, Minneapolis Star Tribune
“”Before I Forget” is Vernon’s first solo album, her compositions are fairly sparse, leaving plenty of room for her songbird-like voice and her ever-present ukulele. There is a beauty and hope in Vernon’s voice that ultimately makes the songs feel uplifting. “
Andrea Swennson, Local Current Blog
“”Before I Forget” is simply lovely; a celebratory, timeless, old-timey romp yes, romp, you heard me), the kind that doesn’t get made anymore, really. If you’re looking for a great record for a sun-dappled fall drive, this is your monster, my friends.”
Jon Hunt, Le’toile Magazine
“After all, you’d hate to be in the middle of a world-changing conversation, catch one of Katy Vernon’s songs out of the corner of your ear, and find yourself standing there, leaving you wondering what the hell you were talking about a minute ago. “
Dwight Hobbes, TC Daily Planet
This debut solo CD from the London-born singer-songwriter, who used to front the local band the Camdens, is a deeply moving set of songs focused on family connections that continue to bring joy and heartache”.
Dan Israel, Star Tribune
“Katy Vernon finds her voice”
A year ago, folk artist Katy Vernon recorded her first song in her bathroom, accompanied by only her ukulele. She wasn’t happy with the quality of the recording, but it was enough to win the support of a small troop of fans and raise enough Kickstarter money to record a proper album. That record, Before I Forget, comes out next month.”
Andrea Swenson, The Current.
Katy Vernon’s past band ‘The Camdens’
“Katy Vernon’s floating vocalizations can gently caress or peak with a high-flying quality”
Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Such sweet melodies, commanding, heart-lost vocals”
PULSE of the Twin Cities
“Should please fans of the Sundays, the Smiths, and Everything But the Girl alike.”
Minneapolis City Pages
As lead singer for the group ‘The Camdens’, Katy played all over the Twin Cities. She was also nominated for a Minnesota Music Award for her song ‘Invitation’ which was competing for Song Of The Year. Limited Quantities of ‘Halfway Around the World’ by The Camdens available at shows (If you know the special handshake!)