Catherine McGrath’s star is rising fast. Michael McDonagh caught up with her at the prestigious Sarm Studios in Ladbroke Grove
Catherine McGrath is a very talented and very lucky young woman. Born in 1997 she grew up in the sleepy fishing village of Rostrevor, in County Down, where some scenes in Game Of Thrones were filmed and where CS Lewis was inspired to write the Chronicles of Narnia. Her mum and dad run the local folk festival. Like another of these fairy tales, Catherine was ‘discovered’ on the internet by a senior executive of Warner Brothers who made contact out of the blue and signed her up for a record deal and management, changing her life. Catherine now has her first album out and her first headline tour.
So in these days when it is so hard to get a record deal you have done well to be here.
Yes, well I did not really plan on getting a record deal it was just the way it happened. I was setting up YouTube covers just to see what people thought and it was all very unexpected yes.
You come from a family of traditional Irish musicians, were you into what they were doing?
Well to me mum and dad’s music was not cool as they were mum and dad so I never sung any of that myself as it was more that they sung that at parties and dad wrote some songs himself. I think that introduced me to music rather than influenced my own tastes but it was not until I was about 12 that I started to discover all those country artistes like Brad Paisley and Kenny Chesney and those American singers.
Is that when you started to play music so did you do the Irish thing and go to the Feis and other competitions?
Well I definitely was around a lot of that but I didn’t sing those songs, but they came in every day and would play music, so it was a normal thing to have music around. It made me think about music and got me into it and started my love for music but not that music as I was into my own tastes.
What Sir Elton John said of Catherine:
“From the very first moment you hear her, you just know this is the start of something absolutely huge…her voice and the quality of her song writing are undeniable.”
What did you do when you left school, were you playing music then?
“When I left school I actually had a place at Manchester University and I wanted to do music but I was told you have to go to University and so I thought about it and decided I would apply for English as I was writing songs and English could help. I thought I’d go to Manchester as I could play music there and it had a year in America, so I thought that was good as I could get to America and do music there.
Then my manager, who found me on YouTube called me and said how would you feel about not going to University and giving music a go. That was how that happened, which was what I wanted to do originally, so it worked out really well.”
So was it Philomena Begley or Taylor Swift that got you into country music?
“It was Taylor Swift that opened my eyes to what country music was as she had her first big hit over here with Love Story so I listened to her albums and her interviews, when she talked about her being influenced by Shania Twain. So I got into country music and discovered more after hearing her. Being from Ireland I was not hearing any of it on the radio here, which was all Katie Perry and Justin Bieber.”
There is now a new generation with the likes of Nathan Carter and Cliona Hagan, are you into them and do you appeal to that audience or are you more pop/country?
“I like a more pop country sound but the thing I like about country is that it is more about the lyrics and the story-telling so it can appeal to anyone who can find it relatable.”
We recently interviewed Trudi Lawlor and Olivia Douglas who both said that for a young girl growing up in Ireland country music was uncool for their friends, but now it is cool?
“I did the opposite and told all my friends and they said, ‘What are you doing listening to country?’. They thought country Music was all trucks and beer, for old people, but I said no and introduced them to people like Kacey Musgraves. Really, people were not aware just what country is.”
Was that why you wrote Lost In The Middle about the dilemma of being a teenage country fan in Northern Ireland?
“Well yes that’s what that song was about. I just wrote it about what it was like to be growing up and being 18 and having that country music there was a form of escapism. Sitting in a classroom, bored or whatever I was doing, that was always my ‘go to’ thing when I wanted to be somewhere else. That is what that song was about, country music, or music in general, having that power to take you out of that situation.”
I guess what makes you different is that, in the main, you write your own songs although you have done a number of covers?
“Well yes as that’s how I heard music when I was younger as I heard the stories in the lyrics or the lessons people had learned and that’s what I thought songs should be so naturally I wrote about things that had happened to me in my life, things that I had been through or seen others go through. To me it was storytelling through music.”
Did Taylor Swift also encourage you to write or were you influenced by others as well?
“Yes, definitely, and people like Brad Paisley and Rascal Flatts. The thing was that what they all had in common for me was that storytelling they do through the music and how the lyrics come first before the production. The thing that tied all those country artistes together was the honesty and truthfulness of the lyrics.”
Do you owe it all to your babysitter?
“Yes, that’s when I first heard Taylor. I don’t know what she was doing maybe playing music on her phone and she played Love Story and I was about 12. I did not know then what the song was called but I had it going around in my head. I heard it again on YouTube and I said that’s that girl Taylor Swift who had that song and that kind of started my whole love of country music.”
Was it the internet and your first cover videos that caught the attention of the mighty Warners? It must have been quite a big break for an unknown artist from a small Irish fishing village?
“I was not very confident of my singing or my songs but my mum was always encouraging me and saying I was good but I was so scared of singing in front of people, so I thought if I put a video on-line people do not have to be nice to me, as they don’t know me. That was kind of my test to see what other people thought and it turned out that people liked it and really enjoyed it, even though I was just doing covers. That was how my manager found me.”
When you were contacted did you think it was some kind of nutter or social media stalker or did you know it was a serious professional approach?
“I definitely ignored it for months as first of all you are told not to trust anyone on the internet, or even in the music business, so to hear ‘Hello, I’m from Warner Brothers’ to a random girl artist on the internet did not seem real. He kept contacting me over the months and he contacted my friends and eventually my mum called up Warner Music and said ‘Is this guy real?’ And he was.”
It was former president of Warner Music Entertainment Conrad Withey, are you still working with him?
“Yes, he is still my manager but now with Elton John’s Management Company on board we have a 50-50 management split. So it is Conrad and Rocket.”
How did all that come about? Was that 2016 when you signed so it has all been very quick?
“It was 2015 actually but I had just finished school and he called up and said I know you planned to go to university but how would you feel about taking a gap year to see what happens, so I did that, but I still get offered a place at Manchester every year.”
You are also about to go on tour. Is that your first tour here?
“Yes, it is my first headline tour here. We have done a few headline shows but it is crazy days as the first one sold out within about one hour.”
Elton John’s obviously a big fan, you’ve just signed to his management company. Did you get to meet him and how come he heard your stuff?
“I went into Warners one day and I was with Phil, who had signed me to Warners, and he said ‘Come here, I have something to show you’ and he played me this clip and it was Elton John talking, so I said ‘What’s this?’ and then Elton said there is this artist called Catherine McGrath and I said he must have the wrong person.
Then he played one of my songs and he said he wanted to sign me. We had a quick chat and he was so nice. For me having somebody like him so early on before we had even released my album saying such nice things about my music and me was a huge boost to my confidence.”
I went to Nashville as a young longhaired Mod, in a pink shirt, in 1966, two years after desegregation. It was redneck central then. Do you like being there?
“For sure it has changed a lot, and even over the last ten years a hundred people are moving to Nashville each day for the music but it has kind of expanded. “The country thing was always massive but there are now LA writers who do pop music who come there now to write and it has become the place to be.
I always wanted to go there as I loved the idea of Nashville and the music so I just wanted to see the place and to hear the music and to see what it was like and so I just went for a holiday but I ended up doing some writing with Liz Rose, who was one of my favourite writers and I ended up going back again and again as I love the songwriters and I love the food and the music and we did two videos there as well.”
Will you go and live there?
“I always said I’d love to go back and live there for a while as I love being there and it would be great to record there, and all my favourite songs are on the radio there, and you can be going down the street and your favourite artistes will be playing inside. It is crazy, so I’ll always go back there.”
Your first album is out now, it must be very exciting for you?
“It is so exciting to have the album out. I never really thought when I started this music thing that I would have an album out. I was writing as much as I could and singing everywhere and I moved to London and the record deal was never something I expected.
“Then to put the album out is great. It has taken about two and half years from the first song to the last one we did, but it has been really exciting to put it out there and see people’s reactions to it. For me it is my diary of the last two and a half years.
There were a few different producers. There were some people in Nashville, who worked on it and I wrote one song in Belfast and we did some here, so there is a mixture of everything and they are all sort of places that were important to me on my musical journey.”
Are you hoping that your album will take off in America?
“I would love that and would love to be able to take my music anywhere around the world where it appeals to people and I’m looking forward to going to Australia where we are going on tour.”
Your parents must be very proud of you?
“They are proud. We are a family of seven, and very close, and so they are all proud but my youngest sister is the one who is most close to what I do as she wants to follow in my footsteps and I am bringing her on tour with me and she is going to open for me so we will see.”
With all this globetrotting and success where will you end up?
“London is the place where it is happening for me now and, of course, America is great for country music so I hope I can get there one day but ultimately I will go back home and that is where I will settle back in Ireland, by the sea in Rostrevor, the place that’s always home that I love.”
Catherine McGrath’s debut album Talk Of The Town is out now. Her tour starts in September.
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