Katie Cole Finds the Power of the Not-So-Happy Ending in Her New Music

As we’ve made our way through our lives, one thing that has become abundantly clear is that not every situation ends as they do in movies. Life doesn’t always give us the best shake, and hardships are a natural hand that we are dealt at times.

Music is often a healer during those times of hardships; knowing someone has been in your shoes dismisses the loneliness that those situations can bring forth. The song may be as difficult for the artist to write as it is for the listener to digest, but in the end, there’s a feeling of unity and camaraderie.

Admittedly, Katie Cole had previously been known to try to tie things up in a bow by the time the final chord had been played. However, with the release of her EP Things That Break, as well as her newest single “Lie to Me,” Cole realizes it’s okay for things to not be okay sometimes, and as we navigate through everything 2020 has dealt us, it’s all too relatable.

Read along as we go in-depth with Cole about making her move from Australia to the US to pursue music, her sonic approach to her music, the stories behind many of her fan favorite songs, touring as a member of The Smashing Pumpkins, how she plans to spend the rest of 2020 and more!

KC in CA


Pro Country: Your bio mentions that at a very early age, you began singing and teaching yourself multiple instruments before starting to play live at around 16. What was it about music that connected with you so early on in your life? At what point in that journey did you realize that you wanted to pursue it as a career?

Katie Cole: I grew up in a ridiculously musical family. I didn’t realize how musical my family was until I would be around friends and realized that no one was as obsessed with music as I was. Both of my parents were classically trained pianists, and my dad was a trained tenor vocalist. As I run through my family, there’s a lot of musicians, so I didn’t really think anything different of it as I was growing up. It was normal for us to sit around the piano and sing show tunes; it was just the family thing. I started pursuing playing live music around 16 as a paid weekend kind of thing, and it just became one of those “Well, I’m already doing it” [laughs]. It was always my great love. I taught myself piano at around 11 or 12, and guitar with something I picked up around 14, and then again around 16 when I started playing shows. After that, it really turned into a tool that I realized I needed when I was playing live. Even to this day, guitar is probably my go-to instrument. 

 

PC: As you were establishing yourself, producer Howard Willing stumbled upon your site where you mentioned wanting to work with him, which led you to LA and an opportunity to work with him. What emotions were you feeling as you were making your move to the US, and what was it like to work with Howard so early in your career?

KC: In terms of emotions, I was definitely feeling all of them [laughs]. Nobody ever thinks they’re going to be a rockstar one day, we think we’re going to do this, that or something else, but I was already writing songs for international artists in Australia more on the pop and dance side of things. I didn’t really have too much success on my own in Australia, it just wasn’t a place where my kind of music what’s hitting. Being Australian and doing Americana music is like, “Who, what?” [laughs]. When Howard reached out to me, being that he was someone that I had wanted to work with, it was a very mind-blowing experience because it made me realize that the whole two degrees of separation thing was real. Once I got on a plane and looked up all the fun stuff of how to get into a car on the wrong side of the road and do all that stuff, I started actually working in the studio and recording the beginnings of what would be my first American EP, and it all became very real for me.

by Catie Laffoon
Image by Catie Laffoon

PC: What have you taken away from the experience of working with Howard?

KC: So many facets that were really interesting to me. The first eye-opening experience was being overwhelmed by being in world class studios. There were so many big artists that had recorded in those studios; things you would read on the back of records for years. These things that were just names and places became real to me. Once I dug into Howard’s career and went through his discography, you see names like Counting Crows, Sheryl Crow, Smashing Pumpkins and Glen Campbell; there was such an immense, eclectic array of bands and artists. He had so much experience that he could bring to the table. I went from being overwhelmed to a feeling of, “Shut up, listen and watch.” Just watch how things are done, learn, and see what you don’t know, because there’s a lot that you don’t know.

 

PC: In the 10 years since the release of your debut EP Lost Inside A Moment, you have tapped into contemporary, rock, and Americana sounds. Can you talk about the influences you’ve drawn on that have had an impact on your sound and how it has evolved?

KC: As a songwriter, you aim to be forward-thinking, but at the same time, you’re digging into things that inspire you. David Bowie was one of those artists that made me realize that he knew he was referencing people, so for me to reference him, it’s me referencing him referencing other people who are probably referencing other people. There’s just so many layers to what you do. I’ve always gone on what’s interesting to me in a specific moment. With Lost Inside A Moment, it was pop-rock and country. I was playing around with those influences, and it was my first crack into the “American market.” Surprisingly enough, that first EP allowed me to find a UK radio plugger, and his niche market was breaking American artists in the UK, and I happened to follow suit with that, which led me to tour over there, so it made me realize that where you start is always a really important thing, and where you go from there is your choice. Moving on from that, I moved on to a more eclectic sound on my first American full-length EP called Lay It All Down. It had a lot more Americana at alt-country references. It dabbles somewhere between Tom Petty and Fleetwood Mac. I’ve always been interested in playing with that; it’s all about playing with sonic ideas. On that particular record, Howard was working with Kris Kristofferson at the time, and he managed to ask the favor if Kris would want to sing background vocals on that record, so there’s a song on that record called “Penelope” that has vocals of the one and only Kris Kristofferson. That came just after I had been spending time promoting my first American EP, and I’d been touring with Glen Campbell and singing on his record, so I was surrounded by and being introduced to so many iconic American performers and songwriters, and it was very overwhelming to me. Being from Australia and wanting to see what happens when you move to America, you never think that those things are going to happen until they do. I’ve always been really grateful for where I’m at, and try to think of what I’m going to do next. I’m always of the mindset of trying new things. It was around the time that I was introduced into the Smashing Pumpkins scenario, and that was again through Howard. I was thrown into the rock and alternative world while promoting an Americana/country record, which was very interesting. I was playing a different role in the rock world, and it allowed me to look at songwriting through those eyes, and that helped me with what I wanted to write and say. 

PC: Your 2018 EP Things That Break, Pt. 1, you had some of your greatest streaming success to date, specifically, with “Broke,” “Graceland” and “Time on My Hands.” Can you talk about what it was like to see the streaming numbers on Spotify and YouTube steadily increasing? Is there a certain level of validation that comes with that success?

KC: My life is complete now [laughs]. I’m very grateful to be in the position that I’m in. I’m grateful to be an artist, and also a touring musician that has had the opportunity to play in the iconic venues that I have. All of the writing I did leading up to that EP came from the extreme situations that I found myself in from touring with Grammy-winning, influential icons. I was playing bass for bands like the Smashing Pumpkins at the Ryman Auditorium and Madison Square Garden. All of that stuff comes with a sense of shock and gratitude. All of those mixed emotions go into the writing, and you have an expectation of what you think people are going to like about a record or like about a specific song. Off the bat, I thought “Broke” would be a song that people would really lose their minds over, and the instantaneous first song that people loved on first and second listen was “Time on My Hands.” While I was on tour (isn’t it funny to start a sentence that way these days?) I was playing Wembley, MSG and huge arenas; it was a huge Arena tour, so all of this stuff what’s happening at the same time. I did a rush on manufacturing and shipping to get my EP  to those venues, because Billy Corgan from The Smashing Pumpkins said that I could sell my CD in the arenas. When somebody says that to you, you don’t know how you’re going to make it happen, but you’re going to find a way. It wasn’t a matter of, “I don’t know” or planning or whatever you think you’re going to do, it just had to happen. At those shows, there’s tens of thousands of people looking in your direction, so you can’t waste that. It’s ground level marketing, and a strange situation. It was strange to release an EP and have Americana and Country outlets covering it, and the alternative music outlets talking about my music from the touring perspective. I had those totally different genres giving me press at the same time for different reasons, but it all worked out. If you Googled my name at a certain time when I was on tour, you’d find something [laughs]. I put the “Time on My Hands” single out, and continued to promote into 2019. We shot the music video for that song while we were on tour, but I hadn’t got it back yet, so we decided to release “Graceland,” which was seemingly with second-favorite from the EP. It had the big gospel section and the horns and all of the stuff that I was able to do with the real-deal people. It was amazing! 

PC: “Graceland” is one of our favorite songs in your catalog. Can you talk about how the concept of the song came together?

KC: I went to Graceland, and it was iconic, but it’s same time, it was very awe-inspiring, because rooms are a lot smaller than you think they’d be, there’s weird stuff on the walls, mirrored ceiling and some carpeted ceilings. When I left, I knew I was going to write something, but I didn’t know what it was going to be. I had the feeling of it being about Graceland, but at the same time, not being about Graceland; it could be about a relationship that didn’t go so well, and making Graceland the setting. Once I came up with the idea of finding some Grace in Graceland, I knew what to do with it as a songwriter. I draw inspiration from the human experience sometimes. Some songs might be autobiographical, or they draw on a feeling that I’ve felt before or know that somebody else has felt. If you put enough heart into a song, it’s real. You know if it’s being honest and telling the truth. It doesn’t always have to exactly be my truth, but it’s the truth. 

PC: While Things That Break, Pt. 1 and Shoebox Sessions both featured more stripped back instrumentation, its follow up singles “Lullaby” and “Mile In My Shoes” feature more rocking and darker sounds respectively. How important is it for you to continue to expand yourself sonically and stay in touch with your diverse influences?

KC: Musically, I always try to do what’s right for the song. That is one of the biggest things I’ve learned from Howard; it’s all about doing what’s right for the song and figuring that out musically once the songwriting part is done; which takes me long enough as it is because I’m insane [laughs]. I may do several rewrites, or it may just be a lyric that’s driving me nuts. Even with songs like “Graceland,” I realized I desperately wanted that horn section in there because I wanted elements of Otis Redding in it. I went back and wrote the section for the horns so it could have that Motown feel. Sometimes when I figure out what I want to do lyrically with a song, that prompts rewrites, and that was the same with “Rest In Pieces” on that EP. Once I knew it was going to start acoustic and build to a more Beatle-esque kind of situation, I went back in and rewrote and extended the section in the middle so it could have a musical moment. As a musician and music lover myself, I so appreciate when I hear other musicians put the effort into a section to make it the most that it can be and not just be copy paste. Some songs need to be copy, paste and simple, but with some songs, it’s nice to hear those moments. I try to pick where I’m going to put which moments in which songs and why. “Lullaby” was a song where I knew I wanted it to have gospel moments in it. As a songwriter, I was thinking about the fact that nobody really does outro sections in songs anymore, so that was one where I extended it and wrote an outro section for it. I was thinking about the Beatles a lot, which is just what you do all the time as a songwriter, because they’ve done everything, you ask yourself what you can borrow from them [laughs]. When you do have those moments in a song, whether it be strings, horns or melodic shifts, it gives you an emotional release that lyrics may not. If there’s something you haven’t covered with the song emotionally or lyrically, the music break can do that. If a song feels like it wants to have one of those moments, I’m now in the mindset of writing it into the song. If it doesn’t work, you can always revert back to previous writes or shorter edits, but sometimes, a song deserves a little bit of extra attention and seeing what happens when you really go for it. It’s paid off for certain songs that I’ve done that with. If I enjoy it and it makes me excited, but I’m sure there’s other people that feel that way too. 

PC: You released your newest single “Lie to Me” at the end of February. Can you talk about the inspiration behind that song?

KC: Some of it is autobiographical, and some is assumed autobiographical or extended autobiographical. I was thinking about some relatives that had passed away and going through depression or grief. I wanted to extend that story out a little bit more. In the past, I’ve been the kind of songwriter that always wants a happy ending, but I started getting into the writing style for Things That Break and the rest of this album that I’m starting to slowly release of saying things that I haven’t said yet or things I’m too afraid to say. That’s part of the concept of these new releases; writing about grief, depression and loss is nothing people really rush towards, but I feel strongly about it. I felt strongly that I should do something and be honest. You just have to put it out there and let it be what it is, and listeners will hear what you’re saying, and it will give them a sense of being understood or not feeling so alone with what they’re going through. I took from my own experience, and just tried to be honest; just walking into somebody’s house who has passed and how strange it is that they’re not there anymore. It’s strange, numbing and sad, but more than anything, you just feel more displaced from your emotion, so I wanted to capture all of that in a song as best I could. It’s really hard to expose yourself like that as a writer. “Lie to Me” was a hard song to write, as was “Time on My Hands.” When there is no happy ending or “things will be okay” feeling. Sometimes things aren’t okay, but that’s okay; other people are going through it too. 

PC: Would you say having that common emotion with listeners is something that allows you to open up and be vulnerable in your music?

KC: I used to always try to find the happiest way to say something or resolve a story. I think the shift came with the realization of the fact that that’s just not how life is; we go through so many extreme highs and lows. For me, it was shifting from one country to another to being on tour. Last year alone on tour, I was in 19 countries [laughs].  Rehearsing for two months with The Smashing Pumpkins to the very first show of the European tour; the opening band pulled out and the tour manager for The Pumpkins came knocking on my dressing room door and  asked me if I wanted to open the show in three hours, having that played my own material in a long time. I had to make the split-second decision to do it. Knowing how to juggle the extreme highs and lows of emotions is something that I’m learning, but I’ve already learned a lot about myself when I put myself under that sort of pressure or that amount of a microscope. It forces you to laser focus and pull things together. That’s just on a career level. On a personal level, there’s obviously family things that go on and juggling being away from loved ones while pursuing a career and being literally on the other side of the world, but knowing I’m doing something that very few people get to do. I’m in a privileged position. At any given time, I have about 37 emotions [laughs]. I have a bigger pallet to draw from now. It’s obviously a small fraction of what some people have experienced, but I know that I’ve got a lot to draw from from having those extremes. Extremes are difficult to juggle, but if you know what to do with them, they’re also useful as a tool of creativity or tool of compassion to understand where people have come from. 

KC in paris

PC: You’ve mentioned several times about touring as a member of The Smashing Pumpkins. What have you been able to learn from playing in front of so many people in so many different places? What has the experience been like for you?

KC: It’s been an incredible experience. Every time I’ve been asked to do a tour, it feels like you’re never going to get asked to do a tour like that again, so you have to enjoy every moment you step on the stage. I try to be very present; I’m there as a musician, but I’m also there appreciating and being a fan of the band while being on stage. It’s gone from theaters to larger venues to arenas. This year, it was supposed to be a stadium tour, but because of the pandemic, it’s the year that hasn’t been. I’ve managed to be in this very very grateful position of playing these bucket list venues and doing these bucket list things in these myriad of countries and seeing things I never thought I’d get to see. It’s expanded me as a musician to know that I’m capable of a lot more than I thought I was. I fully consider myself as a vocalist and guitar player who can sort of play piano [laughs]. Basically, whenever the pumpkins have asked me to play or do something, I work out how I’m going to do it. It’s definitely made me a better musician. Even though I’m playing in the band, to see how that side of the industry lives and how the process of touring big venues works is such a different world. You’re traveling a lot, you have a lack of sleep and a level of stress, but you just have to learn how to handle it all. I’m lucky to have been brought in as a musician to be a part of it. To see the empire that such an iconic band has built is amazing. I’m in the really grateful position to learn what I can and do the best job that I possibly can. As I interact with fans, so many of their fans have become my fans. I can play places and have fans from all over the world show up. Some of the people I would say that they saw me playing with Billy Corgan somewhere or with The Pumpkins, and I try to be as gracious as I can towards these new fans that have decided to follow my career. It doesn’t matter how tired you are, these people have committed to come see you or meet you, so I take that seriously. It’s made me gracious at all times, and it also pushes me to work really hard. 

 

PC: 2020 has altered many plans of artists so far. Of the things you can control, what are your plans for the rest of the year?

KC: I’m going to continue to release music. It’s really hard to plan for things right now. I don’t really plan to tour or play any shows because there’s so many variables about safety and how conditions are and what’s going to happen. I’m a safe-bet kind of person. I only do things if I think it’s going to be safe for me, my family and my future. I’m going to continue to do online shows and release music, and just continue to watch what happens. Nobody really knows what we’re dealing with. I’m trying to be optimistic, but I’m very cautious at the same time. I’m going to take it week by week. I hate to be that kind of person; I’d love to make these enormous plans and book tours, but I don’t feel comfortable doing that and having to cancel shows. This year, I have not only cancelled my touring, but all of the festivals that I had booked like CMA Fest. I’m just focusing on the things that I can control like talking to my fans, being present on social media, but not being obnoxious [laughs], giving people quality live streams when I do them, so there’s a real feeling of a concert. I’ve done it pretty much every three weeks since we shut down, just so I’m not that person that goes live every five minutes telling you what I ate for breakfast. Some people are great at that and they’re all about that, but I just want to show up and give people a real experience knowing that we all feel weird about not going out and socializing. I don’t know how long it’s going to be before we feel safe doing things again, so in these uncertain times, those are the things I can do, so I’m focusing on that. 

by Priscilla Witte 2
Image by Priscilla Witte

*Feature image by Jeff Fasano

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