Catching up with singer and former Edinburgh University student Katie Gregson-MacLeod
We sat down with the Edi student turned viral singer-songwriter to talk about university, going viral and her new EP, Songs Written for Piano
Onstage at the Pleasance Theatre, Katie Gregson-MacLeod gestures to the decorations and jokes that we’re in her living room.
“Not really” she retracts, laughing; “I don’t actually live here”.
Watching her perform at the launch of her new EP, Songs Written For Piano, you got a different impression. In an oversized suit with a glass of white wine, she chatted with the audience and cracked jokes with a charisma and stage presence more reminiscent of a 1960s lounge singer than a TikTok indie darling.
We could have been in her living room, or we could have been in an arena, and I doubt it would have made a difference. You got the electric feeling that we were catching her somewhere in a fleeting moment between those two spaces.
I met Katie earlier in the day at a coffee shop off Lothian Road, around the corner from where she’d lived the year before as a third-year History student here at Edinburgh university. Honestly, I was incredibly nervous when I’d reached out to her team the week before and I really hadn’t expected a response, much less for her to be willing to sit down with me in person for an interview.
Sitting down, I said the first thing I thought to break the ice: “I love the new EP- I listened to the first song like ten times on the walk home from a first date last night”
“Why would you do that?” she asked, laughing. “That’s a horrible idea”
I also started laughing, because ‘I’m worried it will always be you’ is in fact deeply sad and she was right. Unfortunately, it’s also a banger of a song.
I heard Katie’s song “Complex” on TikTok last August, when I sent it to a friend with the message “screaming crying throwing up, I’ve never had a single original experience in my life.” I was by far not the only one it resonated with; the video she made only a few days after writing the song has garnered over eight million views and the song was covered by multiple big-name artists. The chaos started almost instantly after she posted, and it hasn’t stopped since.
“It’s kind of the dream scenario; you write something that you feel so personally connected with and yet I’m just one person that relates to it. The story that I wrote it about doesn’t really matter because it belongs to a bigger group of people now.”
“That first day, I was getting calls and messages from record labels and I realised very early on, something’s happening here. I wasn’t really sure how long it was going to last- you hear about these flash moments, and then they die down, but this just never really died down”, she told me.
While the song garnered wide popularity, she said the weirdest part was the attention from celebrities; “What was Camilla Cabello doing singing my song? It was insane.”
Quickly, people started reaching out to her. “Chatting to people that I looked up to so much, going for pints with people that I was a big fan of. That was all happening within a couple of weeks, and I was just like, I guess this is my life now.”
She’s still processing the scale of her own popularity, saying “anytime someone comes up to me and is like ‘I love your song!’ that’s always going to baffle me, and I probably seem really aloof but I’m just always a bit like ‘oh my god!’”
I told her this fear seemed unfounded, given that she had taken so much time out of such a huge day to sit down with me. If I was her I would be much more aloof.
“All you want as a writer is for people to enjoy the lyrics and connect with them, and for that to happen on the scale it did is really hard to comprehend.”
Most of her songs are highly specific; written about her life with very literal imagery. And yet in their specificity, they all seem to strike some universal emotional chord.
“I love listening to artists who say things exactly as they happened, but the context in which they place them makes the meaning. I think it is nice to keep some ambiguity- in my song ‘to be eighteen’ for instance, that song is incredibly specific, and yet ideally people can draw a thousand different things from one line.”
I was impressed by how much she didn’t seem to mind everyone having their own interpretation of such deeply personal songs. In one of the most celebrated lines of “Complex” she sings “I cry in his bathroom/ he turns off the big light”, and the popularity and debate around it took her by surprise.
“I didn’t really think about that line when I was writing for me it was just like the literal big light, the moment when he was turning off the light. And I never talk about what that means in a deeper way because people have their own thing with it and I love that.”
For “Complex” she seems to have almost emotionally given the song away. “It’s kind of the dream scenario; you write something that you feel so personally connected with and yet I’m just one person that relates to it.
“The story that I wrote it about doesn’t really matter because it belongs to a bigger group of people now. It’s simultaneously the most bizarre experience as a writer and the most flattering. All you want as a writer is for people to enjoy the lyrics and connect with them, and for that to happen on the scale it did is really hard to comprehend.”
While the reception was overwhelmingly positive, because it was still TikTok there were a few instances of people seemingly wilfully misinterpreting the lyrics in a negative way: “I got a few accusations of romanticizing abuse and that was kind of hard for me to deal with.
“They were comparing it to this thing of like ‘oh woe is me, I’m a poor girl letting a man do this to me but kind of like resigning to it’ and I understand it, but I think words were put in my mouth a little,” she explained, trying even in this case to be empathetic.
“I don’t think the song comes off as me enjoying the role that I’m playing. There’s more anger in it than I think some people see.”
“With this EP I sought to tackle a different feeling in every song. The first song is really about that first heartbreak and the naivete of that. I couldn’t write that song now. And the second song is cutting two years later to a much more difficult emotion to deal with but everything is more difficult when you’re in it. And then ‘Complex’, who knows what that’s about now.”
Rather than just jumping off of the success of “Complex”, her EP, Songs Written For Piano, serves more as a primer with its opening song ‘i’m worried it will always be you’ being written when she was just 18, and the newest song ‘white lies’ being recently written with singer-songwriter Matt Maltese.
“It’s all chronological. No one else cares about that, but for me I wanted it to be a bit like a song writing journey. ‘Complex’ was such a crazy time, and I felt the need to contextualize a bit and show people look, I’ve been doing this a while, these are four songs that all show different parts of my journey. Have these, before I go into making a record. The record won’t sound like this, but I wanted these to have their moment.”
It makes sense that she would want to take a moment to step back for this EP, as she’s been making music almost her entire life. “It was always going to be music. I used to write songs when I was like four or five, I was just always writing and singing and probably being that annoying kid that makes all the family sit in a row while I do a little performance.
“There was a piano in the house, and I think I’m just the luckiest person in the world to have had that. I definitely think music shaped my childhood a lot.”
“I was sending every email possible and getting into any gig possible and really just grafting and attempting to weasel my way into the industry.”
Despite her recent boom, she’s been working as an indie artist since her teens. “Once I was older, I started being more proactive about creating a career for myself. When I was 16, I did a mentoring scheme, then I did some pub gigs, and then started to do support slots in festivals. At that time, I was obviously entirely independent so not a manager or anyone around me, I was sending every email possible and getting into any gig possible and really just grafting and attempting to weasel my way into the industry.”
Things really began to get moving once she came to Edinburgh and released her debut EP, Games I Play, during her second year.
“It was entirely self-funded and self-driven but now that I’m in a bigger major label system and I’ve got a proper team around me, I’m really grateful I had that experience of doing every job.
“I’m very aware that this industry can swallow people up and spit them out and I think that because I have experience doing it all myself, I feel a confidence that I wouldn’t necessarily have otherwise.”
She was, until recently, studying history here at the University of Edinburgh.
I wondered why she hadn’t just done music, but apparently, it was never on the table. “I didn’t actually apply to do music anywhere- I was kind of against it in a weird way. As much as I always knew I was going to be a musician, I just didn’t feel like my academic days were over.
“I loved academia, so that was always an instinct. History is just stories, it’s the same thing that makes me love song writing. It’s just storytelling. I had to drop out in my final year, which is kind of sad, but it could have happened for worse reasons. I’d love to finish at some point, I’d love to get a PhD.”
“I think I’m writing the best songs I’ve written in my life now”
Even though her momentum as an artist is only increasing, she seems to have found some calm on the other side of this EP release. She described a lot of the initial pressure, saying “I’m writing all the time right now, but I was worried when I went through the ‘viral moment’ like, am I not going to be able to do it? It’s that fear of now that I’m on a platform, am I going to be able to pull my weight?”
But this anxiety seems to have dissipated somewhat. “I think I’m writing the best songs I’ve written in my life now. I think because there’s a lot to write about, a lot of crazy shit going on.”
Now, she says, she’s trying to find a new balance and continue to adjust to the new normal. “Being back here really helps me” she says, gesturing outside towards Lothian Road. “I just feel restored. When I stepped off the train I was just like- Scotland.”
There’s pressure to seize the momentum, but she doesn’t feel a need to change much. “The world is my oyster right now, in the sense that I have this audience and these opportunities that I didn’t have before but my goal for the next while is to bring it back to the root of it all,” she told me.
“Although everything around me has changed, I don’t think the writing and the making of music should be different.”
When we met, and onstage that night, she seemed relaxed in the way you are when you know you’re right where you’re supposed to be.
In an age of never-ending discourse surrounding industry plants and nepotism babies, Katie Gregson-MacLeod is the perfect example of the algorithm simply giving a wide audience to someone whose charisma, talent, and work ethic would have found one eventually regardless.
“I’m going from this bantery phase into probably like, the saddest song I’ve ever written,” she remarked on stage that night, after cracking jokes for a solid five minutes. She then launched into one of the saddest songs I’ve ever heard, warning us “don’t laugh- if you laugh, I’ll laugh” during a particularly devastating verse.
I can’t explain how she managed to make a concert of some of the saddest music I’ve ever heard, simultaneously one of the most fun, vibrant performances I’ve ever seen; I can only suggest that you see it for yourself- and I’m almost certain you’ll have plenty of chances.
“Whenever I write a new song, I think it’s the best I’ve ever written, and it never is” she’d explained. “But someday I guess, one has to be.”
Already regarded as one of the best new artists of the year, Katie Gregson-MacLeod is only going up from here.