Katie Gregson-Macleod: “Within 24 hours, my whole life changed”

Since one of her tracks went unexpectedly viral, KATIE GREGSON-MACLEOD has been firmly under the spotlight – and she’s excited to show everyone what she can do.

Words: Abigail Firth.
Photos: Em Marcovecchio.

Outside Horatio’s at the end of Brighton Pier, Katie Gregson-Macleod has just played her first festival show of 2023. It’s actually the start of her first proper festival season after a demo of breakout single ‘complex’ took off over the August Bank Holiday weekend last year; it’s safe to say things have changed a bit since.

“Every time I get asked about it, I’m just like, oh, man!” Katie says of the last year, shaking her head in disbelief. It’s been a bit of a whirlwind that shows no signs of slowing down yet – take the fact that we couldn’t get into Horatios for her Thursday afternoon set, for example, it was too full – but before she takes on this summer, we need to catch up on the last.

Overnight success stories can seem a bit hyperbolic, but for Katie, that’s quite literally what happened. After a steady couple of months rising up the indie ranks (she notes she landed her first BBC Radio 1 play that same summer), she posted a clip of a song she’d just written on TikTok.

“Within 24 hours, my whole life pretty much changed. It was so quick and so intense. It’s like 1000 things that, had they happened in isolation over five years, would have been amazing, but they happened in a weekend, which is a lot to deal with, but it’s been amazing. It’s been the best, craziest, most overwhelming period of my life since.”

“It’s been the best, craziest, most overwhelming period of my life”

Katie Gregson-Macleod

The viral clip became ‘complex (demo)’, which appeared at the top of that week’s Spotify New Music Friday playlist, above a collaboration by actual Elton John and Britney Spears. Quite the impact. Of course, the track taking off was a complete accident; in fact, Katie had no plans for it at all when she posted the video.

“I was actually working on a separate indie rock EP, which was like a zero-budget kind of bedroom thing. And then that song happened. I’d written it three days before in its entirety really quickly. There was no intention to it, and obviously, I put that up at 11 at night, and then I woke up the next morning, and it was like, oh, something’s happening. Something crazy is happening. I feel like as an independent songwriter or even as a signed artist, you’re used to posting everything that you do, so I wasn’t thinking about it, but then suddenly I realised that it wasn’t a normal video for me.”

From there, the labels came calling. Within a week, Katie had signed to Colombia and was working on an official version of the track. She’d gone from working as a barista to finding a team to take on music full-time. Until now, Katie’s last few summers had consisted of working as a baker in a doughnut shop in between years at Edinburgh University, where she was studying history. Before her breakthrough, she was planning to go back to do her fourth year (although she’s deferred and still plans to get her degree one day). 

“All the stuff I was working on before was band stuff, and then I suddenly was a piano girl”

Katie Gregson-Macleod

Still adjusting to her life now in London; it’s vastly different from her life in Scotland. Growing up in Inverness and moving to Edinburgh at 18, she learned piano early on, thanks to having one in the house. Her mum ran the school choir, while her dad was an English teacher, both parents influencing her appreciation of music. 

“I guess it was never a question for me growing up that it wouldn’t be what I was going to do. I mean, the question was, would I be able to do it successfully?” she says of her early ambition.

Obviously, the piano is not the most portable instrument, so when she moved into her uni halls, she gravitated towards the guitar. “The folk scene in Edinburgh really influenced me, and it influenced my songwriting a lot. I was writing as a child and as a teenager the whole time, but I think when I got to 18, it really became obsessive – I was really infatuated with it. I played clarinet as well. I literally love it; it’s such a good instrument. I don’t make it sound good right now, but I need to make it sound good at some point soon.”

Katie’s come-up meant she pivoted back to the piano for a moment, releasing the EP ‘songs written for piano’ late last year. She chose to dig into her own archive to release some songs she’d been sitting on for a few years, giving context to the piano-centred ‘complex’, plus a new track ‘white lies’, a collaboration with Matt Maltese. She’s not relegating herself to piano ballads, though; there’s something new in the pipeline.

“It’s quite funny because piano became my thing with ‘complex’, but all the stuff I was working on before was band stuff, and then I suddenly was a piano girl. I’ve had people say to me, ‘Oh, you’re doing a piano ballads kind of thing’. And I was like, that wasn’t what I was doing before. I think that people will be expecting a big switch-up, and that’s what they’re gonna get. I’m excited to rock out a bit more on stage.”

Currently working on a new project based around a recent situationship, she’s been previewing the tracks live, hoping to release them ‘soon’. 

“I play new songs every day because I just kind of make it up as I go along,” she says, “but I like playing new ones because they’re the ones I’m really attached to. A couple of them that I played in that set were new and will be coming out, but they’re all different. I don’t want to hammer home an acoustic version of anything too much again because with ‘complex’ [the response] was like, ‘if you breathe differently in the recorded version, I will not be happy’.”

Despite how overwhelming all of this could be, Katie says she hasn’t felt the pressure to follow up the hype of her breakthrough single; she’s happy to see where it takes her in the coming months. 

“I would definitely feel way worse [if this happened] now. I think at the time, I was having such a crazy experience, just riding the wave, and I was so calm. There are definitely nerves attached to releasing other stuff when the audience is so much bigger, but I do think that with everything I’ve done, it’s very honest and very me and I just hope that it translates. 

“I’m way more intrigued now of the reaction to my new stuff than I was with those piano ballads. I can’t really say too much, but I’m very excited to be sonically having a new chapter.” ■

Taken from the July 2023 edition of Dork.