In 2010, an unknown BRIT School graduate singing over dizzying bass drops took the U.K. singles chart by storm with the song “Katy on a Mission,” a boastful dubstep heater featuring the lyrics, “When we erupt in to the room, and hear the sub go boom.”
“I would have been a rapper if I wasn’t born a ginger girl,” Katy says with a laugh, calling in from London.
But it’s clear the 24-year-old redhead made the right career choice. Two more top 10 U.K. singles and a Mercury Prize nomination (for her 2011 debut “On a Mission”) later, she’s prepping her second album, “Little Red,” due Feb. 10 on Rinse/Columbia. Katy B (aka Kathleen Anne Brien) promises the new set will expand beyond her familiar club milieu.
“On the first album, there were a lot of dance records and beats,” she says. “The new record is definitely still dance, but I wanted there to be different chord sequences, textures and movements, different sections of the song. I wanted there to be a focus on my songwriting.”
Katy B was discovered by Geeneus, the DJ/producer/songwriter who founded the Rinse FM pirate radio station in 1994. Impressed by her vocal work on a handful of fledgling tracks that were picking up spins on his and other underground outlets, Geeneus enlisted her as a collaborator.
The singer has worked with other producers since — Diplo produced a track on her free-download 2012 EP “Danger,” and “Little Red” features production from up-and-coming R&B singer/producer Sampha and Adele collaborator Fraser T Smith—but much of Katy B’s best work comes from collaborating with her discoverer. “He’s kind of like the Timbaland to my Missy Elliott,” she says. However, early recognition didn’t come easily for the pair.
“We took her to a lot of different record labels and tried to get her a small amount of money to get her into a deal,” Geeneus says. “No one was really interested.”
That changed when “Katy on a Mission,” co-written by Geeneus, was released independently by Rinse in August 2010. A raucous music video shot before 3,000 partiers at a live rave helped its cause, and influential underground DJs swiftly added it to their playlists. The song eventually reached No. 5 on the U.K. singles chart and has sold 21,000 downloads in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan (her strongest stateside showing to date).
“It was the zeitgeist track,” Columbia Records U.K. head of marketing Stacey Tang says. “Everyone was on it. A lot of dance records that go off in the U.K. start in a really credible underground place.”
“From that moment, everyone was on us to do a record deal,” Geeneus says. “Everyone was in shock. All the labels came running with their checkbooks.”
Katy B’s team whittled the options down to Universal and Sony, but they opted for the latter, partly because Magnetic Man, a U.K. dubstep group managed by Rinse, was already signed to Sony’s Columbia. “On a Mission” went on to produce two more top 10 British singles, “Lights On” and “Broken Record,” and has sold 250,000 copies in her homeland, according to her publicist.
Unlike its predecessor, the music on “Little Red” was crafted after Rinse’s hookup with Columbia, with the labels working together much more closely. Columbia is focusing on promotion, while Rinse is A&R’ing the album, with Geeneus himself producing six tracks, including two standouts: the billowy, house-tinged Jessie Ware collaboration “Aaliyah” and the luminous, midtempo lead single “Crying for No Reason.”
The first album has sold only 6,000 copies in the States. And with the new release, the focus will seemingly remain on taking Katy B to the next level at home.
“The main thing for us is getting it right in the U.K. first, and just getting the music out there,” Geeneus says.
But Rinse, which has grown right along with Katy B, now has more capacity than ever to help break the singer stateside. “When I first started, there was one person working with Geeneus,” she says. “Now there’s, like, 20 members on staff.”
Katy B also has proper U.S. management for the first time, in Nick Palmacci of Teamwork Management. A string of U.S. live dates is in the works.
“It’s one of those records that’s going to lead out of the U.K. commercially but have a following around the world out of the gate based on her following,” Palmacci says. “Labels can’t contain the viral nature of an artist’s reach in the current landscape. Sooner or later everyone is going to hear what they want, when they want.”
And Katy B — who happily straddles the worlds of major and indie, and among dubstep, grime and pop — wouldn’t have it any other way.
“People are listening to a lot more now,” she says. “Music is a lot more eclectic, rather than being genre-based. Everything is merging together.”