Katy Kirby, like so many kids raised in the evangelical Christian church, rebelled against the music she was taught. Prayer music didn’t hold a candle to the way Sufjan Stevens approached his Christianity.
Kirby didn’t discover Stevens, Andrew Bird, or even Coldplay until she began college at Nashville’s Belmont University. Music City was a musical mecca the likes of which she’d never seen, which is odd considering she grew up just 30 miles northwest of Austin. In the suburb of Spicewood, Kirby was raised in two places: her house, where her parents homeschooled her until she was 15, and the church, where her family spent massive chunks of time, and where she was first exposed to music as a singer in the choir.
The idea of a country girl who loses her innocence in the big city is a tired cliché, but Kirby’s philosophies on life and music truly changed when she left Spicewood and her upbringing behind. She entered college as a songwriting major, but quickly shifted to an English degree. An undergrad’s excitement about fiction, combined with her deep-seated religious history, inform her debut album Cool Dry Place, which drops on February 19. Kirby, 25, always knew she wanted to use her grasp of literature as a way to inform her music. “Once I left college, I wanted to continue writing songs. I wanted to put out a full-length album, just to see if I could,” she says.
Kirby grew up in a musical household, but the album doesn’t resemble the stuff she was raised on. “My parents don’t know bands, but my dad loves barbershop quartets and they listen to a lot of worship music. So that’s most of what I was exposed to,” she says. “Once or twice a year my dad will sucker all of us into learning a four-second barbershop part and it will take us an hour and a half to do, but it’s great.”
On Cool Dry Place, Kirby’s voice effortlessly moves from soft and sweet to edgy and rough. Classically speaking, her vocals hover around the falsetto range. She’s a gorgeous singer, but the music smartly hinges on the interplay between the nuance she brings to her melodies and the live-sounding performances of her accompanying band. Through the use of auto-tune on songs like “Traffic!” and a winking interpolation of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” on “Secret Language”―perhaps a nod to her religious roots―Kirby is constantly infusing her songs with sharp turns and deceptions that keep the traditional folk-rock format from ever dominating the album.
Despite the relatively agnostic stylings of Cool Dry Place, Kirby is forthcoming about her indebtedness to her roots. “All of my earliest musical memories are worship-music-related,” she says. But her path to where she is today―promoting a stunning debut album―wasn’t a strict renunciation of her past in favor of something looser and more freeing. Rather, the album is imbued with empathy, with the idea that our differences can make us better if we work to understand them, and that we are deeply informed by our paths not taken. The church was initially a place Kirby rebelled against, but it now serves as one fragment of the structure she’s built.
“The way I habitually engaged with Christianity and Jesus into my early 20s gave me an understanding of that world that is still with me,” Kirby says. On “Traffic!,” a song as close to perfect as I’ve heard this year, Kirby analyzes a past relationship and the way language can sometimes fall short. “I remember everything you said/All about how it is just the way that it is/But I think that what you really meant/To say is/Baby, I don’t know if I can/Stop this,” she sings. It’s a simple observation, but it also presents a thesis that runs through the vein of the entire album: Sometimes we’re powerless, and that feels scary. Like a worried churchgoer, Kirby prods at eternal human questions about the point of existence. On “Tap Twice,” the future isn’t different or romanticized; it’s just forward. “And I see you in the future, you look just the same but older,” she sings. She engages with these ideas through a variety of perspectives on Cool Dry Place, never from a place of authority, instead opting for engagement and curiosity.
It wasn’t until recently that Kirby divulged her lack of religious belief to her parents. “I didn’t want them to [fear] that my soul was in jeopardy, so for a long time it didn’t seem like something worth worrying them about,” she explains. The empathetic way her parents responded inspired Kirby, and left her in awe of their generosity of spirit.
Throughout Cool Dry Place, Kirby frames questions of religious belief through half-truths and fictional divulgences. She ponders the right way to live and whether one belief system is more correct than any other. What Kirby’s relationship with her parents revealed, it seems, is that she is able to empathize with people who are certain they’re on the right path, even if she disagrees.
Kirby’s work is also deeply informed by fiction; by how storytelling can reveal truths that facts shroud or obfuscate. The New Yorker fiction podcast is an integral medium for her, she says, because it reveals an aural cadence to writing. There’s a natural pattern to Kirby’s words as well, and the rhythm unfurls at a cool, easy pace. “A story told in someone else’s voice feels particularly powerful and strong,” she says. She applies that theory throughout Cool Dry Place. “The songs are probably 75 percent confessional, but then there is another element to them that doesn’t really feel about me, it feels like a swipe at the things that good fiction does.” The album closer, “Fireman,” is about traditional masculinity and the roles we commit to so deeply that they intertwine with an actual sense of self. Kirby hopes the song will be “helpful or clarifying in the backhanded way” of good fiction.
On Cool Dry Place, much of this storytelling is delivered with levity and subtle humor. It’s a remarkably deft album: tidy and slim, but with enough DIY instrumental arrangement and recording methods―colorings outside the lines―to let Kirby’s unique style shine through. Kirby turns silly observations into powerful affirmations. The title track, and by extension the entire album, is built around the instructions on a pill bottle. In the song, she unfurls this statement into something more powerful: “With my head on your shoulders, not too much weight/Would you keep me, keep me in a cool, dry place?” She’s looking to protect and find protection. There’s a sacredness to her belief system, but it’s completely flexible. This is not out of a lack of self-assuredness, but because Kirby knows the answer is in the middle ground between knowing and not.