Catherine McGrath: Rising country star on her debut LP Talk of This Town
On the day her debut album was released, David Roy was granted an audience with Ireland's new queen of country pop, Rostrevor-born singer-songwriter Catherine McGrath. The 21-year-old star told him about writing Talk of This Town, her love of country music and why not everyone on the internet is a stalker
CONGRATULATIONS on the release of Talk of This Town. Has it sunk in yet that you have a debut album in the shops?
I feel like I've been writing these songs for two-and-a-half years! I've been been looking to this moment and talking about this moment for so long – and now that it's here, I'm like, 'What?!'
But it's so nice the way I've got to celebrate it: I got to be home to celebrate with my whole family and we all had a countdown to midnight. And this [HMV Belfast] is where I used to come to buy all of my country CDs.
My favourite part of an album coming out is getting the booklet and reading the lyrics and the 'thank-yous' – so it's crazy to see my face up on a big poster and have my CD on the shelves.
Do you come from a musical family?
Yeah, my dad was a songwriter. Him and mum and all my uncles and aunties played music in the pubs all through the week. We'd have parties at our house and people would bring whatever instruments that they had, so I was just kind of surrounded by music. I thought that was normal, that everybody did that.
And then I moved to London and realised I was actually really lucky to grow up in that setting. My love of music definitely started at a young age.
Is it true your granny got you started on the guitar?
Yeah, she taught me my first song on guitar. She was always playing piano in the house and always encouraged me to sing.
It was her who kind of showed me movies that Judy Garland was in, and Gene Kelly – I used to walk around singing Over The Rainbow. I think that was the first song I knew how to sing.
What were your first steps towards performing for non-family members?
My mum would always say I had a good voice, but I was always like, 'You're my mum, you have to say that'. So I started putting videos up on YouTube for that reason, because I wanted to know what other people thought.
I remember getting a comment from someone saying they really liked it and that they wanted me to post more. So that became a thing that I did – and that's how my manager actually found me, through a cover that I did of an Ed Sheeran song.
Is it true you thought he was just a stalker before your mum called the record company to check?
Yeah! When he first messaged me I assumed he was some weirdo, so I just ignored him – and he was messaging me for months!
But no, it turned out he was real. He's my manager now and I signed my record deal with Warners just after I turned 18.
Do you feel like you've got a good 'team' behind you?
I've got a really nice team of people around me who love the music that I do and who want to learn more about country music.
They can see how exciting it is and that it's growing. I'm just so glad that they've all helped me put this album together and that I'm able to release it.
Your idol Taylor Swift was the artist who got you into country music, but not many of her millions of fans caught the country bug from her like you did. What appealed to you about country as a genre?
It's about speaking your truth and telling your story – that's why I fell in love with it when I was 12.
And as I showed that to other people and introduced them to the artists I was listening to, like Kacey Musgraves and Hunter Hayes [who plays and sings on McGrath's song Don't Let Me Forget], they actually started to realise that country music maybe wasn't what they thought it was – songs about beer and trucks – and that it was something they liked too.
I think in the past two years especially, people have noticed country music growing. Beyonce and Justin Timberlake and all these other people doing cross-overs has brought attention to the genre. People are realising that it's just good music.
How personal are the songs on Talk of This Town? The lyrics suggest you've had a rough ride in terms of some of your romantic relationships.
I think music is a good way to express your feelings. A lot of the time when you're in a situation or you're just freshly out of a situation, you don't really know how you feel about it.
And so, with my songwriting, I can write six songs about one person and they're all saying different things – because I can't make up my mind or I'm going through something and I don't know what I really feel.
Songwriting helps me figure that out, so it's really cool for me to have all those different feelings captured in an album and be able to have people come up to me and say 'you wrote exactly what I was going through and it's helped me so much' – because that helps me as well.
We all connect and I really like that it brings people together, because that's what music is about for me.
You've collaborated with top Nashville songwriters like Liz Rose and Jimmy Robbins and our own Iain Archer for these songs. What's it like to write about such personal stuff with people you've only just met?
The idea of going into a room with someone who's 20 years older than you, who you've nothing in common with seems weird – but whenever you start to talk about the things that you've been through or what you want to write about, you find that you actually have a lot of common ground.
It makes you realise how similar everybody is and that we all go through the same things. It's really cool in that way and I feel like, with Liz Rose and Jimmy Robbins and other people I've worked with, when I talk to them and get to know them, the songs come so easily.
You have a conversation for an hour or two and then the song is written straight after that – and it kind of writes itself.
It's also been really cool to get to go to Nashville, because that is the home of country music. Jimmy and Liz and all the people on this album have written my favourite songs, so I'm so excited that they've written my songs as well.
Taylor Swift eventually moved on from country music. Are you open to exploring other genres?
I think it's so early on for me that I can't get too ahead of myself. What's made this so fun for me is that I've always just focused on what's happening now and not had too many expectations.
It's been such a fun journey, and I would not object to playing stadiums and all that stuff, but my main hope is that I can just keep writing songs and doing music.
Right now, I'm just focused on the fact that my album has come out – I'm enjoying every moment of living that dream.
:: Talk Of This Town is out now. Catherine McGrath hosted a live performance and signing event on the day of her debut album's release at HMV Belfast.