Katie Buchan on her new Best Girl Athlete album
We speak to Katie Buchan, aka Best Girl Athlete, about her eponymous second record
In her short time releasing music, Katie Buchan – aka Best Girl Athlete – has toured America, supported the likes of Richard Hawley, been pushed by BBC Scotland, and she was nominated for a Scottish Alternative Music Award off the back of her 2015 debut record, Carve Every Word. So when The Skinny meets the singer-songwriter ahead of the release of her second full album, we have to pinch ourselves.
Having just moved from Aberdeen to Glasgow to study for a law degree, 18-year-old Buchan is in some ways what you’d expect based on her music: bright and affable but lacking in cynicism. She talks enthusiastically about moving to a city where “so much music is going on”. But her own music displays another side: compositions are eclectic and well arranged, lyrics are touching and her voice is as mature and well developed as some of the artists she cites as influences.
She’s also not shy in praising others where she feels appropriate, citing her dad, Charley Buchan, as the biggest inspiration of all. Her debut featured mostly new or reworked versions of her dad’s material and they regularly perform together. When he decided to form Fitlike Records at the tail end of 2013, his daughter was one of the first artists brought on board.
“I actually get really nervous performing for my dad,” she says. “I don’t think I would be doing this now if not for my dad. A lot of the communication side of things, he handles it. It seems like he’s friends with everyone and able to get in touch with people to make things happen.
“It probably made things easier when Best Girl Athlete took off. Right from the start he was known locally on the folk scene so I’ve been around music and the music industry for a long time. But we only did the first album because it was fun, so it was really exciting when the album got noticed because I didn’t necessarily expect it.”
Not many artists can claim to have an international base from day one, but American label Minty Fresh picked up on her talent and signed her while she was still 14. A year later, she was touring the States after her dad coordinated with Alan McGee-backed Baltimore singer Brendon Massei (Viking Moses). Playing to tiny crowds in a foreign country would be daunting to most artists, let alone a teenager, but Buchan describes the experience as “really, really fun”.
She says: “We’re not established so there was no reason for people to come to shows necessarily. Sometimes we were performing in front of, like, five people, but I think one of the things I probably learned from that experience was I still found that fun – I enjoyed playing small shows. When we did play more packed-out house shows and stuff, I was able to appreciate it more because I’d already played in front of less. Wherever we played the reception was good."
Both American and Scottish folk music continue to play a key part in Best Girl Athlete’s sound. The subtle arrangements that formed her first record are still present on her new self-titled offering, with cellist Pete Harvey (Modern Studies) on hand again to arrange strings. However, Buchan describes Best Girl Athlete as a “more poppy” album with synths, brass and electronic percussion, as well as contributions from rappers and funk singers.
“I love the idea of mixing traditional styles with more modern musical techniques,” she says. “There are strings here again – in fact there’s even more than the last album – but also more beats and hooks. It’s just all worked out really well. The sound has evolved and taken on new elements. I took a lot of inspiration from Lana Del Rey and tried to really learn from her writing style. She has this amazing, versatile voice, but her arrangements are great too. She’s really heavy on strings and brass.”
Buchan’s voice certainly sometimes resembles Del Rey at her most mournful, but she cites lyricism, as her key development, even if she comes across more bashful when The Skinny asks her about key themes: “Growing up I tended to just write songs about boys, as you do," she tells us, " whereas now I write about situations more explicitly – relationships with people, places I’ve been. It sounds silly but being with someone is such a focal point in most people’s lives. It’s on my mind the most. The silver lining to expressing how you feel about a shitty situation with a boy is it makes for a good song.
“I find some of the tracks I wrote when I was younger, especially ones that didn’t make the album, quite cringeworthy." She continues: "But I think as I’ve grown older I’ve become more comfortable challenging myself. Now, I always have the same way of writing. I always visualise the instrumentation, the progression and the structure first. I haven’t had time to write since moving to Glasgow, though. It’s too hectic.”
Buchan has undoubtedly gone through a different experience to many young Scottish artists. Although she grew up attending gigs in Aberdeen from an early age, she’s had a more prescribed group of musicians supporting her than most. However, after performing solo for the first time, at the Edinburgh Fringe, she appears to be developing an independence that will help her develop in the long term.
“It’s quite hard to do the whole stripped back thing because there’s so much going on with the new album," she says, "but I do like playing with a bassist and cellist best. I’ll need to get used to playing most shows [alone] here in Glasgow, though, because none of my band stay here. I think I’ll need to find a circle of music folk I can work with in future, but I would say moving here has made me more keen to keep doing music.”
Although Buchan is clearly ambitious – she’s only half joking when saying she’d love to be a “lawyer by day and a musician by night” – she still understates her clear potential. Her voice has been compared to the likes of Feist and Laura Marling, but Buchan possesses a wisdom that her peers would have likely lacked at her age.
“I suppose when it comes to aspirations, I still do music because it’s fun and I love doing it," she tells us. "Anything positive that happens is just a bonus. We’ve had a lot of opportunities so far, but we weren’t looking for recognition or anything. We put a lot of effort into this new album and there’s a lot of personal songs. I guess all I want is for people to have a listen and hopefully take something relatable from it.”
Best Girl Athlete is released on 2 Oct via Fitlike Records