22 November 2023

Cat Burns on therapeutic songwriting, championing Streatham, and her ultimate Christmas

As her new Christmas ad with JD hits our screens, Burns strips it all back to where she finds her home comforts and inspirations in a slow life with the ones she loves.

Cat Burns is reaching new heights as the mouthpiece of Gen Z — a 23 year old platinum selling singer-songwriter from South London’s Streatham, defined by elegant lyricism and a relatable sound. A storyteller through and through, she went from busking on the Southbank to catapulting to TikTok fame with her 2022 hit ‘Go’, and now cites some of the industry’s most respected names as fans. This Christmas, Burns celebrated her journey to fame by joining forces with Brit staple sportswear brand JD in their new advert which honours the next gen of tastemakers. Alongside the likes of Central Cee, Kano, Nia Archives, and Ants Lives, the ‘Forever Forward’ traverses London with the stars to celebrate 25 years of the JD’s iconic duffle bag design. Here, HUNGER catches up with Burns, to chat about all things creativity, Christmas decks, and TikTok’s chokehold on the music industry…

When you recorded ‘Go’, did you have any idea of the impact it would have on your career?

I had no idea what it was going to do when I wrote it because I was only 18. I thought I’d tease it on TikTok back in 2020 and see if people liked it. Surprisingly people really liked it and wanted me to put it out. Then I was like, “Oh my gosh, I should put it out.” I did that and I wasn’t expecting too much from it before it had its resurgence. I thought it was always going to be a song that kind of was an introductory piece into what my music is, but on a small scale – which is what it was for about a year and a half. It had a million, then two million streams, which is obviously high. Then it had its moment, and it was way more than I could have ever dreamed of.

It’s had two waves because you released it in 2020, but then in 2022 it really took on its own life. So, was that a surprise to you that it had that second wave? 

Yes! Still to this day no one can work out what caused the spike or the initial surge. I guess the universe decided that it needed to have more of a moment. That was a whirlwind because I was not expecting that, to be in the midst of a song having a viral moment. It’s very overwhelming and there’s so much to it.

TikTok has a bad reputation for its impact on the music industry but for an artist like you it’s been beneficial. What do you think about the negative view? 

It’s a very fast paced app and there’s almost this idea that when you’re releasing songs, you must make it TikTok worthy. That’s unrealistic, and every single song that you make is not going to be a TikTok song. As artists, there’s a pressure that we feel to create a song for TikTok, instead of being able to have that creative freedom to just create whatever we want. It’s beneficial because it gives light to artists that you would have never heard of. The randomness of how viral things can go has helped a lot of artists, including myself. The struggle is maintaining that and being able to continue to create songs that you love that also happen to do well within that algorithm that’s changing by the second. I think that’s probably why there’s such a push and pull with it. Because on one hand it can be helpful, but on the other hand, it can be very difficult to wrap your head around.

Being authentic is what led to you blowing through TikTok. So, do you think sometimes it’s maybe how people use the app that gets the wrong impact? 

There’s so many different parts to play. People will make a song and if it does well on the app that one time, you then think I need to make something the exact same. But it’s also important to remember it did well on the app at that time, and it’s good to look at what’s going on and doing well on the app now. But you must also remember not to create solely for that purpose. I think when you continue to be authentic and tell real stories and be honest and vulnerable, that’s when you’ll get the best response. When you aren’t, especially as a new artist, I think that gets sniffed out very quickly within the app and you’ll find yourself struggling a little bit more. You’ll get some sort of audience there, whether it’s big or small.

You’ve been championed by a very diverse group of tastemakers, but which one stood out to you the most?

My biggest inspirations are Ed Sheeran, Tori Kelly and India Arie and luckily, all three have given me the stamp of approval or just said, “I really like what you’re doing, I think you’re very good.” I grew up on their music and feel very strongly towards all of them. So, getting that approval of, “No you’re good, you’re doing well,” I was like, “Okay phew, I can continue now.”

When it comes to songwriting, do you ever write songs as a way to vent and unleash your feelings with no intention to record them? 

There are quite a few songs I’ve written that I just knew were going to be for myself and I had no real intention of putting them out. I would go and have a session and then get the bounce from the producer and thenI’ll know that’s it; that’s my song that I’ll listen to whenever I’m feeling a certain type of way. Sometimes when you make a song that’s so personal and so honest, to broaden your audience, you have to tweak certain words to make it seem more relatable to the masses. Certain songs are so healing and therapeutic for a specific moment in my life, but I’m not willing to do that. So, I’d rather it be my song for myself that I can listen to. It’s definitely a therapeutic thing for me; I have songs that I’ve written just for myself.

Have you ever considered writing a song and giving it to another artist and having them tell your story?

I haven’t yet. I’ve always been open to writing for other people but I’m just so protective of certain personal songs that I feel happy and comfortable with this just being for me and sharing to my friends every so often. I enjoy having something that’s mine, and that isn’t anybody else’s. When you release the song, it’s no longer yours, it’s everybody else’s. So, it’s nice having some songs that are just for me.

You recorded your debut EP at 16. When did you really feel that you’ve made it as a musician? 

I still don’t feel like I’ve made it. I know where I would like to be and I’m not there. I had a really amazing moment with ‘Go’ and that’s amazing, but I don’t see myself as a big artist yet. I’m still very small and it’s very early on in my career. 

Do you think that mentality helps you develop as an artist?

I feel very aware of my age and where I’m at in my career, probably from speaking to other artists who I admire like Ed Sheeran and Sam Smith. They’re a lot older than me and I feel very early on in my career because they’ll recall this moment of their career. Sam will be like, “I remember when ‘Stay With Me’ happened” and when you look at dates, that was 10 years ago and you’re like, “Okay well I’m very early on in my career.” Obviously, everything that happened to ‘Go’ is a moment that I love. But when there’s been a few moments and I feel secure within my place in the industry and my fanbase, knowing that I can consistently release music, sell out tours and just live; then I’ll feel like I’ve reached the level of success that I was meant to reach. 

Has your creative process always been the same or has it changed? 

My creative process has pretty much stayed the same. I’ll come up with an idea randomly and voice note it but it usually starts in my bedroom with a guitar. Then if I’m going into a session with someone that I don’t know then I’ll bring my idea into the session so we have something to work off. If I know the person and I feel really comfortable and safe with them, then I can go in blind and we can talk, almost have a therapy session and make a song out of what we talk about. I like to do lyrics and melody and everything at once because it’s cohesive and one can’t be different from the other. They all kind of have to work, so I like to do them all at the same time. But how I get there varies depending on who I’m in the room with. I like to start it by myself to get the concept. 

What is your earliest moment of the JD duffle as a kid?

My earliest memory was when I was 10 or 11, there was a JD in Streatham Hill. Me and all my friends would go in there and look at shoes we couldn’t afford and just browse around. I used to be in a dance group when I was a youngster, and everybody had their duffle bag. Everyone put all their belongings in their duffle bag after dance practice. So that was my life back then, that was a big memory for me. 

Why is culture important to you?

It’s just a big part of who I am. It has so much to do with who I am and what I believe in. I was raised in Streatham Hill, and everything is culture so it’s very important to me.

What does community mean to you?

It takes a village to raise people. I had so many amazing moments, especially with different youth clubs and places that I was able to go to and explore my creativity without any restrictions. 

What would you like to see a change in culture and community?

I want people in the community to be listened to by people higher up because that’s what we deserve – to be heard and listened to and actually have changes be made. It can be very tiring doing a lot of talking and asking for things that we need, then just being ignored. Nobody likes to not feel heard and not feel understood and respected. So, I would say to actually be heard and have changes made with actions rather than brushing things under the carpet. 

If you could go forwards in time, where would you go?

I would go about 10 years in the future, to be 33. Hopefully I’d just be chilling, always on holiday. I’d be hard to reach, in a nice, lovely home, just minding my business with some cats and some dogs, just chilling and living life. I want to go forward and stay there; I want to live a soft life. Just have a nice big garden where I spend my time just existing. It’s quite stressful being in your twenties – we’re fighting for our lives. 

How do you spend your time during the Christmas period?

Most of my family live in Wales so we go every year. It’s nice to get away from the hustle and bustle of London. Christmas time is just about family really. It’s about being able to recap and reflect on the year that you’ve had, and make plans for what you want to do next year and how you want to move forward and recentre yourself. Christmas is about taking a break for reflection and being with the people I love.

What’s your funniest Christmas memory?

We aren’t really a games type of family, but one year we decided to be, and we were playing Articulate. There were three words that you can’t say to describe another word. We were playing that with my mum, and she just didn’t understand, and we all found it really funny. The word was ‘stale’, we were trying to say stale but we couldn’t say any of the other things and she just kept saying the wrong thing. That was probably the last time we’ve ever played games because my mum gave up after that. We tried Monopoly one time then people started fighting and it wasn’t worth it. It was me that flipped the table because I lost all my money so it’s risky playing games. 

What is your favourite food for Christmas?

I like the roast dinner vibe with the turkey, Yorkshire pudding, greens, carrots, ham, cranberry sauce. I don’t like stuffing. I like roast potatoes and I like brussels sprouts. My granddad makes the turkey nice, so I trust it when he makes it.

Any Christmas traditions?

My grandad makes the turkey the night before and we go over to my auntie’s house and open the presents. Then we watch the episode of Eastenders, and no one seems to ever know what’s going on throughout the year, but you just have to watch Eastenders! 

If you could pick one thing from JD and New Balance, to be under the tree for you this year, what would you pick?

The black and grey 2002R Protection Pack. 

What plans do you have for 2024 and are there plans to release new music?

Fingers crossed, 2024 should be a big year with lots of new music and an album hopefully. Maybe some more shows as well. I’ll be able to sing more of the songs that I love that aren’t out yet that I know people will really connect with. 

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