New York-based singer-songwriter, musician, actress, and multidisciplinary artist Katy Pinke recently dropped her single, “Bloom,” a track presaging her upcoming album, Tomato, which captures the experience of Pinke performing live.
Recorded in a single day in Brooklyn with engineer/producer Phil Weinrobe, Tomato is a document of a moment in time: Pinke had returned days before from her first solo tour and gathered an intimate group of friends in the studio (who can be heard singing in the background on one track, playing piano on another) to listen and share the space with her (singing and playing her guitar) and her drummer, Jeremy Gustin. The album has no overdubs and stays true to the single-day approach.
Pinke emerged on the Brooklyn indie music scene after the pandemic and has quickly become one of the most sought-after singer-songwriters, opening for acts like Laura Veirs, Jolie Holland, Indigo Sparke, Jesse Harris, and Kyp Malone (TV On the Radio).
Guitar Girl Magazine spoke with Katy Pinke to find out more about the inspiration for “Bloom,” her forthcoming album, and her guitars.
What inspired your new single, “Bloom?”
I was experiencing the pain of misunderstanding and conflict in a significant relationship and was desperate to reach the person but felt like it was an unbridgeable gap. I sat down with my guitar and started improvising and the song came out pretty much fully formed. It was everything I wanted to say to the person but couldn’t say directly. The song developed (over the course of making it up) from something strictly personal to a crying out about human division at large – I felt an urgency to call out (to anyone listening) to dare to open, share of themselves, and bridge to each other.
You have your debut album, Tomato, coming down the pipeline. What can you share about the album?
This album is the culmination of years of writing and developing my songs by playing them live in front of small audiences in London, where I used to live, and in New York, where I live now. Just before recording the album, I went on my first-ever tour and played solo in living rooms and small venues across Europe. When I came back to record the album, I wanted it to be a document of this way of performing: in intimate spaces, with a focus on the lyrics and my connection with the space and the listeners in it. So to record I gathered a small audience of friends at Sugar Mountain – Philip Weinrobe’s beautiful studio in Brooklyn – and recorded eight songs over the course of one day. I was on guitar and my friend and collaborator Jeremy Gustin accompanied me on drums; my friend Winston Cook-Wilson ended up contributing keys to the title track; the other friends in the room sang along with me on part of another track too. No overdubs. Just whatever happened that day.
How did you get started in music?
I’ve been a singer and performer/actor since I was a kid, so music was always part of my life through that. My mom is also very musical and shared a lot with me from an early age. Some of my earlier memories are of making up harmonies to songs on the car radio to try to impress her. I remember — probably around when I was four or five — being excited to discover on my own that the interval of a minor third was the same as the doorbell (‘ding-dong’) sound at my house.
I don’t have a traditional background in music in the sense that music theory never grabbed me, and I didn’t formally study. I didn’t identify as a musician growing up. I understand now that I was experiencing things musically; I had a sensitivity to pitch, melody, harmony, and the timing/tenor/rhythm not just of songs but of human interactions, nature, art, etc. I didn’t apply this sensitivity actively and consistently to making music or playing instruments until later. But I was always singing, making up harmonies, inventing with my voice/mouth/ear.
In my early twenties, I started to write music by singing into GarageBand and harmonizing with myself. I did a few performances in New York with the help of a kind and talented boyfriend accompanying me on bass and helping me translate the arrangements live. Then I moved to China (I worked as a translator there — another story!). I wasn’t there for music, but I kept going and playing covers at Beijing open mics, and singing jazz standards at bars. I didn’t consciously consider myself a musician, but I couldn’t stop singing or (mostly secretly) writing songs.
In my late twenties, having moved back to New York again, I had some kind of artistic awakening, I think. I was coming into an understanding that I had been building imaginary worlds for myself my whole life and that being an artist could be about owning that and sharing those worlds, and that I didn’t need anyone’s permission to figure it out and start.
I was also making theater pieces and acting in plays, and eventually left New York again and went to drama school in the UK. Someone I knew in London was hosting a bill of musicians and asked if I wanted to play my songs. I had never played a set of my songs by myself. In fact, I didn’t have any ‘my songs’ to play. But I said yes, and crammed, and figured out how to ‘write’ like six songs in a week. And I worked out how to accompany myself on guitar as best I could. This was my first time playing my own material live. It was terrifying but I got through it and realized I was more capable than my insecurities would have had me believe. I began to understand that songs were like theater pieces – like poems three-dimensionalized into harmonic theater – and singing and performing them gave me an outlet for acting that felt freer than acting had felt for me; there was an immediacy to it and something very exciting about involving audiences, from performance to performance, in an imperfect, evolving creative process. I started performing out a lot in London. A group of friends in Hackney Wick had a monthly event called Sunday Service and the environment was all about encouraging failure and experimentation. So my practice became about not trying to ‘be good’ or ‘be a real musician’ whatever that means. I would get up and just practice being where I was and believing that as long as I listened to the moment and meant what I said, no matter how imperfect my playing was, something would get through.
The empowerment of these realizations and of accompanying myself on guitar was a gateway to an increasing ownership of my need for music/music-making in my life and my commitment to practicing. Even though I first picked up a guitar when I was twelve, there was a turning point in London. I’d always had a guitar around and touched and played it, but I didn’t break through this idea that I ‘wasn’t a musician’ and start identifying strongly with guitar and with other instruments (keys, bass guitar) outside of my own voice/body partly until I began to understand and experience them as extensions of said voice and body and also as bodies with their own voices — until it clicked that I could really say and build things in collaboration with them.
What kind of guitar do you play and why?
I learned guitar on a classical nylon string guitar that my mom lent me as a kid — and that I still haven’t given back to her. It has no visible brand. It’s still the guitar I write with the most and it feels like home to me. I’ve had it with me for decades and I toured with it across Europe. My mom learned to play guitar on it in the sixties when she was a kid, and it connects me to her and to her mom, who bought it for her back then. It is an old, light, rich, soft, and dark-sounding guitar. I took a few lessons with it when I was in middle school. I remember once when I brought it into school a classmate – who was a big Grateful Dead fan – tried to convince me to sell it to him for five dollars. I didn’t. Anyway, I began by learning classical guitar pieces on it, which was natural for the instrument. So even when I started writing folk-style songs on it later in my life, I think the classical guitar posture and the classical finger-picking style that I first learned are somehow implicit for me in how I approach the instrument. When I play it, I feel like I can sing through my fingers.
In 2021 I bought my first (and so far, only) electric guitar: a black 1983 Fender Telecaster. I got it on a whim with my pandemic government check after seeing a documentary that said Jeff Buckley played that kind of guitar. It’s now the guitar I play the most when I play live. I play rhythm guitar for Delicate Steve, and through that project, I’ve learned more about the range of this guitar. I don’t use pedals (yet?). It’s mostly just because I don’t have pedals. Or I’m too lazy to invest the time, money, and energy right now into getting them and learning to work with new gear. Or maybe a more generous interpretation of it would be that I’m still discovering what I can do (SO MUCH!) just with the naked instrument and its electricity. I like finding the limitlessness within limitations. Also, there is something about this guitar that feels a little punk/outlandish to me; it feels untamable. It doesn’t let me hide or play small and I think it forces me to be brave and embrace errors. I always feel a little out of control with it and I both fear and like that.
What is your definition of tone? And is your tone evolving?
I like the idea of tone as a character or a voice but transmitted through touch. Tone is voice because it has color, texture, size, sensory qualities like cool or hot or prickly or velvety, strength/forcefulness, sweetness, etc. They are qualities that communicate personality. The more I open my ears to the dimensions of tone the more I hear different characters and animals and versions of me in them.
I don’t experience myself as having a consistency of tone. Maybe because – like with voice – what I do to find/excavate tone is influenced by who I’m trying to communicate with, how I’m trying to do it, the space I’m in physically and emotionally (moment-to-moment), my evolving response to whatever is going ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in a performance, or what it feels like the story I’m telling needs (literally ‘setting the tone’), etc.
I never used to consciously think in terms of tone until Steve (Marion aka ‘Delicate Steve’) pointed out to me, the first day of my gig playing in his band, that I did indeed have a tone knob on my guitar. I’d been playing for a year with the literal ‘tone’ turned all the way down and didn’t even know! So I am new to opening my ears to this dimension, or to gaining a retrospective understanding of something I think I’ve been sensitive to in the past but didn’t have a word for. My ears are changing all the time. I don’t know if I’m answering this question correctly!
Are there certain recording techniques you prefer in the studio?
Each time I’ve gone into a studio to record music so far (I’ve nearly completed two other albums following this first one I’m releasing) the experience has been different, and different things have made sense depending on what I’m making. For this album, I felt focused on clarity and simplicity/directness. Phil Weinrobe (who recorded and mixed the album) is a brilliant engineer and found a way not only to let the songs sing simply like this and keep their life but also to give them size.
How do you keep your sound consistent onstage?
I sometimes play solo with my acoustic nylon string, and other times solo with my telecaster. Other times I’m playing with varying combinations of bandmates from Brooklyn. So like with tone I don’t experience much consistency on stage from performance to performance. I don’t know what people in the audience would say, but that’s my experience from within performing. There are always moving parts depending on schedules, available funds, what feels right for a given set, and the conditions of venues — and that inconsistency is another limitation I appreciate; it encourages me to be creative and embrace what I can’t control. What I do try to keep consistent is a certain quality of listening and presence in relation to all of the moving parts. I guess this is what makes me identify ultimately as an improviser, which is a spirit I think all of the musicians I play with share. I like staying awake and responsive and trying to re-frame ‘mistakes’ as meant to be — and committing to them. As I write all this, I see another way that my acting training shows up in my music.
I want to take this opportunity to mention some of the musicians I play and have collaborated with (on this record, other records, live shows of my music or shared music) because I love them and they’re brilliant and have many of their own gorgeous projects:
Jeremy Gustin, Jason Burger, Nico Osborne, Katy Rea, Steve Marion, Stephen Becker, Adam Brisbin, Dandy McDowell, Halsey Harkins, Winston Cook-Wilson, Ryan Weiner, Jon Wiley, Michael Tapper, Mike Gebhart, Alena Spanger, Derek Weaving, Nate Mendehlsohn, Jackie West!
What inspires your writing? Do you draw inspiration from poems, music, or other media?
I write songs when things are hard for me and as luck would have it, they often are! Good or bad, most experiences that hold real meaning for me usually hit me with a lot of intense sensation and I need to do something with that sensation or I’m in trouble. Sometimes, like with ‘Bloom,’ this sensation leads to the need to communicate with someone I feel I can’t reach. Sometimes it leads to the need to self-soothe. Sometimes it leads to the need to communicate precisely because I can’t manage to self-soothe, or to self-soothe precisely because I can’t manage to communicate.
I write songs as a way to try to understand and heal parts of my life that I seem to have no way to sort through other than via art, and for which cerebral reasoning doesn’t work. Basically, every time I sit down to write it feels like I am starting/singing from an impossible question that I can’t process rationally or purely verbally. I am a painter too, and I feel this when I paint. There is an overlap between these modes of processing (painting and songwriting) for me because they are both embodied attempts to say or transmute something I can’t express or grasp through logic.
In terms of inspiration, I don’t usually base work off of specific poems or pieces of music or pieces of art I like – though I do get a sense of permission from/dork out about elements of composition being used or combined in ways I like and I can sense how I sort of subconsciously absorb and file those things away.
But I feel like what’s more major for me is the ignition I experience seeing other artists (painters, musicians, poets, actors, thinkers — dead or living) finding ways to break out of that aforementioned verbal/cerebral logic to ‘speak’ what’s not speakable. When a work of art or a creation gives me that ringing feeling that it’s ‘saying’ something but all I can do to ‘explain’ what it’s saying/doing to me is go make more art, I experience deep gratitude. Because it feels like being given back a lifeline to what I’m here for. Maybe all I just did was describe how ‘inspiration’ works as a universal phenomenon. Whoops.
What can you share about your writing process?
Sometimes I will record improvisations where I’m not singing real words and then I’ll listen back and see what I hear and write from there. Other times I will come up with the words in one sitting – improvising melody and lyrics aloud while improvising on my guitar. I’ll often record that too and then listen back. One thing I consistently notice is that things I usually think are ‘mistakes’ end up being my favorite things listening back. I like surprises in melodies, surprises in harmonizations across the vocal line and guitar line and lyric line — and surprises in the dialogue happening just across guitar strings. One reason songwriting is exciting to me as a medium is that there are always so many levels of meaning intersecting at once (verbal, tonal, harmonic, rhythmic meaning).
What can your fans look forward to over the next six months? Music videos? Live gigs?
I’m playing a solo set on December 14th at Alphaville in Brooklyn and releasing my next single (the title track from the album) on the winter solstice (December 21). I’ll also be releasing a video that day with the song, which I filmed with my brother Will, who is a very talented filmmaker! I may also do a last-minute surprise show that day (the 21st) with a special collaborator which I’ll announce if it happens.
Other than that, lots more is coming up in the new year – more single releases, a full-band show at the Owl Music Parlor on February 4th on a bill with Eliana Glass and June McDoom, and an East Coast tour celebrating the full album release in April.