Cat Burns is redefining what it means to be a British pop artist and breaking down representational barriers.
The thing about planting a seed is that you can water it and nurture it with all the love in the world but in the end the weather has the final word. Those unpredictable natural forces, or in the post-modern age, algorithms, that are beyond your control, have the potential to alter the trajectory of your journey. For burgeoning pop star Cat Burns, making the decision to join TikTok in July 2020 was exactly that. What began as a means of battling the monotony of lockdown has now produced a record deal with RCA, a top 3 charting single, and cemented her position as the new face of acoustic pop. “I started doing TikTok because I was bored and wanted something to do,” Cat recalls. “I then saw people were making singing videos and challenges, so I thought I’d join in. Then my following started to grow on the platform and I teased my own music on there.”
Now regarded as one of life’s beautiful accidents, “go” was first released in the summer of 2020 as a mid-tempo ballad detailing the agonising discovery that your partner has cheated on you.
Juxtaposed against the defiant tenacity it took to continue on her artistic journey in the face of continued pushback, Cat’s seemingly sudden ascension to the top of the charts altered the trajectory of her career. However, the singer’s view of success remains unshaken. “Success to me has always been about balance, if you’re able to balance your life then that’s true success. I do feel like I am playing The Sims Superstar and it’s time to go up to a different level.”
Taking stock of her latest accomplishments it is hard to imagine a world where Burns would have pursued an entirely different career path. Deep down she knew that music was her first love and couldn’t help but answer when it called to her.
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“I just went by my feeling, and I knew playing basketball didn’t feel right. I love the sport and I love practising and keeping fit with it, but not professionally. Music was always my love, so it was almost a no-brainer to pursue it!”
Trading balls for beats, Burns started learning how to play guitar at 15 years old using YouTube tutorials as her aid. The BRIT school alumni released her first EP, ‘Adolescent’, in 2016, a collection of reflective teenage experiences and soulful sounds, a clear expression of her gospel and R&B influences. “I’ve always loved pop music,” Cat begins. “Early on in my career, I was trying to find the perfect blend of my influences but also clearly show that I’m a pop artist, so it was a bit of trial and error and trusting my gut on making the music I know I love.”
Now firmly rooted in the pop space, Cat Burns has chartered her path as an empathic voice of Gen Z, standing out for her refreshing candidness in an arena often criticised for its cookie-cutter safeness. These sentiments are perhaps most adequately encapsulated by her Instagram bio which reads ‘Helping you get through shit, one song at a time.’
It is clear that the fast-rising pop singer is unapologetic about what she represents, both personally and musically, however, when it comes to pinpointing where her sound sits, that concept hasn’t always been easy for those surrounding her to grasp. “Because I have a soulful voice, it makes people feel more comfortable to say I’m an R&B artist or that ‘go’ is an R&B song when it’s really not,” Cat says. “Anyone who listens without judgment can hear it. My team has been amazing on wanting to spread that message far and wide that I’m a pop artist, not R&B.”
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By breaking down these barriers, Cat Burns has inadvertently become the blueprint for proving to the industry and aspiring artists alike that there does not need to be a trade-off between cultivating an authentic sound and connecting with a mass audience. Her growing visibility has been instrumental in providing inspiration for other musicians wanting to do the same. But what is the ultimate dream? “That they [the artists] can be themselves, and that the doors have been opened wider for them to come in as they are and not have to mold themselves in a way that fits through,” she replies.
For Cat, representation extends far beyond seeing more Black artists within pop. It incorporates all facets of her identity radiating an image of diversity that digs deeper than surface-level promises. When asked what steps towards actualising inclusion looked like in practice the singer was brimming with suggestions. “Representation in music videos, really looking at how needed gender is in songs so that any listener can relate to it completely (unless the song is about a specific queer relationship) and being authentic.”
Every word of Cat’s music reflects this. Displaying a level of depth and maturity much greater than what you would expect from a 21-year-old, the singer delves into topics often considered to be taboo with an impressively level of bravery. “I talk about everything in my music. My experiences being a Black woman and a Black queer woman! I try and make sure my music videos are as inclusive as possible because ultimately, I want people to feel seen and heard.”
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As a songwriter, Cat is not one to shy away from uncomfortable conversations, even in moments of introspection and self-reflection. “I’m all about being raw and real, the only thing I ever change is maybe how to make it rhyme better,” she says.
The musician’s latest EP, ‘Emotionally Unavailable’, mirrors the complexity of navigating the world as a young adult. When explaining the concept behind it Cat says, “This generation can be super emotionally unavailable, and I wanted to make a project that speaks about why. There’s so much choice, yes, but there’s also a lot of betrayal and internal struggles with mental health that adds to the overall meaning of being emotionally unavailable.”
In recent months, Cat’s creative process has involved stripping it all down and going back to basics. Just picking up the guitar and seeing what came to mind. The end result is something truly vulnerable and honest.
Emotionally Unavailable meanders through a wealth of sentiments, reaching a particularly striking moment of poignancy on “Learnt to Love Goodbyes,” a track that addresses feelings of abandonment. “It’s about anticipating people in your life leaving you because that’s all that you’re used to, even if the person hasn’t shown that they would also do the same. It’s something I definitely struggled with and wanted to make a song that spoke about it,” Cat revealed.
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While her songs are an open book, one thing they do not tell you is that Cat Burns is a proud Marvel fan. Much of the singer’s downtime is filled with watching Marvel Explained videos on YouTube, as well as baking cupcakes. As an invested supporter of the franchise, a dream of hers is to write music for either Captain Marvel, Iron Heart, or Black Panther. “I’m Black and a woman so I’d love to hear my songs played in movies lead by women and the Black community,” Cat says.
Having climbed the charts, been featured on billboards across the country, and established a growing community of adoring listeners across social media, the question on everybody’s lips is: what’s next for the UK’s latest pop phenomenon? The goals currently sitting on Cat’s bucket list include an award win or two, a few albums, and collaborations with a variety of amazing artists. If 2022 is any indication of the heights Cat Burns has the potential to reach, the fulfillment of those dreams may be closer than she knows.