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Cat Burns’ vulnerable and honest songwriting is storming the UK charts

The rising songwriter on her rapid jump from TikTok to the UK charts, opening doors for other Black, queer creatives, and her upcoming tours with Years & Years and Ed Sheeran

By Charlotte Krol

Cat Burns poses for a publicity photo
Cat Burns (Picture: Adama Jalloh)

Fast rising singer-songwriter Cat Burns has a lot to be excited about right now. Her break-up anthem ‘Go’ was vying with Harry Styles’ ‘As It Was’ for the top spot in the UK charts earlier this month, landing at an impressive number three. She was also announced recently to support Ed Sheeran on his summer European tour. 

On Friday (May 20) she released her third EP, Emotionally Unavailable, following on from the acoustic pop climes of her EPs Adolescent and Naive. Emotionally Unavailable features the re-released ‘Go’ after its popularity soared on TikTok and went on to rack up more than 55 million Spotify streams. “It’s quite crazy,” Burns tells Rolling Stone UK about her accelerated success, speaking ahead of supporting Years & Years on tour.

The 21-year-old former busker, BRIT School student and proud Streatham native opens up about her ballooning career, her advocacy for Black, queer creatives, and why her catchy guitar-driven bops traverse honest topics that are sometimes ignored in pop music.

How has the unreal response to ‘Go’ made you feel, two years after it was originally released?

To be honest, it’s crazy. Everyone calls the song a slow burner. I never really expected it to be what it is. I always thought it would be a song that does semi-well, just in terms of introducing me as an artist.

TikTok has been instrumental in boosting the song’s profile. What do you think about it as a platform?

I think because [TikTok] is so new and young, anybody has the ability to go on there, go viral and build a following that could completely change their life. I think a lot of places are still trying to wrap their head around how you do it, but there’s no formula. It’s one of the best places right now for you to grow a following relatively quickly.

“Everyone calls the song [‘Go’] a slow burner. I never really expected it to be what it is”

— Cat Burns

You’re supporting Ed Sheeran on tour. Have you met him yet? Was he an inspiration growing up?

Definitely, he’s one of my biggest inspirations. Him, Tori Kelly, India Arie and Tracy Chapman – if you kind of mix them all together, that’s what I want to make and do. I’ve always listened to him. When I was busking I used to sing his songs. I haven’t met him yet. He sent me a DM and we had a little back and forth just having a chit-chat. He just seemed really nice, just really normal.

These tour support shows will see you play huge arenas and stadiums for the first time. How are you feeling about that?

It’s exciting. I’ve had a bit of a journey towards it. I just came off a tour with Mae Miller – that was a smaller venue-capacity show – and so I got used to being on stage with that. Then I’ve got more arena-type shows with Years & Years and then I’ll be moving on to Ed [Sheeran] with massive stadiums. I’m glad that it went from small [venues] to medium to large. If I was just going straight into doing stadiums I’d be way more scared, but the fact that I’ve had this slow build has helped me calm my nerves a bit.

Cat Burns poses for a publicity photo
Cat Burns (Picture: Adama Jalloh)

You’re playing your biggest headline shows yet this month, two sold-out dates at London’s Omeara. Is it important to see that support on home soil?

I’m always fearful that I won’t sell anything and that no one will come to things, so I think seeing them sell out as quickly as they did – especially for my team as well – [led to the] realisation of, ‘OK, you’re building something outside of TikTok, you’re building a fanbase here.’ It means a lot that it’s in London and has sold out both nights. It’ll be worth people’s wait.

How do you want your music to make people feel?

I just want people to feel heard and seen and represented with the songs that I’ve made. I think the success of ‘Go’, being a break-up song, will show people that it’s one of many different topics that I will talk about in my music. On the EP, I talk about having anxiety, having commitment issues, being an introvert – loads of different topics that I think sometimes you don’t hear enough of. I love listening to songs that make me feel like it’s been written for me, which talk about things outside of the main box of relationships. 

“[Ed Sheeran], Tori Kelly, India Arie and Tracy Chapman – if you kind of mix them all together, that’s what I want to make and do”

— Cat Burns

‘Anxiety’ is a highlight of the Emotionally Unavailable EP. What were you trying to explore with the song?

‘Anxiety’ is a conversation that I’m having with myself. It’s like you’re in a house and your anxiety has just made itself way too comfortable. They’re in your bed, they’re in your room, they’re living with you in your pocket. It’s kind of saying, ‘If I wasn’t so anxious, I would be a different person.’ I would be a lot more confident to do things that I would love to do but I’ve told myself that I shouldn’t do or I would love to dress or present myself in a particular way. But I’m told that I shouldn’t do that – by myself. So it‘s kind of me saying, ‘Can I live my life without you, being in the driver’s seat? Can you go in the back? Can you let me take control of my life? I will ask for your help if I need it.’

Have you started working on a debut album? What can fans expect from it?

I’m always writing songs; I have so so so many. So, definitely, an album is on the way. I think the EP is a good representation of what people can expect from me moving forward. It’s even more mature, I think, than what I talk about on this EP. It’s going to have topics that you might not expect could be made into a pop song.

Your lyrics explore broken friendships, cheaters, anxiety, abandonment and much more. There seems to be more of a tendency nowadays for artists to speak openly in their songs. Do you think it’s something that has come naturally to you anyway, or might you have subconsciously felt encouraged to do so?

It was always a natural thing. I always listened to artists growing up who had no problem being vulnerable in what they spoke about and I always gravitated towards songs that were meaningful. I’m the type of listener that listens to lyrics anyway, so I’ve always gravitated towards lyrics that mean something – authenticity and vulnerability. I’ve always wanted to make sure that I’m vulnerable and honest in my songs. Even if in my day-to-day life I’m not actually that vulnerable, in music it’s a safe space for me to explore things in a melodic way. It almost means that I don’t have to say it in my speaking voice.

What was growing up in Streatham like?

It was fun. I lived in Fulham until I was seven and then I moved to Streatham. Everything’s really close there. Before I went to BRIT School me and my friends were literally all five minutes away from each other, so thinking back now as an adult, it was actually really cool to have all your friends so close. You could just meet at a particular shop, go to your local park. I’ve always loved it. I think no matter where I go I’ll always be a Streatham girl at heart.

“I love listening to songs that make me feel like it’s been written for me, which talk about things outside of the main box of relationships”

— Cat Burns

Did you grow up in a musical household with your mother and sister?

Yeah, my mum wanted to be a singer when she was younger and she had her own little band. She was doing performances – my grandma the same. You feel like being an artist has been passed down through generations.

Your 2021 standalone song, ‘Free’, was released after you came out in 2020. What was the impact of sharing that song with the world?

It felt good. That song has a good juxtaposition with the melody and how soulful it sounds – the gospel element of it. And I think with that mixed with the topic, people were like, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re talking about this.’ You wouldn’t normally think a song about coming out and a gospel-esque theme would go together. People kind of felt that connection to it a bit more. 

It’s one of my favourites because I really can see how much it’s helped a lot of people, just in the messages I’ve received. I wrote it as a song for my mum to say, ‘Look, I’m free. And I know, you just want me to be safe and whatever, but this is who I am.’ Our relationship is amazing. She’s so loving and accepting. It’s so great. I realise now that this song is for people who really don’t have that same support system at home, and they live through the song. A lot of people have messaged to say that their parents were quite homophobic and then they showed them this song and they’re a bit less than what they were.

Cat Burns poses for a publicity photo
Cat Burns (Picture: Adama Jalloh)

What would you say makes you stand out from other British singer-songwriters?

I think, number one: what I talk about in music. I also think I’m a Black female making the music that I’m making, so I think that already has people like ‘Oh my gosh, this is not what I was expecting.’ I think it’s how I present myself, too. I love suits and menswear and Jamaican rude boys style… loafers, flat caps and all that kind of stuff. I think people haven’t really seen that presented to them in a long time or in this country, and I think that’s what makes me stand out. I think my music is unique but I think it’s how I present myself as well.

“No matter where I go I’ll always be a Streatham girl at heart“

— Cat Burns

Have you always liked menswear and dressed that way?

Yes, but I think in my teens, because of being anxious and not being not wanting to be judged, I felt like I needed to dress really, really feminine, which I knew wasn’t me. I’ve always been drawn to menswear. It wasn’t until really recently when my partner said, ‘You know, your dress is quite dramatic and rude boy.’ I didn’t know what that was at the time and she was like, ‘That’s cool that you’re just drawn to it and that you have no idea what it is.’ I wanted to put a face to the name. I think I’ve managed to almost master how to make it fashionable.

Looking forward, do you always want to do music as a career?

I want to do it however long the universe allows me to, and for however long it brings me joy and happiness. I’ve always said that I want to be as successful as I can be and inspire other young girls who look like me to do the same. Hopefully I can open doors for them so that it’s not as difficult getting into the industry. 

Cat Burns’ Emotionally Unavailable EP is out now via Since ‘93/Sony. Cat Burns plays Omeara in London on May 24 and 25