For a genre whose epicentre is unquestionably Nashville, country music is shaking off its old preconceptions as it develops a significant following among fresh, young audiences in the UK and Eire. James Bay and Ed Sheeran have both spent extended periods in Music City USA soaking up its unique musical heritage, while Taylor Swift’s background in the genre has heightened its profile all over the globe. Some 4000 miles from its honorary capital, its growth is demonstrated by the annual Country 2 Country festival which sees its biggest stars and most exciting young talents descend on London to play to 20,000 passionate fans.
Despite such progress, it still feels like a surprise that country’s newest non-domestic talent hails from the rural outskirts of Belfast. Nineteen-year-old Catherine McGrath’s passion for the sound was piqued far before recent events extended its audience. Initially won over by Taylor Swift’s self-titled pre-pop album, McGrath delved deeper into the genre’s new era of talent in the shape of Kacey Musgraves, Dan + Shay and Maddie & Tae.
“That music wasn’t played where I was from, so you had to go and discover yourself,” she says, recalling how she’d try to encourage her pop-loving friends to follow her changing tastes. “The reason I love country so much is because there’s such of range of things you can sing about. It’s so honest – the songs start as just a story or an emotion and the music follows on from there.”
Coming from a music loving family, McGrath first took up the guitar as an accompaniment for her voice. Her grandmother taught her how to play ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’ and she developed her playing further by observing her father performing and by following YouTube tutorials.
Soon enough, McGrath started writing songs which blended her unique UK perspective on country alongside pop influences such as George Ezra and Ed Sheeran. Northern Irish traditional music (“Everybody joyfully singing along down the local pub!”) also provided an important touch point – and especially so as McGrath has regularly performed at her parents’ spirited Fiddler’s Green festival which attracts musicians from as far afield as North America and Germany.
Eager to gauge a wider reaction to her talent, McGrath began to upload her inimitable country inspired performances of massive pop hits to YouTube.
“I decided to post covers to see what strangers thought, and I remember the first comment being ‘This is really good. Please put up more!’ So I kept on doing it, more and more people would listen, and I found more people who liked country music. I realised that there was this wider community who, just like me, really loved country and wanted more of it.”
Through her YouTube content McGrath was spotted by Instrumental, the London and NYC-based business who specialise in discovering and developing music talent emerging on social media. They invited her to test the waters with some writing and studio sessions. “A few weeks later they called me and asked, ‘How would you feel about moving over here, writing more songs and talking to labels?’ and then ‘How soon can you move over?’”
After six months in London honing her songwriting skills, things suddenly moved at a lightning pace. Her first of two visits to Nashville was a revelation (“I dreamed of seeing country music at all the little bars and it was exactly what I’d pictured!”) and she also signed with Warner Bros. Records in the summer of 2016.
With her acoustic debut EP ‘One’, McGrath wants to present something that “fits all of the different parts of my personality.” It’s a snapshot of songs which demonstrates how McGrath uses the country tradition to explore stories of love, romance and hurt which will resonate with people of her age.
The EP leads with three new originals: “Hell Would Have To Freeze Over” is a sassy strut with a confident and defiant attitude, the plaintively performed “Cinderella” (co-written with Taylor Swift collaborator Liz Rose) tells a fairytale story which McGrath compares to a big moment in a Disney movie, while “She’ll Never Love You” is a bittersweet reflection on a lover lost. ‘One’ is completed with McGrath’s stripped-back take on Jessie Ware’s ‘Say You Love Me’ which was chosen to reflect both her interest in pop as well country’s appreciation of well-crafted songs.
It’s a wonderful introduction to an artist who looks poised to take country to fresh new audiences. “If there was more awareness of what country music really is compared to what people think it is, lots more people would love it,” she professes with evident passion. “I’m writing music that I genuinely love and I care about the message that I’m sending out.”