Interview: Katie Gavin

The power of the Internet is an amazing thing. One day you could be a teenage girl from Winnetka, Ill., making a video of yourself in you room, covering a popular song. Then without warning or provocation, your video is viewed by 200,000 viewers, it shows up on MTV’s website and suddenly you’re flying cross country to perform shows. And let’s not forget: You’ve still got finals coming up.

This is the story of Katie Gavin, who went from being small-town girl to quite possibly the next big thing in the music industry.

B&B’s Bill Bodkin caught up with Katie right before she flew out to New York City for two headlining shows at The Living Room and Bitter End.

B&B: I know you’re still young in terms of age and career, but where did you get your start?

Katie Gavin: I started singing when I was very young. I was doing a lot of musical theater. I was really into show tunes, then as I got older I started to get into more alternative music, rock groups, electronica. Then when I turned 8, I started sounding like I was 20 and I couldn’t keeping singing those musical songs. Around seventh grade, I started playing guitar and by the time I learned three chords, I started writing songs. They were despicable, my sisters teased me, but I didn’t really play for anyone outside my house. I started performing songs ’till 2009. I didn’t do it for recognition or become famous; I did it to reflect on what I was feeling, because it was therapeutic.

B&B: You attended Grammy Camp this year — can you explain what happened there and how it helped your career?

KG: I did Grammy Camp in the summer of 2010. It was on the USC campus and was sponsored by the Grammy Foundation. There were 80-90 kids; a lot from across the U.S., some from different parts of the world. There are a lot of different tracks that you can take — instrumental, audio engineering, concert promotion and singer/songwriter, which is the one I took. It’s a one week, super intensive program, like you’re working almost 24 hours. It was a blast; you’re collaborating with awesome musicians.

The week ended with a showcase at the El Rey Theater in Southern California. You make a lot of connections and learn a lot of valuable lessons. [At the end of the camp], it was the first time I ever thought of making this [a career in music] the deal.

B&B: You performed with Keith Urban in association with the camp, correct?

KG: There were a lot of amazing facilities and products for you to use and you were able to meet people that would never look twice at you on the street. I had just flown back to Chicago and Julie from the camp called me and asked me to come back. Keith was the first dean of the camp and wanted to do a performance with members from the camp. So I flew back out there and was there for a day. I sang back-up with two other girls: a girl named India on the drums, a boy on violin and a girl guitarist. He [Keith] was amazing. It was a surreal experience and I was so thankful.

B&B: Talk about what you learned at the camp and who you met?

KG: One day, I met Colbie Calliat and Lamont Dozier [most people don’t know his name, but he wrote a slew of No. 1 Motown hits for bands like The Temptations and The Supremes]. I got to play one of my songs and I got advice from Colbie. It was a really cool thing to play my songs for people I look up to. Then one day Maroon 5 came to have a conference about songwriting.

We also got to meet people in publishing, media marketing — you know, learning what deals to sign, etc. They really take time to educate you.

B&B: You won a contest in association with Sara Bareilles. Can you talk about that?

KG: It’s a funny thing. Myspace had a Sara Bareilles karaoke contest and I am obsessed with her. I have a music Myspace for my original songs. On day I was checking my inbox, and I saw that Myspace Karaoke had sent me a message. The contest was to do the vocals for her new single “King Of The Road.” They had their own instrumentals, and all you had to do was sing over it, which I was disappointed about. So I decided to a mix. So I sent in videos from three different accounts with three different harmonies. So I had this Brady Bunch-style video.

I found out I won on my Mom’s birthday. I was able to meet her at the House of Blues [in Chicago]. I love her music and I really look up to her. What’s cool is that she picked the winner, so she saw me sing, which was very cool.

B&B: For people who don’t know, you’re famous for your YouTube video where you covered Willow Smith’s “Whip My Hair.” Was that your first video or had you been doing it for some time?

KG: I had been doing videos since the beginning of summer of my junior year. A lot of them were original songs — “Whip My Hair” was my 8th. I had done a Sara Bareilles video, one of Imogen Heap’s “Wait It Out.” [As for “Whip My Hair”], I like it — I think that song’s awesome. I didn’t record [the video] to get any attention or anything.

B&B: How did this video spread and become so popular?

KG: I remember I posted it Mid-October and people were watching it, more than 10,000. So I was happy, like, “Wow!” Then, one night I was at my dad’s and my phone kept vibrating like every three seconds and I thought “great my phone’s broke.” It turns out, I was getting e-mails about all these new subscribers to my YouTube channel. I didn’t know what was going on. It turns out, the video had been posted on The Daily What, which a Tumblr blog, a news Tumblr blog and it was “the bad ass cover of the day.” Then it got picked up by a series of other websites. It was such an exciting series of events. It was like a game to watch it unfold.

B&B: How was it to hear that Willow Smith really loved your version?

KG: It was so nice, you don’t even know. This was my first video that a lot of people commented on. Most comments were so supportive, but others were saying, “You’re so disrespectful — you took away what the song was all about.” I mean, I added my own style. I was so thankful that she appreciated it.

B&B: You have a unique style — very bluesy. Most women your age, and I’m totally stereotyping here, listen to pop/dance music or very emo-y rock music. How did you come into your style?

KG: From a young age, I’ve always gone to the outskirts of music. I love that song [“Whip My Hair”] — Willow is bad-ass. But that’s not the music I listen to. I was listening to Radiohead and Death Cab for Cutire when I was young. My granddad was a jazz musician, and when I used to go to his house, I’d listen to Nina Simone and Tracey Chapman. I thought she was a man for two years and when I discovered she was a woman, I loved her more. I try and keep an open mind when it comes to music. I think a lot of people get tricked into believing music is one-sided, everyone is auto-tuned and have to have that hook to get them into the Top 40. I’ve never been interested in that. I’m drawn to anything with soul in it. And I’ve always had a low voice. [laughs) I can’t claim that I worked hard on that.

B&B: This week, you’ll perform in New York City (Friday, Jan. 14 at The Living Room at 7 p.m. and Monday, Jan. 17 at The Bitter End at 7:30 p.m.). So, you’re 18, you’re still in high school and you’re going to headline concert venues with renown in the biggest city in the world. So … how do you feel?

KG: I cannot wrap my head around it. It’s like “Oh, hi big city I’ve been in love with since I was little!” It’s funny because my dad and I were walking by the Living Room last year because we were looking at colleges. We wanted to listen to some live music, but they wouldn’t let us in because I was too young. A year later, I’m playing there. Life is so funny, it’s awesome.

B&B: Have you played many big gigs before or this your first?

KG: I just had a show at Shooba’s in Chicago, which is a venue that has mild notoriety. [Before the video], I played a lot at my local community center and benefits. I played at a place called Hamburger Mary’s, which is a hamburger joint downstairs and upstairs at Mary’s Attic is where I performed until 9 p.m., when it turns into a gay karaoke bar. I got kicked out of there when they found out I wasn’t 18. I love playing live, though. Next week, I’m auditioning at USC for their Popular Music College. Yes, I’m still applying to schools. I’ll also be performing in Chicago at some big places like Lincoln Hall and The Main Stage.

B&B: Is there an album in the works?

KG: (Laughs) There’s a lot in the works. The writing is at hyperspeed right now; I’m at a pivotal point in my life. There’s a lot of decisions to make: sign with a label, do this independently, go to college. But I’m always writing and recording.

B&B: So, you’re a senior in high school, you’re applying to colleges, you’re flying coast to coast performing and you’re an Internet sensation. So how are you, Katie Gavin, the person, the teenager, handling all this?

KG: Being popular on the Internet means you still have to do homework. It doesn’t effect you physically, it doesn’t change your habits. I mean, I have finals to study for. When I come back from New York, I land Tuesday morning at 6 a.m. and I have a psychology final at 10 a.m. It’s all a wild juggling game. I love to learn and, luckily, my teachers have been very understanding. My friends have been great, too. This is our senior year and I don’t want to have to sacrifice my time with them. I would be stupid to say I’m all stressed and this is all ridiculous. Sure, I don’t sleep as much as most human, but it’s pretty amazing.

I’m very happy.

Bill Bodkin is the gray bearded owner, editor-in-chief and co-founder of Pop Break. Most importantly, he is lucky husband, and proud father to a beautiful daughter named Sophie. He can be seen regularly on the site reviewing The Walking Dead, Doctor Who, and is the host of the site's podcast, The BreakCast. He is a graduate of Rutgers University with a degree in Journalism & English. Follow him on Twitter: @BodkinWrites

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