Listening to Katie sing you’re immediately struck by the operatic qualities of her voice, which we’ll talk about later. Meeting her in the flesh you don’t get the posh well-spoken young lady you’d expect and despite living in Manchester for over a decade and picking up some turns of phrase she’s not lost her cockney accent and infectious laugh despite having made the city her home. Her debut album Wishing Tree is released this week and amongst the new converts to her unique enchanting music is Janice Long, who's played her twice in the last week and raved on about the beauty of the title track of the album.
We start by exploring the origins of the name. As a singer-songwriter, albeit with a band backing her, why did she choose not to perform under her own name?
Katie explains: “It comes from when I first came to Manchester, before Elbow hit the big time, my flatmate used to go out with him and we used to hang out a lot with them and the Kloot boys. Guy used to call me 'Little Cockney Sparra' and when I left Marion and I wanted to go on my own, he said why don’t I call myself 'Sparrow' and I thought that sounded a bit hip-hop but thought Little Sparrow sounded nice and it stuck.”
So other than Marion / Headway, what other bands have you been in?
“The first proper band I was in was an all-girl band called Daze. When I was with them, my first gig was at the Hacienda on the Stone Love night. It was rock music. I played the Roadhouse with them and Guy was on the door with Stan Chow. The manager of Marion, Joe Moss, was looking for a singer and Stan suggested me and I got one of those phone calls out of the blue. That was it, I came to Manchester and stayed.”
So what made you go out on your own rather than be in a band?
“Phil Cunningham, the guitarist, left and ended up playing with Electronic, with Bernard and Johnny Marr, for a tour and then ended up staying with Bernard and is now in New Order. He and I were the main writers so I lost that, so I decided to go on my own.”
Live, Katie is backed by a group of interchanging musicians, guitarist Johnny Lexus (currently also playing with Paul Heaton), cellist Sarah Dale, percussionist Mitch Oldham and violinist Graham Clark. The live set up varies from show to show meaning each Little Sparrow gig is different.
Katie explains the reasons behind this. "When I first started it was quite scary going out on my own when people weren’t available, I love the fact it’s different every time I play a gig and I’ve got used to it now.”
So your album Wishing Tree is out this week. Tell us a little bit about how it’s come about.
“It’s all the tracks I’ve done so far, all in place. The oldest one is The Hunted, which goes back about three years, and there’s three I’ve done this year. It’s now all in one place, with a beautiful piece of artwork. When I first saw the cd, it was really exciting, today the iTunes pre-order went up and I got to sing Elfmusic (Johnny writes music for adverts) in a made up language in an operatic voice."
“When I was a kid, I thought I could sing through my nose. I couldn’t understand it, but my teachers thought I should have lessons and then at secondary school I got a bursary for teaching. And in the sixth form, I got funding to be taught by a lady from the Guild Hall.”
So what made you not go down that route?
“Well I got into the girl band, into rock and roll, got to do gigs at the Hacienda and thought this is ace. I did have a real turmoil. Opera was easy for me, I kept getting into masterclasses and I got into the National Youth Music Theatre when I was 18. I still love it, I sing at people’s wedding, but when it’s your own stuff it’s more personal.”
Do you write about yourself or other people?
“A bit of both. I think I write about fictitious people, about things that are going on in my brain and animals too.”
The Hunted is about a bear that falls in love with a human. That’s an interesting subject matter.
“Well that came about because Bear Family Records had a 35th anniversary and they wanted me to submit a song and it had to be about a bear. That was the song that really made me realise I liked this way of writing. With Daze and Headway, there was always this angst-y feel to it, very personal writing. This has been a completely wonderful experience, because even though I’m not writing about myself, I’m sure there’s bits that flicker in and out of every song. I don’t set out to write about myself.”
What are your plans now the album’s out?
“I need to gig it to death, as I’ve got to shift all these cds (laughs). And then I’ve got to find time to write some more. That’s the exciting bit, doing something new”
So how does your writing process work?
“It’s me and a guitar and I go and lock myself in the cellar. I don’t think 'oh I’m going to go off and write a song'. I write the whole thing and then take it to the band and then it all happens.”
- May 29th - Castle Hotel, Manchester
- May 30th - Bluebird Café, Sowerby Bridge
- June 20th - Barista Café Bar, Stockport
- July 5th - Little Bytham Festival