Katie O’Donnell is a young Western Australian performer with a great voice, catchy songs and a memorable head of flame-red hair (as her EP cover shows). And my true confession is that I meant to publish this interview several weeks ago and it became a casualty of me having a rather hectic day job – and misfiling the transcription! So with apologies to Katie for my tardiness, here’s the chat we had about her debut release, Fireproof.
This is the first part of a multi-part interview.
Katie, you’ve created an ear worm for me, ’cause I can’t get ‘Fireproof’ out of my head.
Oh really? Well that’s awesome.
The last few days I just keep thinking, what’s that song in my head? Oh, it’s Katie’s song.
Sorry about that! That’s very good. Great for me. Not so good for you.
Oh, it’s fine for me because it’s a great song. It’s really, really catchy and I actually think it’s really hard to write catchy songs. There aren’t that many of them in the world when you think about it out of all the songs that are written.
Oh well, thank you very much. That’s lovely.
How long have you been songwriting?
It’s a really new, kind of, endeavour for me. I don’t know how much you know about me, but because I’m in a wheelchair I can’t actually play anything, so for three or four years I’ve had lyrics going through my head and kind of developing melodies and stuff, but it really has only been in the last 12 months that I’ve really said no, look, I want to do this and actually found the right musicians, so I’ve been able to kind of connect with what I’m hearing in my head. And actually put together what I’m imagining and what I’m trying to explain to actually produce the kind of sound that I was after, so I’ve been really fortunate and lucky the way that it’s all worked out.
You say you don’t play anything, but the voice is an instrument, and a very powerful one, so I would imagine when you were talking to these musicians you were singing them the melody that you were hearing.
Exactly. So singing them the melody and then trying to explain in my layman’s terms what I was imagining and what I was hearing and what I wanted, the kind of sound and style that I wanted – and they got it exactly. don’t know what that says about their state of mind, but they were able to kind of connect like that, so it was great in the end.
Your voice is really strong in the mix of these songs and if we could call them voice-led songs, because that’s how you compose them, obviously the producer understood that as well?
Yeah. And I think probably as you say too, because they really did start from purely just the melody and so, you know, I think when I was writing them I tried to make that as strong as I could as well, so I think that might stand out more than a lot of some of the instruments as well.
So you’ve done a lot a of singing I think with a choir, or more than one choir perhaps, and is it kind of scarier on your own, or does it feel like you were always meant to sing on your own?
I’ve been really fortunate with the choir to have a fair amount of solos and opportunity to represent the choir in a solo capacity, where I have, kind of, been out on my own, so I really, really enjoy that. But it’s definitely very, very different to have that sole focus on you and no one else to kind of back you up, so I am still adjusting to it and every performance that I do I’m getting more comfortable with it.
And you mentioned you’re in a wheelchair – I’m really curious, and I hope you don’t mind me asking, but from a physiological point of view, I know that I don’t sing as powerfully when I’m sitting down as I do when I’m standing up, so I’m just wondering for you – because your voice is not exactly weak, so I’m just wondering what kind of adjustments you might have had to make to be able to sing with that amount of power?
Well, I don’t really know. I guess for me, because I did used to be able to walk around, but I certainly wasn’t performing on stage when I was still walking, so by the time I really started seriously performing I was already in the wheelchair, so I have nothing to compare it to. So in my mind this is just how everyone sings, but by the same token, you know, my lung capacity is only about 30 per cent, or 35 per cent compared to the average person out there. So, you know, you work with you’ve got and I guess when you do this every day and you just find little knacks and ways of doing it, and sometimes it’s in the phrasing or in a melody and stuff like that. But it’s just what it is and you kind of have to work with it.
And I guess also singing voices do come from somewhere else a lot of the time. It’s not just the lungs and the larynx and that sort of thing – it’s an expression. So I guess for you – well, for anyone singing – that’s where a lot of that power comes from. At what age did you start singing?
I first started when I was probably about eight and then I gave it up for a little while and then I started again when I was 12 and then I haven’t stopped since. So that was when I first started doing some public performances and deciding, you know, that I really wanted to pursue it, so and that’s more than half my life now. I’m turning 30 next month, so yeah – a long time.
Part II will be published very soon.
Fireproof by Katie O’Donnell is out now.