“This time last year, i watched the Brits at home This year I was there, who’d've ever known?”
As a general rule, the last place you’d expect to find the future of British pop would be on a TV talent show. But from the moment it was announced that contestants on Sky 1′s talent quest Must Be The Music would be performing their own songs, and that the judging panel would include E3 microphone ambassador Dizzee Rascal – alongside more traditional authority figures Jamie Cullum and Sharleen Spiteri – it was clear that a few surprises were on the cards. And as download releases of the original songs played by successive heat-winners crashed into the top 10 each week, the phony judging feuds and blatant control-freakery which are more familiar features of the TV talent-show landscape started to seem – for a few happy moments – like a thing of the past.
“Funny how in a short space of time A split decision can change your whole life”
The most striking of these instant hits was “You Took My Heart” – a barnstorming piano-ballad, written and performed by a pair of first year Manchester music-college students calling themselves Pepper & Piano. “They had the auditions in the building opposite college”, remembers demure vocal powerhouse Katie Pepper, “we were stood outside smoking and the security guys off the door were coming down and asking us to do it. We didn’t want to – I think I literally used the words ‘I’m not selling my soul to a reality style show’ – but then we heard this one was all about artists doing their own material, so we decided to give it a try. That’s where ‘Wish It Away’ comes from – we didn’t want to look back in the future and wonder why we didn’t at least have a go”.
“I’m on my way – tomorrow starts today”
By the time Pepper & Piano had to perform in front of 10,000 people at the Wembley Arena live final, it was clear only one of them wanted to be there. “I thrived in that environment, but Emma [a.k.a 'Piano'] really struggled”, Katie remembers, “she was so terrified it was all we could do to get her on the stage. It all worked out really well though, because just as she was realising the whole thing wasn’t for her, Emma found out she was pregnant, which she was really excited about, so she went off to have her baby, and I just got on with making the best of the opportunity I’d been given”.
What happened next really flipped the talent-show script. Katie Pepper found herself forging a unique songwriting partnership with one of the most respected – and formidable – figures in British dance music. Dizzee Rascal’s manager and mentor Nicholas “Cage” Detnon – a man with a production pedigree going back to the early days of UK garage, and co-founder of Dizzee’s trail-blazing independent label Dirtee Stank – was as surprised by this turn of events as anyone.
“To me there were a lot of echoes of when I first met Diz”, he remembers. “She was an artist who just smacked me dead centre in the face from day one as someone who could do really good things, because she’s got a fantastic voice and a really nice energy… Obviously now I know her a bit better cos we’ve written a whole album together I just have to lie about it through gritted teeth, but that’s showbiz”.
After Cage had done a “little dub-steppy remix” of one of Katie’s demo tunes – “just to show how that kind of song could sound with a contemporary production, but still keeping the song the song” – both parties liked it so much they decided to try and write something from scratch. Next thing they knew, this improbable writing partnership had come up with 14 songs in 10 days. More surprising still, they were really good.
“One day sitting at home watching TV The next I’m sitting in the studio with Dizzee”
It’s enough to say that the combination of Katie’s show-stopping voice and Cage’s state-of-the-art production captures that same male/female creative tension which has been at the heart of so much of the most memorable dance music of the last 40 years – from Kurtis Mantronik and Joyce Sims, to Method Man and Mary J., to Rihanna and Eminem. And when Dizzee Rascal jumped in on some of the songs Pepper and Cage had written together, sparks really began to fly.
Katie Pepper is someone with enough life experience to hold her own in such intimidating company. “I always loved garage, hip-hop and r’n'b when I was younger”, she explains, “I practically grew up on [Dizzee Rascal's Mercury Prize-winning debut] Boy In Da Corner… that’s why I was so nervous about singing for Dizzee on Must Be The Music – because I’ve always been a huge fan. It has taken me a while to relax around him, to be honest, but now it’s starting to happen”.
There has been plenty of opportunities for Katie Pepper to build on that new-found confidence this year, when she headed out onto the European festival circuit as an integral part of the Dizzee Rascal roadshow.
“Working with Pepper suits me fine” enthuses Dizzee. “Even though she’s a few years younger than me, she’s quite mature, and I really appreciate the clarity and the thought that she puts into her songwriting. There’s a certain level of class as well, which definitely helps, and on top of that she’s just got a really big voice. We complement each other very well. The first time I saw her sing at the Must Be The Music auditions, she really blew me away. I understood what it took to stand up there because at that stage of my career I hadn’t been on TV, and I could see she had a lot of potential just from the way she handled herself”
“I’ll never wish for tomorrow to come ‘Cos I don’t want today to be done”
“There’s a big new festival tune that we’re going to do together”, Katie reveals excitedly. At this point she bursts out laughing, as if she still can’t quite believe what’s happening to her.
See more from Katie next year as main support for the Rizzle Kicks on tour in March. Her debut single and album will be out next year.