This year we discovered over 300 singers-songwriters who released their very first single. However, Test Card Girl (real name Catherine Burgis) has a massive advantage. She knows exactly what she wants to say with her music as she has been waiting for 36 years to do this. I was fascinated with the idea and wanted to hear more about her journey. And for me, it is a very personal story.
In the music industry, everything is set up in a way that we are mainly focused on encouraging young people to start their career. However ‘young’ is not defined by age. I believe that being young is defined by the state of mind. Catherine and I share the same year of birth and similar passions. We got stories we want to share.
This is not a typical interview as Test Card Girl was extremely honest. I believe that honesty opens many doors in life and brings the right people to make magic happen.
Talking about the sound, Tom Robinson’s (6Music) Fresh on the Net Fresh Faves described her as ‘a glorious mess of retro-synth-sonics’! I’ve been listening to the song on repeat. The beauty is in simplicity. It has meditative power and without even noticing two hours passed by. Now that’s what I call the magic of songwriting.
We will be featuring the song tomorrow on our New Music Sunday playlist and will share a more detailed review, but today we wanted to hear from Catherine about her journey.
Congratulations on your release! Can you tell us about your journey up until your debut single ‘Holds Me Down’?
Thank you! Well it’s taken me a little bit longer than your average artist to get my act together and release a debut single but I’m so glad I have – it’s exciting trying to become the world’s least likely pop star at 36!
I studied music and have worked in music education for most of my career, but always just had huge hang-ups about my own voice, and about being open and vulnerable on stage. When I hit 35 I freaked out a bit that I hadn’t fulfilled any of my dreams (which have been pretty much the same since I was a teenager: front an Indie band, get the ultimate avante-garde haircut and try and make a living from an idea that’s come out of my head).
I had a massive fear of standing on stage so I decided to confront it in quite a nuclear way by doing the Frog and Bucket’s Manchester stand up comedy course and set off on tour with a novelty miniature keyboard. For someone who injects overly-high levels of anxiety into a room, I did alright and won a few competitions. Then in 2018, my other half took me to see John Bramwell from I Am Kloot play live at the Trades Club. It was such an amazing gig. He was supported by a songwriter called Dave Fidler who we had a chat with at the end, and out of nowhere, I found myself announcing that I’d written some songs. He said he had a studio and if I ever wanted to come in and record then I’d be welcome to.
About a year later I plucked up the courage to send him some very badly recorded bedroom demos and he’s been my producer ever since. I decided to fully focus on music this year and ironically started performing live about one week before lockdown hit. But in some ways that was a good thing as it made me focus on developing Test Card Girl as a concept and getting the first single ready for release
What is ‘Holds Me Down’ about? Can you share more about the inspiration behind the track?
It’s about a time in my life when I was a bit lost and making some bad and toxic decisions and then at the same time being helped by great people to get back on track. It’s just three vocal lines that weave in and out of each other and they came into my head on a car journey one day from Manchester to London. I was just starting to mess around with Garageband at the time which I personally think has some amazing synth sounds and recorded a demo of it which hasn’t really changed much other than some great mixing and arranging by Ray Mitchell, my engineer and production and vocals from Dave. It’s still got the original Garageband synths which are very nostalgic for me having been born in 1984. It’s quite a negative song lyrically, but somehow Dave and Ray have managed to pump it and me full of optimism!
What does it mean for you to be releasing music during this historic time?
Well I suppose I was very lucky that I hadn’t really started as a live musician, so didn’t have anything cancelled. I feel so much for musicians who had tours, festivals and gigs cancelled because I know even in a small way how much every performance opportunity means, especially when you’re just starting out.
My day job which is running a childcare business has been hugely stressful and challenging since March. But music-wise I’ve found it a very productive time due in large part to something called the Positive Songs Project set up as a Facebook group during lockdown by two songwriters I didn’t know before – Lobelia Lawson and Richard Lomax (Granfalloon). Before I came across the group I hadn’t touched my guitar in weeks but they set weekly songwriting challenges where you could post demos, works in progress and full songs to a group of some of the most supportive people I’ve ever come across. It’s been absolutely brilliant and it turns out Richard lives three roads away from me in Chorlton so we’re working on a little collaboration at the moment!
You had quite a journey and I am thrilled that there was a moment when you decided that it’s time to start writing music. You are open about the fact that you started writing music only last year at the age of 35. It is so inspiring to see someone more mature who knows exactly what they want to say musically. You are an inspiration for someone like me, the same age as you, who still wants to sing and release music.
Was it difficult to dive into the music world?
So exciting to hear you’re doing the same and I can’t wait to listen!! It’s absolutely been the best decision of my whole life – but also it just wouldn’t have happened without certain people. My partner Mike has been so incredibly encouraging even though it’s quite deeply embarrassing to suddenly have your other half start singing about everything that’s ever happened to them in public. My sister Fliss and the rest of my family too have been brilliant and excited to see the journey develop. And early on Dave suggested I work with a brilliant vocal coach he knew called Hannah Smikle – she has had a completely life-changing affect on my voice and confidence. So where it’s been difficult to stand on stage and sing about very personal stuff (I’m more likely to be found in a pub talking rubbish about nonsense), it’s made me feel like I’m not pretending to be someone anymore, and I’m OK just being myself, faults and all. It’s such a liberating feeling. Other people believing in me and taking a chance have made me believe in myself. Also, being a stand up comedian you have to leave your ego at the door because you can have the most excruciatingly bad gigs and you just have to laugh it off and get back on your comedy horse. My advice to anyone is if you’ve got an idea in your head and you think it’s good, just say it out loud (and buy the domain name immediately!). Then it’s real. And they’ll be an audience for it.
I was an Inbetweener long before the show came outTEST CARD GIRL
What made you delay writing and sharing your music with the world?
I’m not sure exactly where it comes from, because I was brought up by an incredibly loving big family who were always playing and singing, but I’ve always had a completely crippling relationship with my singing voice, and singing my own songs.
We moved to Manchester when I was 9 and so I had to start a new primary school and I had the ‘wrong’ accent, and (I really don’t why?) a briefcase. I was an Inbetweener long before the show came out! So there was always an issue with my voice and self-being ‘wrong’ somehow, more in my own head than anyone else’s.
I think I had some kind of audition to play the third donkey in a Christmas play, and didn’t get the part and it was all downhill from there. Even when I studied music, it was all instrumental and I did everything I could not to open my mouth and sing. I met up with Hannah (Vocal Performance Coaching) for a walk the other day and she was telling me that the consultation form I sent her before starting vocal sessions was one of the longest and most negative about my own voice and why I thought I wasn’t good enough that she’d ever read. She has taken me from an absolute quivering wreck to being confident to release a single and also recommended an amazing vocal therapist called Paul McKenna (not the stage hypnotist!) who runs a free NHS clinic for professional voice users at Wythenshawe Hospital which I couldn’t believe actually existed. His sessions are a combination of CBT, speech therapy, vocal coaching, and loads of other stuff, and again they’ve been life-changing. I wish I’d met all these people when I was 22, but then again I don’t think I would have written the same songs.
Music to me is a window into another world.TEST CARD GIRL
The name Test Card Girl comes from the iconic image of the girl and clown used on UK television to signal the end of evening broadcasting – a girl trapped in a technicolour world of screens and machines. Do you feel trapped in some way?
Very much so. I find the whole world of social media and selfies deeply troubling, although at the same time have got caught up in it over the years and see it as a necessary evil for spreading the word about creative endeavours. If you’d bought a posey picture of yourself into school when I was a teenager you would quickly have been brought down a peg or two, and rightly so. I think it’s sad that, especially female artists, are encouraged to make everything about their image and not about the music. I’ve never been particularly photogenic or good at making myself look like I haven’t gone directly from bed to the outside world, and I just want everything I do to be about the music now.
I just want everything I do to be about the music now.TEST CARD GIRL
That sounds a bit holier than thou, but I think what social media has done to vulnerable people, to children and teenagers, to all of us, is horrendous. Growing up, we never had to live a public curated life as well as our own life with our loved ones and mates, and it would’ve killed me. I admire people so much who just aren’t on it, and are present in their lives which I’ve often struggled with.
I’ve always loved the girl and clown image and used to play being her as a child (such an oddball!) Why is she there? How has the clown who clearly has no hands been able to play noughts and crosses with her? It’s so creepy and surreal but in a great way. I actually found someone who made replicas of the clown and bought one. He’s currently in a box under the bed because he had a bit of an Anabelle vibe! But I may take him with me for gigs, give him a shaker.
I love the fact now that girls and women are just such a broad category of legend and I’m so proud to be one in my own way.TEST CARD GIRL
The other thing I like about the picture is how much the image of ‘a girl’ has changed since I was a child. I hated wearing dresses or being viewed as what was stereotypically ‘girly’ when I was growing up, and I love the fact now that girls and women are just such a broad category of legend and I’m so proud to be one in my own way. There’s still a very long way to go (equal pay etc!) but being a female artist and learning from other brilliant female and non-binary artists who are just themselves (especially loving Billy Nomates in this regard at the moment) feels like a really privileged position to be in.
I’ve got around 20 years of heartbreaks, bad decisions, embarrassing behaviour, re-inventions, and attempted image re-launches behind me since I was 15 so there’s a lot to dip into.TEST CARD GIRL
Where do ideas for songs come from? Tell us more about your creative process.
Well, I’ve got around 20 years of heartbreaks, bad decisions, embarrassing behaviour, re-inventions, and attempted image re-launches (mainly hair-based) behind me since I was 15 so there’s a lot to dip into! One thing I really like about writing songs is, it allows you to process things that happened that might not have been great, but make something good out of them. I’ve heard other people say this, but the process is sort of like just allowing yourself to be taken over by something – I’m not sure what! I can’t really remember writing any of the songs that I like that best because it just happens. It’s one of the most amazing feelings and something I’m so grateful for.
There are times I’ve deliberately set out to write a type of song in a certain style and it just sounds really forced and slightly embarrassing. But when it’s worked better, it’s because I’ve been a bit overwhelmed by memory, happy or sad, or a situation or how much I love someone and want good things for them, or massive anger about some sort of injustice, and then it just flows. And a few wines never did the process any harm. Although I have to say since basically becoming an alcoholic in lockdown, I’ve given up for a bit!
I also really love writing with other people – especially if they’ve written the words. It’s such a privilege if someone trusts you with their music or lyrics to take it somewhere different.
Even though you are just released your first song, you are already working on your debut album. What can we expect sound wise?
I had some incredible news about the album only last week which has made me think I can get a bit more ambitious with the sound and involve some more musicians! Over lockdown with around 2p in my bank account, I applied for a National Lottery Arts Council grant for my first EP, and have just heard that I’ve been successful and they will fund the development, release and launch by next April. It is such a massive confidence boost, and a testament to the people who have made this happen for me, and I’m so excited that I can actually pay them properly now to work on a full album now!
Soundwise, everything will have at its centre a simple folk song with layered harmonies and finger-picked guitar (I really need to learn more than one pattern though – note to self!). Then surrounding that will be a nostalgic world of synthesised sounds – I love thinking back to my childhood and the sounds of toys, TV show themes, old keyboards, anything that has that kind of synthetic lo-fi sound. I’m so lucky to have Dave, his brother Andy Fidler who is the most amazing creative drummer, and Ray who also plays bass creating the sound with me while I geek out on the synths like Ross in friends (‘I played keyboards in college’)! Being able to relax and experiment in the studio is an absolute gift. There are some demos up on Soundcloud that would give you an idea of where we’re going.
Being able to relax and experiment in the studio is an absolute gift.TEST CARD GIRL
Do you have a song, that when you hear it, you’d say, “I wish I’d written that”?
We used to have a bit of a drive to school when I and my brothers and sister were little, and my Mum would play us one of three tapes in the car – Graceland, the Stand by Me Soundtrack, and the Tracy Chapman album that has that on it, Fast Car, Baby Can I Hold You, Behind the wall – and it just got absorbed into my soul. I didn’t know the political context of anything she was singing about, just that she was singing about how things needed to change and she was prepared to stand up and say it. I think it’s shaped so much about me without even realising it, and I wish I was as brave as she is. I haven’t seen her live yet but I know I will one day and it’ll be pretty biblical.
Who would you like to collaborate with?
Again, endless list. I’ve just written a song with Dave called ‘My Summer Song’ which I enjoyed writing so much and will hopefully be on the new EP. Any of the incredible confessional Manchester songwriters – Guy Garvey, John Bramwell, newer influences like Marika Hackman, Susanne Sundfor, Tallest Man on Earth – I really love a newish songwriter called Samantha Whates who has just the most amazing stripped back sound. I’d die if I met Johnny Marr (my boyfriend met him in a record shop when he was 16 and we’ve pretty much never stopped talking about it since!).
The joy of working with anyone who I respect as a songwriter pretty much knows no bounds because it means they’re taking you seriously as a songwriter too and that is enough to make you want to work really hard to create something unique that wouldn’t have happened without the two of you being in the same room.TEST CARD GIRL
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
Just that artists wouldn’t exist without people who actively search out music and share it with their friends and family – so anyone who does that for me I’d like to say a huge thank you and hopefully at some point we’ll meet at an actual gig and I can share some very poorly home-made merchandise with them and a laugh. People make music, so I’d just like to say thanks to anyone who takes a chance on this mad journey with me.
What are your plans for the rest of 2020 and 2021?
Do some exercise and stop eating family-sized bags of crisps, but apart from that now I have the grant I am going to work so hard on pushing the boat out with my new EP and also trying to perform live as much as possible Covid-permitting. I’ve still got a lot of anxiety around this and how I’m going to be able to create a version of my recorded sound live, so a lot of practice is needed. Mainly I’m just going to not be afraid to take any opportunities that come my way but try to take them in measured way and not implode, not always my strong point.
Something I’ve always wanted to do is write music for TV and films too, so I might investigate that a bit further. I also bought a euphonium just before lockdown because I thought being in a brass band would be quite calming. So I’m going to learn how to play that baby (it’s currently taking up around a third of our flat’s square footage).