It’s been a year since Katie Gregson-MacLeod went viral on TikTok with “Complex,” a devastating piano ballad about unrequited love that poised the 22-year-old for singer-songwriter stardom — and she’s still processing it all.
“When your life changes that drastically, that quickly, I don’t think there’s ever any way of processing it,” MacLeod tells Variety over coffee and croissants at a North London café. “I think a lot of this year has just been trying to recenter on the music, trying to recenter on life. It was amazing, so exciting and thrilling and busy — but then you need to come back down. And it can be really scary coming back down.”
Originally hailing from the Scottish Highlands, MacLeod moved to London in January after signing with Columbia Records late last year and releasing the stripped-back EP “Songs Written for Piano.” Her latest effort, the five-track “Big Red” — which released Friday — sees MacLeod branching out more with genre and production while doubling down on her confessional, diaristic lyricism. The EP documents the life cycle of a four-month relationship, from first butterflies to the breakup phone call, and MacLeod doesn’t hold back. In fact, she got the title “Big Red” from the Holloway pub where the couple had their first date, and all the EP’s visuals were also filmed inside its storied walls.
“It’s so anecdotal, so specific,” MacLeod says of the project. “And when it comes to promoting this EP, I’m literally just wincing all the time because I know that he watches my stuff. We’re still on good terms, we’re pals, but I’m just sitting here like, I forget this is real life.”
Below, MacLeod discusses the making of “Big Red,” teases her forthcoming debut album and shares her dream lineup for a Boygenius-esque supergroup.
It’s been about a year since “Complex” blew up and changed your life. What has that experience been like for you?
The world opened up to me in a way that I never could have foreseen for my whole life, let alone for that moment. It’s kind of a weird one, where you’re given so much choice and so much freedom on a platter, and you’re way more debilitated and stagnant in that moment because it’s overwhelming. I felt way more secure as a writer, way more secure in my ambition, way more sure of myself before anyone was listening. You don’t have anyone to prove anything to, and you have to fight in your own corner because no one’s doing it for you, so you’re like, “Yeah, I believe in myself.” Now I’m like, “OK, everyone else believes in me, can I keep up?” It’s a really bizarre thing that happens, there’s never more self doubt than when everyone’s telling you you’re great.
When did you first fall in love with music?
I was a little drama queen when I was wee — probably still am — so I was just always on stage singing, doing musical theater and the writing was always happening. It was probably little short stories and poems when I was really wee, and then I remember my first couple songs when I was 7 or 8. There’s some videos of me singing and playing guitar, singing songs that I’m like, “What were you talking about? Who was this song about?” I was hearing Adele songs and being like “Oh my god, I’m a divorcee,” and I was like 7. It was always part of my life. I didn’t assume I was going to do it in an arrogant way where I was like, “Of course, I’m gonna be a massive star.” But it was more of assuming I’m going to follow that path because I don’t think there’s anything else I could do and be happy.
Let’s talk about “Big Red.” There’s quite a strong narrative in the EP, how did that come about?
I wrote all the songs based on one relationship that I was experiencing at that time. Quite embarrassing now, looking back — because it was like four months and I’ve got a whole EP coming out about it — but you gotta do what you gotta do and it’s all about content, as I say in the EP.
It’s quite vulnerable putting all that out there for the world to hear — does that ever scare you?
It’s the only way I can do it well. I’ve never had any other instinct. But definitely with this EP, I’ve had moments where I’m like, “I might fake it next time.” Because I write so anecdotally and specifically, there’s no words minced. You know exactly where we are, what’s happening, who it is. I love listening to that stuff so I’m OK with that, but at the same time, it’s really hard being online and knowing that you’re being seen by everyone who was involved. Especially since I chose to [name the EP after] the pub, and the references in the music are so specific. The first single was about their ex [“Your Ex”], so I’m just basically being a cunt all the time [laughs].
I’m in a new relationship — super happy, it’s great. But like, it’s fucking hard knowing he’s in the crowd and singing songs that are like, “I want to be your girlfriend,” which I wrote about someone else. I’m like, “This is such a bizarre job.” Very few other jobs require someone to be so specific about your ex all the time, like in front of everyone.
You’re about to set off on tour in November, and with a full band for the first time. How are you prepping for tour life?
I used to play with a band — before “Complex,” I had a four-piece. It was like indie rock, an EP was going to come out. And then I released a piano EP. But I love playing with a band and I’m excited to get back into it. They’re all from Glasgow, so it’s a Scottish base which I think is important for me. And then it just adds a whole different element to the show. I’m used to doing the very stripped, intimate, me chatting, me doing the songs on piano and guitar. I love that, that’s always going to exist in the set because of “Complex.” But the band offers a whole new element to it, a whole new dimension.
Do you ever see yourself going back to those indie-rock roots?
Yeah, for sure. The album is going to be very different from “Songs Written for Piano.” I’m a folky girl at heart, so there’s always going to be those insular, introspective stripped-back songs. But a bit of both, you know?
Who in music do you look up to in terms of how their career has shaken out?
I would love to have that kind of Lucy Dacus-esque, Phoebe Bridgers-esque path, but also, we don’t live in that time anymore. Social media is like — their careers would look so different now. I always say that I want to have that kind of path, but I guess that’s a bit naive to the fact that we are basically at the mercy of virality. And that is what you have to be now to be successful. So I find it hard to foresee how that’s going to look. I mean like Boygenius, for instance, it’s so cool how they have these solo careers and it sounds like such a creatively fulfilling thing to have that side project.
If you’d asked me before “Complex,” I would have said release a bunch of stuff, gig a ton, probably work at a bar at the same time and just see what happens. Now I’m like, “Oh fuck, this is genuinely a possibility. How do I get there?” But I want to release a great album and I want to tour a lot. I think it would be naive to assume that after “Complex” it’s just going to go up. Now it’s like, you’re back down a bit, you need to grow that fanbase. I can’t just be one song.
If you could dream cast your own Boygenius supergroup, who would be in it with you?
This is going to be the most random fucking trio — it’s gonna be Laufey, Maisie Peters and I.
I’d pay to see that. And when can fans expect your debut album?
I’m currently finishing the writing process. I would love it to be next year, but I also know that it takes longer and I don’t want to rush it. I’m really happy with some songs that I have already, and it’s going to be a big challenge. I have a very specific idea about how I want to make it, and the kind of place I want to be in both physically and also spiritually. I would love to be in a place with space, maybe the Highlands. As an artist, that’s fucking terrifying, a debut album. It’s horribly terrifying, but so exciting. And I’m trying to forget the pressure, but the stakes are high.