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The pop industry’s secret weapon

Text by Emily King
Portraits by Benjamin Alexander Huseby
Styling by Mattias Karlsson
Issue n° 2, Autumn & Winter 2010

Decked out in Lycra catsuits and a fine pair of Dr. Martens, Cathy Dennis from Norwich, UK, enjoyed estimable chart success at the start of the ’90s. Her cheerful, happy-house hits brought her particular fame in the US, thanks also to her cameos in the popular television series Beverly Hills 90210.

But more than for her name, her signature bob hairdo or her crystal-clear voice, the world knows Cathy for the blockbuster mega hits she has penned for and with today’s biggest pop stars: Britney, Kylie, Katy Perry, Will Young, Sugababes, Diana Vickers, S Club 7. ‘I Kissed a Girl’? That’s Cathy Dennis. ‘Toxic’? Cathy Dennis. The songwriter still sings, though, and is now about to release a new album of her own, if only she can keep her songs out of today’s teenyboppers’ hands.

Recall Kylie in her yellow sports car speeding toward the digital city, her red-leather-gloved right hand reaching to change gear in one smooth motion, her head peeping over the dashboard and swaying gently to the rhythm. A soft electronic purr, a glance over to the passenger seat, back to profile, flick of the chin, then ‘La la la, la la, la la, la.’

The first 15 seconds of the video for Kylie’s 2001 hit ‘Can’t Get You Out of My Head’ are still charged with anticipation. The line, when it comes, is the kind associated with much-mocked Eurovision hits of the ‘Boom Bang-a-Bang’ school, yet in this context ‘La la la’ is a perfectly formed, completely satisfying phrase. Over the next three minutes fifty, the minimally worded, maximally rounded song swells and falls in a way so satisfying it creates a perverse longing for just that bit more, a pleasurably desirous itch. The song’s self-referentiality – like all the best pop, you can’t get it out of your head – has made it a favourite of highbrow music critics and pop fans alike.

“I have never written a song that quickly and stopped myself interfering with it later,” says Cathy, recalling the composition of ‘Can’t Get You Out of My Head’. “Normally, when something comes out, you have to pick it to pieces, and, errm,” she pauses and reflects. “I don’t know why, but that day I just didn’t feel like pulling it apart.” The track was released in the week after the attack on the World Trade Center, and in direct competition with Victoria Beckham’s now entirely forgotten, ‘Not Such an Innocent Girl’. It sold more than a million copies in the UK, reached the top of the chart of every European country bar one, and remains Kylie’s unofficial theme tune.

Key to the star’s successful transition from pint-sized dancing queen to replicant rhythm diva was the recognisable authorship of Cathy and her co-author Rob Davis (formerly the guitarist of ’70s quasi-parodic glam-rock band Mud). Shifting the vocal pace a shade slower than previous hit ‘Spinning Around’, yet keeping the rhythm relentless, Cathy and Ray lent Kylie’s new, darker persona a ring of truth.

Perhaps because she’s a performer herself, there’s a shadowy sense of ventriloquism around all of Cathy’s greatest hits. Apart from ‘Can’t Get You Out of My Head’, these include Kylie’s follow-up hit ‘Come into My World’, Britney Spears’s masterwork ‘Toxic’ and Katy Perry’s sit-up-and-listen track ‘I Kissed a Girl’. Significantly, barring Will Young’s number-one ‘Anything Is Possible’, which was co-written with the singer, all her most successful tunes have been sung by women. “It’s difficult for me to get inside a guy’s head,” she says. “I am just not cold enough to write as a guy. A lot of the stuff that I want to say is just too frilly – even though I don’t consider myself to be girly, or frilly – but I am very emotional and I think guys are less so.” Along the same lines, Cathy’s fellow songwriter Eg White (responsible for Will Young’s ‘Leave Right Now’) has admitted, “Secretly, you are always writing for yourself.”

Not just audible in the lyrics, Cathy’s ghost also appears in the expression and phrasing of her songs. In the case of ‘Toxic’, she sat in a studio with Britney and taught her how to sing the demo. Having taken to the stage herself at the age of 13, Cathy has an inside-out understanding of the vocal gymnastics required in pursuit of pop princessdom. While she has never officially retired from performing, her decision to step out of the spotlight and concentrate on writing adds poignancy to her appreciation of those who remain in the full glare. “She’s just got charisma,” she says of Britney. “She’s an exciting person to be around and she’s fun. She can turn up wearing gym clothes, and there is still an electricity about her.” Asked about other singers she admires, she mentions Pink. “She’s an incredible singer, just effortless. Everything she does has such power and throttle behind it,” she says with a touch of yearning.

The most intense relationship between writer and performer emerges from co-authorship. Currently on the rise in the music industry, it can be a tricky process, with singers craving credibility and royalties, but having very little to add creatively. Cathy is largely diplomatic. “This year I have been working with artists a lot and mostly I’ve enjoyed it. Of course there are times when people don’t pull their weight. It’s annoying when you give them half a song and you think, ‘Well, you didn’t do anything other than say yes and no!’ But I have said many times over the past year, and I should remind myself right now, that I just don’t think it’s cool to start breaking down who did what in terms of input. What’s done is done.” And, always keen to put in a word for industrious young women, she adds, “I’ve been working with Pixie Lott a lot recently. I really like her and I think she’s hugely talented. She has much more depth than you would think on first impression, or just by listening to a few songs.”

In spite of her proven pop genius, Cathy confesses to initially missing the point of some of her most successful songs. Discussing ‘I Kissed a Girl’ (a song that remains a mainstay of my guilty pleasures playlist) I get the sense she remains slightly detached, but, more surprising to me, she even admits to having been confused by ‘Toxic’. “Some of my stuff I just couldn’t get, and ‘Toxic’ is a great example, It’s not that I didn’t like it, I just thought it was too odd, too complicated. I felt like I had been so in my head that I couldn’t judge.” Fortunately, it is the business of A&R (artists and repertoire) people to elevate these songs and find their singers. “The really strange thing about this process,” she says, “is that you learn to trust in one thing: that songs will end up where they’re supposed to go.”

Cathy was raised in the English county of Norfolk, spending her first twelve years “in the middle of a beetroot field, a mile from the nearest bus stop” and her teens living in the centre of Norwich, “right next to Tesco, listening to its enormous lorries coming in at five in the morning”. Her most vivid memory of the move is discovering “the smell of concrete when the rain hits”. It was an urban setting, but not the kind most often associated with the origins of popular music. Cathy’s parents were musicians; her mum met her dad when she auditioned as the singer for his band. Rejected the first time round, Cathy’s mother made the grade six months later, and although she has long stopped performing, “she still sings when she does the washing up”.

Cathy’s father’s passions were jazz and classical music, but as a member of a commercial band he kept himself up to date by listening to the Top 40 on the radio every Sunday. Although music-infused, her childhood was more informed by entrepreneurship than bohemianism. Alongside the band, her father “kept himself busy with all sorts of different ventures and property developing”, and for the last 20 years her parents have run a restaurant. Nonetheless, what Cathy describes as her “musical gene” is very strong. “Everyone in the family is musical; even though we are all doing different things, we’re all passionate about it. My sister is writing as well, and my brother plays the bass guitar.”

In the opening image, Cathy wears a mohair wool coat by CHRISTIAN DIOR. Here, Cathy shows off the neat tailoring of a black wool jacket by ALEXANDER McQUEEN over a black lace top by GIVENCHY. Her black, asymmetrical pencil skirt is by VIVIENNE WESTWOOD RED LABEL.

Cathy remembers “piddling around on a piano since I was nine”, but admits that she didn’t take to music at school and claims still not to play anything properly. “I played in the school orchestra and did a terrible job on the flute, but I didn’t really get into it because I already had my teeth firmly into pop music. Most of all, I loved talking about it with my friends; it was something that we could relate to.” Her first female idol was Agnetha Fältskog from Abba, but more than simply holding the hairbrush and singing to the mirror, Cathy soon found herself breaking down the structure and production values of their songs.

By 15, encouraged by her father, she was already singing with covers bands at local venues. Having discovered the fun to be had in changing things on existing songs, she rented a studio in Norwich in a bid to record a track. The session came to nothing in chart terms, but Cathy was set on course. To an extent, she says she feels liberated by her lack of formal music training. “Growing up listening to jazz and classical, but always loving pop, I feel my ears are quite complicated. I can find things and it doesn’t really matter that I don’t know what I’m playing. I have learnt that there are certain chords that I understand.”

Certain chords?

“Yes, I like elevenths; I like the tension. They touch something emotionally and they have a nice kind of friction. And I like fifths as well. They’re my two favourites.”

Cathy was ‘discovered’ by pop svengali Simon Fuller when she was 17. The setting was Norwich’s Mecca ballroom, “a really lovely room, full of deep purple velvet booths”, now sadly destroyed by conversion into a bingo hall. Dressed in a brightly coloured, glitzy outfit, perhaps satin culottes and a boob tube (“You can wear anything when you’re younger and look pretty good, can’t you?”), Cathy was belting out the covers when Fuller, a fledgling independent manager fresh from his triumph with client Paul Hardcastle’s smash hit ‘19’, stopped by on the hunt for a female singer. Cathy was not daunted by the knowledge that Fuller was in the audience. “Well, he wasn’t anyone at the time, that’s the thing. He was Paul Hardcastle’s manager, and Paul Hardcastle’s manager was as insignificant as anyone else, you know?”

Years on, she is still in the stable of 19 Entertainment (Fuller named his business after the song), where her and Fuller’s histories are closely bound. “There are parallels, yes. One of the good things about being around Simon for 20-odd years is that I have been inspired by the way that he has gone about things. I am very lucky; of all the people I could have had around me, I was blessed that he was not only such a great human being but also strong, kind of fearless. All that stuff rubs off on you.” These days Cathy is managed alongside sports stars such as David Beckham and Andy Murray, fashion designers including Roland Mouret and the latter incarnation of Victoria Beckham, plus TV franchises including Little Britain USA and, most important of all, American Idol (according to 19’s website, “one of the most successful TV shows in the history of American broadcasting”). It seems like a seismic leap from being simply Paul Hardcastle’s manager, but Cathy insists that little has changed. “Simon is exactly the same person as he was in 1986. He has always had huge dreams. The difference now is that when he says, ‘I have an idea,’ everyone’s ears prick up.”

Cathy first experienced chart success singing with the house-music crew D Mob, but her performing career peaked with the 1991 solo single ‘Touch Me (All Night Long)’, a cover of an earlier R&B hit that she partially rewrote. Redolent of its era, the video for the song shows Cathy in a series of Lycra bodysuits, black against bright or bright against black. Her shiny red hair is cut in an angular bob, her lips are drawn in tomato red and the Dr. Martens she wears on her feet permit a bouncy, energetic dance style. She is as convincing as any other pop starlet, yet footage of interviews from the period suggests she was unhappy in the public eye.

“I felt torn by the fact that I love pop music, but instinctively, I am darker than that,” she explains of her awkward TV appearances. “I stopped performing because I was scared of misrepresenting myself, so I just thought I would rather not do it at all. I have a fear of being misunderstood and it really bothers me.” Even sitting over a cappuccino in a café close to her home in Richmond, London, Cathy is an uncomfortable interview subject. Wearing a stripy blue-and-white dress, black tights, ballet pumps and a thin silk parka, she is girlish and approachable, but as soon as I start asking questions I feel I am pinning her down by her delicate shoulders and forcing answers from her. Cathy knows this and is almost apologetic. “I do have trust issues,” she explains. “I should really check myself in somewhere, but, you know, you learn to accept who you are.”

In the early ’90s, she shifted the emphasis of her career toward writing. In terms of shaping her current activities, perhaps the biggest impetus was the rise of the Spice Girls, the manufactured band who signed with Fuller in 1995. “They changed everything and I missed that boat,” she explains. “I tried to get involved, but I just wasn’t good enough. I had just come from being an artist and I was too self-indulgent. I didn’t understand it, and I didn’t want to understand it, because I didn’t think I needed to.” Recalling that extraordinary era in 19’s history, she says, “It was so strange to be so close to them, to watch these five girls, who were just girls, become a phenomenon. Bear in mind I have seen this happen a number of times now, but it was difficult to be so close to it and not be affected. I am sure everybody who had any affiliation with 19 was altered in some way, whether they were inspired or gutted.”

“So the next time Simon had something going on, I said, ‘Right, I’m gonna see if I can give him what he’s looking for this time,’ and when it came to S Club 7 – Fuller’s next manufactured band, pulled together in 1997 – I felt I could be more accommodating. Remember, it was a point in my life when I hadn’t got any money, probably because I’d spent it all on clothes, so I decided to put down some of my snobby musical values about what I can and can’t allow myself to do.” Cathy then learnt to “make things work for other people”. Overcoming a distaste for the teenybop production of her S Club 7 tracks, the most successful of which was the BBC Children in Need charity song ‘Never Had a Dream Come True’ in 2000, she hardened herself and became what she describes as “lyrically dependable”.

Cathy takes one last sip before her portrait session. Reserved in conversation, she’s quite the performer on set, and the camera just loves her. Cathy is in a black silk dress by VIVIENNE WESTWOOD GOLD LABEL. Her gold Skyline necklace and bangles are by MAWI.

“I have spent a good chunk of my life feeling tortured,” says Cathy. She underplays the admission with a giggle, and even an apology, but the feelings are obviously profound. “Although I write pop music, it’s an effort.” Matching her preference for avant-garde fashion – she has a penchant for Margiela and Comme des Garçons – her musical tastes include the Smiths, Echo & the Bunnymen and the Cure. Although Cathy hints that these post-punk bands’ music is the flipside to her own work, in reality they all have a strong relationship with pop. If anything, the gloom of their message is magnified by regular brushes with pop’s relentless optimism.

In fact, you don’t have to stray away from pop at all to find great swathes of misery. The lyrics of Cathy’s first idols, Abba, touched on sadness from the start, but in their last album, The Visitors, the fallout from their broken marriages was laid bare (“One of us is lying in her lonely bed, staring at the ceiling, wishing she were somewhere else instead”). Perhaps the creation of pop, the process of delivering exactly what people desire, forcing them to acknowledge the extent and nature of that desire, is dark in its very essence. When I put this theory to Cathy in an email after our interview, she responds, “I think pop and darkness can sit comfortably/uncomfortably together. It is the friction between the two that is fulfilling.”

Of her own emotional path, Cathy says, “I was very happy-go-lucky in my early teens, but then in my mid 20s I suddenly started to look at life through different spectacles.” “After the end of my first relationship, it was like, ‘Ooop, all of a sudden, this is the real world.’” About her current love life, she confesses, “I just keep getting it wrong and wrong and wrong. It goes wrong every time. You either become a cynic or you think, ‘Ah well, it’s just going to go wrong, so whatever...’” A number of her songs deal with regret, among them ‘About You Now’ – recorded by the Sugababes. “Can we bring yesterday back around?” wails Keisha. “Cause I know how I feel about you now.” Her break-up songs can be a little more feisty, though. In the brilliantly titled ‘Sweet Dreams My LA Ex’, sung by ex-S Club 7-er Rachel Stevens, the departing partner is instructed: “Hang your red gloves up cause there’s nothing left to prove now,” and the song draws to a close with a series of semi-sung put downs: “Do you think I give a damn (L.A. Ex)? Do you think that I’m the fairer (S-E-X)?”

Obsession and addiction are common Cathy themes. Taking it up a notch from Kylie’s “I just can’t get you out of my head, boy, your love is all I think about,” in ‘Toxic’ she has Britney sing, “With a taste of your poison paradise, I am addicted to you. Don’t you know that you’re toxic?” Of her own take on these issues, she says, “I think at a point in my life I felt in control of everything, my whole life, because I had stupidly found a way to control it all. There is a painful process that you need to go through to actually realise what you’re doing.”

Cathy’s current desire is to write and record an album “that no one will want to buy”. “I’ve been working on my solo record for the last two and a half years. I keep prioritising other people’s work over my own, but it’s finally finished.” The project is called Sex Cassettes, and one of its supposed songs has already seen the light: ‘Once’, the Diana Vickers track that she wrote with Eg White, was originally meant to be Cathy’s own. “I’m only gonna let you kill me once. I’m only gonna let you kill me, then some.” It doesn’t paint a happy scene, but sung by the X Factor graduate it stormed to number one. Whatever her uncommercial aims for her self-recorded songs, Cathy might have to work quite hard to keep them from being similarly successful.

A couple of days after our interview, Cathy allows me the unprecedented privilege of watching her at work composing a song. In constant demand, both as part of the 19 machine and beyond, she spends a good part of her time writing. Her recent collaborators include just about everyone who’s hot and many who are cool, too, from Christina Aguilera to Mark Ronson. On the day I’m allowed in, Cathy is working with Ben Cullum, brother of jazz performer Jamie. Usually she sticks to the convention of working in a pair, but she likes to write with lots of different people. “That’s the control freak in me; I am untrusting and I can’t allow myself to depend on one person,” she confesses. Apart from Cullum, Rob Davis and Eg White, she enjoys writing with Greg Kurstin, Chris Rojas and Chris Braide.

The session takes place at Cullum’s studio in his home in west London. The large part of the room is taken up with electronic equipment, and Cullum is at the controls, alert to Cathy’s requests to isolate certain bars, autotune her pre-sung vocals, type in fragments of lyrics and so on. Cathy, meanwhile, sits to one side, writing longhand in a large hardcover notebook. Dressed in a white shirt and tartan mini, with her hair in a bunch, and wearing large sunglasses, she has her shoes off and her black-stockinged feet resting lightly on a stool.

The melody is already written, and the chorus rolls around and around as the two of them play with words and phrases, looking for “something emotional that comes out lyrically”. Cathy tells me that most songs are written this way – tune first, words later – and, in terms of a lyric, nine songs out of ten will start as a blank canvas. Although Cathy strives not to “meddle so much that it loses its passion”, it is clearly an exacting business. The track is already destined for a particular singer (her identity is top-secret), and Cullum speculates with Cathy about the anonymous singer’s beliefs and the qualities of her voice. Yet this seems to be something of an aside. Cathy, in particular, does not appear to be looking to express anything other than the sentiment of the melody.

Just remember: ‘La la la, la la, la la, la’.