Cathy Jain
Photo: Mae Sass / Press

Cathy Jain — artificial

There are not many people younger than 18 who have the capability of conquering the world of music. But at just 17 years old, Cathy Jain is making a solid case for alt-pop domination. Her debut EP, artificial, has just been released on London’s Yala! Records (Willie J Healey, Egyptian Blue) and she’s already been described by NME as “the coolest kid you know.”

Its four tracks encapsulate themes of realness and authenticity, which are put across almost unexpectedly poignantly by someone so young. Billie Eilish-like undertones pepper Jain’s sonic soundscapes while her lyrics look to Nick Drake and Donovan for their storytelling tendencies.

She has all the right ingredients for a successful musical career in her lap and if artificial is just the beginning, there’s set to be a lot more to look forward to from Cathy Jain very soon.

We spoke to Jain to find out more about growing up in China, being real, and her first-ever gigging experiences (which literally only happened this year). 

Hey Cathy, how have things been for you this year?

I think this year has been the fastest moving of my life. I only started putting out music last year, but since then people have discovered it and I’ve gotten to play at festivals and things. It feels like things are moving a lot quicker now and I love that. I’m ready to take on the next challenge.

You grew up in China, but I’ve noticed you have no accent!

I grew up in China, but I went to an international school and spent around 10 or 11 years there. My friends were from other places like Australia too, so naturally my accent just got messed up!

How did you end up in the UK?

I moved here four years ago mainly for school. I wanted to go to university in the UK and I thought it’d be easier to do that being here for a few years before and settling down. I’m not really sure what I want to study yet, but there’s a London University I’d like to go to to study law and Hong Kong law.

What is the guzheng that you used to play? What other parts of Chinese culture do you like?

The guzheng is a stringed instrument, a bit like a harp. It’s horizontal with 21 strings in the pentatonic scale, it’s a beautiful instrument. I think I started playing it when I was 6 years old. I put it in my first music video, “green screen,” and it’s in quite a few of my new songs that haven’t been released just yet. I think there’s a difference between the entertainment industry in general over in China. Some things that I watch, my friends don’t really watch like Chinese shows, reality programs or even just some music. K-pop and anime were big things there and they’ve also became a big part of my life. Even things like the way people dress there, I’d love to include that more in my personality as a whole because it’s a part of my culture that I’m really proud of.

When did you write your first song?

I think the first proper song I wrote was when I was 9 years old. I’m sure I did lots of really terrible stuff before that, but I remember being really proud of this first full song I wrote. I think it was called “Heartbreak” or something cringey and cliché, obviously!

What musical influences do you have that people might not expect?

I’ve always been really big fans of Nick Drake and Donovan, which I think some people find quite surprising because my music doesn’t really sound like theirs. But I think lyrically, acoustically and how gentle their music is, it all revolves around a storyline. There’s always something beautiful to listen to and I’d love to take more inspiration from that by writing songs that are stories. I think Phoebe Bridgers also does that really well.

Do you feel any sense of pressure being signed to a label like Yala! at such a young age? Is there a sense of expectation that you feel you need to live up to?

I don’t really feel that, especially not with Yala! because the deal that we have is very flexible for me. They let me do my own thing and give me lots of space because they’re aware of my age and that I’m still in school. I’ve met the guys from the label a few times and they’re just so passionate about the music. The last thing they’d want would be to give me pressure. They’re amazing. I think also the fact that I live in the countryside and not in the heart of the city means that I don’t feel that pressure. I’m living in this space that feels so open and fresh, I can continue to develop my artistic skills without feeling any sense of pressure.

What does your debut EP, artificial, explore?

I really like exploring the lyrical concepts of being real, fake, or authentic and what they all mean. I don’t think there’s such a thing as being fake; I think you adapt your personality to different people, which some people might make a big deal out of. But I think the lyrical concepts explored in the EP are really accepting and I hope when people listen to it, they can think that it’s OK to feel unsure sometimes. I think lots of people my age feel that way, so it offers relatable experiences that can also feel unique to each listener. Sonically, I hope it shows people just how much I like to explore. Especially with “green screen,” that song is just twist after twist and I’d like for people to feel excited by it.

What do you think it is that makes a lot of people your age feel unsure? Does social media have a role to play?

I think social media definitely plays a huge part in that. Seeing so many different types of lives online, you might not know who you are anymore; you can feel very easily lost. But I also think it’s a lot do with being a certain age, being in school and trying to find groups that you feel like you belong in. Sometimes, you might feel like you lose a bit of yourself by changing to match a certain energy or group. But as time goes by, there’s definitely more room for people to start to feel more comfortable with themselves.

You mention in the EP’s press release that “the four tracks take a look at how we define what is really ‘real’ when we spend so much of our time either in our own heads or in a virtual world online.” What things do you define as being real?

There isn’t a quality that’s real. I think that you’re real just by being. Even if you’re being fake, you’re still being real because you’re doing that yourself. And it’s completely OK. It’s being able to accept that fact that matters.

Where do you see yourself in five years when you’ll be 22 years old?

Oh my God, 22! I think I definitely want to release an album by then, possibly even two. I’d also like to have a group of people who know the lyrics and resonate with them. If my songs actually make people feel something in a very passionate way, that would be my main goal. Seeing a crowd and hearing them sing songs back to me, anything like that, would make my career awesome.

Speaking of gigs, have you had much of a chance to play live yet?

As a kid, I performed a lot. But as Cathy Jain, my first gig was literally in July this year. I’d never even been to a gig before that either. I was 15 when COVID-19 hit and I was looking forward to going to gigs all of last year, but obviously I couldn’t. So, this year has been my first experience of hearing and playing live music. It’s so exciting; as soon as I do it I wanna do it again. I’m pretty sure my second gig was Latitude Festival, which was a surreal experience. I was thinking, “OMG, this is my second gig, I don’t know what I’m doing,” but I grew a lot from it for sure.

What’s some of your upcoming plans for the year ahead?

We’re actually planning my next big project just now and have some dates lined up for next year. I’ve been working on some songs over summer and now they’re ready to go. I can’t wait to show them to people after this new EP. I think next year will be a great year.