Katy Vernon talks about facing her fears through music

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Katy Vernon's "Suit of Hearts." (Photo courtesy of the artist.)
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Katy Vernon isn't satisfied with just wearing hear heart on her sleeve — so she stitched herself an entire suit of hearts. The singer-songwriter has always addressed personal themes in her music, often pairing dark lyrics with her cheerful signature instrument, the ukulele. On Suit of Hearts, Vernon addresses themes from confronting grief and finding confidence as a musician to rediscovering her family's roots.

Vernon wrote many of the album's songs while traveling around the UK. Born and raised in South London, Vernon moved to Minnesota when she was 21. After feeling lost from juggling part-time jobs and disconnected from a sense of home, Vernon accepted an invitation to perform at two ukulele festivals in the UK, and spent the weeks between them on a solo tour. While there, she visited the hospice where her mother passed away, reconnected with a cousin she hadn't seen in 30 years, and traveled alone for the first time. "That was so much of what that tour was about — just facing my fears," said Vernon.

Vernon is debuting Suit of Hearts at the Parkway Theater this Saturday. Ahead of the concert, she joined Andrea Swensson on the Local Show to talk about the journey that inspired her latest album and finding recovery in writing vulnerable music.

Below is a partial transcription of their conversation. Click the player above to listen to the full interview.

I have this impression that you have just poured your entire heart into this album; it seems very personal.

Yeah, really personal. My songs always were personal, but I think other CDs that I've done, I've thought of them more of them as a setlist — which I enjoy, I don't think there's anything wrong in that. But this one was really like, "This is a story." This is going to chronicle where I've been, where I'm at right now, and where I'm going, and really delve deep into what I was going through at the time — and songs written in real time. I've written sad songs about memories that have been with me, people in my life I miss, but this one was like, "I'm going through this right now, and I'm going to use this song to figure out how to get through it."

You really get that sense from listening to it — that it's a lot of processing, and perhaps catharsis as well.

I knew that I was going through heavy stuff, but I wanted to write a record to help me get through it, and hopefully show the possibilities that no matter how much you are facing in your life or how low you feel, I wanted to offer songs that show you can get out of that. Maybe you have to do that yourself, and obviously ask for help from the people around you. That was very much digging myself out of where I was at.

When was the earliest that you started working on this album, and what was going on in your life at that time?

The first song I wrote is the song "Home." In the summer of 2016 I was feeling very homesick; I was in a job I didn't like, really quite difficult, challenging job. It was a part-time job, I thought I could juggle my music and my job really well — turned out it wasn't going well. I realized that I missed my home, and then had a very strange feeling of not even knowing what my home was. I've lived half my life in the UK, born and raised there, half my life here, and didn't even really feel a sense of where I belonged.

More importantly, at that time I was also very newly sober, and realizing that I was still blaming myself a lot for drinking. Even though I stopped I was experiencing so much self-doubt and blaming myself for all of that. I began to wake up to the fact that maybe my drinking was not the only issue, and that [the issue] was the reasons why I had been drinking. A lot of that had to do with literally self-medicating against feelings I was having, and also I had a lifelong health condition that was causing pain.

So I got myself to the doctor, and I was diagnosed with depression, and that was the beginning of realizing that it wasn't my fault that I felt the way I did. Not to alleviate that there was nothing I could do about it, but actually the reverse of that — that I could do something about it; I could seek help and get better. I realized that I had really been grieving for about 30 years, and I always thought that was what was wrong with me, and I wondered why I couldn't get over it. I blamed myself for not being able to just move on in life.

It wasn't until my brain and my head got clear of alcohol — and I was diagnosed with depression — and I was like, "Oh, maybe it's not just my fault." I couldn't shift myself out of that sadness. Through a diagnosis and starting medication, the fog started to lift, and I realized, "Oh, this is something fixable." That was when I quit my job, and under the encouragement of my husband, I accepted an invitation to play a couple of ukulele fests in the UK. They were six weeks apart, and I really agonized, "Which one should I do?" They were both great, and my husband was like, "Just go, just do both and tour in between. Just leave." So I did, for the first time; really jumped into being a musician and not worrying that it was my side-hustle, and just literally taking myself seriously as a musician, going "I'm sober, I'm on medication, I'm just going to commit to this."

Had you ever done traveling alone like that before?

No. It's funny, because sometimes people think that you're an international traveler, because I've been lucky enough to travel. But it's never been by myself, and it's never been as a working musician. I've done the road-warrior kind of gigs in Chicago and Wisconsin, but I had never ever done a tour. I booked these gigs in all different parts of the UK. In one day I realized I took a train, a car, a bus, and I ended up on a narrow boat in North Wales with a complete stranger; we knew each other just through setting up the session. He records musicians from all over the world on his narrow boat in North Wales. There was not even an address; you just follow the canal path until you find him. I ended up staying the night on his narrow boat, there was nowhere else to go. To do all of that independently, by myself, was just incredible.

That seems like it would be such an interesting way to process what's been going on — to fully remove yourself from your life and your day-to-day grind of family and jobs and just focus on yourself and your music.

It was hugely transformative. There are many a bedroom musician who looks at someone like Bon Iver, and thinks, "What would I come up with if I was ever in a cabin by myself for a week?" I think especially as a wife and a mom — they weren't shackling me in any means — but I always put other people first. I feel selfish enough that I gig all the time, and I commit to my weekly band practice, so I'm certainly not saying I don't have me-time. But six weeks of traveling and playing music with nothing else to do was such a gift to myself — and terrifying. The prospect of being completely alone, and newly sober, too. To be in the UK with pubs literally on every corner was scary, but I knew I had to prove to myself, "I can do this. This is my job. There's no one else I have to prove anything to except myself, and I'm going to travel and stay sober and really enjoy every moment." It was such an adventure.

Tell us a little bit more about the show coming up this weekend.

It's going to be at the Parkway [Theater], which really is a dream. I knew that I wanted to have people really sit down and listen. That can be a challenge, but I really deliberately picked a theater to have a special send-off for it. When doors open at 7 we're going to meet and gather in the lobby, and anyone who wants to can be involved in filming a music video. For that hour we're going to intentionally have people take part in that. The title track is what we are going to be filming: "Suit of Hearts." I really wanted everyone there to take that on as everyday acts of bravery. It's definitely not just a song about me; I want everyone to share what they feel brave about.

So that will kick off the evening, and Tori Evans will be starting the show. She is a 16 year-old ukulele player who I've somewhat taken under my wing. We've now done a couple of ukulele fests together and she's just absolutely taken off. She's popping up all over town playing, she's a great songwriter. Then Dan Israel's full band will be playing, and then the Prairie Fire Lady Choir will be doing a short set of their own, which is such a dream come true because they will be singing with us for the last song. And we will be joined onstage with the Laurel Strings. We practiced with them last night and it was just goosebumps.

I'm just a cheesy theater kid at the end of the day. To have the opportunity to put on a show is a dream come true.

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  • Katy Vernon performs in the Radio Heartland studio Katy Vernon's new album is 'Suit of Hearts'; the songs on the album deal with sadness and regret, but when you listen, you hear a woman also finding strength and opening doors to a brighter future. Vernon and her band recently stopped in for a session at Radio Heartland.

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