A conversation with Girl K

BY SUSANNA KEMP

Photo by Maddie Rogers

Girl K makes tunes that are catchy and irresistible. I first saw the band the spring before last when they opened for a show I was covering at Beat Kitchen. My friend and I weren’t familiar with any of their music, but we couldn’t help dancing. 

With Kathy Patino on vocals and guitar, Kevin Sheppard on guitar, Alex Pieczynski on bass and Tony Mest on drums, the Chicago indie rock band is wrapping up their third full-length album, Girl K Is for the People. Sheppard, Pieczynski and Mest joined Patino after she’d written some of the songs on For Now, her sophomore album, and so Girl K’s new LP will be the first that Patino has developed entirely with other musicians. I caught up with the band (over Zoom and graced with the presence of Mest’s dog) to chat about Chicago, Girl K Is for the People and Patino’s love of pop music.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

WNUR: This is such a weird, sheltered time with the pandemic, and I’m missing live music a lot, so I’m wondering what the Chicago music scene has been like for you as artists? 

Patino: I think it’s kind of like magic. It’s just so exciting when you’re brand new to it, ‘cause you just don’t know that it exists until you’re in it. And then you just make so many friendships, and people are so supportive. I feel like some music-heavy cities have a really strong sense of competition floating from musicians to musicians, but here it’s like everyone’s homies and trying to help each other out. It’s like a little family. Even the musicians are supportive of the venues in the city and the venues are supportive of musicians. 

Pieczynski: Even before I played in any bands, being able to see basically every band that was on tour – because everyone goes through Chicago – that was super cool. So when I was younger, I got to see all my favorite bands, and I still do. And then getting started playing shows in Chicago was super easy. There’s a lot of very accessible venues at the beginning, and there’s a lot of house venues. And then it’s very clear what the next steps are – there’s a bigger venue you can play. It’s been really easy to get into and really easy to know where you can progress within Chicago. 

WNUR: How did you wind up here? 

Patino: I’m from Minooka, which is 20 minutes south from Joliet. From the get-go, I always hated suburban life, and I just had dreams of living in a city. I used to want to go live in New York, but that was pretty unrealistic considering that my parents didn’t even want me to move out of the house to go to school. So I ended up going to school at UIC and then slowly – through music, too – developed a life in the city, and it just made sense to move there.

WNUR: So you’re working on a new record. How’s that going?

Patino: The record is going to be called Girl K Is for the People, which was not a title that came about during Covid times. Literally all of these songs were written before the pandemic. But it’s kind of nice to be vocal about wanting to be music that’s universal and for everybody. We’re at the very end of the mixing and recording process. So it’s so close but also not close to being done, because there’s just so much other stuff you have to do after recording is done. It can’t just be like, I’m done, let’s put it out. It’s like, “It’s done, let me send 1,000 emails.”

Pieczynski: Yeah, this process is a little different than it usually is. You know, we can’t do a release show right now. So it’s like, do we hold off until we can play a release show? Or do we just put it out anyways? There’s always that kind of that kind of dilemma that people go through. People have been creative in different ways that they’ve released albums throughout 2020. So maybe that’ll be the way we do things, but we’ll have to think about it more.

Patino: I feel like it’s just been in our possession. It’s not even finished yet. But I feel like we’ve been working on this album for 10,000 years, I’m so ready to just release music, because I’ve been writing new music. I’m just like, I want to start working on [new music], so I want this [record] out of the way. But I also don’t want to feel that way toward the project because we put so much time into it. I want it to also have its moment. Releasing it during a pandemic would kind of suck, but if that’s its time, then that’s its time. As long as we did everything in our power to execute this album and release it, then it works out.

Sheppard: We did get the chance to play a lot of these songs live before everything shut down. So that was really cool. So even if we don’t get to do a real release show for this album, I don’t think it would be too much of a shame. And we can always play the songs after the album comes out. The Sleeping Village show the last time we played, I remember Kathy saying backstage, ‘This is basically like the release show, but there’s no actual release.’

Patino: That’s true. We literally played, like, all the songs on the album, I think, that day. 

WNUR: How does the sound on this new album and the songwriting compare to your past stuff? 

Patino: I think it’s better. What do you guys think?

Sheppard: It’s better. [On] our first full-band record, For Now, we’re very much a four piece with two guitars and bass and drums and vocals. It’s a rock band, more or less. And now I feel like it’s not quite experimental, but it’s different. There’s a lot of different timbres and textures that we’re playing with.

Mest: Yeah, I definitely think it’s more of what we want to say as a group. I think it does that better. It’s just more cohesive. Everyone’s on the same page and trying to get the sounds right for the song.

Sheppard: Just the timing of it, too. I think three of the songs on the For Now record are from before we were even in the band. It kind of changes, then, when it’s these songs that have existed for a long time versus these songs that have been developed with us internally.

WNUR: Kathy, I know you’ve done most of the songwriting on your own in the past. Was that the case for this album too, or did you all work more collaboratively on it?

Patino: It’s kind of stayed a little bit the same in the sense that I continue to write the songs on my own. But now, I bring it to the guys and I am listening for opinions. I’m listening for what they add to the song initially, and then we play off of that. If I bring a song to them and Kevin is just noodling on the guitar trying to figure out something, I’d be like, “Stop, that sounded cool. Do that.” It’s also helpful because these guys really care about the music, and they’ll let me know if the structure of the song sounds funky or something. They’ve become a part of the process for sure.

Mest: Yeah, I’m definitely not afraid to voice my opinion, in general. That’s why I feel like it’s more collaborative too, because Kathy comes with the main idea, and then when she brings it to the group, we get to iron it out to its fullest potential, which is nice.

Sheppard: It very much follows the stupid plotlines in any Guitar Hero game.

WNUR: I was listening to your Audiotree session from October, and some of the songs from that were from your new album, right? 

Patino: Yes, they were. 

WNUR: One of my favorite songs was “Hah,” which I think really speaks to Girl K being “for the people.” It’s about dancing to good music. How did that song come to be? And what do you hope the listening experience is like for someone who listens to your music? 

Patino: That song is definitely very 80s inspired. I am not an actual 80s baby, but I claim that title in my first album, with the song “80s Baby.” I love the 80s so much, and so I definitely drew from that. I really like upbeat music. Sometimes I listen to music that’s slower, and I’m like, ‘Oh man, I wish I could make slow cool music.’ But every time I go to sit down in front of a computer, it’s like, no, I just want to feel good about it. I want to get a crowd going. So generally when I’m working with synths and stuff that’s what happens. I’ve been really doing a lot of MIDI stuff on the computer. A lot of the ways that I write my songs is just me messing around until I find something that I like, and then I just build on it. So it’s kind of cool in the sense that I get to grow with the song in the moment, or it’s just a really personal me-and-the-song kind of thing. I feel like a lot of those songs were just written in a blur. I, like, blackout while I’m making them, and then they just come to be. But that song, I think, had a really good bass, and then when I brought it to the band it just exploded. That is one of my favorite songs to play with these guys, because the minute you start to play, you can’t help but feel the energy of the song itself. It’s really fun.

Sheppard: I think I still have one of the voice memos on my phone when we first ran it together. I’m pretty sure you sent us a demo. I usually listen to them at home, noodle on some stuff. And I didn’t really have anything ready. And then you started playing it. I feel like we all figured it out really quickly, what we wanted to do. And it pretty much made it into the soon-to-be final version. So it was pretty exciting.

Mest: It’s a bop. It wrote itself [laughs]. That’s not true. Kathy wrote it.

WNUR: I hope we can all dance to it in person soon. What music are you guys listening to right now?

Patino: I have been listening to a lot of pop music. I hated pop music when I was little. I was a Disney Channel girl and also just getting into indie music and really liked the 80s, so pop music just seemed kind of like sellout-y stuff. But I’m older now. So I’ve got an appreciation for the production that goes on in pop music. I like the showmanship of it. It inspires me and my songwriting. So a lot of Carly Rae Jepsen, Taylor Swift, Caroline Polachek, Paramore’s After Laughter album, Lorde, Rina Sawayama.

WNUR: Did you have a moment where you were like, ‘Whoa, pop music isn’t what I thought it was?’ Or was it more of a gradual thing? 

Patino: It was gradual for sure. I remember when Lorde released Melodrama, my friend Jon-Carlo was like, ‘This album is a masterpiece.’ I remember him, like, forcing me and my friend to listen to it in his car. We were just parked. And I just remember thinking, ‘No, there’s, like, one good song on here, and I don’t really like it.’ Later on, I think just through my own writing and my own desire to make catchier music that’s not too grossly cliché or cheesy, I was sort of looking for that sound. Now I love Melodrama. I won’t admit it face-to-face to Jon Carlo, but, you know, if word gets out, he was right. I think [pop] is definitely a genre that more people should learn from. They don’t have to love it, but appreciate it, you know? 

WNUR: What specifically is it about pop music that you really appreciate?

Patino: There’s elements of pop music in a lot of music. I think to write a good pop song, it’s catchy, it’s repeatable, I guess, or replayable. Sonically, it’s really clean in my ears. I can hear everything. There’s also moments where I initially listen to a song and the production sounds very simple. I can hear all the elements. But then other times, I’m listening and there’s something new in the background. I was watching this video, and they talked about ear candy. It’s just sort of background noise that has meaning to fill up space. I like that in pop music specifically. Taylor Swift has a lot of it. It’s just, like, those little vocals in the background that are just one word or something, but it’s just so good. It’s just really fun music, too. I like dancing around to it.

WNUR: Do you all have a favorite song to dance to?

Mest: It’s definitely “Cou$ Cou$” by Trinidad James right now. I’m not gonna lie, Trinidad James is on fire.

Patino: I think I have to say “Tongue Tied” by Grouplove. There’s just been so many different instances where I’ve been at parties or something and that song comes on, and it’s like everything freezes and everyone’s just like, ‘Oh, we’re in it!’ [throws up hands] ‘We’re at this party and we’re young and happy right now.’ That song is like a big burst of energy. I don’t know how anyone can not dance to that song. 

Pieczynski: I don’t really dance, so I don’t think I have one. It’s usually when I’m making music that I’m really stoked on, that’s when I dance. 

Sheppard: Yeah, I’m gonna retweet what Alex said.

Mest: They’re too cool to dance.

 

Girl K Is for the People doesn’t have a release date yet, but Patino wants to put it out early next year – ideally in April or May, once winter is over. In the meantime, you can hear some of the songs on the Audiotree session the band recorded in October.