Former Houndmouth vocalist embraces being CEO of her own music
By John Flannagan
It is often said that fulfilling the American dream means owning one’s own business. While being one’s own boss and not having to answer to anyone certainly can sound dreamy, doing so also comes with a lot of stress and hard work. This can be especially true for someone attempting a creative endeavor. Katie Toupin is one such artist who is learning the ropes as she goes.
After leaving critically acclaimed rock band Houndmouth in 2016, Toupin struck out on her own as a solo artist. Speaking via phone on an early fall afternoon ahead of a Knoxville stop on Oct. 11 as part of her KT @ Home tour, she says, “It’s been an interesting transition for many reasons, but ultimately it has been very rewarding to sort of build something from scratch and on my own terms.
“It’s still an ongoing process of learning and figuring out things that I really didn’t have to deal with because I was a member of a band. Having total control of the art itself is really an awesome experience that can be scary at times because you can’t hide behind anyone else.”
Rewind to earlier in the decade when Houndmouth was enjoying a meteoric rise to success. The group was performing at festivals all over the world and doing the domestic late-night TV circuit when, Toupin says, she left for reasons that simply were necessary at the time. She packed up her belongings and traversed the country from the band’s home base of Louisville, Kentucky, to Los Angeles – a move that she says was due in part to her “outgrowing Louisville.”
“It was difficult to start over … because I had already built something [in Louisville]. Moving here, I’m very much a small fish in a big pond, which is a struggle I think is necessary to make something new.”
Other trials Toupin had to endure included having to start over almost entirely from scratch by building a new team, writing new material and just trying to get people to engage with her music again. “There’s the business side of things, and there’s the art side of things,” Toupin states rather matter-of-factly. “There were a lot of holes in both places where I had relied on other people in the past. I didn’t know what I didn’t know.”
On top of beginning anew almost 3,000 miles away from her hometown, Toupin decided that it was the right time for her to get sober, as well. Undertaking all of these major life changes at around the same period proved to be a trying experience, but ultimately it laid the groundwork for “Moroccan Ballroom,” a beautiful five-song EP which was released in March 2018.
Recorded at the famed LA venue of the same name, the mini album came about “almost accidentally,” as Toupin puts it. She had been working on some songs with a group of session players and thought a few of them were good enough to warrant creating a YouTube video that, she explains, would allow her “to sort of dip my toes back in the world of music and put something out there.”
Amazingly, the session was recorded live in just one take and didn’t require a single overdub. “The material felt and sounded better than a YouTube video,” Toupin says of her initial review of the collected tracks before laughing in wonderment. Continuing, she says that “Moroccan Ballroom” “offered something different and just felt like an EP – and really felt like its own special thing [that] needed to be released.”
“I was just like, ‘F*** it, I’m going to put it out and have total control of this thing.’ And I think that turned out to be a really good decision.”
Reacting to this reporter’s gushing praise of the EP, Toupin is quick to respond that the awesome result stems from the fact that she was “super dialed in” during the session and because she “has done this for a while” before breaking into endearing and contagious laughter.
However, such humility belies the distinct pride Toupin takes in her approach to songwriting and compositional construction; it’s clear that she devotes much of her energies to those crafts. When asked if her lifestyle changes influenced her writing style, she says that embracing those challenges – tearing them down and reconfiguring them, if you will – consisted of her having to “let go of other people’s voices in [her] head of what [she] should or shouldn’t write” and figuring out what she likes, a feat she admits is continually difficult to achieve.
Toupin acknowledges that deciding upon a particular sound has been hard, as well, saying that she has struggled as a solo artist to find what she likes – and even to remember what she has enjoyed in the past as a result of the limited structure that exists outside of a traditional band dynamic.
“You take away all those rules or that structure … it was like, ‘Oh, s***! Do I even know what I like by myself? I don’t even remember.’”
From that point on, though, Toupin just constantly wrote until she discovered what came instinctively to her. “I landed on what comes most naturally to me and who I am at the core of me, and that’s just hard to discover and accept,” she says. “It’s hard at times, but [it] is getting more natural as time goes by.”
Toupin has embarked on the aforementioned KT @ Home tour, a solo jaunt that is seeing her play a series of intimate house shows. It is a concept that has intrigued her since she first saw her pal and producer Matt Costa embrace the trend. By tearing down barriers both literal and figurative, she hopes that these confessional performances in cozy yet confined spaces will be exciting draws for music lovers.
“Putting myself out of my comfort zone, it’s really important to me and a huge appeal of doing house shows. Also, it’s set up by me, and all revenue goes right into my record, so it makes a lot of sense to do it,” the artist says.
Amy and JD Daniels, the hosts for Toupin’s show in Knoxville, are no strangers to holding such events; over the last couple of years, they have welcomed Carolina Story and Three Star Revival (and scores of their fans) into their home. When told about her excellent local presenters and the recent success of those bands, Toupin excitedly says, “Oh, a good luck charm!”
Cellist Alexis Mahler will be opening proceedings on this home tour in her first-ever appearances as a solo performer. Also produced by Costa, she will join Toupin for a few songs during the latter’s set, as well.
As the conversation shifts to the topic of a future full-length release, Toupin says that she has begun the process of shopping for a label and that she has selected Costa to produce the album. “I sort of dialed in on Matt. I enjoy playing with people, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be.”
Questioned about a timeline for the prospective project, Toupin laughs as she says, “Starting conversations with labels, which takes forever, is the most frustrating thing with music as a business. In general, you’re always waiting on other people, and when you write a song, there’s no immediate satisfaction other than having finished a song. By the time you’ve released something, you may have [written] it two years ago, and you’re way past it and have written a hundred other songs since then.
“Music is the craziest, most backwards thing: You’re living a version of yourself that’s two years younger all the time, and when it comes out, it’s really strange. It’s been a matter of finding the time on getting with Matt with both of us touring, so we’re hoping to knock out most of the LP in December as my goal, but you know those things take so much longer than you would think. I’m hoping next year it will be out.”
As for now, Toupin’s focus is on her tour and her fans. “Word of mouth is how this train is rolling right now,” she says. “But hopefully within two years, when things are more together, I’ll be back in that world.”
Tickets for the Oct. 11 show and more info can be found at katietoupinmusic.com.