Katie Dey Embraces Extremes On ‘never falter hero girl’

katie dey

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“I wanted it to be an album of extreme emotions.”

That’s how Melbourne bedroom-pop artist Katie Dey describes her new record never falter hero girl, a project that fluctuates between moments intimate and overwhelming, beautiful and jagged.

For more than eight years, Katie has been making music that defies categorisation, creating bodies of work that increasingly combine a clear pop nous with true experimentation. 

On her sixth solo album (alongside two collaborative releases with Black Dresses’ Devi McCallion), Katie pushes both those impulses further than ever before, going all in, feeling it all and, in the process, exemplifying what makes her such a genuinely unique artist.

As with all her other records, the intricate, layered electronic production on never falter hero girl feels both meticulously-detailed and loose, almost threatening to fall apart. She builds small but mighty orchestras out of MIDI instrumentation — sparse and atmospheric as they nascently unfurl around her voice, lush and maximal when they reach their peak.

Opening track ‘swallower’ begins with gentle stabs of synthetic pan flute and Katie’s digitised, pitch-shifted voice, before careening full-tilt into a heady, euphoric rush of a chorus filled out with electronic strings, piano and glitchy synths.

It’s a startling jolt, but never falter hero girl is full of moments like that: songs that begin quiet then explode with ecstasy and oblivion, like a white-hot light piercing armour from within and shattering it completely.

“On the micro level, I wanted [the album] to have these little moments of catharsis and maximalism,” Katie tells Junkee. “On the larger level, I wanted it to have that same catharsis in its structure.”

That dynamic is apt for a record that she says centres conceptually on “breaking through certain constrictions or brain knots, traps you can fall into”. It made sense, she explains, to have songs that knowingly hold something back, before “spewing forth an emotion” in its totality.

She is right to call never falter hero girl an album of extremes. Some of her most subtle, quietly affecting songwriting is on display here, but so too is some of her most warped, hectic experimentation.

“I’ve felt like in the past I’ve had albums that kind of settle around the middle ground, and are a little bit scared to either go too quiet or too loud, or too scattered or fractured or incoherent,” she says. 

“I wanted to display those feelings without feeling ashamed, because I think that’s another theme of the lyrics of the album, are feelings of shame, and how to accept that as part of your experience as a person. It felt right to have these ugly moments, these bits of really unpleasant-sounding stuff, really painful stuff.”

It makes for an occasionally difficult, but tremendously rewarding listen. Towards the end of ‘open book’, glitchy electronics modulate wildly, hyperactive electronic drums relentlessly hammer and her vocals become impossibly distorted. It’s a reminder of just how much good electronic music can feel raw, human and transcendently fucked up. 

“I wanted people to hear it and feel that those ugly parts are able to be embraced. If I’ve made this decision to capture these parts of myself and put it on an album, then it shows some kind of acceptance,” she says. “I wanted it to be comforting in some way to people, that if they were feeling ashamed of certain parts of themselves, that they didn’t need to feel ashamed.”

Indeed, unlearning cycles of shame and moving towards acceptance is a continuous theme on never falter hero girl. On ‘hoarder’, she imagines herself as an “unliveable, inhospitable” house that’s breaking down, dilapidated.

It would take a miracle to bring me back into working order/If I stayed intact, would you be my hoarder?” she asks on its refrain.

What does it mean for someone to not just see the parts of you that feel like they’re falling apart, but, as Katie puts it, “being able to live in them and to bear witness”?

As we speak over Zoom, she is sitting in her room in a “fairly old fucked up Melbourne share house”, and she draws parallels between the “house” in the song and her actual physical location.

Despite its condition, “I still live here,” she says. “Love is still made here. I still have good memories here.”

“[‘hoarder’] is about the idea of someone accepting me for who I am, and even though I see certain parts of myself as unloveable or broken down, they would be able to collect these things and take care of them, and find them important.”

She switches gears a few songs later on ‘malfunction’, swapping out the house metaphor for a machine breaking down. She says if ‘hoarder’ is about the “miracle” of someone seeing and embracing the parts of yourself you can’t embrace, ‘malfunction’ is about the step before being able to accept them yourself.

“If a machine was malfunctioning, would you be ashamed of it? Would you feel like it was to blame in some way for being broken?” she asks. 

“In a lot of ways, we as human beings are slowly breaking down machines. That repeated phrase (in the song) — ‘It’s just malfunction, malfunctioning parts’ — that’s something that I’m able to tell myself when things are going wrong.”

That hard-won compassion — for others, for yourself — is present throughout never falter hero girl. It’s an album that comes from a place of such obvious love, from Katie’s tender songwriting to the stunning cover art, a painting made by her best friend and housemate, artist Jemi Gale.

Since 2019’s Solipsisters — a profoundly inward-looking album on which Katie framed different parts of herself in conversation with each other — the worlds her songs inhabit have increasingly opened up to include others. 

2020’s Mydata was a deeply personal portrait of an online relationship and the meaning we make of them, while last year’s forever music was a rallying cry for valuing love and taking care of the people important to you against a world that is often devastatingly cruel.

never falter hero girl takes that one step further. “I wanted it to be about not just love for myself, not just love for one other person, not just love for people, but love for existence and the world,” she says.

“As challenging as that is lately, I still feel like I needed to record those feelings and hold onto them.”

Katie acknowledges that, taken at face value, the phrase “never falter hero girl” — the title was taken from the anime Soaring Sky! Pretty Cure, a message left to the protagonist by her own hero —  seems like “an impossible demand to make” of others.

But she stresses it’s less about never making a misstep, and more about not letting them bring you to a grinding halt. In that way, Katie’s album is a much-needed salve against a world that both demands an unfeasible standard of perfection, and cowardly tries to obscure the parts that aren’t palatable or convenient.

Keep it close. Feel everything. Never falter.

Katie Dey’s new album never falter hero girl is out now. 

Alex Gallagher is a writer living and working on Gadigal land. They’re on Twitter @sensitivfreight.

Image credit: Supplied