Age is just a number, even in the fast-paced world of music. Leonard Cohen recorded his first album at 33, and so did Bill Withers: so why do we still hold the assumption that artists must become famous in their twenties or earlier?
Great music draws inspiration from life experiences. A more mature artist knows the value of each moment of their life, using the good and the bad to create a personal, intimate approach to musicianship.
Catherine Burgis is a Manchester-based singer-songwriter who decided to follow her vocation in 2020, aged 35. Growing increasingly frustrated with her day job and feeling her creative side unfulfilled, she decided to become a synth-folk artist and started recording music as Test Card Girl.
Her first single, “Holds Me Down”, was picked up by BBC 6Music, Radio X, Absolute Radio and XS Manchester, giving Catherine motivation to push forward and dive into her new creative endeavour. Test Card Girl’s music draws inspiration from various genres, from lo-fi bedroom music to traditional folk to ‘80s pop. In her tracks, the intricate electronic layers perfectly merge with her majestic voice, creating a mesmerising effect that only timeless music conveys.
Her story is an example of what it means to be a creative person, and thanks to MIF Sounds, Test Card Girl will record her second EP “Fly” to be released in September 2022.
You’ve said that you first decided to pursue music in February 2020 – right before the onslaught of the pandemic. Did you ever regret your decision during that time?
No, because in a weird way, if the pandemic hadn't happened, I don't think I ever would have written the songs that have become singles and EPs for me.
As I was so new to performing, the fact that I couldn’t perform wasn’t the end of the world as I had no track record! So, the pandemic (and thankfully an Arts Council grant!) allowed me to concentrate on writing and learning to record and produce. It's very rare you have an enforced period where you can't leave the house, and that gave me focus as I'd never had so much time on my hands. It was also a good distraction from trying to keep my childcare business afloat, which was my day job.
What finally spurred you to take the step of pursuing music at age 35?
I studied music at university and then became a music teacher for most of my twenties – my work has always revolved around music in one way or another. But I always found myself pushing my students to follow their musical goals and be brave while I never followed the advice myself!
So, it was really the fact that I was a complete hypocrite, plus something that went pop in my brain when I got the other side of 35 that it was ‘now or never’. I would only ever half enjoy watching other people on stage or being at festivals because I wanted to be the one on the stage, but just had a massive mental block about my voice or about singing my own songs.
How did you find your sound? What was that journey like?
Because I was so terrified of singing in public, I decided before trying to launch my music career that I would spend some time touring the country as a musical stand-up comedian.
I ended up winning some competitions, and for each gig, I would use a tiny Yamaha keyboard. It’s pretty ancient but has the most amazing bank of retro lo-fi sounds and a little drum pad section.
When I started to think about recording some songs, that retro keyboard sound was something I knew I really wanted to include, and luckily, you can replicate loads of those sounds in software such as Logic and Garageband. I also played the guitar quite badly but had nailed one folky finger-picking rhythm that began to feature in 99.9% of my songs. So, I had the guitar sound and the retro keyboard layers, and because I was under-confident with my voice, I would layer up harmonies like nobody's business. Somewhere along the line, I decided to call my sound ‘synth-folk’.
And how would you describe your sound to someone who hasn’t been exposed to your work?
A warm, layered, lo-fi patchwork of repeating ideas and lyrics about being dumped.
How does it feel to be included in the second round of MIF Sounds artists? What do you hope to achieve with their support?
I was so shocked to be chosen and absolutely thrilled. I got the impression when first talking to the team that they were real experts and had chosen artists and music that were not necessarily the finished article or really polished, but had a passion for moving in their own direction.
And that turned out to be true – it’s such a great group to be part of. I think I’m the oldest and yet the least experienced, which is quite a nice place to be because I can really benefit from the knowledge of the rest of the cohort (“how do I do a Tik Tok?”) and the team.
MIF is funding me to create a live launch event for my EP that will hopefully take place in September 2022, and what's brilliant is that I know I'm not on my own in delivering it. I can ask for advice along the way, and it will be a much better event than if it was just me trying to cobble something together on my own.
What is one moment in your journey so far that you’re the proudest of?
When I heard my music on Guy Garvey's BBC 6 Music show and heard his positive review.
I am a huge Elbow fan and had always said to friends and family that if my music ever got on that show and Guy Garvey liked it, then I would retire happy. Obviously, that's now happened, and the last thing I want to do is stop.
On the flip side, what’s been the biggest barrier as an emerging creative?
The barrier, as with everything, is money. It's so difficult to even begin to earn a living as a recording artist when you pretty much have to put your work out into the ether onto streaming platforms for free. But like with any passion, the love of what you do spurs you on, even if your day job will have to continue indefinitely!
Besides music, are there other sounds that inspire you?
To calm down an anxious brain, I’ve recently started trying to get up earlier than is pleasant and go for a walk somewhere green. We live not far from a river, and I try to walk there every morning without headphones and just listen to birds and the water to set myself up for the day.
How do you personally discover new music or artists? Are there any local artists, events or trends that you want to share with everyone?
Going to do gigs locally has been brilliant for finding new artists a bit ahead of me who are doing some amazing stuff. I saw Caitlin LM perform, who is a local Manchester artist, not so long ago and was really blown away. She's got a great electronic sound that I really admired (was a bit jealous of?!).
In terms of trends, I don’t think I go out enough to have picked up on what these are, but I do know that Manchester is a brilliant city for seeing independent artists in small venues such as The Castle Hotel or the Eagle Inn.
What excites you the most about The Factory opening in Manchester?
Everything! To have a dedicated creative venue where, from what I’ve heard, experimentation and new ways of experiencing live performance will be top of the agenda is really exciting.
What’s the most important piece of advice you’d give to the next generation of emerging artists?
Only you are stopping you from doing what you want to do. Don’t tell yourself for 35 years that ‘I can do what they’re doing’ if you're not prepared to take the leap of faith and do it. And ask for help – you don't have to know it all; you can learn so much from those who have done it before, then you can take or leave bits of their advice and do your thing.
Tell us a little about what you've got in store.
I'll have my second EP Fly out in September this year, and before then, I'll be performing around Manchester and further afield. I've also got a baby due in November, so mainly I'll be panicking about that, but I've found periods of stress ultimately end up in new songs for me. So hopefully, it will be a creative (if not tiring) rest of the year.
Rising Sounds: in a collaborative series between Sound of Life and Manchester International Festival, we’re visiting MIF Sounds: an incubation programme for some of the UK’s most promising emerging creatives. Join us as we explore the unbound creativity of Manchester – sometimes hidden, sometimes on the fringes – from corners brought to the light by MIF Sounds.
Cover Credits: Manchester International Festival & wacomka/Shutterstock
Writer | Marco Sebastiano Alessi
Marco is an Italian music producer, composer and writer. He’s the founder of Naviar Records, a music community and record label exploring the connection between experimental electronic music and traditional Japanese poetry.