Once when Kate Finn was in high school, she called her local hip-hop radio station and left a 30-second rap about being Irish in their voice-mail inbox. She wasn’t Katie Kate—the accomplished Seattle-based multi-instrumentalist and engaging MC—yet; she was a self-described “little white girl in upstate New York.” She listened to rap, from Top-40 hit-makers to the lower-profile conscious artists of the time, but kept her interests mainly private. None of her friends were into it the way she was.
When they played her verse on the radio the next day during her classmates’ morning commute, she was embarrassed. “It was meant to be a joke,” she remembers. People from her school called the DJ to say she sounded like “Malibu’s Most Wanted” on the air. In secret, she wrote a response rap to all her detractors. In the end, she kept it to herself.
“I was definitely not confident in [rapping],” she says. “It took me a long time to feel OK about the fact that this is what I do . . . But after that [day], I think I privately started writing things.”
At a wobbly table in the Capitol Hill Caffé Vita, Finn presents a sturdy posture and a performer’s aplomb. She has made a complete 180 from the embarrassment she suffered that day in high school back to self-assurance, even sass, on record, though in person her delivery is softened by her genuinely pleasant nature.
Since high school, Finn, now 26, has supplemented her lyric writing with a classical-piano performance major from Cornish College (for which she moved to Seattle), and additional training, she says, that left her proficient in roughly 15 instruments. It was also at Cornish that she learned the fundamentals of studio production, which she’s used to produce all her own beats. Her eclectic skill set has put her in a league of her own in a way. Her 2011 debut, Flatland, was a dynamic mix of hip-hop and electronic that showcased her endlessly creative production, tingly falsetto, and intriguing—though still developing—rhymes. It was easily one of the most interesting releases of that year. Now two years later, with anticipation building around her already-finished sophomore album and festival dates in full view (Sitka, Alaska’s Homeskillet Fest this Friday and a Sunday set at the Capitol Hill Block Party), the table seems set for a larger-scale emergence—if only someone would put out her record.
“There is no release date,” Finn admits. “I’m looking for a home for it. I’ve been shopping it since January. Problem is, it’s pretty different, pretty unique. A lot of the response has been really positive, but very . . . I don’t know if the record industry is in a place right now where they can take a chance on something as unique as this is. That’s kind of what I’ve been hearing—which isn’t a bad thing, you know? It’s almost like positive rejection. That’s really weird.”
With help from her friend Terry Radjaw (of Mad Rad) and his Out for Stardom promotion team (which also makes moves locally for Fresh Espresso, Metal Chocolates, and Don’t Talk to the Cops!), Finn has earned a foothold in town as an MC and producer. Yet support from outside the city limits—from anywhere outside the local hip-hop scene, really—has been fleeting. For that, Finn has a simple answer: “I’ve felt that it’s really easy to hate me.”
“[In rap,] You have to prove that you’re legit, and some people don’t feel that way about me for whatever reason,” she says. “But I don’t think they know what they’re talking about. All I’m saying is it’s very easy to judge me from the outside . . . without listening to what I do.”
Suddenly the high-school insecurity is back, and the “little white girl in upstate New York” weighs her words—even though she was interviewed on camera for the Grammys website at Sasquatch! last year; The Stranger listed her as a finalist for this year’s Genius Award for music; and after this week she’ll have played nearly every major festival in the Pacific Northwest in the past year.
After the interview, she sends me the music she’s been working on.
Her still-untitled new album shows a clear progression from the bedroom-produced Flatland. Recorded and executive produced by former Throw Me the Statue member Charlie Smith at his world-class Studio Nels near Pioneer Square, the record finds Finn digging deeper than ever, singing and laying down thought-provoking metaphors over accomplished—and noticeably filled-out—instrumentation. Though at its core it’s still entirely Finn’s construction, Smith’s pop experience has helped take her songwriting to the next level. Written over four months at the end of last year, almost all the songs have both the depth of artistry and the accessibility to register as crossover hits. Says Smith: “I do think without a doubt that the music and the performance on this record is of national quality. Certain things have to align for it to hit that certain pipeline, but I think if it does hit that pipeline that people are going to take notice.”
With a strong showing on such highly visible stages this weekend, she could theoretically land near the mouth of said pipeline, but even if she lands right where she took off from, she’ll still count as one visible high point in a city full of talent. Of course: Find a spot in the crowd, and judge for yourself.
“You’ve got this artist who sounds like no one else,” explains Smith. “You really can’t say she sounds like this mixed with this. No, she sounds like Katie Kate, and that’s it.”
CAPITOL HILL BLOCK PARTY East Pike Street & 12th Avenue, capitolhillblockparty.com. $40 individual ($115 passes are sold out). 3 p.m.–2 a.m. Fri., July 26–Sun., July 28.