Becoming at peace with all the nuances of life is a long, brutal process. We search for things like closure, trust, fulfillment and acceptance, knowing full well that we have no idea how we want those things to look in practice. We even look for seemingly simple things like parking spots, but still find ourselves navigating etiquette, split-second decisions and regret. The inevitable messiness of life is what makes it so painful, interesting and enjoyable, but learning to be okay with it all is much easier said than done.
Nashville-via-Texas singer/songwriter Katy Kirby is well on her way in that journey. On her debut album Cool Dry Place, Kirby tries to decide what’s worth holding on to and what’s worth seeking, but also allows herself the freedom to pause and just revel in precious moments, like a drunken walk home (“Peppermint”) or the fantasy of protecting someone you love (“Eyelids”). Whether slipping into playful metaphors or arriving at an important realization, Kirby sounds, at once, comfortable and uncomfortable with the fluidity of interactions and situations, which is what makes this record more than just an incredibly pleasing collection of songs. Wants and needs are blurred, relationships shapeshift, but more than anything, a human desire for intimacy and understanding underpins it all. After dropping in and out of school, religion and recording music, Kirby is searching for a sustainable source of warmth—whether a person, a plant, Target lingerie or “a secret chord that David played.”
Kirby was homeschooled in small-town Texas and grew up singing in church, fully immersed in the world of youth groups, worship music and deeply held Christian beliefs. Fervent, outward displays of Christianity are often associated with a particular kind of rigidity, which is why it’s somewhat ironic that Kirby’s debut is the furthest thing from stringent. However, this was the result of a long process. In the years since her upbringing, Kirby has distanced herself from strict dogma and worked towards a view of the world through a much different lens—the kind that makes her album bloom with curiosity.
Cool Dry Place is built on chipper folk-pop songcraft, which pairs well with her cozy, thoughtful storytelling. The peppy hooks and green thumb metaphors of “Juniper” are a good encapsulation of the album’s sweetness, as are the nimble plucks and alluring grooves of the candy-titled “Peppermint.” Her songs have an exuberant, mercurial bounce, but she evades mawkishness with ease, thanks to her colorful musical quirks and perceptive stories. The light auto-tune and entrancing rhythms of “Traffic!” are surprising highlights, in addition to the raucous guitar solo of the title track and explosive euphoria of “Juniper.” She’s also a master of vocal cadence, subtly accenting words to match a specific mood and wring out more emotion from her songs. The gentle opener “Eyelids” wouldn’t be anywhere near as impactful without Kirby’s wistful, versatile vocal performance, or the amusing gender swap (“If I was your man”).
Another reason her songs are so moving is her eye for interesting descriptions. Whether it’s the agile fish on “Tap Twice” (“you thrashed around like goldfish in a garbage bag”), the cut-up fist on “Portals” (“We’re a hand punched through a pane of glass, to get the handle on the other side / Yeah we’re cut on the knuckles, but at least we’re open wide”) or the mint that feels like “pins and needles on my tongue” on “Peppermint,” Kirby uses specificity to her benefit.
Cool Dry Place would be a solid album just on the strength of her devilishly likeable tunes, but her melding of charming wordplay with illuminating sentiments really puts it over the top. Anyone who hears the quirky, clever flow of “High times, that’s right, red-white, black and blue” on “Traffic!”—a song that serves as a privilege wakeup call—will likely be entranced immediately. Additionally, “Juniper” is a compelling call to trust your instincts (“You don’t need to wait around and see / which of her promises she’s going to keep, oh / Even distilled it’s still an evergreen / It never leaves, it never leaves, it never leaves”), “Portals” contains a more inspiring, nuanced view of relationships, one where people orbit each other and occasionally cross paths, rather than amalgamate (“We’re not boxes, doors or borders / We were portals”), and “Fireman” describes a painfully traditional couple (imagine 1950s suburbia, toxic masculinity and all) with lots of pent-up tension (“And at night when we’re in bed, sometimes I try to take his hand / And he’ll flinch away and tell me, ‘Don’t do something you’ll regret’”).
Katy Kirby revels in cherishing and wanting to be cherished, and this record explores the gray areas that arise in such pursuit of connection. In contrast with much of today’s folky indie-pop, which rests on the melancholy sway of dream pop, Cool Dry Place is unexpectedly groovy, with hooks and rhythms worming their way into hearts and minds in more ways than one. The altruism and perky noodling of Cool Dry Place may even make you want to consciously become more present, like deciding not to scold yourself for your shitty parking decision.
Lizzie Manno is an associate music editor, Coldplay apologist, bread obsessive and lover of all things indie, punk and shoegaze at Paste. Follow her on Twitter @LizzieManno