The English seaside has inspired generations of artists, and now Katy Vernon can be added to that list.
In 2017, Vernon’s life was in disarray. She had recently left her job, quit drinking, and been diagnosed with depression. Amid all that emotional upheaval, she left Minnesota for a six-week run of shows in the U.K.—and began writing the best songs of her life.
“I started to get help for my depression, and I resolved to not drink to numb my feelings and self-medicate,” Vernon says now. “I allowed myself to really work through all that stuff that I was suppressing. I thought that I was really self-aware. I had written all these songs about feelings and being present—Present is literally the name of my last album. I’d done a lot of work on myself, but I was kind of missing the big picture, which was that there was something wrong with me that could be fixed, or at least helped.”
Vernon, who was born and raised in South London and moved to Minnesota when she was 21, brought that newfound sense of clarity with her as she ventured back home to the U.K. “I was really, really scared to do it,” she says of the trip. “I knew it would be a lot of time by myself, which as a newly sober person I didn’t really trust myself 100 percent with. Also, it was in the U.K., where you can find alcohol everywhere you turn. But I went with the encouragement of my husband, who said, ‘Go for it. You love music. You love playing. It will be an adventure.’ So, I just jumped on a plane and did it.”
Performing at two large-scale ukulele festivals inspired Vernon to develop a new style of playing and to challenge herself as a songwriter, developing techniques that she would use to write the songs that would eventually form Suit of Hearts, her third and best solo record.
“I was so happy to be there and playing, but I felt so intimidated. These were the best ukulele players in the world,” says Vernon. “I set myself the task of throwing everything I knew about songwriting out the window, and just trying to start over. I tried to write with all new chords, nothing I had done before. And a lot of grief and stress poured out of me. I knew I wanted to write my way out of that. I knew I wanted to write a happy album that would cheer me up, even though I had to dig deep in order to get there. I wanted to make myself feel better and see that light at the end of the tunnel.”
Intimate and unguarded, the songs on Suit of Hearts transform sad memories into happier moments. “Home” offers a glimpse of someone who feels like they don’t belong anywhere, feeling homesick for a place that doesn’t exist anymore, while “In Your Shoes (For Daisy)” offers support and encouragement to her daughters.
For Vernon, who has been an orphan for 30 years, the trip to the U.K. also took on a personal significance. With her cousin as a guide, she took a sightseeing tour of Wales, visiting the places where her mom grew up and locations that were important to her.
“I went back to the hospice where my mom died. That was the last place I saw her. I was 12 years old,” Vernon says. “But I was asked to put on a concert there. It was my first time walking back in that building. And there were all kinds of sad memories. But I was there to put on a concert for young people going through terminal illnesses, so I had to check my own issues at the door and not bring them in with me. So I sang, and it was a really lovely event. And that really changed my memory of the place. Those kinds of experiences are so good, to push yourself through and create a happier memory out of somewhere.”
Vernon threads layers of her mom’s speaking voice, from a long-lost interview with her on the BBC program Panorama, into the song “Somebody’s Daughter’s Daughter,” a way for the singer to have her mother personally involved in an album that drew so much inspiration from her.
“I sat on the same beach that my cousin was telling me was my mom’s favorite beach,” Vernon says. “And it was such a powerful moment, of realizing both the end and the beginning of my mom’s life, and all this stuff that I didn’t know about her. How joyful that all was for me. ‘Somebody’s Daughter’s Daughter’ was inspired by that day at the seaside. Because I thought, as lost and lonely as I feel, I did come from a family. There is a heritage there, I just didn’t grow up with it and I didn’t know it. And I felt really British, and connected to the land. And I realized that I’m not this broken, rubbish person. I came from something nice, I’m lucky enough to have a happy, healthy family myself. There’s a lot to celebrate.”
And Suit of Hearts is indeed celebratory, even hopeful despite the songs’ fractured origins, with lyrics focused on reassembling a life from its broken fragments. As Vernon sings on the title track: “You wear your suit of hearts/You tear yourself apart/But you’re not broken/Just a little rearranged/And none of us get out of here/Without a little change.” Vernon acknowledges the flaws and failures of her past, while rejoicing in the fact that she has changed her life—and her music—in a positive way.
“The little throwaway line I have in my Twitter bio says, ‘Singer of sad songs on a happy instrument,’” Vernon says. “It took me a while to even realize what that meant to me. And I think I was always a little embarrassed or insecure about how heart-on-my-sleeve I was about grief or any of those things that were difficult to sing about. But the more that I think about it, I’m the happy instrument. I’ve always loved singing and dancing and being a goofball, so that balances out this sad, kind of intense stuff I want to write about.”
Though a full band backed her in the studio, and the Laurel String Quartet and the Prairie Fire Lady Choir also appear on the album, Vernon proudly asserts that Suit of Hearts is first and foremost a ukulele record.
“In the past, I thought that I would be taken more seriously if I played at least half my songs on guitar,” Vernon says with a laugh. “But I realized that’s really silly. It’s still me. And I want people to realize that you can still front a band with a ukulele and it doesn’t have to be this twee, cutesy thing. It can
With: Dan Israel & Band, Tori Evans, the Laurels String Quartet, and the Prairie Fire Lady Choir
Where: Parkway Theater
When: 8 p.m. Sat. March 23
Tickets: $10/$15; more info here