It’s been eight long years since Karen Harding’s ‘Say Something’ took the international dance scene by storm, peaking at No. 7 on the UK Singles Chart. I recently caught up with the English DJ and vocalist to chat about the release of her long-awaited debut album, Take Me Somewhere.
KAREN HARDING: Yeah! I’ve performed there before. There’s something so iconic about that venue, I mean, last night it was like a freshers thing, and there were a lot of students there, and I thought, God, these guys are really lucky to be coming here as part of their freshers. Because it’s such an experience, you know?
L: Did you play anything from the new album?
KH: Yeah, I played ‘Wings,’ and I think I did ‘Wrong Places.’ And obviously, ‘Say Something.’ It was really cool. I did a 60-minute set with DJ/Vocals, and it was nice to drop in and out of the vocals. But what I really liked about the venue was that there’s a big stage and you can step down to the audience. So, when I’m not DJing, I’m jumping at the front and getting everyone hyped. That’s the part that I really love about performing. I don’t want to just stand behind the booth, it feels weird for me – I guess it’s because I started off as a singer.
L: Yeah, I totally get that, it’s nice to have that opportunity to connect with your fans. Are clubs your preferred venue?
KH: To be honest, they all have pros and cons. With a club, it feels a lot more intimate, almost too intimate, you know. (laughs) But then with festivals, although they’re far away, there’s this atmosphere, there’s like a certain energy, so I like those as well. I mean, I love performing. It’s my favorite thing about being an artist. I appreciate it whenever I get the chance to be on stage.
L: The festival energy is real. I was covering some festivals this summer, and there’s something so unique about that setting. Everyone is locked into the same vibe.
KH: That’s it, I think there are fewer expectations with festivals, people are there to experience it and are more open-minded. There’s this welcome openness to festivals and to Prides as well, where I just feel so at ease.
L: This album would be perfect for Pride! You’ve been sitting on some of these songs for a really long time, and this is your debut album. How were you feeling leading up to the release?
KH: I was feeling really nervous and apprehensive. And then, the nearer it got, the more I just kind of accepted that feeling. I was like “Karen, there’s nothing you can do about it now. You’ve mixed it, you’ve mastered it, it’s finished. It’s coming out, stop worrying.” And once I accepted it, it was totally fine.
L: Do you feel different now that it’s out?
K: I was actually gigging the night that it came out, and I came off the stage like, “I’m sure there’s something I should be talking about right now…”—and then my manager called me to celebrate. We drove back home from the gig, and I just listened to it really loudly in the car and enjoyed it and got so emotional. I felt this big weight lift off my shoulders because so much work had gone into it up until that point, and then there was this influx of support and love, which has continued…It’s an incredible feeling.
L: That sounds like it was a huge relief. Take Me Somewhere is such a vocally demanding album. Obviously, there’s this dance element that’s really infectious, but I loved how far you pushed yourself with your voice. How does it feel listening to it on a vocal level?
KH: If I thought about it vocally, I’d probably feel very tired! (laughs) I mean, I started this whole journey as a singer and vocalist, and I wanted people to know, like, ‘This is Karen Harding, she loves to sing. She wants to take you on this emotional journey.’ As a vocalist, that’s what’s most important to me. I want people to feel that emotion as soon as I start singing. I’m glad that you picked up on that.
L: I love that you’re staying true to your roots with your debut album. I actually read that you performed Billie Holliday’s ‘Strange Fruit’ as a kid. Are you still influenced by jazz music?
KH: I’m super influenced by jazz but I’ve gradually moved away from Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. I’ve moved towards a different style, like a soulful vibe, Kaytranada mixed with Lucky Daye and Jazmine Sullivan. There’s so much music that I love, it just depends on how I’m feeling.
L: I felt like I heard that R&B influence in your voice throughout the album. It’s nice to have that added texture on a record that’s primarily focused on house and dance music. You famously got your start on TV, right?
KH: Sort of, I would say that’s where I started my personal journey, but in terms of music…I don’t know, I did Eurovision when I was 16, and when I think about what I looked like and what I was wearing! (laughs) The experience of a live TV show at 16 was really amazing, though nothing came of it because it wasn’t a huge thing. And then, with X Factor, I didn’t really get very far, but it connected me with MNEK.
L: Many singers get their start on these reality competition shows. They’re sort of ubiquitous to the music industry, but not everyone looks favorably on them. How do you view these shows and their place in the industry?
KH: I mean, as an artist, I feel like if you’re at that stage of your career where you feel like you need to take every opportunity, then I don’t see any harm in trying it and just seeing what happens. We all just want a platform to be successful, to be seen and heard. If you feel like it could be right for you, then it’s fine. But it’s intense, as anyone who has taken part in one will know! I mean, we were five girls sharing one shower! (laughs) But that’s just reality TV, they want you to be emotional and act up because it’s good TV, and if you’re aware of that, then you’re good.
L: I think that you can tell when someone goes into one of these competitions knowing what’s expected of them. It’s actually really satisfying when someone takes advantage of that opportunity but doesn’t let it define them, sort of like what you’ve done with your career.
KH: There are so many examples of people being very successful off the back of these shows. It all just depends on what you do after the show.
L: And was the trajectory for you always house music?
KH: It wasn’t! When I worked with MNEK, we did ‘Say Something’, and we wrote it so fast, like in an hour and a half. I didn’t realize that it would be a dance track, but when we released it, loads of dance producers and artists got in touch with us for features. It just kind of happened that way. I’m super grateful because I love house music.
L: Me too! I mean, it’s a genre that many people connect to, and it’s a genre that is such a big part of our lives. When you go out to the club, it’s what’s playing, and it must feel really special to connect with people in that way.
KH: Oh yeah, definitely. And then the fact that I can go to a club and perform the music as well. I mean, I love DJing, but I love that side of it!
L: Right! So: Take Me Somewhere. I love the title. Is there a specific place that you want to take your fans with this album?
KH: I want to take them on a journey of wherever they are mentally at the time. Some songs are obviously a little sadder than others, though they all have a bit of that heartbreak feeling. I hope that there’s at least one song that people can connect with and that it takes them somewhere where they need to be. Otherwise, I hope they experience the album as a journey from the top to the bottom.
L: Well, it is a journey. And I think, like, what you said about these ballads… I mean, they do have a touch of sadness, which I believe makes them perfect for the dance floor. Lots of people go dancing to escape or to forget, to turn off. Are you finding time to experience nightlife, or is that paused for you now that you’re a mom?
KH: It’s semi-paused. (laughs) And that’s fine by me. I’m actually really looking forward to next week. I’m doing Drumsheds in London with Armand Van Helden. I’m excited to jump on stage and have a little party there.
L: I was just about to ask you about your collaboration with Armand because he features on the album. How has your relationship with him affected your music?
KH: It was this time last year that his team reached out to me, and they wanted to know if I wanted to have a go at ‘Wings.’ I was confused because it had already been out since 2011, but they said he wanted to rework it, and they asked not to mess too much with the sample. I wasn’t planning to anyway; it’s a big sample, and it feels right as is! We kind of just had a go at the reworking, it just flowed out. And Armand loved it. I was really happy when I could put it on my album. It was such an honor as someone who grew up listening to him.
L: That’s amazing, it’s a great addition to the album. You mentioned that you write a lot of ballads. Do you ever worry about losing any of that emotion when turning it into a dance mix?
KH: It’s a tough part of the process because you start at the piano or guitar, and it feels right, and then there’s this urgency to stick a beat to it. And when we do, I don’t always know if it works. There are a lot of songs of mine that are just sitting back that have never been made into a dance record. For something like ‘Undo My Heart’ or ‘Wild, Wild Water’, we always had this idea that it would be a house record. That definitely helped.
L: Would you ever think about releasing an acoustic ballad album?
KH: Now that the album is finished, I feel like it’s a new dawn. You never know. But I love dance music, and my fans are very much in the dance scene, so I wouldn’t want to alienate anyone, either. I’d love to do an acoustic night and just sing the songs as ballads, that would be amazing.
L: You worked with Armand Van Helden, Shift K3Y, and Digital Farm Animals on this album. Do you have any other dream collaborations?
KH: I’ve always said Calvin Harris, purely because I’d love to just get in the studio with him and see how his mind works in the room. I love what Disclosure does, too. And I’d love to work with a female vocalist like Becky Hill.
L: I can definitely hear you working with all of those artists. Do you have any advice for people who are interested in getting into this industry?
KH: I mean, I would say to believe in what you do. No one’s entering this industry thinking that they’re not good, so don’t let anyone tell you you’re not good. It’s just an opinion. If you’re rejected, that’s fine, maybe that specific opportunity wasn’t meant to be. My biggest piece of advice would be to follow your gut. If I could go back, I’d give myself that advice. Artists like David Bowie or Amy Winehouse… They’re legends, and I think it’s because they followed their gut instinct.
L: Well, that’s really inspiring. I’m working on my first record right now, and obviously, I’m asking for our readers but also a little for me!
KH: Oh wow, that’s really exciting!
L: Yes, I’m super excited. Alright, one last question: what is up next for you?
KH: (laughs) That’s the magic of it—I’ve been so focused and driven on this release and now that it’s out, I can spend next six-or-so months deciding on the vibe and direction of the next project. It’ll probably take a little time, but it’s definitely not going to be another eight years before I release an album again!
L: We can’t wait that long, we need it! (laughs) Well, thank you so much. I really appreciate you making time to connect, it was great to meet you.
KH: Of course, lovely to speak to you!
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.