A Chat with Test Card Girl (17.09.2020)

In 2019, Catherine Burgis unexpectedly started writing songs and Test Card Girl was born. She is now allowing us to get to know her musical style with her debut single ‘Holds Me Down’. Adding optimism to retro tones, she uses a conversational lyrical style to draw you in. We sat down with Catherine Burgis to talk about the single, future plans, music and much more!

OSR: You only recently started writing songs, but when did you first start making music?

Burgis: I studied music at university and worked as a primary and secondary music teacher and for the BBC and British Council leading music education projects throughout my 20’s and early 30’s, but never practised what I preached in terms of creating my own music due to huge hang-ups about my voice. I played the guitar, piano and clarinet growing up and loved messing about and writing music, but it never really made it out of my bedroom.

I grew up in a very big and musical family so have always been surrounded by singing and playing. My uncles, Ben Travers and Nige McKeand, were in a band called The Petit Pois and used to go off on tour all around Europe when I was growing up so they were a huge inspiration. They would send back home-made band posters and cassettes which I would lovingly pin to my bedroom wall and treasure, dreaming of touring myself one day. It just took me a little longer than most.

OSR: What prompted the change from office work to song-writing and stand-up comedy?

Burgis: I think it was a combination of turning 35, and freaking out slightly, a lot if you ask my other half, that I was never going to ‘follow my dreams’. Also, I had a huge fear of performing in public that I wanted to get past. So, I decided the only way to do it was to go nuclear and put myself in positions that scared me the most. I enrolled on the Frog and Bucket stand-up comedy course where I met some excellent new people and trained with Dave Williams, a brilliant teacher.

The same year, 2018, my boyfriend took me to see one of his, and now mine, all-time musical heroes, John Bramwell (I Am Kloot) at the Trades Club in Hebden Bridge. He was supported by a brilliant songwriter called Dave Fidler. We got talking at the end of the gig and I found myself saying, mainly due to having had a few beers, that I’d written some songs. He mentioned he had a studio if I ever wanted to come and record some songs. He also let me know about a vocal coach called Hannah Smikle who he’d worked with in the past and who might be able to help me out with some of my insecurities with singing. Since then, Dave has become my producer and manager and I still regularly work with Hannah as a vocal coach and pretty much owe them both everything in terms of becoming a solo artist and having the confidence to write and perform my own songs. So, it was really a combination of meeting the right incredibly encouraging people at the right time!

OSR: How did you choose the name Test Card Girl?

Burgis: I’d always loved the slightly similar image of the girl playing noughts and crosses with a toy clown that used to come up at the end of broadcasting on the BBC when I was little and used to make up stories as a child about how she got there. It was such an iconic image and when I was thinking of a name I wanted something that would invoke nostalgia, a lot of the sounds I use are 80’s/90’s influenced, and I also loved the fact she was a girl trapped in a world of multi-coloured screens and machines, which is sometimes how I feel. I think it’s a name that, if you know the history, takes you back to a different time of now-defunct technology, and if you don’t know the history is just a weird name that might prompt more investigation.

OSR: Can you tell us a little about your debut single ‘Holds Me Down’?

Burgis: I first wrote ‘Holds Me Down’ in 2015 and it was one of the first songs I sent to Dave. It’s a lo-fi bedroom pop song, a bit more electronic than my normal indie-folk sound, and was described by fellow artist Debris Discs as sounding a bit like ‘Kate Rusby singing an electropop song with Sufjan Stevens playing the synthesiser for Wham’s ‘Last Christmas’, which I absolutely love! It was recently featured in Tom Robinson’s (BBC 6Music) Fresh on the Net ‘Fresh Faves’ blog described as ‘a glorious mess of retro-synth-sonics’ which I think describes the track really well. It was an attempt at a passionate yet low key tale of loss and love.

OSR: What was your creative process for the single? Did you start with a melody or the lyrics?

Burgis: I actually started singing the melody for it in the car one day while driving from Manchester to London. It’s just three vocal parts that all fit together and I can’t remember how exactly they came into my head, but it will have been somewhere on the M6 probably accompanied by an in-car Burger King. I was experimenting with recording for the first time and using Garageband and all the synths are actually Garageband sounds. I really rate the synth sounds they have on offer, lots of really retro sounds and lo-fi arpeggiators.

OSR: What was the biggest hurdle you had to overcome to create this single?

Burgis: The biggest hurdle with this and all the rest of my music has been a huge anxiety about singing, and especially singing my own songs. I think it has something to do with your own songs being a real window into your emotions and I’ve always been more of a joker, and less comfortable with expressing these sorts of things. The anxiety was why I first went to Hannah at Vocal Performance Coaching and have also seen an incredible voice therapist Paul Mckenna (not the stage hypnotist) who runs a free NHS clinic at Wythenshawe Hospital which I couldn’t actually believe existed, but it does and it’s amazing. I’ve still got a bit of a way to go getting comfortable with live performance since I only really started singing live just before all the venues closed due to the nightmare that is the coronavirus but am definitely much further down the road than I was.

Test Card Girl

OSR: If you could have people remember one thing about ‘Holds Me Down’, what would it be and why?

Burgis: I’d like them to remember a feeling it gives them, hopefully one of nostalgia and optimism!

OSR: Why did you choose this single as your debut?

Burgis: I think it captures both the electronic synth side of my sound along with the folky layered harmonies, so I chose it as a good introduction to future Test Card Girl sounds.

OSR: Who are the biggest influences on your musical style?

Burgis: I never really got over the ’90s and still have the standard musical taste of a 90’s Manchester teenager, everything from New Order to the Smiths etc. I love and was bought up on anything with finger-picking guitar style, Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel.

I also love confessional songwriters like John Bramwell, Guy Garvey, Joni Mitchell and Tracy Chapman. Major recent influences include Marika Hackman, Susanne Sundfør, Big Thief, Bon Iver, Tallest Man on Earth, Chvrches, IDER, Kate Rusby, Jesca Hoop and Fontaines D.C. I bear no similarity to them at all but just love their writing and sound! I like using the sounds from my childhood, anything from childhood novelty keyboards to TV theme tunes.

OSR: What do you have planned for the next 12 months?

Burgis: I’ve just had the incredible news that I’ll be receiving a National Lottery Arts Council grant to develop and release my first EP, Seven Dolls, so as soon as we’re allowed back in the studio I’ll be working on that alongside Dave and my engineer Ray Mitchell at The Fuse Studio in Partington and will hopefully be releasing that in April 2021. Other than that, I’ll be doing as much performing and live streaming as possible.

Thanks to Catherine Burgis for chatting with us! You can find more about Test Card Girl on her website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Spotify.

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