The Business of the Blues
Katy Guillen and The Girls' step-by-step guide to success
A conversation with Katy Guillen and The Girls is a lot like one of their performances: Katy (guitar and vocals) takes the lead, Claire Adams (bass and vocals) underlies and deepens the tone, and Stephanie Williams (drums) accents the points, landing punch lines like rim shots. It’s infectious, focused, fun and filled with perfectly timed digressions. As much as they obviously enjoy each other’s company, they make you feel included, inviting you in for a shared experience.
Their second album, Heavy Days, released June 24, and the band is enjoying a summer of coast-to-coast concert dates, jazz and blues festivals and a growing national fan base. It’s been a steady progression for this trio of artists determined to manage and control both product and image in the world of rock and blues.
STEP ONE: Win the Kansas City Preliminary International Blues Challenge
After playing together in Adams’ Claire and the Crowded Stage and finding themselves sharing bills while with other bands, the group formed in 2012. They quickly gained a following due to their high-energy performances and Guillen’s soulful voice and fiery guitar solos. After a year of playing around town and recording an EP, they entered the Kansas City preliminary round of the International Blues Challenge (IBC).
Guillen: It’s funny because at that time we were just getting some traction, but nobody knew who we were, except our friends around here. The Midtown circle knew us, but we hadn’t broken into the blues scene at all. When we won that, it was like “Oh, we won something!” Let’s do more of this and see how far we can take it. And we had just released our little EP and finally had some merchandise, too.
Williams: We got a name, we got an EP, we’re going to the IBC!
Adams: We showed up for the prelim [preliminary] in, you know, just T-shirts and jeans and played a bunch of covers — and won! But they were like, “Y’all need to dress up.”
Williams: It is the International Blues Challenge, and we know now that it’s a big deal in the blues world, but we had no idea that day. It was just another gig.
Guillen: (laughing) It was, after all, the preliminary, and they were just saying, “When you go to the big one in Memphis, you guys have to not wear T-shirts and jeans.”
Adams: And I think, maybe, too, they were trying to get us into miniskirts. But that doesn’t really work with us.
STEP TWO: Get Invited on the Blues Cruise
The band made the finals in Memphis in 2014, and all acknowledge that performing under such pressure was a galvanizing experience. It put them onto the international blues scene, particularly with a performance at the 2014 Montreal International Jazz Festival. Drawing from jazz, blues, country and rock, their self-titled first album showcased original songs. Subsequent fan-made YouTube performance videos broadened their audience. Then, out of the blue, they received an invitation to blues man Joe Bonamassa’s Keeping the Blues Alive at Sea, where the industry’s best artists perform on a cruise ship.
Guillen: Somehow we were requested, and we don’t really know exactly how, but enough fans voted and wanted us to be included that we got a call to play on the fan appreciation venue. We still had to be approved by Joe Bonamassa, and one day I got an email asking us to come on the cruise. (grins) We need to go on another one.
Adams: Helpful hints: Watch your feet! Don’t close your eyes while you’re playing. Don’t get too into it or you’ll fall.
Williams: Be careful doing shots with (legendary pedal steel guitarist) Robert Randolph. But then you’re not gonna say no to Robert Randolph.
Guillen: Seriously, don’t drink too much — because you won’t know whether you’re hungover or seasick.
Adams: When we went out to play in the Bay Area, fans came to see us who had been on that cruise. I think the best thing about playing on the boat is that people from all over the country heard us.
Williams: So now we have a couple fans in a lot of different places, and they bring more people.
STEP THREE: Start A Record Label (and Protect the Brand)
Heavy Days was recorded last fall at Duane Trower’s KC studio, Weights and Measures Soundlab, and was produced by Trower and Paul Malinowski, owner of Massive Sound Studios in Kansas City, Kansas. Having a pair of veteran producers made for an exciting, comfortable process. Guillen was working full-time booking, marketing and publicizing the band and was feeling stretched thin. The same day they went into the studio, they hired a booking agent. And when the issue of distribution came up, the band agreed to start their own label, KG&G Records. When I asked why, Williams answered with characteristic clarity: “So we don’t get screwed.”
Guillen: We’d already put out the first CD pretty successfully. We’ve always been independent, and it just makes more sense to do it yourself and have a platform to continue to build our business. We can put out special releases, contribute songs to compilations, and maybe, down the road, depending how it goes, take on other artists.
Williams: It feels a lot better. We’ve seen multiple instances of other artists going to a label and having something go wrong. People have had their albums shelved for too long, then they’re sick of playing the same stuff while the album is delayed. It’s scary.
Guillen: Why should you sacrifice that control? You wrote these songs, you want to put them out. Why should it matter what a big A&R person thinks? Or whether they think it will or won’t make money? The band has worked so far. We’ve built this organically, making fans, playing live all over, building a good show.
Williams: Playing the right amount of shows, not too often, making it more of an event when it does happen. You have to have a good live show if you are going to be successful.
Adams: It’s also really nice for us, as artists, to be in control of our image.
Williams: It helps us focus on what we’re trying to do, which is to be a band. None of us have a massive awareness of fashion. That’s not what we’re interested in, and so if we’re being told to focus on that, then it takes our attention away from performing and creating.
Guillen: We understand there is a promoting of image. You are either professional or not, but you get to a certain level and there’s pressure. I mean we try to look good in shows, but we’re not gonna say, “Oh, let’s wear miniskirts and stilettos” because that’s not who we are. I think more than anything else we see ourselves as professional musicians. We just want to grow, continue to tour, meet new people and expand our network of friends and musicians. I think we’ve made good decisions that have resulted in us not losing money.
Williams knocks on the wooden table. Guillen and Adams follow suit. Then they all laugh. And Williams caps it off.
Williams: We’re more than happy with the path we’ve taken so far.
For music, performance dates and merchandise, visit kgandthegirls.com.