Katie Tupper makes neo soul shaped by her Prairie home
The singer defies the expectation that her city of Saskatoon can only foster country musicians
Until recently, Katie Tupper thought her path to indie label Arts & Crafts was due to a network of friends sharing her music.
"I just found out two months ago that it was a total fluke, and it made me want to throw up everywhere because I can't believe that my whole life is this right turn that happened, you know?" she says, a bit flabbergasted.
But it isn't really luck: Tupper's neo-soul songs shaped by her Prairie home speak for themselves. With vivid imagery of her Saskatoon hometown nestled within experiences of heartbreak and longing, Tupper writes songs that evoke nostalgia for a place you maybe haven't even visited, with a smooth sound influenced by the early 2000s era of D'Angelo and Erykah Badu. As she sings on lead single "How can I get Your Love?":
I grew up in fields of butter, wore my brown hair to my knees
All my friends could've been lovers, if they'd asked nicely
In summers skies were smokey, unless they chose to be clear
I remember why I left things, but now I'm not sure
There were a lot of unexpected turns, though, for Tupper to get where she is today, and one of them was the pandemic. The singer was supposed to perform as part of the Juno Awards festivities in Saskatoon, which were among the first events to be cancelled in March 2020. After months of Tupper isolating like the rest of the world, and having just finished a marketing degree she couldn't find a place to use yet, she wrote and recorded a four-track EP and sent it, unrequested, to that Junos producer, who then cold-emailed someone at Arts & Crafts.
Two years later Tupper has just finished her first "baby tour," as she calls it, and is set for more festival gigs this summer. The songs on that four-track EP will possibly never see the light of day — "I'll take them to the grave with me," she says, laughing — but her 2022 EP, Towards the End, co-written and produced with Connor Seidel (Charlotte Cardin, the 1969 project), is something she's immensely proud of. One of the singles from that EP, "Live Inside," even snagged a coveted premiere spot on Apple Music 1 via Zane Lowe ("I think I blacked out when it was happening," Tupper jokes).
This sometimes fortuitous set of milestones is built on a foundation of hard work. Tupper's family had a rule that everyone had to play at least five years of piano growing up, and it was the beginning of a solid backbone for a neo-soul singer in a hometown that's not exactly known for the genre.
Tupper started her family-mandated piano training at five years old, and at 10 switched from classical to jazz training, which brought her to a teacher who had a full recording studio for Tupper to develop and stretch her talents, leading her to focus heavily on her singing. But it was the Soul Collective, a seven-piece group led by fellow Saskatoon artist and producer vbnd, that really solidified her love of neo-soul.
"We were playing a lot of live music, and I think that really turned me onto it because it was the first time I was playing with multiple musicians," explains Tupper. "Everyone's improvising and it really developed my love for [it] — that's the type of live show that I love."
And in June 2022, she got a bump of recognition: Tupper is nominated for two Western Canadian Music Awards, for both R&B artist and songwriter of the year, among a list of nominees that she says she is "obsessed with."
"I think there's a lot of really, really strong R&B artists that are sort of underground, making really cool stuff because they're super passionate about it. And it's been great to have a small but solid community of people that are kind of like, 'We don't just make country music' — and there's nothing wrong with [country music]. But I think just being able to have people around you that are making the same music and have the same influences and want to put on the same shows and have the same events is so important and so encouraging."