With gentrification in Brooklyn rising higher than a Williamsburg condo, the idea that people flocking to New York’s most populous borough because they like Girls really pisses off old school Brooklyn-ites like whoa. Last week, the viral smackdown of Brooklyn transplant Catey Shaw and the video premiere of “Brooklyn Girls,” sent the internet into a temporary state of psychotic rage when scathing criticisms against Shaw’s upbeat, and perhaps stereotypical, portrait of Brooklyn — with its abundance of PBR, graffiti and rooftop parties — was considered by some media outlets as the death of Brooklyn. But unlike artists who buckle from online hatred and even death threats from trolls, Shaw exudes a surprisingly stark and wicked sense of humor in spite of it all. And for someone considered the most hated musician on the Internet, who’s also contributing to the gentrification issue or whatever, the 22-year-old Virginia Beach native is thinking less about the critics and more about her upcoming album, which is appropriately entitled, The Brooklyn EP. We spoke to her about what it feels like to be despised by a bunch of anonymous strangers, her music, and being a girl who lives in the borough of Brooklyn.
I was on your Twitter page the other day and your comment on being excited for making it 24hrs without someone telling you to kill yourself was troubling and hilarious. Have you received a lot of death threats online?
I mean, it’s a thing, but I feel like with any internet happening people jump right to that [online threats]. And I don’t take it super seriously. I’m lucky that I’m pretty emotionally stable because if I wasn’t, I think it would be a lot harder to deal with. Luckily, I can laugh at it and recognize how people are on the internet.
Did you imagine that “Brooklyn Girls” was going to receive as much attention as it has?
I was hoping it would receive attention, but obviously I hoped it would have been more positively received. But it was totally intended as a compliment to Brooklyn. And we know that Brooklyn is a hot-button topic right now, so we kind of expected there would be a little bit of reaction, but nothing on this scale.
How are you dealing with the negative attention?
Last week it was a little weird. I was a bit scared to talk about it [the criticisms] because I didn’t want to say the wrong thing and give people ammo. It was just a lot harder last week. And I was so busy that I didn’t really have time to process it until yesterday. I had my one big emotional spell and got it all out. Now I’m ready to hit the ground running again. But it is kind of a blessing in disguise because it gave me a recognizable name.
Why do you think people dislike the song so much?
I think that we’re living in a place where your whole Facebook feed is a deep think piece about everything you could possibly think of. It’s great that this conversation is happening, but there’s clearly people that could talk about this for a long time but just didn’t have the correct outlet to vent. I think New York is a cool place, and I even do it sometimes, too, where I’ll go back to Virginia and I’m just like, ‘Nothing is cooler than New York or Brooklyn.’ We just get this New York-ery attitude about us.
I think a lot of the criticisms stem from the fact that the song could further gentrify an already gentrified Brooklyn. But since you’ve been living there, have you witnessed Brooklyn evolving?
I’ve been living in the same apartment for about a year-and-a-half now and there was one bar near me when I moved here. Last week we [Shaw’s friends] went barhopping and now there’s like, six bars within two block of my apartment. It’s insane. And I live on the ground floor with windows in the front and the amount of noise outside my window is crazy. Gentrification is happening to everyone. No one is immune to it.
So, with all talks of criticism aside, were did the idea for “Brooklyn Girls” come from?
My writing partner [and producer] Jay [Levine] and I were at a studio in LA trying to write pop songs and there was a list of topics that we were trying to work from. We were trying so hard to make the songs work. But then we decided it wasn’t going to happen, so we wrote about what we wanted to write about. We were thinking about [the 1964 song] “The Girl from Ipanema,” and how she’s tall and tan and dark and lovely and walks down the street. So it was this 40-year-old straight man and this 22-year-old lesbian trying to write about this hot Brooklyn chick. The lyrics kind of adjusted over time and the subject matter got a little more specific, but this powerful, enigmatic female was something we wanted to talk about.
Is that what it means to be a Brooklyn Girl? And can anyone that doesn’t live in Brooklyn be a Brooklyn Girl?
Definitely. I actually think about my little sister, even. She’s 14 and in middle school, and it’s just so funny seeing some of the outfits she puts on and how she goes to school knowing that she doesn’t look like anyone of her friends – she’s the coolest girl in her grade. It’s just really about the confidence to do what you want. For me it was moving to Brooklyn and making my dream happen.
There’s a lot of Brooklyn in the “Brooklyn Girls” video. Was it your idea to show various aspects of the borough?
The video was low budget. We did the whole thing from my apartment and all the extras were my friends. I set up a Facebook event on my personal Facebook page and invited everyone we knew and had PBR for everyone. The reason we had PBR is because it’s the cheapest stuff we could get and we just had a party.
Do you think there’s a certain style to the people who live in Brooklyn?
It may sound corny but expressing yourself through clothes in a way that people don’t have the freedom to do, or at least I didn’t feel like I had the freedom to do when I lived somewhere else, is important. There’s something about being here [in Brooklyn] that no matter how crazy you look, there’s always someone more ridiculous looking. There’s this fearlessness to the way people dress in Brooklyn.
Growing up in Virginia Beach, where you didn’t feel free to express yourself through clothing, how did that affect you? And did moving to Brooklyn help you become more comfortable?
I always wore weird things to school. I remember wearing a ‘50s prom dress in the ninth grade and people saying that it was really weird and me just feeling awesome around school. I never felt natural. But people weren’t looking at me like I was crazy until I moved to Brooklyn.
Where did you go to school?
I went to SVA [School for Visual Art] in New York City for oil painting. I worked pretty much exclusively with self-portraitures and I think making the switch to music and writing was the kind of scene that was best for me.
Also, because of school loan debt, how are you surviving in Brooklyn?
I’m living in what is technically considered a two-bedroom with four roommates. And I’m also just managing my money. I used to do a lot of busking to keep up with money, too. It was kind of those things where you go down to the subway and you’re just playing ukulele and you’re playing by yourself. I could only do about two hours at a time before my thumbs would start bleeding and my voice would get tired. But I would make as much as I could for two hours in the morning, have enough for lunch, and go back and do another two hour shift in the evening. Recently, I haven’t busked as much, but for the first few years that I lived in New York, that’s how I made my income.
And that’s how you were discovered, correct? Playing ukulele in the subway?
I was playing in the subway and one of the trains stopped and my manager Jay and I were just facing each other head on while I was playing. Then the doors closed and the train left, but he took it to the next stop, circled around, came back and then I met him. But it wasn’t until I was looking at my planner from a few years ago, when I first got his number, that I decided to meet him at the studio. It was first time seeing a real recording studio, and my first time writing an original song, and we’ve been together ever since
How did it feel going from busking to the studio?
Incredible. I had been playing in the subway for about a year before I met Jay. I met a lot of people who came up to me while I was busking and said they liked my voice and that they wanted to record me, but it didn’t feel right. But when I met Jay, I knew immediately that he was for real. I felt like someone had finally heard me and I was getting a chance to hone in on this craft that many people devote years and years to. I spent my whole life working on paintings, so to put that energy into singing, and having someone teach me the ways [Levine], was great.
Gotcha! So with the new EP coming out in September, what are your initial thoughts on the album, and what would you like to say to all the haters (and non-haters) on the internet?
I think there’s a lot of subject matter in there and I’m very happy that people are speaking my name. And when the EP comes out, people can make up their minds about whether I’m worth their time or not.