It’s not every ukulele player who goes from being homeless and broke to filling the room at CMJ. But last month at Ella Lounge, the front row was practically treading on Catey Shaw’s toes as she sang. “Watch your feet!” she said. “This is rock n’ roll.”
Actually, her music is more like indie-folk-pop with a splash of white-girl rap, but the point stood, and the petite 22-year-old strummed her ukelele with the fevered intensity of a Death Metal shredder. She wore a pinstriped vest with a massive gold hoop earring dangling from one ear. Her dirty-blonde, pink-tipped hair was pulled back into a tight ponytail.
“I was on Queen Latifah yesterday,” she told the audience. “No offense, but this is way more fun. Way less stressful. It was really cold there. I should have brought a parka. So just like, FYI, if you ever go to the Queen Latifah Show, bring a parka.”
Catey’s journey from couch-crashing to Queen Latifah began with some sliding doors. Jay Levine, a music producer with Lefthook Entertainment, was riding the F train downtown when the train stopped at 23rd Street, where Catey was busking. The train doors opened and the two found themselves face to face. “It was completely serendipitous,” says Jay. “I just immediately noticed how interesting and unique her voice was.” A week later, he brought Catey inside a recording studio for the first time.
From the get-go, Jay was blown away by how, with no classical training, Catey managed to project so effectively through a microphone. “Her voice, without any effort or anything, just shines through the mic, which is really, really rare,” he says.
Whenever you ask someone about Catey, the first thing they bring up is how unusual her voice is. Perez Hilton described her as “Meiko with a ukelele.” Jay says she’s “Billie Holiday meets MIA.” Throw in a little Regina Spektor and some Lily Allen and you’ve got Catey’s sound: high-pitched and scratchy, simultaneously childlike and mature, with an unusual twang on some words almost like a foreign accent.
The other thing people inevitably mention about Catey is her warm, laidback personality. “She’s very chilled and easy to get along with, which also comes across on stage,” says her bassist, Hayley Jane Batt. “Her rapport with the audience is brilliant, and I think it’s a big part of the overall charm of the shows.”
Her first EP, Clouds, was released in February, and quickly made Catey a name to know, with her first single, “Run Run Run,” getting re-blogged by Perez Hilton. For the past year she has been playing near weekly gigs throughout Brooklyn and downtown Manhattan.
“People took notice really fast,” says Jay. “We’re almost playing catch up because of how fast it’s gone.”
On a gray Monday afternoon, Catey greets me at the front door of her Bushwick apartment with a cigarette in one hand and her lovebird, Ketchup, perched on the other. She shares the place with her girlfriend Alyse, plus a bunch of other young artists. Paying rent is still a challenge. “Sally Mae literally calls me everyday,” she says.
Catey is small and dainty, with heart-shaped lips and wide-set, almost catlike eyes. She’s totally cute in a feminine way, but her aesthetic is more tomboy-grunge than girl next door. She rocks a nose-ring and is covered in tattoos: Egon Schiele paintings cover her left arm and a Regina Spektor lyric winds down across her side. She even has a pot leaf on her lower lip. “It’s fucked up, though. It looks like a maple leaf,” she laughs. “It’s cheap as shit.”
Catey is a nice presence to be around. She speaks softly and smiles often, giggling bashfully when she gets awkward. It’s hard to get her to say anything too dark or deep. I ask her about her biggest fears. “Moths,” she responds. Second biggest? “Um, I’m really scared of paper cuts. And when people stretch a rubber band out it gives me anxiety.”
She grew up in suburban Virginia Beach and went to art school for most of her upbringing. She first picked up the ukelele during senior year because she wanted to start writing songs but didn’t play an instrument, and, as she puts it, “this one only had four strings.”
At nineteen Catey moved to New York to get a degree in fine arts at SVA, but by second year, she couldn’t afford to pay her school bills and was forced to drop out. She found herself homeless, sleeping on an ex-girlfriend’s couch in Jersey City and playing in the subway just to have enough money to eat. “When you’re really hungry and you just want to eat something, but then you have to go busk for two hours before it’s worth the $2.50 it costs to go into the subway — it’s just frustrating,” she says. “Still I always felt blessed that – it was like an ATM, I could just take some more time and go down. At least I can sing or I don’t know what I would do.”
Her songs draw from the struggles of being broke and coming of age in New York. “Run Run Run,” her first music video, is a catchy, radio-friendly pop melody, but a poignant truth underlies the lyrics. As the chorus goes: “I’m 21, I’m 21, I want to go back home, but I can’t go, my mom foreclosed, I guess I’ll run, run, run.”
“It embodies her life,” says Jay. “She was in Jersey living in this really shitty place and we just kind of wrote about what it was like to make the best out of everything with no money.” In his view, what makes Catey’s story so appealing is how real it is: “She’s living this bohemian dream of moving to New York as a young girl and being free and experimental with life as possible. It’s an adventure that I think a lot of people dream of doing when they’re that age.”
For Catey, making music has always been about the adventure, never about dollars and cents. “If I play tiny little venues for the rest of my life, and a solid crowd shows up and people know the music and want to be there,” she says, pausing, “and I could pay my bills, that would be enough.”
Catch Catey Shaw Dec. 18, 9 p.m., at Rockwood Music Hall, 196 Allen St., Lower East Side