Girl K’s Kathy Patino has always dreamed of being famous. “I’ve been dreaming of being famous since I was eight years old, and you can’t just get rid of that feeling…” she says casually. “But it’s so hard to make it a career unless you’re at, like, a Dua Lipa level of fame.”
It’s an oddly refreshing desire to hear someone earnestly say aloud—novel, even. Dua Lipa is a far cry from where the Chicago indie band sits now. There was a stretch of time, over the last twenty years, where simply the idea of fame carried a sense of hubris and fleeting virality that most people would scoff at. In 2021, it remains a goal worth questioning given how cheapened and warped the path to it has seemingly become in the internet age.
And there is, of course, very little precedent for the bedroom rock strumming and warm lo fi recordings that Patino cut her teeth on in the early days of Girl K to break through in this way, at least without the algorithmic help of TikTok. When I hear Patino repeat the notion out loud again later in our conversation, it seems freeing. Even if being in indie rock is not a traditionally surefire way of reaching any type of notable stardome—far from it these days—it’s blissful and fantastical to imagine, especially after spending any amount of time talking to her. Yet within her longing for fame is a hope for sustainability and longevity. Red carpets, talk shows, and Bentleys are all great, but behind those things are unspoken constants like health insurance, a savings account, and a platform to be heard. Why not sell out? As the music industry slowly swallows itself up, who can really blame an indie rock band for wanting to be famous?
It doesn’t take very long after pressing play on GIRL K IS FOR THE PEOPLE that you feel like Kathy Patino should be famous. The way she holds the disco ball on the cover extends into the songs; “You,” one of the best openers of the year, matches her focused stare, a frollicking two-and-a-half minute heater that explodes thanks to some fuck-you guitar playing and a firey mix. “Best For You” similarly awakens with a different kind of Girl K sound with its absorbed piano build.
Described as Girl K 2.0 now that Patino has surrounded herself with a full band, GIRL K IS FOR THE PEOPLE is a dizzying slice of pop music, ambitious in the sheer scale as compared to Patino’s past work, with massive hooks and shimmering synth textures. As it unfolds, you can almost see a pathway to a red carpet presenting itself. Even if the streaming numbers and social follows aren’t there yet, it’s sonically the kind of thing that should be getting played across radio stations in the US, from the jagged bomb “Hah” to the four on the floor stomp of the title track. Traditional pop music? Certainly not. But in moments, it feels like it has that kind of massive trajectory.
When discussing music and longevity, fittingly many of Patino’s immediate references are pop stars, both big and small. From massive cultural icons like Jack Antonoff and Taylor Swift (“she’s gone through all of these eras of music and just talks about reinventing herself being a big part of staying relevant”) to rising acts like Caroline Rose (“her original music is pretty different than what she puts out now, and she’s been doing it for a long time and something finally stuck—it’s so important to keep going”), you understand what philosophically is propelling Patino. “I just think it’s important to play around with different sounds because it keeps you engaged.”
Like the reinventions Patino references, Girl K’s transition from reserved, wordy rock to bombastic, layered pop certainly feels rooted in a desire to keep things fresh, but it wouldn’t be fair to say there wasn’t pretence for it. Back on Patino’s song “80s Baby,” she cooly sang “I like the makeshift sounds of the 80s / those were the days when people were real,” wish fulfillment you can hear manifesting itself on GIRL K IS FOR THE PEOPLE. “I always loved the 80s, and growing up I was always telling myself ‘school doesn’t matter, I’m going to be a pop star when I’m 16,’ giving myself these moments of delusion that real life doesn’t matter,” she says with a laugh. “For me with Girl K, I always just want to level up.”
GIRL K IS FOR THE PEOPLE is unquestionably a leveling up, but it goes far beyond the music. When discussing the project’s trajectory, Patino is as eager and enthusiastic about industry things like finding management and signing to a label as she is the music itself—the ups-and-downs of going to music networking events and discussing 2019’s eventually self-released FOR NOW with labels only made her more focused and aware when it came to the latest EP. “You never stop learning,” she says almost whimsically.
Ultimately, the EP was released on Take This To Heart Records, a perfect fit if there ever was one for a young band. “It’s still a learning process,” she says. “I’ve been all things Girl K. I’ve seen everything that’s going on, I know everything that’s going on… artistic wise, I’ve had complete control, from the merch to the album artwork. And I’m not someone who likes to be assertive that I want to take control, or have the final say, so it was a lot of figuring out how to communicate with people. We would talk about things like marketing ideas, and I’d be, like, ‘oh no, I don’t like that, can we do something else.’”
That assertion doesn’t come easy, as she’s quick to mention, but it’s gotten her this far. In a 2018 interview, Patino told Melted Magazine’ that “putting yourself and your art into the world is terrifying. I have mornings where I wake up wondering if anything I’m doing will ever get me to where I want to be.” I ask whether or not that fear still exists for her, whether she’s able to see everything that’s happened between her debut, SUNFLOWER COURT, and now as progress.
“You can lose sight of the fact that music is this more pure thing,” she says slowly. “And that it’s more fun than anything else. It’s something you love to do, but because you love it so much it’s the only thing you want to do. There are so many aspects that are exciting, like touring or being able to have the resources to play out your wildest fantasies with your project, but that’s the thing that bothers me the most. Every so often I have this aching for it to be something more, and sometimes a disappointment when it’s not. But I’m always going to try. So I’m over that fear at this point, because we’ve already accomplished so much.”
Amidst side discussions about MAMA MIA and FOLKLORE, Patino casually mentions to me a job she’s recently applied to. It’s the kind of gig that, as she puts it, would change her life, with paychecks that would firmly provide peace of mind—no Dua Lipa money, but the kind of security most millennials yearn for in 2021. The way she talks about it has almost as much sincerity and longing as when she talks about being a pop star. Everything is right there in the title: GIRL K IS FOR THE PEOPLE; be it her hopes for fame or her desire for security, Patino represents the duality of people trying to survive AND thrive.
Days after our interview, she DMs me excitedly to tell me she got the job. I find myself getting emotional reading the message—listening to Girl K makes you want to root for Patino. If there’s any justice, she’ll be a star one day.