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by Otis Robinson

Kelsy Karter talks *that* Harry Styles tattoo situation, cathartic rock music, refusing expectations and her debut album, 'Missing Person'.

In 2019, New Zealand-born rock musician Kelsy Karter was targeted by stan culture when she posted a controversial image to her Instagram page. “Mama, look what I made me do,” the caption read, beneath a picture of Karter’s profile. Slap-bang in the middle of her cheek was a choice tattoo of ex-One Direction-er Harry Styles’ Rolling Stone cover from 2017. Karter was catapulted into the spotlight – the Harry fiasco, she calls it.

Although part of a stunt to promote then-latest single ‘Harry’, the musician admitted she received a surge of hate from Styles’ fans, which severely impacted her mental health. Karter set out with good intentions – to have a laugh and show off her ‘cheeky, theatrical’ rock’n’roll sensibilities – but the cruelty of super-fans put Karter’s ‘rebellious, punkish’ tribute to the modern rock-pop heartthrob at the centre of a shit storm. The joke turned from playful to nightmarish almost instantly.

“It was a rollercoaster few months, from good things to bad things,” Karter says over the phone from LA. Openly, Karter deals with anxiety and depression, and the “fucked up” comments from Styles’ fans led Karter to address the bullies over Instagram on Mental Health Awareness day. Today, Karter reflects on this period with apparent resilience – a strength that punches through her music catalogue and sends a middle finger to the trolls. And on October 2, Karter will drop her anticipated debut album, Missing Person, a defiant 12-track record doused in heartache, smashed beer bottles, cigarette stubs and glistening rock music that confidently hits back at the good, the bad and the ugly from the last few years.

Exemplified by the tattoo stunt, Karter champions rock music with a theatrical twist. The brunette musician takes the role of a take-no-shit, gun-toting, boyfriend-killing, teenage dirtbag star – think Alice Cooper meets Chicago – while blowing smoke in the face of bullies, rules and authority. But really, it’s all about emotional catharsis: throughout her debut rock-musical record, Karter faces her anxieties, analyses the collapse of a relationship, rediscovers her identity and leads a rebellion against conformity. This album is for young women and outcasts, she tells tmrw, because, ultimately, that’s the corner she comes from too. Growing up, Karter was a theatre kid, a tomboy (“If the boys were doing it, I had to do it,” she says), a class clown and a scatterbrain with big dreams to be on stage and scream. Obsessed with glam-rock artists like David Bowie, it’s no surprise that rock music became the conduit for her musical expression then, since it fuelled the rebellion that she felt building inside. 

Although pop reigns supreme in the music industry, Karter has won over a dedicated digital audience of misfits, proving rock is alive and kicking for enamoured Gen Z-ers. Her appeal is easy to see: Karter’s music is authentic, moody and theatrical – she’s already been the subject of notoriety as most rock musicians tend to be – and the Angelina Jolie lookalike has cracked a cool perma-vintage look, sporting dark brunette hair framed by an iconic blonde fringe. Online, she’s punky and tough, yet jokes that rom-coms easily bring her to tears, and she has a laugh with her fans online while talking openly about mental health. What’s more, after only a couple of years in the game, a debut rock album is a huge feat. For someone that seems to be exactly where – and who – they want to be, it’s surprising the journey to this point was not without difficulty, nor without the hardship that outlines the record, particularly as a woman trying to break free of pop categorisation. 

“Be a good girl, be a lady/You want me Top of the Pops/Say [there’s] no future in rock/But I’m not changing"

Prior to the Harry fiasco, music industry turmoil was not new to Karter. She had already faced pressures to edit herself: “Everybody thinks they know better than you, especially when you’re a young artist,” Karter says, which made it difficult to stick to her vision for how she could contribute to modern rock music. “Every session I would go into, people would try to make me be the next Amy Winehouse. I love Amy – she’s one of my favourite artists of all time – but I’m Kelsy Karter. Don’t try to make me the next anyone.” The tattoo stunt exacerbated these anxieties. “The perception after the Harry stunt was that I was down to do anything, but that’s quite the opposite. I felt violated from it.” 

As a result of these pressures, Karter says her inner 15-year-old, “the one that got suspended at school for speaking up too much”, would scream and punch to get out. Already, she’d really been through the ringer, she says – her Kiwi accent bounces through the words – and although an eventual contract with BMG Recordings helped to validate and support her vision, she had more to say about her experiences. It was those expectations – that Karter could be controlled and objectified as ‘up for anything’ – that led to the outburst that is ‘Stick to Your Guns’, a triumphant declaration of agency and second single from the record.

“Be a good girl, be a lady/You want me Top of the Pops/Say [there’s] no future in rock/But I’m not changing,” she sings over a thumping instrumental. It’s a snowballing inspirational number that sounds straight off the stage, and Karter says the track acts as a reminder of who she is and aspires to be, even among the industry noise that inevitably tries to shape her. 

Karter’s defiant identity is the rock’n’roll kicker and screamer that reverberates at the heart of Missing Person. On the cover of the record, Karter smiles maniacally – inspired by the work of artist Rebekah Rubalcava – as blood drips down her forehead, an act of perseverance despite what’s thrown at her. Over the phone, she explains Missing Person is about being strong, but it’s also about being vulnerable. 

In an emotionally rock’n’roll move, the record tears open its heart to process the decline of a relationship. The first chapter of this story, ‘Goodness Gracious’, a love song-slash-nicotine rush for rulebreakers, is like a meet-cute smeared in lipstick; later, ‘I’m So Mad at Him’, does what it says on the tin, and embraces witty indie-pop sensibilities to express building frustration; ‘Villain’, through a chest-clenching-belter of a chorus, explores the end of the relationship; while spoken-word poem ‘Int – Coffee Shop – Next Morning’  delicately details the aftermath of the trauma. It’s an unavoidable piece of the album because Karter experienced a transformative period – a dark depression and heartbreak – during its creation. 

“I completely lost myself in 2018. It was the lowest point in my life – then 2019 was one of the best years of my life. I wanted Missing Person to embody that whole up and down process that I went through.” Consequently, the self-confessed scatterbrain used rock music to find herself again – the titular missing person – and the record seemingly acts as a loud reaffirmation above buzzing heartache and anxiety. 

Elsewhere, like a punk Burn Book, Karter pours wider anxieties into the pages of the record to self-liberate. Album opener ‘You Only Die Once’, an inspiring, reckless rock-pop showstopper with heart, proudly isolates Karter from the world around her – and shitty political powers-that-be. “In America, it’s a fucking shit show,” Karter says passionately. “I’m vocal on how I feel about things. I’m very liberal. I believe in gun control; I don’t like Trump; I’m a big supporter of the LGBTQ+ community. I want people to know it’s okay to speak their mind. I wanted to be like, you know what, fuck the norm, fuck what you tell me I should sing, and fuck how you tell me I should sing it.” The song is an anthem for anyone who feels lost and needs to feel found, she explains – “We can’t trust no one round here/All we can do is run fast/Grab my hand and don’t look back,” Karter sings – and teases that the song will close the (anticipated) album tour.

Best exemplified by ‘You Only Die Once’, Karter hopes Missing Person can help empower outcasts, to make them feel as “badass” as they make her feel in the face of similar growing pains or trolls. Karter’s modern brand of rock’n’roll isn’t about fame and riches then, she says; it sees her act as circus ringleader, collecting lost misfits and homing them. “It’s not just about me, it’s about my fans. I was such a tough kid, but some kids feel like they aren’t. I have to give that back to them in my art.”

As we end the conversation, I ask Karter to tell me where she imagines Missing Person played. In typical Kelsy Karter theatrical style, she details a Breakfast Clubish movie scene: “It’s the kid that’s different at school, sitting in their bedroom, getting ready to go to a party, wearing theatrical makeup no one else is wearing, putting on a leather jacket, lighting up a smoke. They walk out the door to their 1969 red Mustang convertible like, ‘I’m gonna kiss that boy tonight’, or, ‘I’m gonna stand up to that bully tonight’. 

“Even if they’re not the kids that walk around with a fag hanging out of their mouths and a leather jacket on, I want them to feel like they are when they’re listening to it, so they can feel empowered in whatever they’re going through.”

Kelsy Karter’s debut album, Missing Person’, is available on streaming platforms from October 2.

Sarah Pardini
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