marchioness > digital > Cat SFX: She's More Kurt Than Courtney
Interview by Marianne Gallagher —  Edited by Jessica Fynn

Cat SFX: She’s More Kurt Than Courtney

© Alun Davies

“There’s one thing you should know, this ain’t my first Rodeo” sings Caterina Speranza (singer of CAT SFX) on 'Rodeo', her 2022 single.


Though this punky London glamour girl isn’t weary with cynicism, she’s certainly seen her fair share of the world. Coming to light in the early 00s when indie sleaze was the law of the land and more than just a revival movement, she tasted fame early and ducked out before days grew dark.


Now she’s back older, wiser and wiley as ever, in a four-piece band (the SFX stands for ‘Side Effects’) with guitarist Patrick Murphy, bass player Jacob Morris (bass) and co-writer/drummer Gordon Mills. Signed to the legendary Alan McGee’s new label It’s Creation, Baby in 2021 - they emerged from lockdown hibernation to cause a commotion in London’s rock’n’roll circuit, pillaging influences from punk, goth and 80s new wave. 


As bolshy and effervescent as her live presence suggests, she’s radiating her energies through a Zoom screen today, as she spills out her thoughts on songwriting, sobriety and the magic of second-hand clothes. 


“I had a band when I was 16 called The Vincent Fiasco,” she recalls.  “We went on tour with the Libertines, but it all got a bit much, and I started taking too many drugs. I broke up the band because I was really scared I was going to die.”  It’s a shellshock revelation, but she’s made her way out of those dangerous ends. Packing in her own songwriting dreams for a while, she found herself moving to Italy to find herself and fell into a job at Sony, ATV writing for Italian pop artists. Though the day-job mentality got her through some tough years, and kept her creating continually, it’s clear she wasn’t meant to play by someone else’s rules. 


“It’s alright writing songs for other people, but you don’t put too much of yourself in it. There’s a pretty big band from Italy called The Kolours. They were recording their album in London, in Mark Ronson’s studio. That was pretty easy and very specific - they were telling us, ‘this is what I want from this song.’ But when you’re in a studio with ten other people, trying to come up with some pop bullshit that means nothing to you…it’s fucking awful!” 


But it wasn’t to say she didn’t learn from it. Making songs for other people helped her see music outside of the self-lacerating act it had become, giving her some necessary distance to heal old wounds. Returning to London a couple of years later, she wound up meeting her now musical partner, Gordon Mills Junior, at a songwriting workshop. They’ve been working together ever since.


“We just really clicked, so we got the band together and released our first song during lockdown. It was pretty shit, because we had all these gigs planned, which we couldn’t play. But that’s how we formed.”


In terms of her influences, you could reel off a roll-call of riot grrl royalty. But she’s more Kurt than Courtney though, and cites Trent Reznor from Nine Inch Nails as the main inspiration of her life. “My favourite band was called the Nymphs, and Inger Law was the frontwoman. They came out just at the start of grunge. Off-the-scale good. I remember I saw them first at my mate’s house - we just had the TV on and they were playing old stuff on MTV, this song called Imitating Angels, it just caught me. I absolutely love Debbie Harry as a frontwoman. PJ Harvey too, of course!” 


What was the music world like the first time round, in the heady days of UK indie? She shares memories of Death Disco, the legendary London indie club night where she first started to play. “That’s how I met Alan McGee. Back in the day, it was amazing. There’d be supermodels, rockstars and bands who’d come over from America. And Alan was there, going nuts. Definitely the best night in London at that time.” She reconnected with McGee, (the legendarily loud and gregarious Scottish music promoter who discovered the Jesus and Mary Chain and Oasis) over a decade later. Now both sober, it was a notably different atmosphere the second time around. And it happened completely by chance. 


“I was an extra in Creation Stories, the film. I was on the set and he was like, “Cat?”. We went out for tea. He asked what I was doing, I told him about how I was writing for other people. But later, me and Gordon got together, and started writing this. “When he heard about it, he was like *affects Scottish accent* - ‘You’ve got to DO something. Put this out, pal!’ We’re both sober. He’s been sober for about 20 years now, and it’s great to have him in my life. He gives a lot of guidance, and is someone I really look up to. To have done what he did - coming from a council estate to changing the face of music like that - is a massive achievement.”


Her hard-fought sobriety hasn’t been without its challenges, especially navigating such an intoxicated industry. “When I was in the Vincent Fiasco, and 16, I got onto heroin. It was pretty hard - it was when the band was about to get signed. I knew that I’d just blow the advance and die.” But perseverance prevailed, and was clean for a long time, till the enforced isolation started to rattle her sense of self. “Lockdown happened, and I was bored out my fucking mind. Depressed, because I couldn’t play gigs. Writing loads and loads of lyrics, but I couldn’t do anything with them. Some people were doing sessions on Zoom, but I just couldn’t bring myself to.” She bursts into hysterical laughter at the thought. “The introvert part of me was like, “this feels nice, I don’t have to go anywhere”. I quite quickly realised it wasn’t good for me to be left alone with my thoughts for that amount of time.” 


“I went a bit mental, to be honest,” she admits. “We were all geared up with shows to support the first single, and then all of a sudden, we couldn’t leave the house. There was one night where I went to the shop and bought a bottle of wine. I thought ‘fuck this, I can’t deal with this’. But Alan was there for me. He stuck by me and said “You can do this.”


The timer’s firmly back on her sober clock. “I stopped drinking again. It’s hard, going to gigs or going out. You’ve just got to be prepared. If some people drink, it’s fine, but if I drink then I’m going to end up fucking dead - because it’ll turn into a month-long bender, and I’ll end up in a ditch somewhere. It’s hard to navigate, but I just remember what these options are, basically.”

And what’s her advice for teenage girls, looking to change the world in a band?  “This industry is so fucking hard for women. It’s almost like you can’t win. If you dress sexy in the pop world, it’s kind of expected. But if you’re a female singer - like a rock singer - who wants to show some skin, then you’re really judged. It’s such a masculine world: such double-standards.”


“Don’t take shit from anyone and don’t be intimidated by men who don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about. There’s always going to be a dude who says, “Women can’t play guitar”. It’s always going to be that way, and it always has been.”


“Have a sense of yourself. Have fun. Don’t be fooled by drugs. You can start with this really big talent, and think by taking drugs you’re getting somewhere - but it’s actually dulling and numbing your talent completely, to the point where you simply can’t write or perform without them. That’s my advice: stand your ground, don’t take any shit and remember that you’re stronger than that.”


Do costume and paint help her play the part when performing? “I love fashion, and getting dressed up is definitely a part of it for me. It’s not a mask, but helps you become the character you want to be onstage. And it helps you get over nerves as well, putting the armour on. Usually, it’s got to be black. I like really grungy, gothy, shredded and ripped-up type things. There’s not a particular reference, but if I was dressing like anyone: Trent Reznor! 


“I buy everything second-hand. All my stuff - apart from my underwear, obviously! In charity shops - I live in Earls Court, and there’s a lot of rich people here who give away all this amazing stuff. Or else I get things from Ebay, if it’s a specific thing that I want. There’s always a look in mind.” Of favourite designers, she’s fond of the punky, heritage greats. “Hands down, my favourites are Viv Westwood and Alexander McQueen. I really like All Saints too. But if you go on Ebay, and type in All Saints - the amount of stuff you can get.. The other day I got a gorgeous dress, a really cool jumper and a shirt for about 50 pounds. Most of the stuff’s only been worn once. It’s cheaper than fast fashion, looks a million times better, and it’ll last. You can’t go wrong with that.”


She’s angry and vocal about the sinister roots at the heart of the fast-fashion spin-cycle, that are motivated by darker forces than convenience and cost. “The problem is the birth of instagram and the Instagram models,” she rails. “It actually makes me so angry. I can’t imagine being a teenage girl these days. It’s so warped with the amount of surgery and then filters, and what then whatever goes on top of that.“Then, of course, Boohoo will copy whatever Kim Kardashian’s wearing in their sweatshop and sell it. It’ll last you probably a month before it falls apart in the washing machine. It’s an instant culture: want it now, get it now, wear it once.”


Gobby, brave and wise above all else: Caterina Speranza could never be accused of falling for the bullshit throwaway culture. And like a once-found, never-forgotten gem, she’ll be a hard thing to duplicate too.