Karen Harding's long-awaited debut album is a true labour of love that's been a decade in the making.
"It's definitely a dance album, but I've made sure it has real moments of light and shade," says the singer-songwriter who hails from Corsett, County Durham. Among the album's many bangers are 'Say Something', the deep house gem she co-wrote with MNEK that became a UK Top 10 hit in 2014, and new single 'Wrong Places', a dark trance anthem written by Grammy-winner Kamille. "It's such a cool, vibey single that sounds different from anything I've done before," Karen says of the latter. "I've recorded a lot of house music over the years, but I've also released some more leftfield dance songs and 'Wrong Places' feels like a nod in that more leftfield direction."
Because the album encompasses so much of Karen's career and life experience generally – she is now a mum of two as well as one of the UK's most in-demand dance vocalists – she struggled for a while to find a title that captures all its different moods and its overarching vibe. "I was coming up with all sorts of obnoxious titles but nothing felt quite right," she recalls with a laugh. "But then my manager said, 'Why don't you call it Take Me Somewhere? Because you want to take people somewhere when they're listening to your songs.' And I was like, 'Yes! That's exactly what I want to do.'"
Take Me Somewhere is also the title of a standout song from the album: another MNEK co-write that Karen first recorded a decade ago, but has since reworked into a box-fresh club banger. So in a way, the album title represents Karen's entire musical journey to date. "You know, I'd been trying to think of album titles that sounded a bit arty-farty or whatnot, but I suddenly realised that's just not my vibe! I'm someone who likes to tell it like it is," she says.
Karen is equally straight-talking when she looks back at the long and winding road that has taken her to this point. "I actually feel a sense of relief that this album is finally coming out!" she says with a smile. Take Me Somewhere features smash collaborations with house music maestro Armand van Helden ('Wings (I Won't Let You Down)'), chart-conquering DJ-producer Shift K3Y ('Morning') and electro hit-maker Digital Farm Animals ('Undo My Heart'), but Karen freely admits there were times when top producers didn't rush to call her back. She has got to where she is today – an artist with nearly a billion combined streams – thanks to hard graft and an unfaltering belief in her vocal and songwriting talents.
Karen's career began in earnest back in 2014, when MNEK happened upon her stunning cover of Disclosure and Sam Smith's 'Latch' on YouTube. By this point, she had already competed on the BBC's Eurovision selection show Your Country Needs You and had a crack at The X Factor, then the most popular talent contest in the country. Karen made it to the boot camp stage, but was eliminated during the show's widely criticised six-chair challenge. So, when she shared her rendition of 'Latch' online, she was making ends meet by waitressing and singing in local function bands. However, MNEK was so impressed with her rich and distinctive voice that he invited her to London for a studio session that would prove to be her big break.
"I was so nervous and scared because I hadn't really done anything like that before," she recalls. "But we wrote two songs together and when I got home, I was able to process it all and think 'this is amazing!'" Then, the second time Karen and MNEK teamed up in the studio, they came up with 'Say Something'. "When I went down to London again, I was just sitting there sweating because I had mad imposter syndrome. But he's just so easy to work with and everything flowed out of us so naturally. We've done about 15 songs together now and in my opinion they're all amazing."
Karen says she knew 'Say Something' had the potential to level up her career because it was "such a banger", but she had no idea that it would change everything for her. After "a minute tops" of the song was played on Radio 1's Mini Mix, she was "inundated" with industry interest and duly signed her first record deal. When 'Say Something' received a full release in February 2015, it stormed to Number 7 on the UK charts and went platinum. Karen was only 20 at the time, but suddenly life became very hectic. "I was gigging in nightclubs promoting 'Say Something' while working on new songs in the studio constantly and I just totally fatigued myself," she says. "Then the label wanted me to put out another song that I didn't really vibe with, and I agreed to go with it. Looking back, I was super-young and still figuring out the kind of artist I wanted to be."
Karen has no regrets about her first record deal, calling it "a great experience" driven by "an incredible A&R team", but it became obvious in time that the relationship wasn't working. "By the end, we just didn't agree on the songs I should be releasing, so it came to an amicable conclusion," she says. Though Karen was excited to have full control over her musical direction, she soon found that life can be pretty brutal for artists who exit the major label system. "People didn't really want to work with me now and some of them weren't even answering my calls," she says without self-pity. "But I knew I just had to crack on – that's what I did before the record deal, so that's what I did again."
In 2017, Karen continued to build her profile in the dance world by featuring on tracks by electronic music collective FooR ('Down') and DJ-producer Tom Zanetti (the UK chart hit 'More & More'). Then in 2018, she had another milestone moment when she teamed with American house producer Le Youth for 'Stay', a wistful electronic bop that helped to restore her confidence. Not only was it one of Karen's most personal songs yet, but it was written during a songwriting trip to Sweden that she organised herself to prove she could still be an artist. "I was really down because I thought nobody wanted to hear what I had to say, so I wrote this song about music," she says. "It's really about how I didn't know if I wanted to go on, and I even had a little sob and a cry in the session. The whole experience just really helped to remind me that I'm meant to be doing this."
Karen's persistence paid off in early 2019 when she was approached by Ultra Records. "I did have to think for a second about signing to another label," she admits, "just because I'd been signed before and knew how things could go. But Ultra are one of the biggest dance labels in the world and they have an amazing roster." She says her new deal has been "incredible" because she is able to choose every song she releases – both solo and as a featured artist. Last year, she co-wrote and sang on 'Unity', a brilliant breakbeat-driven track by Norwegian duo Röyksopp.
Life is enriching for Karen on a personal level, too. Since she signed with Ultra Records, she has become a mother twice over: she has a newborn son of six months old and a two-year-old daughter who's due to start nursery in September. "I've been able to have some time off, which I'm so grateful for, but I'm now so excited to jump back into my artist project again," she says. "I've been writing songs pretty much non-stop since 'Say Something' and I feel like this album is the culmination of all that hard work. All the songs are strong and ready to go."
Karen wrote much of the album with Franklin, the rising star producer who has also worked with Zara Larsson and NEIKED. Their co-writes on Take Me Somewhere include Karen's recent single 'Back to You', a euphoric house tune about a relationship that overcomes moments of doubts, and 'Other Side of Love', a reflective gem that is especially personal to her. "I still can't get enough – after all these years, we still haven't given up," she sings on the chorus, celebrating a love that has survived its ups and downs. "I've had fans message me to say they totally understand where I'm coming from in this song, which is super-important to me," Karen says proudly. "When my music connects with people like that, I realise that I'm absolutely where I'm supposed to be."