American Songwriter recently praised Katie Jo's "expressive storytelling," calling her music "dreamy, nostalgic and infectiously genuine." Her latest single "Pawn Shop Queen"—the title track from her forthcoming debut LP, out April 9—just premiered at top country / Americana site TheBoot.com. The song is an empowering Americana anthem about having your heart broken, being mistreated and cast aside, and questioning your own self worth before finally having an epiphany and coming to truly value and respect yourself and everything you have to offer the world.
Katie Jo is gearing up to release her debut album, Pawn Shop Queen, on April 9th. While she’s a relative newcomer to the scene, she makes up for it in life experience. You can hear it in her voice—sweet yet road-weary, a contemporary torchbearer for classic country stars like Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette. Her lyrics tell the tale of a woman who’s had her heart broken more than once but still stands strong.
Pawn Shop Queen tackles themes at the dark heart of country music: infidelity, religion, depression. But what sets Katie Jo apart is her ability to tackle taboo subjects like infertility and abortion with honesty and rawness. The catalyst for her new record came four years ago while she was going through a trying period in her personal life.
“When I was 26.” Katie Jo explains, “I was diagnosed with a condition called a bicornuate uterus, which means my uterus didn't form properly. My doctor told me out of the blue, and it was a shock. At the time, a lot of my friends were starting to think about having kids, and I’d always assumed I’d go down that path, too. Then I got this news, but the doctor didn't really give me a lot of information, just kind of brushed it aside and was very dismissive of my questions about how it would impact my life. When you're a young woman, just a woman in general, a lot of times when you try to get medical advice, you're either dismissed or people don't explain all the things that can go wrong.”
Eventually, despite her diagnosis, Katie Jo unexpectedly became pregnant. To make matters worse, her long-term relationship was in shambles. “I knew I didn't want to be pregnant. I already knew something was wrong with me, and I just did not want to go through that experience. I wasn't ready to be a mother. I knew I couldn’t go back to the same doctor, so I called Planned Parenthood, and I asked, what does it mean to terminate a pregnancy? What does that look like? It was a very hard phone call to make.”
After an exam with Planned Parenthood, Katie Jo received pills to induce an abortion, an extremely painful process she went through completely alone on July 4th. From there, things got even more complicated. When she returned for her follow-up, she learned that because of her condition she required surgery to complete the abortion. After two failed attempts, she was rushed into an emergency surgery. Despite the fact that the abortion was both medically necessary and extremely risky—a pregnancy in her uterine horn could have resulted in her death—Katie Jo told no one.
“It was a very traumatic, life-altering thing to go through alone. For five or six years, I just kept it to myself and fell into deep depression. All of my friends were starting to get married and have kids while I was forced down this alternate path I didn't quite understand. It really destroyed my emotional fortitude.”
The isolation sparked Katie Jo’s songwriting. She came up with the songs for Pawn Shop Queen alone in her bedroom, and before long started performing them live with a backing band. It became a coping mechanism. “It was a way I could work through things,” she says.
On top of the unplanned pregnancy and resulting medical emergency, Katie Jo also had to deal with a breakup. “I really freaked out,” she says. “It was like, I'm 26, 27, and I'm mad now. I am broken. Like, I don't want to be me, you know? But then I met someone very shortly after this experience, and I just fell head over heels.”
Thinking she’d found someone with whom she could finally be vulnerable, Katie Jo poured her heart out about the hellish months leading up to the new relationship. But when she caught this person cheating on her, she quickly slipped back into an even deeper depression. Music eventually pulled her out.
“I was in a really low place for a lot of years. But once I started writing and performing, it was an escape from this pit of despair I was hiding in. The songs for Pawn Shop Queen came out of that period. While it’s not a black & white diary entry of the events, the record really encapsulates cynicism and emotional isolation.”
The title track on the new record is one of those songs that just came pouring out. “It's about what it feels like when you think the love you’re experiencing is this precious and valuable thing, but then the other person just sort of casts you aside. You still want to be loved and cherished, like you have something to offer. You’re trying to retain your own happiness and self-worth, even in the midst of heartbreak and pain.”
Before heartbreak hit, Katie Jo was cutting her teeth picking banjo on the bluegrass scene. As she evolved down the path toward country and Americana, she discovered a warm and supportive music scene in her adopted hometown of Los Angeles. Like country rebel Dwight Yoakam, Katie Jo has made a name for herself playing unconventional venues like punk clubs and even boxing gyms (in between picking songs, Katie Jo is also an avid student of boxing and martial arts). Having whipped her songs into shape in front of a variety of audiences, an album was the next logical step.
For Pawn Shop Queen, Katie Jo worked with Chris Schlarb at Big Ego Studios in Long Beach. She met Schlarb through her pedal steel player, session musician George Madrid. Schlarb assembled an impressive cast to play on the record, which was tracked live in just three days.
“One thing I appreciated about working with Chris was that decisions were made very quickly,” Katie Jo says. It wasn't laborious, there’s no Autotune, and we didn’t tweak every little last thing. It's very much just, ‘Here’s the performance, how do we best bring out what is here naturally?’ The process was really just to trust the people in the room to do good work. When you get the right people together, it can happen pretty quickly.”
Katie Jo’s plans to debut and tour the record last year were delayed by COVID-19, but she’s pushing ahead as best as she can. “Even if touring isn’t really possible right now, it’s time to get this record and these new music videos out into the world.”
With Pawn Shop Queen, Katie Jo shakes up traditional expectations of what a female country artist can and should sing about. Not only does the record challenge stigmas, it’s the sound of a promising young songwriter coming into her own, taking some of life’s most daunting and painful struggles and turning them into something beautiful.