Cat Burns on the story behind ‘Go’

Cat Burns delves deep into ‘Go’, the slow-burn hit which transformed her into the toast of soul-bearing British pop

In recent years, TikTok has changed everything for the music industry. For better or worse, some would argue, but what detractors can’t deny is how it’s opened up a gateway for aspiring artists to achieve stratospheric success without the influence of the industry modifying an artist’s authentic expression. If the stars align and they score a viral hit, that is… 

Singer-songwriter superstar-in-the-making Cat Burns is one such artist to achieve the viral holy grail with sleeper sensation ‘Go’; a slow-burn hit that transformed her into the toast of soul-bearing British pop.

In 2022, ‘Go’ stormed to No.2 two in the UK charts, propelled by its second wind from the TikTok community. It was originally released in 2020 to little fanfare beyond her sizable social media following – despite showcasing ‘Go’ in a livestream alongside R&B guitar virtuoso H.E.R. who was an early advocate for Burns’ bright talent. As ‘Go’ climbed the charts, so did Cat’s stardom, garnering more and more global fans and even three Brit Award nominations to boot.

“It sped everything up,” Burns admits over Zoom. “It put me on a lot of people’s radars, who started to recognise my artistry. The song helped me build a far bigger fanbase, who then went on to listen to all of my other music. ‘Go’ having such a big moment allowed people to see me as an artist.”

For the Streatham-born musician, it couldn’t have come as more of a shock: “At the time I wrote it, I was just eighteen, feeling like ‘this is a good song’, you know. I didn’t think it’d be anything or go anywhere,” Burns continues. “My reaction to it blowing up was just shock. It had been out for over a year and a half. I thought, ‘why now?’ It was all just very shocking. Obviously, I’m very grateful for everything it’s led to. But at that moment I was just in shock. I just rode the wave of having a hit song.”

Burns might’ve not had ambitions of necessarily occupying the charts, but she always intended to pursue music. Though, the BRIT School alumni faced several years of rejection – believing that labels didn’t know where to place her or market her, given her identity as a Black and queer woman. Via social media however – in particular TikTok – she found her community, and swiftly amassed a massive audience online. Posting gorgeous, pared-down cover versions as well as original material, Burns began to shape her sound. 

“I think TikTok is just a really good place to do market research,” she says matter-of-factly. “To get an opportunity to tease new music, to see what people connect with or what they don’t. It’s a nice way to give my fans songs – not the entire songs – of what they can expect to hear from me. I think that’s how the platform has helped me develop, understanding what kind of songs people want to hear.”

‘Go’ certainly resonated with her followers and beyond, albeit 18 months after its initial release, showcasing Burns’ preternatural knack for melody and narrative storytelling. 

Cat Burns - go (Official Video)

Her mother was a gospel singer, so the songs of Kirk Franklin, Donnie McClurkin, Tracy Chapman, and Stevie Wonder echoed through her home growing up. Cat has also cited the likes of Ed Sheeran and Lily Allen as prominent influences however, and it’s evident in her very British lyrical forthrightness (“You f*cked it for yourself / This is the end of me and you,” she affirms on ‘Go’). Despite the blunt emotion she expresses, the break-up anthem isn’t actually autobiographical.

“My guitarist came to me and told me the situation he was going through in his relationship. I found it to be very dramatic and very interesting. I thought I’d make it into a song, and use the chorus to ask myself how I would respond to being cheated on. How would I feel? I was very conscious of it not being mean, or hateful.” Her lyrics may be frank, but Burns’ songs have a healing quality, a tangible sense of strength and pride. 

Cat believes the “sing-along-ability” of ‘Go’ was why it connected with listeners, however. “There’s a story to it. Sadly a lot of people can relate to that situation. It’s relatable to a lot of people, it’s vulnerable. And you can learn the words – they’re pretty easy to learn!”

It took some trial-and-error, as well as some feedback from her TikTok followers, for Cat to realise that the lyrics were the key to ‘Go’ ever being a success. “I think there’s actually about 10 different versions of ‘Go’. Me and my producer [Jonah Stevens] had been working on the song, even before lockdown. We tried so many different routes. We tried making it big, heavy on production with drums. We went all out, then slowly started stripping it back. It was only really after I teased it on TikTok that I realised I wanted it stripped back, and let the lyrics be the main messenger for the song, and let everything else compliment it.”

Performing to faceless followers and absorbing feedback is one thing. Performing live, in front of expectant fans is another: her gig at The Courtyard Theatre in London at the tail end of 2021 was when Cat realised ‘Go’ had made a meaningful impact. 

“It was the first gig since everything kicked off on TikTok for me. I was really surprised at the fact that there were 30 to 40 people – who weren’t my friends and family – that decided to come and see me, and were singing ‘Go’. I’m pretty sure I cried. I was just so shocked that people knew the words to it. It was a dream occurring before my eyes.”

From then onwards, the adoration for ‘Go’ only swelled. Having made her television debut on Later… With Jools Holland in May 2022, Burns harnessed the song’s momentum and released a remix a month later. It was a masterstroke. Especially as she recruited a musical idol and queer icon in Sam Smith to duet with her. Luckily, the process of onboarding Smith’s vocals for the reworked track was seamless. 

Cat Burns ft. Sam Smith “go” Live Performance | Amazon Music

“Well, we wanted to do a remix of ‘Go’, and I’ve always loved Sam. We asked them and they said yes! They sent their version over and I loved it. The rest is history. I love Sam, we get on really well. They’re so lovely. I feel so lucky, I was so honoured to share a song with them so early on in my career.” Their voice, their verse, and their perspective seemed tailor-made to sit alongside Cat’s empowered storytelling. “It just worked. The verse they came up with blended perfectly. Every time we’ve sung ‘Go’ together it’s always felt right. It always felt natural.”

Naturally, a newfound association with the GRAMMY, Brit, Golden Globe, Billboard Music, and Academy Award-winning artist was always going to shine a spotlight on Burns’ budding talent. Going from TikTok presence to bonafide star from South London making their American television debut alongside Smith on The Late Late Show With James Cordenwithin a mere matter of months is quite the leap. Did this phase her at all? 

“It exposes me and my music to new people that want to be on this journey with me. It doesn’t scare me. To do what I do, to be an artist, you have to be a bit delusional. You have to back yourself and back the music you make. The people who are meant to like it will like it, the people that don’t won’t. It might not be their cup of tea. I don’t listen to every genre of music. Once you accept that, you eliminate the fear of not being liked. That fear has gone.”

Cat Burns performs go live at The BRIT Awards 2023

Performing ‘Go’ at the 2023 Brit Awards secured Cat Burns’ status as a national household name, despite narrowly missing out on the three awards she was nominated for on the night. This year, she also picked up the prestigious Silver Clef award for Best New Music at one of the industry’s flagship charity events (“I’m honoured to receive the award”, says Burns. “In what has been a whirlwind few years for me, these moments are absolute dreams come true.”)

The song is still relatively new in the grand scheme of things, its lore nascent. But that’ll only grow as Burns’ career unfolds. Especially whilst she continues to adore her breakthrough song and how it makes her fans feel hearing it. 

“I love to sing it,” Cat confirms. “I’m lucky enough to have fans that know every word, so I barely have to sing it either. It’s beautiful every time I get to perform ‘Go’ live, to see how it’s connected, and how much they love it. It feels like a moment every time I’m on stage.”

“I’ve accepted that it’s a song I’ll be singing for a very very long time, but I’m glad it’s a song that I like. It represents me as an artist. I’m happy with it.”

Cat Burns starts her 2024 UK tour in October, playing Birmingham, Bristol, Glasgow, Manchester and London. Find tickets here

The Nordoff and Robbins O2 Silver Clefs is one of the music industry’s favourite charity events of the year. Since 1976, this star-studded lunchtime gathering has celebrated the genius of legendary musicians, while raising millions of pounds to help share the power of music with the people who need it most. As its flagship fundraising event, without this money, it simply wouldn’t be able to reach as many people with music therapy as it does. Find more information, and get details of the event on 5 July, here.