Cate Downey is stuck in COVID-19 quarantine in Lillehammer, Norway, but back home in Denver, Indie 102.3 is streaming the singer-songwriter’s “Picture on the Wall” throughout May.
Last year at this time, Downey had no idea she’d be in Norway. She was a senior at East High School, and she thought she had her future planned out. She’d go to Belmont University in Nashville, where she already had a roommate. But on the last day of school, she got an acceptance email from the newly launched Lillehammer Institute of Music Production and Industries (LIMPI).
Downey had heard about the school from a fellow singer-songwriter at the Durango Songwriters Expo and applied to it on a whim without telling anyone, because she didn’t think she’d be accepted; the school only enrolls around fifty students for its year-long programs. She also figured her parents might think it was kind of crazy for her to go to school in Norway.
But after she was accepted, she and her family decided it was the best thing for Downey to do, as it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and she would be taught by world-renowned mentors such as Tor Erik Hermansen (one half of the Grammy-winning production duo Stargate); and producers Amund Bjorklund, who’s worked with Train and Beyoncé, and Andreas Schuller, who’s worked with Eminem.
During her first semester at LIMPI, as one of only sixteen students in the songwriting program (there are also sixteen students each in artist and producer programs), Downey was tasked with writing a song a week, then recording it and having it radio-ready by Friday. That assignment was upped to two songs weekly for the spring semester.
Downey — whose own music delves into singer-songwriter territory but who also weaves in indie pop, EDM, R&B and hip-hop — says she’s learned a lot from the mentor-based program, particularly about making a pop song catchy and memorable.
"I think that was probably the best piece of advice that I got — just to write, to keep going until you get where you want to be.” — Cate Downey
“We do a lot of exercises with melodies,” Downey says. “Before I came here as a songwriter, I would create melodies and lyrics at the same time. We do a lot of exercises just practicing melodies and then practicing lyrics separately. I think both of them have gotten a lot stronger, especially the melodies, which are like the backbone of a song — and then just learning about the different song structures and learning how to apply the logical side of music, which you don't always think about when you're creative.”
Not long after starting at LIMPI, Downey told a teacher that she felt like she wasn’t progressing as quickly as the other students. His advice: Write a song every day. For the rest of that month, she followed his advice, forming the habit of songwriting and strengthening her craft. All of that practice has made her more resilient.
“You can't give up at the beginning — because we’re at the very beginning of the process here," she acknowledges. "I think that was probably the best piece of advice that I got — just to write, to keep going until you get where you want to be.”
Downey grew up listening to singer-songwriters, and she loved folk music and storytelling.
“Before coming here, my songs always told a story,” she says. "It's always important for me to have strong lyrics in the song...so if I have a cool lyrical idea, I always write it down and try to make sure that the song means something to me. I don't just want to write random words for a song.”
One of her most recent singles is “Boulder,” which she wrote in January at LIMPI as part of her weekly assignment. With two days left to write, record and produce a song, she was in a session with one of her classmates, and neither was sure what they wanted to do. Downey had been keeping an idea bank for songs in her phone and noticed she’d written “Boulder,” since she’d always wanted to write a tribute to her home state.
“It was something that I always loved, and then I think the idea of Boulder, with the mountains and the colors that it has, was something that was really inspiring to me,” she says.
A few minutes later, she got a call from a friend back home who said he was dropping out of college and moving back to Boulder. Although the timing of the phone call was a coincidence, she knew she had to write a song about the town.
“On the phone, I couldn't tell if it was because it was something he wanted to do or he had to do,” she says. “So it was more the question at the end of the chorus: ‘Are you happy now?’ That was the gist of what I was trying to get across in the song.”
While in quarantine in Lillehammer, Downey released a video for “Boulder”; she plans to release her debut album in January with other songs she recorded at LIMPI.
Downey, who's been singing almost since she could talk, didn’t realize she could actually write songs until she was a sixth-grader at McAuliffe International School and was chosen to participate in the Denver Public Schools' newly launched mentorship program. She was paired up with Mercedes Campana, who was working for the Denver Children's Choir at the time.
They were talking about music when Campana started playing one of her own songs. The twelve-year-old Downey hadn't realized until then that just anybody could write a song; she thought it was a craft reserved for famous people.
“And that's kind of where I fell in love with it,” she says now. “I thought it was like a secret thing that other people didn't know — like only Katy Perry and me.”
Downey feels fortunate to have experienced so many opportunities for young songwriters in Denver, such as Youth on Record and the University of Colorado Denver’s LYNX National Arts & Media Camp.
In 2019, during her senior year in high school, she was named a National YoungArts Foundation winner in songwriting, which helped her get into schools like Belmont, Berklee College of Music and the California Institute for the Arts, where she is now thinking about going in the fall.
Although LIMPI’s school year ends in June, she might stay in Lillehammer until July, where she’ll still have access to the school’s recording studios. She notes that coronavirus restrictions in Norway aren’t quite as stringent as they are in the United States.
“I'm in a very good spot, where I'm still able to work,” she says.