MOUNT HOPE, New York—Katy Mantyk is a special soul.
The first time I heard her play was at Foundry42, a coffee bar a couple hours from New York City. She played an acoustic version of “Search No More,” which became her first international single, released just a week ago.
Her performance surprised me. I had gone with a group of friends in the way that friends go to events to support each other. But I had no idea who Katy Mantyk was.
As Katy played “Search No More,” those of us listening hung on her notes and sweet spirit.
“Search no more, this is what we’ve been waiting for …”
Applause and cheers followed her last lingering chord. Even the Instagram video I shot on my phone that night still brings me back to that moment—a combination of life and peace, feeling and calm—a heartfelt sense of well-being. Those at the coffee shop, we breathed together, teared together; we healed together. That’s what Katy does when she sings—she makes you whole.
“[When I first started writing music], I didn’t have this strong desire to be on stage or show my talents,” she told me when we sat down together recently. “It comes from a different place—just wanting to give people something that could help them feel good, feel better, uplift their spirit, make them think about important things in life, like the divine, and who we are, and how we can be better people.”
Katy’s beautiful folk-pop songs send encouraging words that embrace us, like an unexpected friend showing up with a helping hand when you need it most.
“Her music sounds lovely; I know it’s good for my soul,” said one of Katy’s fans, filmmaker Jessica Kneipp, in a phone interview. “I do listen to her music if I’m wanting to tap into my inner strength or remember ‘everyone struggles a bit,’ ‘let things go’ or ‘step back and think a bit bigger about things.’ I’ve actually sent [Katy’s music] to lots of people personally in my life who had been either going through a death or a difficult breakup from a partner. I’ve sent it as a remedy so their heart can feel good. It’s good music to prescribe.”
Katy can do that because music makes Katy whole. She just extends her own personal healing through music to us.
“[Songwriting] has really healed me too—spending that time with music, searching my soul and my own philosophy to create songs that are beautiful and meaningful,” she says.
In Harmony With Her Nature
Katy grew up in the most northern tip of New Zealand, surrounded by beaches, native culture, and the bonding magic of music.
“New Zealanders are quite down-to-earth, open-minded, and spiritual people in general,” she says. “New Zealanders love music; native New Zealanders, the Maori people, are amazing musicians and singers and love singing together. That’s part of a culture that I got to enjoy and take part of as well. I really love that culture.”
Katy’s mom told her that before she could talk, she was listening to music, singing along and clapping. In grade school, Katy learned many Maori songs with beautiful melodies that she can still remember to this day. In church, music and worship went hand in hand.
“Our church was the kind that sang really joyously, clapped their hands and praised the Lord,” she says. “There was always group singing in my life. I loved joining with people and singing together. It’s a beautiful energy.”
One of the schools Katy attended had a church joined to it, and inside was a grand piano. Both of her parents were teachers, so Katy would stay late after school, teaching herself piano.
“I was just a little girl in this big empty church playing the piano to my heart’s content and nobody bothered me,” she says. “I’ve been fortunate to explore music in a really comfortable way and a really loving environment.”
Katy learned the guitar on her own as well, with some help from her older brother.
“My eldest brother is really gifted; he’s way beyond me,” she says. He was 16, she was 10, and she’d spy on him playing, “just an annoying little sister,” she says. He’d show her a few chords, and she’d go and practice on her own.
“Then I started figuring out songs. I had a good ear, so I could listen to a song; even really young, I could just hear a song or a melody and I could instantly play it on a piano, a recorder, or a guitar,” she says.
Even as young as 5 years old, she remembers being able to play back a song on a recorder. “Finding the right notes, it was like a fun puzzle.”
In high school, Katy was in the art room one day when she heard “a really folky, bluesy, soulful African American singer and beautiful guitar work. It moved my soul immediately; I was hypnotized by it,” she says.
The artist was Ben Harper, and Katy began learning his songs right away. This was before the days of YouTube tutorials, where you could look up how to play someone’s song. So she’d listen, press pause, play, pause, and on, figuring out each part bit by bit.
“That would be the defining start of my personal style: a little bit country and folk, a little bit soulful,” Katy says.
Though she loved making music, Katy never thought being a singer-songwriter was a real career option for her to pursue.
“I’m very shy. I didn’t really like performing on stage, even though I loved playing,” she says. But when she realized that she could become a sound engineer, and record and make music behind the scenes, she was ecstatic. She then entered a two-year audio engineering degree program.
“Making music as an engineer or a producer seemed like a practical solution to being part of that world,” she says. “That was one of the best times of my life.”
Not only was Katy learning the technical skills of a sound engineer and producer, but something else unexpected was quietly happening behind the scenes.
“I met tons of amazing people who became like soul mates to me. They loved music and helped me come out of my shell. They encouraged me, pushed me to not be so shy and make music rather than be intimidated,” she says. “I started writing songs, trying to create songs that had a beginning and end. It felt really natural to do. … I guess I had that secret wish in my heart all along, to be honest, but I never took that seriously or considered it something I would really do.”
Finding the Way
During her study of audio engineering, some other stars aligned for Katy that she had been waiting for.
A few months earlier, Katy was at a New Year’s Eve party in Opononi, at the very northern part of New Zealand. She was 21, in the beginning of her adult life.
“I was feeling really lost about what life was supposed to mean, and what I’m supposed to do with it,” she says. She left the party and went for a walk; she happened upon a cliff, overlooking the ocean.
“I walked out to the edge of the cliff, and the sky was so vast, an incredibly beautiful evening. The stars were really bright; it was a very beautiful, bright, bright, open sky. And then the ocean below me spread really far; there was nothing else I could see. It was quite dark, but just sparkling light in the sky and reflection on the ocean,” she says. “It really brought me closer to the divine at that point, to the Creator, because when you see that kind of beauty, it does remind you of how incredibly beautiful creation is.”
She asked God for the meaning of her life, though she wasn’t even sure who God was anymore.
“I used to think I knew, but I’d become a little more humble about my understanding of what the divine might be or mean. I humbly asked the universe, the divine, the Creator, ‘Wherever you are, please help me find my meaning of life so that I can live what I was destined to do and not lose my way.’ I wanted to find a way; that was my prayer.”
A couple months later, a friend in her audio engineering program introduced her to Falun Dafa, a Chinese meditation practice with slow-moving, tai-chi like qigong exercises.
“He told me about its universal principles of truth, compassion, and tolerance. He said look into any religion or spiritual practice, they all have this similar guide,” she says. “That sounded like a good thing to try to be. I read the book and found it just so incredibly profound.”
Katy had battled with depression on and off for years—“feeling lost and not understanding what was my driving force in life,” she says. But she always “strongly believed there are more magical and divine forces in the universe than just us human beings living on this little speck of dust.”
As she practiced the exercises and applied the teachings of truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance to her life, her whole being began to change. Within half a year, her health problems, such as chronic back and sciatica pain, pinching nerves, dead legs, and terribly painful menstrual cycles, all disappeared. Her asthma cleared up, and she threw away her inhalers.
“The energy in the book was so powerful,” she says. “I tried smoking pot, and I literally felt a black cloud of smoke come over my mind, around me and the environment. It was the worst feeling I had ever felt.” She never smoked again.
Her bouts with depression also melted away. “In my mind, those strange thoughts, confusing depression thoughts, and negativity were clearing out too. I was a lot happier and healthier. So, I kept doing it because it’s good, because it’s real.”
The spiritual practice also began to shape Katy’s songwriting. She began learning about traditional Chinese culture, which highlights the healing qualities of music. The Chinese character of medicine, for example, includes the character for music.
“The way I understand it is that the person making the music has to be in a really good state of mind with really good intentions,” she says. “Their energy, a real energy, not just a hypothetical, but electric energies are given to the listener, especially if it’s in a live setting.”
Katy realized that living by those principles could help her improve her inner world, which consequently could be infused into her music, elevating herself and those listening.
“I’m not a classically trained musician, but self-taught, so I do feel very humble about my skills. People could criticize my skill level,” she says. “So what I try to do is create something really good at my level of ability. The strongest elements that I can bring out are beautiful melodies with clear messages and clear lyrics.”
Kindergarten teacher Tili Nesbitt—another fan of Katy’s whom I spoke to on the phone—echoed this healing, empathetic quality that her music exudes. One night after a long day, Tili said she felt empty and somewhat hopeless. She had recently discovered Katy’s music and turned it on as she walked to the train station.
“It completely resolved the feeling; it completely lifted whatever it was. I felt like: ‘I’m not alone in this—Katy knows,’” Tili said. “Katy touches upon this universal struggle, aspects of what we all contend with in life, and then she throws in the solution. You can feel that she’s always bringing in universal principles in her lyrics, virtues, compassion, letting things go and just going with the flow, finding your way. I feel like Katy reaches parts of me like no other artist really does.”
Music Can Be Medicine
As Katy grew as a person and songwriter, she would be faced with a personal tragedy. Music became her only way forward.
Katy will be releasing a song called “Shooting Star” later this year. I asked if she’d be willing to tell the story behind the song.
“This is really hard to talk about,” she says. Tears welled up in her eyes; she forced a slight smile. “It still hurts.”
The song starts like this:
“As the leaves drift down in fall
and the bone cold wind blows in
I know seasons come and go
but you are always on my mind.”
Katy wrote the song after her sister-in-law—and dear friend—had ended her own life.
“It crushed us and broke our hearts. A lot of people loved her very much, and it broke all of our hearts that we couldn’t help her come out of that dark place and that she felt the only answer was to end her life. It’s so not true. It’s not true. She would’ve had a beautiful future. She would’ve gotten through that hard time,” Katy says.
Questions loomed over Katy’s family. “Was it our fault? Could we have done something? Were we just ignoring her suffering? There’s a lot of pain there for us to live through, especially for my brother who lost his best friend and wife,” she says.
Katy wrote the song for self-soothing but also to encourage her brother and family that they’ll get through this tragedy. She says, “I feel like my brother got to a point of feeling what’s the point of living because the pain was so hard to bear. I wanted to write a song, reminding myself and him that there’s hope, that we’ll feel love again, that life will still be beautiful and can go on even though we miss her dearly.”
Six months later, Katy’s brother pulled his wife’s stereo out of storage. He played the CD that she had been listening to before she took her life. He was devastated. One song was called “Suicide Is Painless,” and it repeats those lyrics throughout.
“That’s just so appalling and such a wicked, wicked message to have in your music. There’s so much mental illness in the world today. The kind of music people are listening to, it can make them sick,” she says.
Katy likens it to eating junk food, which hurts the body, or healthy food, which nourishes it. Similarly, positive, nurturing music uplifts and stabilizes the mind; negative messages can tear you down.
“The type of music that a person creates is usually connected to their innate character, their personality, and their beliefs,” she says. “I’m a really hopeful person; there are a lot of things to be hopeful about in life. I do like songs to have some hope or solution.”
Like the Dao—the cosmic philosophy of harmonizing opposites—Katy’s catalog of music also finds a balance. The next song she’ll be releasing is an upbeat, happy summertime song called “Free as a Bird.”
“Wherever I go, I go with all my heart
It’s so exciting when the journey starts”
Katy’s music career is just starting, and I think we’re all pretty lucky to be invited on that trip. If you’re looking for an artist who lifts you up with beautiful melodies, sings stories rich in ancient wisdom as timely today as ever, and offers transparent truth wrapped in gentle kindness, then search no more. Katy Mantyk might just be the best I’ve ever heard.
J.H. White is an arts, culture, and men’s fashion journalist living in New York.