Interview Date: 08/26/2010
Run Date: 01/05/2011
Cathy Richardson is a rock goddess. She has released five studio records, an EP and a live album. Her 2008 album Delusions of Grandeur made this writer’s list of best albums of the decade. 2003’s Road to Bliss was nominated for a Grammy for best recording package. Ms. Richardson has played Janis Joplin in several separate productions of “Love, Janis” and has toured with the Big Brother and the Holding Company. Currently she is the lead female voice of Jefferson Starship, but her most recent project, a power pop band called the Macrodots with Scandal founder Zack Smith, just released a masterpiece called The Other Side. Bullz-Eye sat down with Richardson at her lovely suburban Chicago home over pizza. We join the conversation in progress because it wasn’t clear when the dinner conversation stopped and the actual interview began.
Bullz-Eye: So your influences were Heart and Quarterflash?
Cathy Richardson: (Laughs) Quarterflash, not so much, but Heart, I was a fanatic. They were a band that I looked up to, that proved that girls could rock. They were the center of everything for me. They played guitar, wrote the music and were not just eye candy. They were and are musicians.
BE: Did you ever have the chance to meet Ann and Nancy Wilson?
CR: Two years ago I got the chance to open for them in Hawaii for two nights. It was an acoustic show for me, so it was mind-blowing. I had to spend a significant amount of time calming myself down. During sound check, Nancy was there checking things out and I was not playing well. It was like “clank, clank, clank.” Then she leaves and I calmed down. I had to really tell myself to relax. I was like, “Cathy, this is what you do. This is what you’ve always wanted. This is cool. Now enjoy it. Relax.” And I was able to do that. It was great.
BE: Did you get to hang out with them at all?
CR: Before the show I was able to hang with the whole band. Nancy was there and we had a great time. Ann stayed in her dressing room and really didn’t come out. The rest of the band and I engaged in tremendous banter and told stories and enjoyed each other’s company. I was there as their peer, not as Cathy, the world’s biggest Heart fan but as Cathy, the new singer for Jefferson Starship. It was super cool – a great time.
BE: What kind of set list do you do as a solo acoustic act opening act for Heart?
CR: One of the venues was this large hotel with a giant banquet room. On the main floor people were standing. I have observed that if you give people a chair in a place like that, they will sit and listen and be polite. If they are standing, they will talk the entire time. You’re the opening act, girl with guitar, they’re there to see Heart. I was playing my songs and there would be a smattering of applause but in general it was an indifferent reaction. I’m thinking, I have to do something to get them into this. So I said, “Many of you out there may think you have not heard me, but if you have a radio or a TV, you have heard my voice.” Then I proceeded to play, “Plug it in, Plug it in, Plug it in,” the Glade commercial that ran for several years. I sang it in my sweet little jingle voice and they went nuts. It was funny. I had to play a commercial to get them to react. After that, they were a very attentive audience; it’s just kind of funny. I ended up selling all the CDs I brought, so it turned out great.
BE: Before we get to the new album and the new band, I wanted to ask you about the diversity of your career. I want to know how you go from the recording and performing process to “Love, Janis,” and some of the other things you’ve been able to do, outside of Cathy Richardson Band.
CR: I knew I wanted to be in music, but I had no idea how start it, just was clueless. So I would play anywhere I could, like open mic nights where you get three songs. I would play like, two covers, I would always play a Janis (Joplin) song and then I would add a Heart song, or a Michelle Shocked song or a Melissa Etheridge song or an Indigo Girls song. I would sing “Me & Bobby McGee” or “Crazy on You” and really get the crowd going. As a result, the club owners would give me a full show because they liked how I got the crowd to react. But I always did “Bobby McGee,” in fact (laughs) I did that song more times than Janis did. Then, “Love, Janis” comes to Chicago. I had some tickets to go. I am sitting at home waiting to go and my phone rings. It’s the producer and he says, “One of our singing Janis(es) had to drop out of the show. Everyone we asked in town says you are the one we need to hear.” So I did went down and auditioned, and got the part.
I had already done a Janis cut on a House of Blues tribute record, which they had heard. I got that gig from someone I had worked with in the jingle world, who produced that record. His name is Ira Antelis, he wrote “I’d Like to be Like Mike” and a bunch of McDonald’s stuff. He used a lot of singers and I was someone he called frequently. You end up meeting a lot of singers and producers and writers and you keep getting recommended for more things. It really is its own networking process.
BE: Didn’t you end up on a Celine Dion song?
CR: Yeah, that was during that period of doing jingles and sessions in addition to the band work. I was making a decent living. I was going from one studio to the next.
BE: Do you know what other records you were on?
CR: It was mainly jingles, and I honestly couldn’t tell how many I was on. There were so many different things going on. You just kind of lose track. You’re working and that is the most important thing.
BE: So you have that kind of work to make a living and keep the performing dream alive. I know that sounded corny.
CR: Yes, it did sound corny (laughs), but it’s true. You need money to make money. It takes money to make a record. I have paid for my records by singing jingles; it’s helped me stay alive. Gigs would help, but I don’t know anyone anymore who can make a living by just gigging in Chicago anymore. You have to be a national act or a cover band to pull that off today. It’s hard to do that full time and make a living. (Suddenly there is mad scramble to find one of the cats who has wandered out the door and to rescue some chocolate chip cookies which were just slightly overdone in the stove. Once the cat was secured and the cookies put on a plate, the conversation turned to her catalog.)
BE: The Road to Bliss is you at your commercial best. However, I have wanted to ask you this question for a long time, the second song on that record, “This Town,” is a big ‘fuck you’ to Chicago. This is a very sensitive town; what was that all about?
CR: (Smiling): It was more about the music critics than the town or the people. Chicago has always been great to me, but some critics at the Illinois Entertainer were always snarky and pretty unkind, not just to me but to other local musicians and friends of mine. The local papers and the radio stations and certain critics were always very supportive, but there were some people at the Entertainer and the [Chicago] Reader who just never had anything nice to say about me.
BE: Did you think it was personal?
CR: I took it personally. It felt that way. I remember one review basically said, `As much as she wants to be Melissa Etheridge, she is not nearly as good.’
BE: Ouch. Well, now that song makes sense. John Mellencamp said once that you couldn’t have his career now. He got the chance to learn his craft; his first couple of records sucked because he didn’t know what he was doing. Do you share that opinion?
CR: Yes. In the beginning I had no clue. I knew I liked Shawn Colvin, Bonnie Raitt, the Indigo Girls and Melissa Etheridge, but I was never really calculated about what I was going to do and I really didn’t understand the music business at all. All I knew is that I wanted to make a career out of it. Doors started opening up the more I worked at it. I ended up in (Ides of March/ Survivor founder Jim) Peterik’s studio, and I opened a lot for Dick Holiday and the Bamboo Gang when I was doing solo acoustic [gigs] and selling a four-song cassette at the shows. I sold tons of those things. I would buy a hundred at a time and sell them out.
BE: Do you have one left?
CR: Yes I do.
BE: Snake Camp has that really cool design piece to it. The booklet, the artsy cover.
CR: I had seen Joni Mitchell’s Turbulent Indigo, where she painted a portrait of herself in the style of and as Van Gogh. She won her first Grammy for the recording package. At that time (1994), I thought CD art in general sucks, and you can win a Grammy for that? I thought, I need to put more effort into it. So we came up with the biblical theme. I got the cover piece from [Chicago artist] Tony Fitzpatrick. I figured it would be funny, like snakes roasting marshmallows around a campfire. Then Tony gives me this dark scary cover that was done on Bible paper. He said he ran out of regular paper (laughs). He picked the particular verse and painted it there. From there, the theme just evolved. I portrayed myself on the back as Eve, delightfully taking the apple from the snake.
BE: Yeah, but that portrayal was very cherubic.
CR: (Laughs) That’s my face on another chick’s body. We made the booklet very irreverent with a fake black leather cover, gold embossed, a red ribbon to mark your spot and the lyrics were numbered like bible verses.
BE: On the Road to Bliss, it seems like your sound and the songwriting starting evolving. You were moving away from that bluesy sound to a little more of a pop with country elements incorporated.
CR: WhenI was in New York doing “Love, Janis” and writing, it was really one of the most prolific periods of my artistic life. I wrote almost two albums worth of material but made a conscious decision to make one cohesive-sounding record. Bliss ended up being the happy, bright sounding record and Delusions was the mellower, darker one. I was really into Jill Sobule and was inspired by her work. There are a couple of her records where the songwriting and the production are just perfect. Her records just slay me. At the same time I was meeting people like Joan Jett and Sandra Bernhard and Kristen Hall before she formed Sugarland, and it was just an amazing period of my life. I was writing with Kristen a bit and we got Emily (Sailers) of the Indigo Girls to record “Blindsided by Love” on Bliss. People started calling me to audition for other things, and I got called back five times for this Randy Newman musical, which I ended up getting. My last audition was for Randy.
BE: He truly is a genius.
CR: He is, indeed. I ended up leaving “Love, Janis” and moved to the west coast for rehearsals and began digesting all this great Randy Newman stuff, which, of course, had a great effect on me. I start coming up with stuff like, [singing], “I saw you on the sidewalk on St. Mark’s between 1st and A…,” from “A Fools Regret” (The third track on Delusions of Grandeur).
BE: Well, I could talk to you all day and night, but we need to get to the last two records you have been involved with. Tell me a little bit about Jefferson Starship and how that all came about.
CR: I was doing Love, Janis in San Francisco and decided to move there. After the show closed, Big Brother and the Holding Co. asked me to sing with them on the Summer of Love 40th Anniversary tour. That was with Jefferson Starship and Quicksilver Messenger Service. On the last few dates, it was apparent that Diana Mangano was going to be leaving and the guys approached me about joining the band. A few months later, Paul Kantner came to my apartment and we harmonized on “Ride the Tiger” for my audition. Now, you have to know that Jefferson Starship is one of my all-time favorite bands. I have all the albums, and if you would have told me as a kid that someday I would be in Jefferson Starship, I would have told you that you were in fact high. (Laughs).
BE: Jefferson’s Tree of Liberty was pretty terrific, and well received by the critics and fans alike.
CR: It was a very different recording process for me. It was like rehearsal, studio, record your tracks, you’re done.
BE: Are there plans for a follow-up?
CR: There were at one point, but now it seems to be in a holding pattern.
BE: Well that sucks. After Tree, I think the appetite has been whetted. Tell me how you ended up in this project with Zack Smith.
CR: A mutual friend of ours had been after him for a while to go check out “Love, Janis” but Zack is not a big Broadway show kind of guy.After much prodding, he finally got to one of the last shows before it closed and he really enjoyed it to the point where he wanted to work together.
BE: How different are the projects, I thought I heard you say on stage that the Macrodots record took four years to complete.
CR: Yep, this is a record I am very proud of. It was a little out of my comfort zone, but I love the way it turned out. Zack will work on the production for a long time until it is just right, and this was more about lyrics and vocals for me. It was an interesting challenge for me on both records, to really focus on mostly that one part and let go of the rest. With Jefferson, it was two rehearsals, go to the studio, cut it live and then boom, you’re done. The Macrodots record was a really time-consuming process, and of course I was co-writing the songs, so I felt very invested in it. It just took time to get it exactly the way we wanted it.
BE: It’s interesting that Zack wanted to be in a band again.
CR: I don’t want to speak for him, but I think he was really interested in adding to his legacy. Scandal was an excellent band with some great stuff, but that was a long time ago. I think he wanted to rock a little harder and also to just get out and play.
BE: I saw the show at Halsted fest in Chicago, and was amazed at how you pulled that record off live.
CR: (Laughs) It was a good show. I mean, everyone flew in the day of, we rehearsed and then went and did it live.
BE: I am just amazed at how the material really pushes your voice. There really doesn’t seem to be much of a break for you.
CR: This is a little different musical direction for me, it is demanding material and it is a much more of a power pop sound. I think it makes good use of that powerful part of my voice. This may be my best work to date.
BE: I couldn’t agree more. I see Rami Jaffee played on it and of course, the great Donny Baldwin.
CR: We had access to some great musicians out there. Donny, I just love Donny. Every time I see him I wear my Starship shirt with him on it. He is the best. He was with them when they were doing arenas and were on top. He loves to tell the old stories. I just love him and having him in the Macrodots is just awesome.
BE: Well, the cookies are gone, the pizza is gone and the cats are back in. I better get out of here because we could talk all night. Thanks Cath, and good luck with the record, I love it, and I hope it finds the audience it deserves.CR: Thanks. Don’t let the cat out when you open the door.