Cathy Richardson has an active and interesting career. She has been performing as lead vocalist for the Jefferson Starship in recent years and will be taking the stage at the Hamilton here in Washington DC on March 14th. She achieved much success portraying Janis Joplin in an off-Broadway musical, "Love Janis", and has received a Grammy nomination and won various awards for her solo and collaborative work. She had a few minutes to chat by phone while she was in Chicago before flying to DC.
David Hintz: I would guess you were too young for Joplin and Slick to be your first musical influences, so what did attract you to music as a youngster?
Cathy Richardson: My first heroes were Anne and Nancy Wilson of Heart. They were the ones that inspired me to get into rock music. My Mom was a singer and there was always a lot of music around the house. My Mom was more into church... she had a really beautiful operatic soprano voice and she liked Broadway music and that kind of stuff. But then when I was I guess eleven or twelve, my next door neighbor told me to listen to Heart if I wanted to hear some girls that could really play guitar because I was trying to teach myself to play. And then I remembered that my sister had one of their records, so I went home to listen to it and you know, my mind blew out of my school and I was 'oh my god, I want to be them' (laughter) So that is who I started worshiping and emulating, so as I got into high school, I started discovering the San Francisco sound, Janis Joplin, Grace Slick, the Jefferson Airplane/Starship and I really kind of gravitated to that kind of music.
DH: OK, did the local Chicago scene play any role with you then or later in life?
CR: Later on in life, yeah. At first I had a rock band in the 80s. And then I decided to go solo and it's the nature of being a girl with a guitar, people start lumping you into that folk category.
CR: But I was covering Indigo Girls, Melissa Etheridge, Tracy Chapman, Michelle Shocked, and Shawn Colvin and all those artists that were coming out in... like this was in the early 90s. And then writing my own music, too, and going out and playing and then, you know Chicago is such a melting pot being right in the middle of the country. There are so many influences and the sound of Chicago at the time anyway, was a kind of Americana sound, blues, rock, country, funk... all of it converging and that was sort of the direction I went into when I started making records in the early 90s.
DH: RIght. I should mention, too, that I was involved with the punk scene of late 70s and early 80s and we had a lot of connections with the Chicago bands and I recall the Cabaret Metro shows that I think is still...
CR: Yeah, it's still there and it's just called Metro now.
DH: So that's how you got going. Now did the Cathy Richardson Band form some time after that?
CR: Yeah. I put my band together in the early 90s.
DH: And that definitely got a lot of accolades then. And then you recently worked with the Macrodots? We'll get to the bigger named bands in a second, but what is next for you when Starship activities slow down?
CR: Well, we are writing songs for a new Macrodots record. I probably have another solo record congealing in my mind. I have got maybe six songs and that will be sort of a return to my more rootsy side. You know, Macrodots is a very modern rock sound with a huge nod to classic rock, so the main thing we have is hooky songs where we are trying to make it sound fresh and new, but at the same time have a modicum of familiarity so that when you hear it, you are like 'what is this, I feel like I know this already'.
DH: Yes, ok... But getting back to where you first became known, at least around the country, with the "Love Janis" musica...
DH: What are the difficulties of performing such an iconic figure's music when the goal is to convince people it is Janice Joplin. Are you trying to imitate or impersonate or do you perform as YOU would do the songs? How does that work?
CR: It was really an evolution... Initially when they offered me the role, I was terrified because Janice is iconic. She is so unique that no one sounds like her, nobody could sound like her. They did not want somebody to do an impression, they just wanted a real singer that could sort of convey that energy. So when I started out, I did not know that much about her other than the songs that everybody knew, but I had not gotten that into her material or did not have much knowledge of her as a performer. I had not watched a ton of video or anything like that, so when I started, I was doing much more my own voice and as the years went on and I had literally ensconced myself in Janis Joplin--I did not listen to anything else for two years.
CR: On my way to the show, I would listen and watched every film I could get my hands on. I read every book... You go out there and reviews would come in and be critical of you for not sounding enough like Janis. You know, I just worked and worked to try to become her on stage, not to impersonate her, but as an actor, just let her spirit sort of embody my body. And I think I got better (chuckles) and better at it as the years went on, culminating with doing it in San Francisco, where people actually knew, you know. I mean in New York, they like to think they know everything (laughter), still she lived in New York for a time, but she was really a product of San Francisco and a lot of her friends are still living. And when I got to perform there, they invited the whole hippie contingent to the opening night and that was the most rewarding performance of my whole years of doing it... playing it for her friends and getting their feedback on how it was in seeing her this way.
DH: Was the acting part all new to you or had you done some acting before?
CR: Yeah, in school growing up. I took drama, extra-curricular activity, but it was not anything I thought I would pursue as a career and I was intimidated by it when I first started. The role that I played was more singing than... I don't want to say acting because the singing itself was acting, but as far as speaking lines, there was not a ton of that. But as time went on I got more comfortable and hopefully I got better. You just try and practice makes perfect.
DH: Yeah, you get better and better for a long time until it may tapers off, too.
DH: I am curious if you have a favorite Janis Joplin song?
CR: Ummm... I love the whole "(I Got dem Ol') Kozmic Blues (Again Mama!)" thing... the first songs that pops into my mind is "To Love Somebody" which is a Bee Gees composed song.
DH: Oh yes, ok...
CR: But Janis took that song and dug into it and that's what Ioved about her, she found a way to get inside of a song and make it her own... and wrench every ounce of soul and angst out of it and you know, the same thing with that song and maybe with one of the Chantelles songs originally and that was my favorite of all of them.
DH: Is it less or more of your own voice when you do (Jefferson) Airplane/Starship material or do you still have to think of Grace Slick when you do those songs?
CR: I don't purposely think of Grace, although I was much more of a Grace fan and was more familiar with them and i got to see them in concert when I was in high school. I have like an inkling of how I remember her being kind of weird and an ice queen with the eyes. I think I am more physical and I put a more theatrical spin on it, you know. I like to take a bit of her weirdness (chuckles)... it's such an improvisational band and I try to be as spontaneous as possible. And there is plenty of room to be as weird as you want to be and you can't really go over the top with it. So I love the freedom and the collaborative nature of Paul Kantner, you know he started this all in the 60s. He essentially started the Starship in the same spirit, but eventually it got away from him and became this commercial juggernaut, but since he's gotten the name back he's brought it back. You know, he is the Jefferson; he's the glue that holds it all together. But he gives everybody the freedom to make it their own which I think is really awesome.
DH: Yeah, that's good to here. I was surprised that listening to various live albums and bootlegs of Jefferson Airplane, how much the songs did vary. So you're saying the Starship now, too, has the freedom to improv?
CR: Yes. Yes, but maybe not as much as they used to do in the 60s, you know. You know, taking acid and such (laughter), but we do go off and jam quite a bit. Paul's rather spontaneous. The other night, he said 'I want to do these four new songs'--not new but songs I have not done before and that some of the guys in the band had never played before or maybe some had twenty years ago. So we got together at soundcheck and ran through the songs and played all four of them in the show.
CR: That keeps you on your toes and makes it more exciting. It never ever gets old or boring and you never see the same show twice.
DH: Yeah, that's great. So is Paul Kantner still got that optimistic hippie outlook or is he more of a world weary veteran these days.
CR: Yeah, I would say the latter (laughter). I don't know, was he ever an optimistic hippie? He is sort of been calling for revolution for a long time.
DH: Yeah, they were all kind of confrontational.
CR: He's not like one of these peace and love guys at all. He's been around the block a few times He's hardcore, they don't make them like him. He's a very unique person, awesome, I love him.
DH: I believe that. How about we get back to Chicago. Do you of any bands there now or ones you might see touring... younger bands that are favorites of yours?
CR: Oh god, I wish I could answer that, but I have no idea since I have been on the road so much. What I see, is that when I was coming up, you could have an original band and you could make a living doing that and you could play clubs every weekend. And now what I see is cover bands and tribute bands. It is rather disheartening honestly. I feel the scene is diluted into something that is not really a scene anymore. But admittedly I could be out of touch of what is happening.
DH: Actually you are correct. For instance, there are hundreds of bands in DC that are excellent, but only a few try to make a living at it and it's hard to get out much beyond weekend tours. Yet there are still the megatours and I knew of an indie band that gave it up and become a Pink Floyd tribute band because it paid 5-10 times more.
CR: Exactly. I mean it's supply and demand and it's what people want to hear. It's crazy too, that we are at this point with population/saturation where here in Chicago, there are so many music venues and so many festivals in the summer. There's at least one ever summer somewhere and there's so many touring bands and now you have DJs, indie bands, oldie bands, 80s bands, 90s bands, and all these mid-level touring acts that has a name and want to keep it going, you know. There is so much music and so many bands, that it is hard to cut through and break through. I think that in a major population area like Chicago or New York, there is so much happening on any given night of the week, that how do you even find an audience to support it seems to get harder and harder. You know, there are new avenues like Youtube and internet radio, but it's almost like lightening striking. Back in the day, you wanted to get signed, they got behind you and you would go out and have a hit. But now, it is like the pond is just filled with so many people with old music turned into new music with computers and makes my head spin when I think about it (laughter).
DH: Yeah, me too, for that matter.
CR: And you probably come across a lot more of it than I ever will.
DH: Oh yeah, and I just had that from a show I was at last night. I compared a band I saw with the Peanut Butter Conspiracy, a 60s band from the LA scene. I mean, they have never heard one note of that band, but I see that as my role where I remind people of the multiple histories that intersect in odd ways. That's why I like to see a band play in a small club in front of ten people one night and then go see the classic stuff like I'll see with your band tomorrow. Then, try to put it all together.
DH: So, a couple of Chicago questions here....Cubs or White Sox?
CR: (laughter) oh, I honestly.. (laughter)
DH: You going to take the high road on this one.
CR: I hate to say it, but I honestly don't care about baseball.
DH: Oh that's ok. I'm that way now.
CR: I have sung the National Anthem at both stadiums. The one time I sang at the Cubs game, it got rained out, so I was like the only thing that happened that day at that game.
DH: (laughter) OK, that's great. So how about when you get back from a tour, what do you go for first, deep dish pizza, a hot dog, or Italian beef?
CR: Definitely the pizza (laughter)
DH: That goes for me, too. I lived there in '86 and I still miss the pizza there.
CR: (laughs) Cool.
DH: So anyway, you will be at the Hamilton here in DC, a brand new club that should be quite comfortable for you. I was just there the other night and enjoyed it.... So, how much does the Starship tour these days and how much longer do you think it will last?
CR: We do anywhere from 30-60 shows a year. A lot of those will be weekend jaunts here and there. But we are in the middle of a three-week tour now, although I came home for a few days because I have a six month old baby that I can't bear to be away from.
DH: Oh! Understandable there.
CR: But the guys are out in DC now and I will fly and meet them tomorrow before finishing up. We have a couple of these a year along with one-offs here and there. This year, hopefully we'll be busy and do a Europe run. We did a PBS Special taped a couple years ago, but just aired this winter and it's been playing over and over again and that's been a huge boost of interest for us. PBS is supposed to be getting behind us for a tour this summer with other 60s band.
DH: Yeah, do it while you can. That's great.
CR: Yeah, totally. I guess we'll just do it as long as Paul wants to.
DH: Yes, that's pretty much it at this point I suppose. Well it sounds like have plenty on your plate here, your other music and a baby--Is that your first baby?
DH: Well thank-you very much this interview. And I will be at the show and look forward to that as well.
CR: Great, well, I'll look forward to meeting you.