After a discussion about her trip to the vet with her dog and my cat's cardiologist, we got on to music and theater and her upcoming visit to DC.
David Hintz - I am definitely excited about seeing your play, as it should be a lot of fun. But if I can back up a bit, I know although you have been in music a long time, you are still too young for Janis Joplin to have been your first musical influence, so what got you interested in music when you were young?
Mary Bridget Davis - Actually my parents. My mother has the greatest record collection ever and my father was a musician. So I was just raised under really quality music and of course I listened to whatever was popular at the time for me, you know growing up as a teenager in the 90s and whatever. But as a basis and a foundation, I was really into 60s and 70s music as well as real blues--the original stuff. That is where it started.
DH - So even as a teen you worked backwards to find the blues?
MBD - Yeah, absolutely.
DH - So how did Janis Joplin come to be discovered in your blues search?
MBD - Well, it's kind of like my Mom would play her albums and such, and it kind of scared me at first--hearing the screaming when I was really little.
DH - Oh right.
MBD - But then I loved it, and started singing along and screaming along and there's something about that unbridled energy that was Janis that draws so many people--her magnetism. She was just a full, honest voice on stage and on her recordings. There is just something about her that speaks to me. You know how for many kids Nirvana was huge speaking to all the angst people out there, but Janis really speaks to the girls in that regard. Obviously it was all a generation later. You know, not current at all, but she just spoke to me that way and it is just so much fun to sing along to, let alone sing on stage to 500 people. But she just had that honesty and that raw power that really attracted me to her.
DH - Right, and you started theatrically in a play that I have not seen called "Love Janis". Was that your first experience with theater?
MBD - No, I've been acting since high school. I went on to comedy and on to the Second City Conservatory in Cleveland which was a satellite from Second City in Chicago. I took acting classes there and was in a few productions. So I was not a stranger to theater, but that (Love Janis) was how I got my actor's equity card and how I became a true-blue honest-to-goodness professional actor (laughs).
DH - Interesting, now I have also interviewed another lead from that show, a certain Cathy Richardson...
MBD - Oh yeah, I love her.
DH - She recently told me to make sure to tell you that "I love working with you."
MBD - Yes and I love working with Cathy! (laughter) Oh my god, I love her so much. I actually... this is so weird, I went to see "Love Janis" with my parents in the summer of 2001 and I saw Cathy. We gave her three obnoxious standing ovations (laughter). It was a black box theater, so it was small, maybe 250 feet, with cabaret tables in the front. So my parents and I were sitting in the front and she just blew me away and I was about 20 and just freaking out like 'oh my god, she's incredible' and then just a few years later, I auditioned for it and made it. And when I got to San Francisco, she was the main Janis and I replaced the other girl and we became friends ever since. But yeah, that's crazy--it's a small circle for sure.
DH - Yeah, it is and I don't that many interviews, but I am quickly becoming the Janis Joplin expert in DC I think (laughter). I never expected that, although I can talk to Cathy about Grace Slick about who I know a whole lot more of because of the Jefferson Airplane/Starship material.
MBD - Exactly!
DH - I am curious about the plays... is this a newer play? I realize it is totally different than "Love Janis", but could you explain some of the differences?
MBD - Absolutely. In "Love Janis" there were two actresses that played Janis Joplin. One was a straight actress who recited letters that Janis had wrote home as monologues because while Janis was riding around in SF, she kept in touch with her family and kept them apprised. She really let them know what was going on, which is amazing that someone who is a rock star is still writing home to mom and dad and looking for that approval. So that person represented the inner Janis, while of course my role as the singer was more of the public persona. I sang all the songs. It was two-act play and there were about 18 songs I believe--16 or 18, and the acts went chronologically correct with it starting in San Francisco in '66 and then ended in LA in the 70s. And with "One Night with Janis Joplin", it is a brand new production written by Randy Johnson and the approach is.... more a spectacle. "Love Janis" is more a theater piece with live music. This play is more how it would be if you went to Vegas and saw Janis, like where she would sit there and banter back and forth with the audience and tells them where her influences are and then she sings her songs. And there's only one Janis in the show and that's me, but there's another singer in the show, what I think is great is that another actress, Sabrina Carten who plays the quote blues singer who plays a revolving role where she embodies Janis's influences. So she performs Odetta and other major influences of Janis. So she also does some numbers in the play. So it kind of shows where Janis came from and how she became Janis and her style. It's just a knock-down, drag-out... you know, there's 23 songs in the show.
DH - Oh, wow.
MBD - Yeah, it's incredible. Like I said, there isn't that much of a strict fourth wall with this show. There's a little more give and take with Janis and the crowd--definitely not to be completely quiet with their hands folded. You know, the first act ends with this huge brazen number for Janis. Everybody gets up and it is a lot of fun. It is kind of like a rock'n'roll lesson on how Janis becomes JANIS, with the full band and backup singers.
DH - Have you started at Arena Stage yet.
MBD - No, we come in about three weeks (early September) and have started getting ready. Our run starts October 4th.
DH - And you are rehearsing on it pretty hard?
MBD - Oh yeah.
DH - I am curious as to when you do a run of plays singing Janis Joplin songs, as to how you keep your voice intact. What are the challenges and remedies for that?
MBD - Well, prevention is number one. You always want to keep protecting yourself from the injury rather than figure it out after because you could do permanent damage. I believe that I am lucky enough that my voice is similar to hers--not the same as I would never ever say that, but to where I can caterwaul and scream but can bring it back to pure tones, too. It takes a warm-up and I drink tea everyday all day and stay hydrated with no alcohol, no cigarettes, no other fun stuff... you know, it's similar to being an athlete. It is a physically exhausting show. I mean I did seven shows a week with two on Saturday and that was tough. For my voice level, having all of Monday off and most of Tuesday off will really recharge that battery. By Saturday, you're not worried, but you have two shows and 'how am I going to do this', but I DID it and I only have one more. So it's kind of like a mental psyche-out, too. You know, you gotta keep your head in the game. Honey and lemon and sleep, and not staying up on the phone and skyping your friends for hours after the show (laughs). You have to protect the investment of what you do, because it's your body. And it's your whole body that affects your instrument in yourself if you're not careful.
DH - It's not a rock'n'roll tour, that's for sure.
MBD - No, I mean Janis may have done four shows a week, maybe five and the sets were half an hour, 45 minutes tops, but we have a 2 1/2 hour show (laughs). It's not like... believe me, in my early twenties, I was doing the same thing on the road--'alright that was a great show, let's party!' because being 24 is a beautiful thing and that was how old Janis was when she got started.
DH - Now you said your voice was similar, but when you first started or are doing it now, have you tried to sound like Janis or is it something you had within you and kind of merged her style with yours?
MBD - Yeah, it was definitely more about merging. I have always had a big voice and it was pretty clear. And the more I started singing along with the blues, the singers from the early days all had pretty clear voices, maybe a drawl. That's where a Koko Taylor who was incredibly strong and masculine in her singing. I started trying out those things with my voice and I could do them. There are different parts of the voice where I was listening to Janis and trying to sing along when I was younger and could not do it as my voice was not up to it. But I kept at it until it was fun when i could do it and was surprised. That's like, for example, in "Piece of my Heart", how it's got that scream at the end--I definitely do it as close to her as possible. I mean that's what people want to hear. It's almost like they wait through the whole song and then if that scream if you have it, they're with you; if you don't, then it's over. There are certainly definite things I try to keep as true to her as possible within my physical capability.
DH - That's a good point, as a good friend who is in a cover band has said that there are some songs where you have to get the solo note for note as that is what people want, while other times you can play with it and keep the spirit of the song. But the one you mentioned is definitely one people know very well.
MBD - Exactly. "(Me and) Bobby McGee", you know, and then on the other hand where you have more freedom is "Ball and Chain".
DH - Oh, ok.
MBD - There are so many versions that are out and she did it different every time. And some days I go over the top on maybe just some of it (laughs), you know, as long as you are honest with her... she would do it like there was no tomorrow. We do have a Book obviously, but that song you can make your own and there are tons of places in the show where you can put your own accent on it that treats it as her, that with my performance anyway that does not stray far from what she would have done. Or it's something that I believe she would have done it that way eventually (laughs). But with her trademark tunes, you want to deliver, like when I went to see my friend who plays for Night Ranger now and he was in Love Janis and Rock of Ages on Broadway and he came through with tickets and I went to see them--Night Ranger, along with Foreigner and Journey. Foreigner had a new singer that sounded just like the real lead singer, just as strong... incredible and we were sitting along and it was a jukebox thing, sort of an American DNA, you know, for many generation's fans. He was just as entertaining as can be and he took liberties where he wanted to do, but man when you were listening for certain things, he was right there. And then Journey, that singer was incredible. He totally spun off from most of it and then he did some things where I wondered what he was doing, like don't give up. I know how you feel-like I was saying it to his brain, like everybody wants to hear Steve Perry right now, you know? I mean we want what we want and it ends up with such satisfaction after a show where you end up with a review or with people in the lobby who stick around or who catch you at the stage door and say 'you know, I never got to see Janis live, but I did tonight and it was incredible'. And these are people who are in their sixties. They wouldn't lie to you just to make you feel better and they wouldn't stand at the stage door. So to actually accomplish winning a crowd over and letting them believe that she is in the room for a couple of hours--that's the goal. And it's cool that I've been able to pull it off thus far.
MBD - It's really cool because a lot of those shows are not just Big Brother on the bill, but there is a lot of different counter-culture bands, which is great because they are a wealth of knowledge. Sam Andrew is a linguist, speaks six languages I believe, if not more. He and Janis were super close friends and he tells me stories all the time. And if I do something or say something in a certain way, he's like 'oh, ok' reminding me of somebody with who I share traits. So it is really cool and I know that they understand that when I am going to go on with Big Brother, you know Janis's original band and the crowd wants to hear Janis... but you know it is kind of a Catch 22 because I love their second (studio) album "Be a Brother" (and "How Hard it Is") with Mike Finnegan singing and playing Hammond organ. He's one of my main influences and truthfully I like the album musically better than "Cheap Thrills". I love "Cheap Thrills" from the musical standpoint in their growth, they went higher. But they don't get that credit because they were Janis's first band and that is what they are most known for, you know.
DH - Yes, I'm glad to hear that for I had a little resentment unfairly given to Janis, because there were so many people that trashed the band. Well, no I thought Janis and the band worked fantastic together, myself.
MBD - Exactly, they were really cool. Seriously, that Big Brother is a great album and a few years ago with Big Brother, we were kind of nudging them 'why don't you do "Nu Boogaloo Jam" and "You've Been Talkin'..." You know? And they actually did some Big Brother and the Holding Company tunes and I had fun with that. And they had Kathi McDonald who was their female vocalist after Janis and she was insane and incredible... but not Janis. She brought different elements to it and they made some great music together.
DH - Janis Joplin may not have been very big, but her shadow was as big as anyone's.
MBD - Yeah (laughs), a giant in that genre.
DH - I think, too, that from your description of the play, even though there is even more music, it will appeal to a lot of people who don't know much about Janis Joplin or who are a large fan necessarily as it is a full and rounded production.
MBD - Oh yeah, it's a full scale production. We start the show and It's one of the first things Janis is talking about - 'I was thinking about the blues the other day and when I first heard it...' You know, Janis had a self deprecating sense of humor--not all the time, as she had a big ego about herself, but as a performer but she was like 'man, they all sing real good' or 'I'm just a white chick singing the blues', you know. And then it plays on where Janis is telling about herself kind of like last summer in Keith Richards' autobiography, right?
DH - Right.
MBD - Kind of in the sense that I felt like I was just sitting in the bar and he was telling me stories. You know the way the narrative flows and this has that kind of feel to it. And then it also has a huge band and it sounds awesome.
DH - Yes, you will get a little bit more here. Now, you grew up in Cleveland and then went to Kansas City. Are you headed back to Kansas City or what is next?
MBD - Well, after being on the road with my Cleveland band, we had made a connection that led us to Kansas City and I made so many friends. And the music scene there is out of this world--the live music scene for many genres, but especially the Blues. I had gotten to a level in Cleveland where I was playing all the big clubs and I had gone as far as I could go at home, so it was time to spread my wings. And I wanted to give Kansas City a shot, because when you are a home town girl, you are a 'home town girl' and they are going to root for you no matter what and I just wanted to see if it was just support or there was something to do this. So in Kansas City with friends and more musicians, I made my record out there with the band I had out there. And it has had success as it was nominated for a Pitch Blues award and I am nominated, so there are lots of great things happening. But the whole time I was in Kansas City, I was still a resident in Cleveland, trying pull of a dual residency and it just bled me dry and I couldn't pull it off anymore and had to come home. But I went out to set a goal and I did, I set the goal and I achieved it. And then I also made many friends for life out in Kansas City--good musicians and good people, so that was a great two years.
DH - Yeah, ok, two of my biggest music buddies ever live in Kansas City and Cleveland--well he grew up there and is in Vermont now, but anyway... alright, maybe this is unfair to ask, but do you have a favorite Janis Joplin song?
MBD - Yeah, there was "Maybe" which had a great chemistry from when she was with the Kozmic Blues Band. I am more of a soul singer when I'm doing my stuff--a soul/blues singer. I can rock and it's fun, but you know if I roll out of bed, the first words I'll be able to squeak out will be soul and not the screaming rock'n'roll. You know Janis is a blues singer fronting a rock band with Big Brother and then she started to develop more into being a soul singer. You know, Otis Redding and Tina Turner, and all these people--that's who she wanted to be like.
DH - Right.
MBD - She even went and did a Stax showcase with Kozmic Blues Band and they were under rehearsed and she ended up with real bad reviews, but it was what she wanted to do. She wanted to try it with the sound of the horns and take those tunes she grew up with and she loved so much and rearrange it into something that suited her. And it really shows off her vocal control. She was not just some screaming banshee--there was a lot of skill there. And she is just real fun for me to do... beautiful and heartbreaking. Any time I sing her songs, it is like the first time I am singing them because that is how she would have done it. You never get tired of it--as soon as you do get tired, quit, because you are cheating the audience. That's my opinion. Another favorite of mine is a film called "Janis, the Way She Was" that I have on VHS tape--my parents bought it for me when I was a teenager. There is footage of her from Germany and she is singing in live and does a vocal run that would just kill somebody. It's beautiful, but it is technically difficult, you know, and I listened to it over and over as a teenager, and I can now do it on recall, although maybe it doesn't sound the same. I still really love her version of the Bee Gees tune "To Love Somebody" . It's really cool. For the crowd, they love "Piece of my Heart", "Bobby McGee", and "Ball of Chain" which I really love to sing when I'm mad (laughter) or when I've got something going on.
DH -Uhhh, yeah, I can see that extreme and I also like the other extreme like when she does "All is Loneliness". I like that one.
MBD - Exactly, that's so cool. She has got lots of great stuff, B-sides, we kind of hit on some of that in the show.
DH - Sounds great and I will be looking forward to seeing this in October. I better let you go and hopefully we will see a lot of people at the run of "One Night with Janis Joplin" here at the Arena Stage.
MBD - Yeah, I actually have some high school friends that will be there including a news anchor, Megan Hughes. She was a close friend in high school, so I am looking forward to seeking them out and meeting you as well.
DH - Yeah, that is the best thing about touring--seeing your friends and family that have scattered.
MBD - It really is. It kind of a tough road otherwise with the loneliness part. The theater is a little better because you are in one place for six to eight weeks and you'll get the same group of people--we call them showmances, and you can become best friends with somebody for that time because you need each other and you have something in common because you are performers. But once the show is over, you go back to New York, I go back to wherever and we stay friends, but we don't see each other for a few years. But the best part for a gigging musician, is when you pull up to port in town and you know people. It really helps so much, because you wonder 'what am I doing this for' and you're scraping the bottom of the barrel because the payoff as a musician is when you get on stage. The rest of it is a grind, it's hard and unforgiving--we all know better, but we sign up for it anyway. But it's nice to see familiar people that bring you back to a familiar place.
DH - Is there anything else musically we should mention?
MBD - Oh yeah, I do have an album (Wanna Feel Somethin') that is available at iTunes.
DH - Oh yes. I will listen to that some time soon and thanks for your time today. We'll see you real soon at the Arena Stage.