I recently had a chance to speak with Grammy nominated singer Cathy Richardson. There are a lot of people who have done versions of Janis Joplin songs but few who can truly capture the essence of the wild woman of rock and roll. That is exactly what was required when Cathy Richardson was selected to portray Janis Joplin in the off broadway show “Love, Janis.”
During her time in the role she worked with Sam Andrew from Big Brother and the Holding Company who was the music director for the project. That role led to Cathy being asked to join Big Brother and tour with the band.
She was singing for Big Brother during the 40th Anniversary of The Summer of Love Tour when she was introduced to the members of headliners Jefferson Starship. It was on that tour that she was asked to take over as lead singer for Jefferson Starship.
Along with her work with both of those iconic bands Cathy also has her own bands, The Cathy Richardson Band and a new project, The Macrodots, with former Scandal guitarist Zack Smith.
Cathy Richardson Interview Text
Hi, this is Tricia from Interviews from the Edge and I’m talking to Cathy Richardson. How are you doing today Cathy?
I’m great Tricia, how are you?
I’m doing pretty good! You are like, my hero… You are an amazing, kick ass, rock chick!
You’ve been playing for quite a while. You’ve been nominated for a Grammy. And you hooked up with, the first band was Big Brother and the Holding Co., right?
How did you guys meet each other?
Well, I was doing an Off Broadway show called “Love, Janis” and Sam Andrew, the guitarist from Big Brother and the Holding Co., was the music director. So I worked with him in that capacity. The show was music and letters that Janis (Joplin) had written to her mother from the time that she ran away to San Francisco and became a rock star. That brief moment in time where she shot up from nobody knew who she was, to being a legend of rock.
It’s a very interesting play. Very interesting to read these letters that she wrote home to her mom during that time. Most people don’t even think of Janis Joplin as having a mom, you know?
I was playing the “Singing Janis” and that’s where I met Sam. I did the show in a few different cities, ended up doing it in San Francisco in 2006 and moving out there. So I was living in San Francisco and they were going out on a tour–the 40th Anniversary of The Summer of Love–and they asked me to be their singer on that tour.
Janis Joplin… I have a feature called Dead Crush, which is dead people I’ve fallen in love with. Most of them were already dead before I was even old enough to know who they were and Janis was one of those. Dead Crush: Janis Joplin: Her Final Hours The relationship she did have with her mom was so conflicted. Even after she got famous she still wanted her mom’s approval so much. She had gotten clean and everything. And that’s still a big mystery, how she got that last big dose of heroin and it was almost pure heroin. Eight other people died the same night from the same batch of heroin–it’s a crazy story.
You’re basically playing her. You’ve got the chops to do it, there’s no doubt about it.
You don’t have to thank me for that–that’s like, the obvious fact. But it had to be stressful.
Yeah. When they offered me the role, I actually tried to talk them out of hiring me. (laughing) I was like, “I don’t really sound like Janis and I’ve never done theater before.” And “I’m sure there’s other people that could do it better than me.” And they were like, “Oh no. No. We want you.”
I had said, “Well, give me a night to think about it.” And I thought, this is one of these incredible ‘once in a life time’ opportunities that come along, and even if I’m scared and even though it’s such huge shoes to fill, if I don’t at least try it I’ll always wonder what could have been, you know? So I agree’d to do it.
I decided, if I’m going to do this, I’m going to absolutely ensconce my entire life in Janis, in her music. I just listened to it constantly, all day long. I got every piece of film footage I could find and I studied her. And then, through doing it over the course of months and then eventually years, I think I got really good at it. But it was something that I took very, very seriously.
I know what an icon of rock Janis is and, as far as being a female singer, if it wasn’t for Janis so many of us couldn’t even do what we do. It was something I took very seriously and I really wanted to give the audience the most authentic experience of Janis that I could possibly make come out of my body. Because obviously, we’re two completely different people; everybody’s voice is their own signature thing, and her voice was such a signature… It’s very, very difficult to imitate.
So I tried maybe not to imitate her or do an impersonation as much as just try to capture what that feeling was that she was bringing across. And she poured it all out there. So it was a big job and a huge growing life experience for me–I’m so glad I did it.
You still tour with them. I’m sure if they had their way they’d keep you with them all the time, but you do have other stuff going on. I just think it’s great that they’re still out there, doing their thing.
They still sound just like they did. It’s so weird. The first time I sang with them I was like, “Oh my God. It’s like stepping inside of one of these records that I’ve listened to hundreds of times.” That sound that they have is so unique, you know? And they still sound like that. It’s pretty crazy. (laughing)
I’m sure that they’ve never come across anybody that could fill her shoes in any sort of way. She had a magnetism that is just undeniable. You couldn’t take your eyes off of her. People, you know, talk about Jim Morrison saying she was ugly… tell you what, when that woman was on stage and she was putting her thing down, you couldn’t take your eyes off of her. She was mesmerizing. And I really appreciate it as a long-time fan of that band, that you have kind of brought them back to us. I do appreciate that.
Now let’s talk about the other band. (laughing) The next band… You’re not trying to express somebody that you’ve never seen, there’s no possibility you’ll ever meet face-to-face: Janis Joplin. You were asked to join Jefferson Starship. And that has to be really weird. (laughing)
Yeah. Thanks to Janis, I was on tour with Big Brother and the Holding Co. on that 40th Anniversary of The Summer of Love and Jefferson Starship was headlining. And the singer who had been with them for 13 years–Grace Slick retired a long, long time ago–but they had another singer, Diana Mangano, who was really wonderful. But she decided that she was done after that tour. And there I was.
They said, “Hey. Would you like to come sing with us?” I was like, “Hell yeah!” because I was such a huge Grace Slick fan growing up, such a huge fan of the Airplane and of the Starship.
And Grace’s voice is much more similar to my own natural voice. You know, the Janis voice… I had to really work to get that sound, but Grace is much closer to my natural sound.
I have heard you sing Somebody to Love live and, nothing bad about Grace Slick’s version, the similarities are there, but you definitely have a lot more… I don’t even know what it is… Balls, in your voice. (laughing) It is a treat to hear you sing that song live because you tear it up! I love that.
Cool. Thank you. It’s like taking the best of everyone that’s come before me and then putting it into what I do. Like I said, Janis, Grace: Icons of rock. Female icons that paved the way to do what I do and it’s a huge honor to represent both of them.
I’ve learned so much over the past ten years from studying these women and their music. And playing with their bands, and getting into their music, their catalogues. I have a huge amount of gratitude about the whole thing.
The coolest thing of all, I think, is that we have you going out there, just nailing this shit to the wall, and kids that have never heard it or think, “Oh God, that’s my mom and dad’s old hippie music.” They hear your version of it. They hear you tearing it up and suddenly they’re interested. It’s like, “Wait a minute. I thought this was old people music.” (laughing) It’s amazing.
Yeah. It’s cool, you know? I mean, obviously when we play live there’s a lot of old hippies out there that are still around and they still love the music. It’s giving them like a nostalgia trip. And then there’s a lot of young people too that are getting turned on to this music for the first time. Or they’ve listened to the old records and they get a chance to still see the music performed live. And it’s really cool to be part of it.
Yeah. And you’re really hot too! So that helps. (laughing) You’re all in leather and stuff… I mean, you are a hot mom. And they’re all going, “Yeah. I like me some Jefferson Starship!” They’re following the band around like Dead Heads! (laughing) It’s one thing to get ’em there, it’s another thing to keep ’em there.
Yeah. That true. That’s true!
You were nominated for a Grammy. That was before any of this stuff happened, right?
It was 2003 and I had already done Love, Janis in New York. And I kind of wrote the songs for The Road to Bliss was the album that was nominated. I wrote the songs, a lot of them, when I was doing the show.
This is a weird little side note: I did “Love, Janis” in New York in 2001. So, the show is rolling along, we’ve got great reviews, we’re heading into the holiday season with a lot of sold out shows on the books. And I had gone there with my handful of demos, and I’m like, “I’m gonna ride this stroke of luck. I’m gonna get my record deal that I’ve always wanted.” And I had hired a lawyer, a music attorney, and he was shopping me. And he brought the Vice President of a major label to come see me in the show and the guy loved it. He was like, “Yeah, lets have a meeting.”
So, this particular day of the meeting, I woke up that morning and the city was just abnormally loud with sirens, and my phone kept ringing. And I’m laying there in bed going, “Don’t these people know today is my big day and I need my beauty sleep?! Shut up!” (laughing)
And I get out of bed and start listening to my answering machine messages and start putting it together that something was going on. And I flipped on my television… and there was the World Trade Center… in flames. It was September 11th.
The meeting was cancelled, obviously. The entire Rock department of this particular label got fired within that week. The whole world just kind of stopped.
I was like, “Well. This is the universe giving me a big sign,” you know? That maybe it’s not my experience that I’m going to get signed by a major label. So I decided that I was not even gonna try anymore. I was just gonna do this record, I’m gonna put it out on my own. And I’d already been doing that for years anyway.
I really had been thinking that the show was going to be the thing that was going to like, give me “the break,” you know? After a while I ended up leaving the show, going back home, and putting all of my energy into finishing this record.
And I wanted to create this album artwork that was the coolest artwork that anyone had ever seen on a CD. Something that reminded us of vinyl albums. You know, when you were a kid and you’d go buy an album at the store… And it was just part of the whole experience to look at the pictures and read all the liner notes. It just gave you something extra to get into.
And so that’s what I wanted to create with the album art. And that’s what we did, myself and Bill Dolan, my art director and artist who did the art. We created this concept. We entered it in the Grammys for Best Recording Package and we ended up getting nominated. And it was a very validating moment for me, having done it as an Indie label, as an unsigned artist, to be recognized by the Grammys is not something that a lot of people do.
I want to talk to you about the new band. You’re getting ready to go on tour. You’ve also got dates coming up with Jefferson Starship. But you have started a new band, you guys released an album in 2010, right? The band is called the Macrodots, am I saying that right?
Yes. Macrodots. Yes.
And the album is called “The Other Side” and that came out in 2010. When I first found out you were with Jefferson Starship I started looking at your website and I’m like, she’s got these two bands… and you’ve got a super group!
I’m gonna let you explain who that is and everything. A little bit closer to our generation. Tell me a little bit about this band that you are running with now… this band of hoodlums. Go ahead. (laughing)
All right. I was doing “Love, Janis” in San Francisco, as I mentioned. I had moved out there. And I was introduced to Zack Smith, who was the guitarist in the band Scandal with Patty Smyth. And Zack, he hasn’t been doing Scandal for many years, but he’s a producer and a song writer and very successful. So he came to see me in “Love, Janis” and was like, we’ve gotta work together. He listened to my solo stuff and he was like, “Your songs are really great, but I just think that if you went with a harder sound, something a little more contemporary, we could really make something with this.”
So, we started writing together, over the course of three years because I was on the road a lot with Big Brother and Jefferson Starship. We wrote about 20 songs and ended up picking the best, I guess it’s 11. And we made this record, “The Other Side.”
The Macrodots is really me and Zack. And we’ve surrounded ourselves with amazing musicians, a lot of them cross over into my other project which I call Cathy Richardson Band. But right now we have Steve Gillis from Filter on the drums, when we play on the west coast we have Donny Baldwin from Jefferson Starship.
Jude Gold who is one of the most amazing, under-rated guitarists in the world, I think. He’s a Bay area guy, but he lives out in L.A. now. He is the Director of GI, Guitar Institute. It’s part of MI (Musicians Institute), a very prestigious music school. He also is the Editor of Guitar Player magazine. You know, he played in JGB (Jerry Garcia Band) after Jerry died… He’s just this unsung hero of the guitar and I’m so blessed and lucky to have him.
And I have my old friend Anne Harris, Chicago fiddle player. She’s been touring internationally with Otis Taylor, the sort of psychodelic blues guy.
So we have this incredible group of people and what I think are really, really strong songs that I wrote with Zack. It’s like classic rock with a modern twist. I don’t really think it sounds like anybody else out there right now. I mean, it’s got shades of Zeppelin and Heart and The Pretenders. You know, David Bowie, Aerosmith, AC/DC, all these bands that we think are kick ass. (laughing) And we’re working on the second record right now, we’ve got about five tunes done. We’re kind of just chugging along, just doing what we do.
You guys are closer to the same generation. Your perception of what a rock star is, is different. By the time you got into it MTV was on its last leg, digital media just like… killed off rock stars. And now everybody is a working, touring band.
Yeah. For sure. It’s so hard to break through the din, you know? There’s so much indie music out there and a lot of it is so good. I really think this new generation of kids, they have this technology available to them, they’ve got this mass of existing work that they can draw from as influences. And they seem to have just incredible amounts of talent.
It blows me away, what kids today can do with music and how good they seem to be. It’s like athletes that keep breaking world records, you know? As a species, humanity is just evolving and becoming more and more awesome! At everything, you know? (laughing) It’s just a really, really cool time to be alive and a really cool time to be doing music. At the same time, while the playing field has been levelled in a lot of ways, it’s also become more saturated.
I think it’s still that “magical” ingredient, it’s still the thing you need to have to make it, you know? But there’s more opportunities, for sure.
And kids are a lot more out there, they’re quite comfortable to be putting music up on the Internet for complete strangers. Where we grew up in such a closed environment, it was like, “Okay. I gotta get up and sing in front of ten people?!” you know? They’re complaining because they only got 20,000 hits on a Youtube video. They’re very much about putting their stuff out there.
That’s really, really cool to see artists doing that. And even if it is a flooded market, you know what? The best always rise to the top. I take that back–“Bleep” is still around… and “Bleep.” I have to cut that out, you know that right? I’ll end up having to interview ’em. (laughing)
I’ll have to do an interview with them and I’ll be like, Oh sh*t! (laughing)
All right. I want to thank you so much for joining me today Cathy, but before I let you go I wanted to know if you want to send a message out to your fans?
Yes! I want to tell all of my fans that I love you so much! Thank you so much for all of your support over the years. And my new fans, welcome aboard!
Thank you so much Tricia, thanks for having me.
Oh you’re so welcome, sweetie. And I will make sure I put up links to the website so they can get your tour dates and everything. Probably the best bet though is just to look up Cathy Richardson. Pop in Cathy Richardson into the damned Google (laughing) and her Facebook and everything else will come up. (laughing)
But it is Cathy with a C. You have a great afternoon and I’ll talk to you later, okay?
Okay. Thanks so much Tricia.
All right. Kiss your baby for me.
(laughing) I will. Okay.
For more information visit: http://www.crband.com/ or http://www.facebook.com/cathyrichardson
Originally published: Cathy Richardson: Jefferson Starship – Big Brother and the Holding Company