Extended for the Online Edition of Windy City Times
by Lisa Torem
Singer-songwriter Cathy Richardson, performs with gracelike a
Richardson can extract blues licks from a blues-harp, slam-dunk a
tambourine against her hip during a classic folk tunethen subtly
squeezes the melodic pulp from White Rabbit, Jefferson Airplane's
classic-rock hit. She has just finished performing three sold-out
shows before a brood of loyal fans who came to see her play with the
Jefferson Starship Band at Heartland Café Oct. 21.
Richardson's half-whiskey, half-honey vocals still the
nostalgia-driven crowd. Once more, she switches gearsacoustic guitar
drones against her chilling, super-sized range. Wow. She straddles
the stage adjacent a fiery, fiddle-player.
As lead vocalist of the Cathy Richardson band, she has played the
quintessential honkey-tonk haunts time and time again, but has also
taken detours through uncharted musical cul-de-sacs.
Richardson co-starred in Love, Janisa tribute to '60s icon Janis
Joplin that was developed in Chicago in 1999, then went off-Broadway
and to San Francisco. Once in San Francisco, she actually met up with
Big Brother and The Holding Company band members ( Janis Joplin's
back-up band ) , who shared their memories of touring with Joplin.
Ultimately, she toured with them and shortly thereafter the band
opened for Jefferson Starship. The band has toured throughout the
United Kingdom and will tour Japan and Australia this winter.
Richardson, raised in the Chicago area, talked candidly about her
foray into the music industry, her love of songwriting and her
perception of the San Francisco music scene ( where she now lives ) .
Lisa Torem: What's your relationship with the Chicago area?
Cathy Richardson: I grew up in Burr Ridge and lived in Elmhurst for
about 10 years. Still have a house there. I've been living in San
Francisco for a couple of years.
LT: How did you develop your vocal style?
CR: Grew up listening to classic rock, sang in the choir, but still
mostly interested in rock 'n roll. My heroes were the group Heart and
singers Nancy Wilson, Janis Joplin and Grace Slick. I looked up to
them a lot. I wanted to emulate what they were doingnot copy them,
but [ emphatically ] "I want to do that, I want to be that.'
LT: Sounds like you've done that! How does it feel to portray Janis
Joplin and to work with her original band?
CR: YehI was in that play, Love, Janis. We ended up taking it
off-Broadway in New York. Opened in 2001happened during Sept. 11.
That was just a crazy, weird time. Managed to stay open during that
time. Almost ran for two years. Then I lived here [ Chicago ] . Had
my band here. Made records. Played a lot of gigs.
Two years ago, Love, Janis opened in San Francisco. I love San
Francisco. Just loved that whole scene. Seemed like the perfect place
to do the showafter all the work I did developing the Janis
character. … It really meant something to take it back where people
actually knew her.
Everybody has an idea of who she was, and what she was about. People
who really knew her were in San Franciscoat least during that time
that she was a rock star.
Big Brother and The Holding Companythey all came to the showit was
really an amazing experience. They embraced me, took me in, They had
me overtold me storiesshowed me pictures. I just decided to stay
there and that's when last year BB and the Holding Company asked me
to go on tour singing with them. That was a lot of fun. We were
opening for Jefferson Starship on that tour and that's how I met them.
They asked me if I wanted to come on board. This year we made a new
record. We're touring all over the place: Europe twice this year [
and ] going to Japan in December. All kinds of venueslarge and
small. [ Looking around ] This is one of the smaller ones. But, it's
still really fun. It freaks people out to see a big band in a small,
LT: Freakier to you or the audience?
CR: [ Laughs ] I'm used to it.
LT: You have such a flexible vocal and performance rangeswitching
effortlessly between a sweet ballad and hard rock. How do you prepare
yourself mentally to switch gears in front of an audience like that?
CR: I really try to stay right in the moment. Don't think too much
about it in advance. That's one of the things I learned from Janis. I
think that was definitely something she strived forto be completely
in the momentopen to whatever spirit that is that works through us
when we get in that zone.
LT: That's very spiritual. Tell me about your favorite songthat
CR: [ Laughs ] Oh, boy. I don't have a favorite one. But, I think [
the song ] Things Are Different. So hard to talk about your own stuff
and toot your own horn because we're taught to be modest, but at the
same time when you're an entertainer you're trying to explain what it
is you're doingrequires some kind of 'get it out there' attitude.
Composition-wise, it's a very, strong song. Very personal and
emotional. It's kind of a song about loss and that life is a series
of changes. [ I was ] dealing with that a lot at that time of my
life. That song hits home for me a lot.
Then there's my song Two Questions, where I just repeat the same two
questions over and over again. Each time it builds with intensity.
People say, "You're saying the same words over and over." [ Laughing
] Yes, that's the point.
LT: Do you have a specific strategy for writing music?
CR: It's different at different times. Sometimes I'll [ keep a ]
journal or write whatever comes out on paper. Later, I'll pull
something out of it to make a song. It'll start like a little seed.
I'll play my guitar, then get a melody. Then the words will comeso
it just happens in different ways.
LT: Can I guess your favorite musical era?
CR: [ Laughs ] Definitely would be "the summer of love"'60s bands.
Like '60s San Francisco scene. I like a lot of '70s music, too. Used
to be much more of a musical snob. Then I realized it's such a
ridiculous thing. It's just music. Everything's valid for its own
reason. Everything deserves to exist.
I really love the '90s, too. I was part of a real '90s scene that was
happening in Chicago. Don't know about the scene, now, but at that
time in the mid-'90s [ Laughs ] boy, we had fun.
LT: Do you attract the younger audience out there?
CR: Everyone wants young people to like them. We love the kids.
Played a show in Inverness, Scotlandwas a very, young crowd [ of ]
5,000a very decent-sized crowd. Other bands on the bill were young
MTV bands that were driving around in tour busesreally big in
Scotland. Paul [ Kantner said ] , "I'll be surprised if they know one
song of ours." We came right out and played Somebody to Love, and
they were all singing. Knew every word.
LT: I'm not surprised. What motivated you to be a singer?
CR: My mom was a singer. Never a professional singercould have been.
Had a beautiful, soprano voiceoperatic, but a little bit sweeter,
maybe more on the Broadway side.
LT: And she was OK about you going into rock?
CR: She was so encouraging. Always told me to go for it. Always used
to let my band practice in the basement. My dad would take me
shopping for synthesizers. They were super-cool, super-supportive.
Definitely my biggest fans.
LT: If you weren't a singer …
CR: I really don't know. I'd like to do graphic arts. Maybe I would
do something like that.
LT: Congratulations! Can you tell me a lyric that you have written
that's gotten you through hard times?
CR: That I've written? [ Laughs ] A song that got me through hard
times that I didn't write [ was ] a song called Be Cool, by Joni
Mitchell. In my late teens I had a tumultuous relationship that
caused me a lot of heartbreak and also my "coming-out" period which
made me suicidal. But Be CoolI'd play it and it would really calm me
down when I got really upset. Later, I wrote a song called Don't
Throw It Away, [ where I was ] talking to a younger version of myself.
[ Richardson sings: "I know it hurts, but don't, don't, throw it away
… " ] I wrote it to … [ pause ]
LT: Help get through that period of your life?
CR: Or maybe help somebody else get through …
LT: How has working with Jefferson Starship been different than
working with your own band?
CR: I'm upfront a lot, but [ there's ] also support. It's really an
ensemble. That's how the band has always been. Everybody's writing,
singing, playing everybody's songscontributing. It's very
collaborative in that way, but it's also got this huge legacythat's
bigger than myself stepping in.
I hope to support what they're doing and give the audience a powerful
experience: That's really my main objective because music is very powerful.
The song Wooden Ships is like telling a storypainting a picture with
characters. And we're doing this old folk music and it's not just,
"Hey, baby, I love you and you broke my heart." A lot of this music
is like rock opera to methere's a whole sci-fi period, there's the
peace-and-love erawe should be together, we will be together,
"c'mon, people now, smile on your brother … " [ reference to Reach
Out in the Darkness," a popular song of the time ] . [ Kantner ] does
a lot of political stuff …
LT: It's a good time for it …
CR: Yeah. I feel like in San Francisco, I live in a bubble. You can
do your own thingit's totally fine to be gay in San Francisco. Going
in different parts of the country makes me aware of my own fears and
[ that ] people are afraid of people that are different from them.
LT: Yeah. Does this affect how you communicate your music?
CR: Music transcends a lot of bullshitand hopefully, we can just
bring people together.
LT: How long is this tour?
CR: This one is 10 days. We'll go out for a few weeks, come home a
few weeks, then do the Hawaii and Japan thing.
LT: Greatest moment on stage?
CR: Ever? Gosh … I've had so many great nightgreat experiences [
Laughs ] can't even remember …
LT: So what's the biggest difference between performing Love, Janis
and performing with Jefferson Starship?
CR: Doing Janis is totally different than doing thisbut I always
give it the maximum. Sometimes singing quietly is giving it the
maximum. Just serve the music in the best way possible. And the
audience, too. Playing live and putting on the show is more than just
playing music. It's happening livethe audience is part of itall
part of the energy that is making it happen. Even if you're in a tiny
place and you're not slacking off and people think: "I can't believe
I just saw you in this place … "
LT: What would you like your Chicago audience to know?
CR: [ Laughs ] I didn't die or anything. Show up if I come to town. I
love it here. I love playing here. This is where my people are.
Chicago fansthey want you to go out and conquer the world
LT: As long as you come back?
CR: [ Laughs ]
LT: What else have you been up to?
CR: Our new yoga clothing line. It's called Shining Shakti.
LT: That's Hindi, right?
CR: Yeah, for divine [ or ] feminine. Shiva is masculine and Shakti
is in everything. It's a life force. It shows a lot of promise. We're
in about 30 studios and boutiques across the country. That's really exciting.
LT: So you do yoga, right?
LT: Does it help you focus on your music?
CR: [ Laughs ] It helps with everything.
Visit www.shiningshakti.com for more info on yoga gear.