Cathy Richardson Q&A: Jefferson Starship

What’s Hot New Zealand chats with bona fide rock chick Cathy Richardson from iconic US Band Jefferson Starship about the pressures of playing rock legend Janis Joplin, holding her own, and projects on the horizon ahead of their New Zealand tour in January.

An accomplished (and award-winning) musician in your own right, what’s it like to be part of the Jefferson legacy, working with original co-founding member David Freiberg and stepping into the shoes of the inimitable Grace Slick? Oh my God, I was such a huge fan! The weirdest part of this story is what a fan I was growing up and as a teenager. I always loved Jefferson Airplane and Grace Slick. She is one of the female icons of rock ‘n’ roll, such a legend and a force. I mean I used to listen to them over and over when I was kid. So it’s really a trip. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I was gonna be in the band! I mean it never even crossed my mind. It was one of those weird things that life just takes you right there. Yes, I was totally star-struck to meet all of them. They’re such down to earth, real people that you get over that right away. David is the most humble, peaceful human being I’ve ever met in my life. He’s just so sweet and kind. There’s nothing you can feel but comfortable. And Grace is the same way. I love talking to her. It’s really strange cos when I first met her – before Jefferson Starship was even on my radar – and I walked away from that conversation I had the weirdest feeling that I was somehow talking to a future version of myself, cos we are kinda cut from the same cloth. We have such a similar life experience being women in rock ‘n’ roll, obviously she invented it and she did a lot more shit than I ever did, y’know? So to talk to her it’s weirdly familiar. This whole thing feels like I’ve been reunited with my family.

How did it feel to get Grace’s seal of approval to take her place in the band? It was surreal. I mean I had already been in the band and seen us on TV, but when I got the call to sing in her place when they received their Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammy’s it felt like I’d won a Lifetime Achievement Award.

You played rock goddess Janis Joplin in the off-Broadway hit Love, Janis back in 2001; what were the highs and lows of such an experience? Someone as unique as Janis Joplin, who was such a legend, she really can’t be duplicated. It’s the same thing with being in this band (Jefferson Starship) and having that Grace Slick shadow. These people are legends, they invented this music. They were the queens of rock ‘n’ roll. It is formidable to stand in those shoes and be scrutinised and compared. When portraying Janis I wanted to be as realistic as possible. I think that the longer I did the show, the more I just buried myself in the music and Janis, the better I got at it. But y’know, it’s a tough job. I sang my butt off every night, so hard that I couldn’t talk when I got home. I would just write notes and message people on my computer because I had to rest my voice. The best part about it was being in New York City starring in a hot show. I had the most amazing experiences there. David Bowie and Iman came. Just being in that sort of spotlight was just amazing. It was tough too. It was 9/11 when we were open and man, I went through a whole lifetime when I did that show.

How would you describe the differences between the music you write and perform with your own band (Cathy Richardson Band) and Jefferson Starship? When we first started out we were definitely doing a singer/songwriter thing, a little bit more folky influenced and acoustic guitars. When I did the Janis Joplin show I started singing more blues and experimenting with the soulful part of my voice – that sort of sound and vibe. So I think that my singer/songwriter thing really evolved just a little more mature musically, with more depth. And then I teamed up with Zack Smith to do The Macrodots and that was just more of a harder edge, modern rock, with a classic rock influence, y’know. So that works really well within the Jefferson Starship world also; the belting power singing that Grace Slick did. That’s kinda right in my wheelhouse.

What other projects do you have on the go besides belting out some killer tunes with Jefferson Starship? Well, y’know Jefferson Starship has really kinda taken over everything in my career. I still have a couple of local projects I do here at home. I have a storytelling night that I do at a local club I’ve been doing for five years. Story-tellers come up and tell stories and then I do musical improv based on their story. It’s really really fun. And so when I’m home and I’m not on tour and I have a few free dates, I do some local shows with my band or solo, just me and the guitar. I have another band called Nelson Street Revival that’s just a fun party band with a bunch of blues players from Chicago who tour internationally, but we barely get to play any more cos my schedule’s so crazy. Other than that we’re just writing another album for Jefferson Starship. I mean, I’ve been in the band ten years but we’ve not put out any original music in that time. I’ve put out a couple of albums in that time, but not for Jefferson Starship, so that’s exciting. And Grace Slick and I are writing a song together too.

Touring is an exhausting feat, how do you unwind and recharge? Well y’know, I think when you’re in it the adrenaline sort of just gets you going and then you go home and crash, and sleep as much as possible. It’s hard because I’m travelling with all these old guys now and they like to get to the airport like seven hours early, y’know, just to be safe, so I’m like, “You guys, we really don’t need that much time. We need to sleep!”

With half your lifetime spent making music, have you yet nailed the illusive work/life balance? I have! This past year has been the perfect amount of working and being at home. It’s kinda like, I’m on the road a lot, but I’m also at home a lot. So I’ll like go out on Thursday and home Sunday night. We’ve just been doing these little tours and fly tours. Y’know, fly off and doing four shows here, like we’re doing in New Zealand. It’s really great cos I can keep working and keep making a living, and also be home with my family. I have two small children and a wife, y’know. I hate missing anything. Y’know, you always have that FOMO when you go on the road and you hear about everything you’ve missed. Y’know you don’t wanna miss the ballet recital or whatever. And so it’s been great this year. It really has been a perfect balance. I hope we keep this going. It’s working well!

What can New Zealand audiences expect to hear when you guys appear with TOTO in January? We’ll be playing our new single, ‘What Are We Waiting For’. And I’m not sure what we are waiting for! I’m not sure when it’s going to be released, but we’re hoping to get a few other songs ‘in the can’ as they say, so when we release the song we’ll have something to follow it up with.

Tell us more about this new album. I have a working title, but the band hasn’t really said anything yet. My idea was Mother of the Sun because Paul Kantner died a couple of years ago and his daughter China had a reading with a psychic, and he was telling her stuff about Cassiopeia, the constellation and also the mythical figure. So one of her titles is Mother of the Sun and the Moon, but it’s still a work in progress and we need to vote on that.

Jan 9, ASB Baypark Area, Tauranga

Jan 10, Church Road Winery, Napier

Jan 11, TSB Bowl of Brooklands, New Plymouth

Jan 13, Hagley Park, Christchurch

Jan 2019