10 Questions with ... Kate Pierson
August 31, 2015
BRIEF CAREER SYNOPSIS:
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Over the past thirty-five years the B-52s have sold over twenty million albums sold and remain among the most beloved bands ever. From the timeless gems of "Rock Lobster," "Planet Claire" and "Private Idaho" to the more recent classics of "Channel Z," "Love Shack" and "Roam", the B-52s unforgettable dance-rock tunes start a party every time the music begins.
From her private studio, rehearsing new material, founding B-52 member and recent solo artist, Kate Pierson spent some time with All Access to discuss her upcoming summer tour, her recent solo album and what's been like to be part of the most iconic bands in history.
1) Please tell us what a typical day is like for you now?
Well, I just got finished doing three B-52 shows, and the week before we did another three shows. In the past, we've done endless touring. For 38 years, we've been on and off the road. Sometimes we take a year or even two years off to just write and record without doing much touring. Before "Funplex" we were touring endlessly.
About a year ago, we really slowed down. Keith retired from touring, (he's still in the band though) so now we are just doing a few shows each month.
When I'm not touring with B-52s, I'm either rehearsing with my band since I'm doing solo shows now, and I do some gardening and some dog play with our two big German Shepherds.
2) Earlier this year, you released your solo album. Why did it take so long to put that out?
Well, I think it was really the B-52s busy schedule, and then wanting to have some time off. All of us in the band have many other interests outside of doing music. We all have hobbies. Cindy has two kids and Fred has done some outside solo projects. I love gardening and I have my solo things too. Keith wants to focus more on doing art work and follow his own spiritual path. So, I just decided that now was the time since we've slowed down and stopped touring so much. It was just something that I wanted to do for years so I really had to do it.
I'd written a bunch of songs but it just seemed like I needed to do a clean sweep. So my partner Monica mentioned to our friend Sia that I really was at the point of desperation to get this done and she said that she would be glad to help. So about two years ago, we just went out to LA and we started having writing sessions. I started with Sia to go on these writing sessions with usually a third party who usually did the instrumentation, and then we would get a song and great demo written. We wrote a bunch of songs and even more that we didn't put on this record. So it was a "really get it done and don't think too much about it" process.
3) Had you been a fan of Sia's work before getting to work with her?
I met her at a birthday party actually for one of the Betty Girls. Everyone of course was required to sing at one of their parties. So, she sang and I thought "who is this?" I wasn't even that familiar with her work. In fact, I even said to her one time, there was a song that came on the radio and it was about breathing and I said, "Geez, how many songs are people to going to write about breathing?!" and she said, "I even popped one out!" So, I really didn't know her background. We became friends first and now I'm a huge fan! I love her music. I think she is really changing the face of pop music!
4) I recently watched your video for "Mister Sister" and I couldn't help but think about Caitlyn Jenner and everything going on with her transformation right now. What do you think you had in mind when you wrote that song?
Well, actually what I had in mind was my friend Kinjella (or Allen) who was a young drag queen years ago who did Wigstock. It's a festival in New York that Lady Bunny started and they used to call each other "Mister Sister." I know that term is kind of old school now, but it was really meant to be about a young boy or girl who felt betrayed by the mirror, who felt dis-morphic, who felt they weren't being accepted or weren't accepting themselves and loving themselves. It was about transformation. I really did not have in mind specifically transgender so it wasn't about a transgender person. It really was not about that. It was about a young gay boy possibly or anyone. It really got picked up by the press as a trans. It really got transformed into a trans-gender anthem which I never said.
You know, I'm glad now that for all the controversy that came out from it because it was really enlightening to me. Everyone I've spoken to about it has said that they didn't know what trans was really. So it came at the beginning of this whole revolution of trans-gender people being accepted. It's a real civil-rights issue. I think this whole thing is culminating with Caitlyn Jenner and I think it's so wonderful that people are so accepting.
5) How did you get Portlandia's Fred Arminsen involved with the video?
Well, he happens to be a huge B-52s fan and he had asked me to be on Portlandia. His people called me and there was just a huge scheduling conflict. They wanted me to be in Portland the next day and I was in New York and it just didn't happen. He emailed me the next day and said I'm so sorry but you're gonna be in the next season! My partner Monica then asked him if he would like to be in one of my videos and he said, "sure!" He came up and he was such a big fan. It was so much fun to have him in the video. He's such a natural comedian. The lyric video was just hilarious with him. He just did one pass where he mimed through the lyrics. He does these funny hand gestures. Then he invited me to be on the Seth Myers Show as a guest of the band. I did four nights there and that was amazingly fun.
6) A lot of the songs on "Guitars and Microphones" are considered anthems. What do you think makes a true anthem? Why do you think this album has so many of them?
I guess when a song has something to say. I certainly didn't set out to write any anthems and I feel like I better stay away from that word. I really do feel that if a song has a powerful message, it can be considered an anthem. A lot of songs nowadays are about breaking through and about loving yourself. They are empowerment anthems. So I do think that "Throw Down The Roses" is an empowerment anthem, and so is "Mister Sister" because it's about loving yourself and breaking through the barriers.
7) What songs are you particularly proud of on this record?
Well, the song "Guitars and Microphones" I really like a lot because it is somewhat auto-biographical. My friends, Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine created the video using my old photographs because it was very much nostalgic about my high school band, and kind of growing up and leaving people behind that are lost when you get older.
So it was kind of continuing that thread. I really liked that song. I wrote it with Chris Braide and Sia. Chris is one of my favorite writers and he actually just formed his own band, That Oceanic Feeling. He's written for everybody: Sia, Lana Del Rey and Rihanna. He's a great songwriter and he's got great chord changes. I just really love his sensibility.
I also really love this other song that Sia wrote before we got together to write. She was writing for herself before she really started writing for Beyonce and Rihanna. The song was about a trip that her and Monica, and I took to Tulum, Mexico for a turtle rescue called "Bring Your Arms". I really love that one.
8) After listening to the record, I was in awe of how your voice has maintained the same sound throughout the years. How have you kept it that way?
Well, I have worked to keep it this way. I definitely always warm up. I think what's saved our voices in the B-52s are the in- ear monitors that we use. In the beginning, we would really have to strain our voices to be heard over the guitars. Everything on stage was really loud and the monitors weren't always that good. Since we got the in-ear monitors, you can kind of have your own mix and not blast your ears.
I also took voice lessons a number of years ago with my teacher Janet Frank who sadly passed away from ALS. She helped me learn how to sing without straining. She explained to me that babies can scream and cry without losing their voice. They are crying from their diaphragm. So she really taught me how to relax and sing.
9) You've gotten to work with so many groundbreaking artists in your career like Iggy Pop, David Byrne, REM and more. What experience has really stood out to you the most? What do you consider your biggest accomplishment?
Well, I think putting out this record is my biggest accomplishment for sure because it's not easy in this day and age to think about launching something new. Solo projects are thought to be something on the side really so doing this really took a lot of "umph!" I really have to credit my life partner Monica for really helping to give me inspiration and help really launch it. The nuts and bolts together and getting us signed with Kobalt Label Services and really getting it out there. She directed the videos, did all the photographs, booklet and the CD. It was really a home-cooked project that we worked on in our studio.
Besides all that, the B-52s have been together so long. I think that's a major accomplishment. I think we ought to be in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame just on the merit of being together so long and not stopping. We are a band that never stops. We've been going ever since.
10) What artists have inspired you through the years? Who do you look up to?
Wow, there have been many many inspirations. As far as female vocalists, I've always loved Joni Mitchell and Aretha Franklin who are quite different vocally. Sia too has been a big inspiration as far as being a powerhouse vocalist. That inspiration really shows on this new record. I feel like there was a freedom with my voice on this album.
As far as new artists, I admire Kelly Clarkson for forging her own path after going through American Idol and just kind of breaking out and standing on her own and being independent and writing her own songs. She's just really strong and taking criticism about her weight and all that. I admire the way she has really busted out.
I also have to say I love Debbie Harry. She had the B-52s over to her apartment back when we first were getting started playing in New York. She had all these gold records laying on the floor. We were like "Whoa!" We've toured with her and Blondie actually. Yeah, Debbie is a particular inspiration to me, just in the way they have lasted and her voice is still golden and she looks great. Patty Smith of course too.
What's been a favorite tour memory so far by yourself or with the band?
Well, I haven't toured much by myself but I have to say it's been incredibly freeing and fun to play. I have a great band now, Mike and Ruthy have their own band so they are going to open for me and be in my band. They have a new record out called "Bright As You Can". I've known them for a long time and they live here in Woodstock where we all grew up. So it's great to have friends to play with and that's been really fun to play with people I know and admire and I love their musicianship. So the few gigs we've done were really fun.
My favorite tour memory with the B-52s have just been when we played with all these other great bands like The Pretenders, Blondie, Ziggy Marley and of course Cyndi Lauper. We did the "True Colors" tour and that was a blast. Getting to play with all these other bands has been great!
*Special thanks to Leah Adams who conducted this interview.