Interview by: Eric Schelkopf – Photo by: Paul Thomas
Grammy-nominated musician Cathy Richardson has done it all, from portraying Janis Joplin in the Off Broadway hit “Love, Janis,” to being the current lead singer of legendary group Jefferson Starship.
Now the Elmhurst resident and Burr Ridge native has a new band, Cathy Richardson and the Macrodots, a group she formed with guitarist Zack Smith, best known for being a member of ’80s group Scandal. I had the chance to talk to Richardson about her latest activities.
ES: You were just at the Mayne Stage in March with Jefferson Starship. How is it being on stage with somebody like Paul Kantner?
CR: It’s a trip. It’s just a trip. Paul is a real life rock star. They don’t make them like they used to. He just turned 70, and God I hope I have that much spunk when I’m 70 years old. He’s quite a character, and it’s just a great honor and it’s a great trip for me, because I was such an Airplane and Starship fan growing up.
ES: What did he see in you? What did he think you could contribute to the band?
CR: Well, I was opening for Starship, I was singing with Big Brother and the Holding Company on a tour, like a ’60s package kind of thing. We were having great shows and getting great crowd reaction. The Janis thing is something I had been working on for a number of years. I think he saw me as a strong singer and a strong performer that got a lot of reaction from the crowd.
When Diana Mangano decided to leave the band on that tour, they asked me if I would be interested in coming on board. And I was like, “Absolutely. What are you kidding me?” It wasn’t even a dream come true, because I wouldn’t have ever dreamed that I would be singing with them. It’s just one of those trippy things that happens in life.
ES: And of course you have this new band, the Macrodots. Are you going to be able to do both?
CR: Well, yeah. The Macrodots are still getting off the ground. It’s sort of a situation where everybody in the band does other things. It is hard to get everybody together. We’re just getting off the ground. We don’t have a record label. We are doing it ourselves. It really started as a studio project between Zack and I, and we had so many great songs and we really made what I think is a super strong record. We just want to play live. We want to get the songs out there. It’s just something we are trying to do and coordinate everybody together. It’s not to a point yet where the band is demanding more of my time than Jefferson Starship.
ES: I understand Zack saw you performing “Love, Janis” in San Francisco and wanted to do something with you.
CR: He came to the show and I guess he really liked it. He wanted to meet me after the show, and we went out afterward and we hung out a little bit, and he invited me down to his studio. We just sort of struck up a friendship, and he was a big fan of my singing and wanted to figure out how I could become more well known. He started sending me song ideas. We ended up writing 20 songs over the course of a few years, and then we honed in on the 11 strongest ones that we thought would make a really strong album.
ES: Were you a big fan of the band Scandal?
CR: When I was growing up, it was all about Heart for me. Honestly, I really didn’t even listen to anything else. Ann Wilson was my goddess, and nobody else could touch her.
ES: I’ve heard Macrodots being described as a power pop band. How would you describe the band?
CR: I wouldn’t have called it power pop, but now that we’ve been called that, it is an appropriate category to put us in. It’s hooky, melodic, rock ‘n’ roll.
ES: Was it hard making the transition to doing this type of music?
CR: No. I tend to write what I write, and when you collaborate with somebody else, obviously their thing is going to come into it. A lot of this music is Zack, and I really like a lot of his ideas and the music that he comes up with. It was a really cool musical marriage. For me, it has never been a preconceived thing to do a certain type of music. I just wrote what came out of me. And I’ve always written all different kinds of music. To me, it’s just about good songs.You could take these songs and play them with an acoustic guitar and vocals, and they’d still be good songs.
ES: The song “Kiss My Ass” off the album is a pretty intense song. Is the song directed toward critics?
CR: It’s a little bit to critics, it’s a little bit political. The Religious Right has kind of gone after gay rights as their target, and it’s very hypocritical, and it’s a little bit about that.
There is some definite anger in there, but it’s also tongue-in-cheek and it’s fun. I get a kick out of that song.
ES: Do you view being gay as an obstacle?
CR: I used to think that a lot more. Times have definitely changed. In the past 10 to 20 years, things have changed a lot. It’s not an obstacle at all. I really don’t think it’s a big deal. I never wanted it to be a big deal. I am who I am. I don’t have an agenda or a mission or a message or anything that I’m trying to use my music to get across. All I really want to do is sing, and entertain people.
That’s what I am in it for. I just didn’t want it to ever be a topic of conversation. It affects your life more psychologically. I live my life, and nobody messes with me. I don’t get harassed or anything like that. It’s just more in your mind, how you feel like there’s a part of society that doesn’t accept you and is actually against you. I personalize it. To them, it might be a general faceless thing that they are not really thinking about, but I take it personally because I am gay and I’ve seen people making a political issue about it.
It does hurt me emotionally. I just want to live my life. I don’t want to take anything away from anyone, and I don’t think that my happiness does take anything away from anyone. I think it contributes to the betterment of the world. How about live and let live? I think that was one of Jesus’ main messages. It angers me to see people using their religion in a truly hateful way, and they don’t even realize it.
ES: Earlier, we were talking about Big Brother and the Holding Company. I read that they will be at Naperville’s Ribfest (along with Jefferson Starship) this summer. Are you going to be part of that?
CR: Yeah, I think I will be part of that. That’s the plan for right now. A lot of people know me for the Janis show. I love that music and I love those guys. I just did a show where Big Brother opened for Paul Kantner’s 70th birthday show. I sang with both bands, and it was a lot of fun. It is very demanding on my vocal chords, so it’s not something I can do every day. But Naperville is very close to my stomping grounds, and it will be a lot of fun.
ES: You’re part of so many different genres of music these days. Is that fun for you?
CR: Clearly. If you look at the history of rock ‘n’ roll, the two iconic females of rock are Grace Slick and Janis Joplin. They are the originators, and they are the ones who influenced me either directly or indirectly by influencing the people who influenced me. They paved the way for women in a very male-dominated genre of music.
The Macrodots Biography
Rock Goddess Cathy Richardson has not had a moment to sit still since relocating to San Francisco 4 years ago to star as Janis Joplin in the Off Broadway musical biopic Love, Janis. In between fronting tours with two legendary Bay Area classic rock bands, Joplin’s band Big Brother and the Holding Co. in 2007, and Jefferson Starship from 2008 to the present (with whom she recorded the band’s first new studio album in over a decade, Jefferson’s Tree of Liberty) – Richardson teamed up with San Francisco guitarist, producer and songwriter, Zack Smith (founding member of the 80s pop rock band Scandal), to create Macrodots and their new classic debut album, The Other Side.
“After seeing me in Love, Janis, Zack talked to me about creating a new band that would showcase my harder rocking side and give him a chance to create the consummate, timeless rock album he’s always wanted to make. And I said, ‘ummm… ok, that sounds cool.’ He sent me 10 fully produced song seedlings and said, ‘What do you think of these?’ And they were all good,” states Richardson devoid of any facial expression or vocal inflection whatsoever.
After writing and recording some 20 songs, Richardson and Smith have narrowed it down to 11 epic rock tunes with unabashed shades of Led Zeppelin (take Rock and Roll Part Two, for example) Aerosmith (like the ball-kicking rocker Kiss My Ass), David Bowie (the haunting Beautiful Girl), guitar driven riff rockers with vintage keys and hooks-a-plenty, lushly layered under the gorgeous and gut wrenching vocals of the Divine Ms. R., and almost entirely recorded in Smith’s SOMA studio.
Mr. Smith enlisted some of his famous friends to play on the recording long distance via audio files over the internet -Rami Jaffe (Foo Fighters) Michael Lockwood (Aimee Mann, Lisa Marie Presley), Blair Sinta (Alannis Morrisette, Brandy Carlisle) and Donny Baldwin (Richardson’s bandmate in Jefferson Starship) all contributed to multiple tracks.
Super hot producer/engineer Joe Chicarelli (the White Stripes, the Shins, the Raconteurs) even traded mixing a couple songs for a painting in Smith’s collection. Then, after moving back into her Elmhurst, IL home last year, Richardson brought in Chicago recording engineer (and President of the Recording Academy’s Chicago Chapter) Larry Sturm to put the finishing touches on the album at Pressure Point Studios.
Now that the record is done, the time is right to debut the band in the place where Richardson spent her formative years, cutting her
chops by relentlessly hammering the local live music scene and making her one of the city’s top drawing music acts. “What better way to debut a new band than headlining Chicago’s greatest street festival EVER,” asks Richardson, completely deadpan, almost as if she were comatose.
Actually, Richardson and Smith attempted to put a band together and played a couple shows as Pillowface in 2008, “Then we found out there was already another Pillowface on the East Coast… God, this sounds like Spinal Tap!” states Richardson, her eyes now shut and a small amount of drool drizzling down her lip. Richardson also joined Jefferson Starship at the same time and became extremely busy on the road, putting the “new band” on hold but getting priceless stage experience in front of arena crowds and winning over new fans all over the world. “I am a superstar,’ mutters Richardson from curled in a ball under a nearby table.
Richardson and Smith have assembled a stellar cast of Chicago and California musicians for the live show, namely Jude Gold on guitar (director of the prestigious LA music school Guitar Institute), Jonathon Herrera on bass, Donny Baldwin on drums and Anne Harris on fiddle, percussion and vocals. The Market Days show will feature all the songs from the new album and finish off with some well-selected jams from Richardson’s back catalog of cult hit classics.
And so, as they stand on the precipice of greatness, ready to unleash the rock onto the hungry masses who are yearning to worship an album worthy of getting stuck in their heads that they haven’t heard already a thousand times before, Richardson lifts her head off the floor to explain the band’s new and permanent name, “We are right now the smallest band ever. No one has even heard of us. However, we are destined to become the biggest band in the Universe, and it’s possible that we already are, in other dimensions. Dear Humankind, I give you The Macrodots. You’re welcome.”
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