SHE’S SO COOL: An Interview with Catherine Porter
By Patrick Lemieux
INTERVIEW – PART 1
Pictured: Catherine Porter
“They say that signs appear on the road as you should travel in your life, you just have to see them. This one was pretty blatant.” – Catherine Porter
There is often no predicting the outcome of even the most seemingly ordinary encounters. The year was 1992 and Catherine Porter was on tour in the cast of The Music Of Andrew Lloyd Webber. While playing the Royal Albert Hall, she briefly met actress Reva Rice, the girlfriend of the Technical Director for the Webber production. “Six months after meeting her, I get a call,” Catherine says, “I am now back from the tour, living in New York.”
The call was about an audition for backing vocalists, for none other than Queen’s guitarist Brian May, who was about to launch a tour of his own for his solo album Back To The Light. “Reva was starring in Starlight Express,” Catherine explains, “The story goes that Brian took his kids to see the show and all the performers could see everyone in the audience as they skated around. Reva went a step further and had her dresser run a tape of hers out to him. So, his management called the next day to ask if she would like to audition to be a backing singer for his first solo tour. They asked her to bring a friend. For whatever reason, she thought of me!”
This was one of the signs life is known to present and Catherine knew it. “It was an audition I couldn’t refuse. The audition was in London, which made it feel all the more thrilling. I mean, what a cool thing to be able to say to my pals in New York, ‘Um, yeah, I’m just getting on a plane to London to sing for Brian May, no big deal’ (shriek!)”
The audition took place in November at Metropolis Studios and she recalls how she and Reva had prepared. “We had to learn the harmonies to ‘Back To The Light’ and ‘Tie Your Mother Down.’ There might have been one other, I think it may have been ‘Driven By You.’ Besides Brian being there, Spike [Edney, keyboardist] was, too,” Catherine recalls. “Brian and Spike were lovely. We had a little chit chat, then got down to singing. I guess it went well, because we pretty much got a call a few hours later saying we got the gig! The only problem was that she (Reva) was unable to get out of her contract from Starlight, so they kept me and got Shelley (Preston). The rest is history!”
The Brian May Band for that tour was Brian May (lead vocals and guitar), Spike Edney (keyboards), Jamie Moses (guitar), Neil Murray (bass), Cozy Powell (drums) and Catherine Porter & Shelley Preston (backing vocals).
Taking the world by storm
1993 was to be a whirlwind year as the Back To The Light tour began in February, supporting Guns N’ Roses for many of the dates. “It truly was an amazing experience in so many ways. I don’t think I had a second to really take in just how lucky I was. It is only really years later that I could look at an itinerary or a photo and think ‘Wow, I really got to be a part of that.’ The year flew. We were in a different city, different country nearly every other day. We would get these bus window views of different cities — Bologna, Istanbul, Madrid. Sometimes we were there a few hours, if we got lucky we would spend a few days. I was definitely on a health kick during that tour,” Catherine recalls,
11 months and dozens of cities later, The Brian May Band’s world tour came to an end as 1993 drew to a close in December. Of her experiences on the road, around the world, Catherine remembers, “Each show was a joy. The fans were unbelievable. The venues and promoters treated us brilliantly and the Guns N’ Roses team were sweet as can be. We also felt so welcome and incredibly appreciated. There was nothing more exciting than getting to sing those songs for people who really loved Queen.”
The London Years
“After the Brian May tour, I stayed in London. I was getting some recording work and also doing some writing with Spike,” Catherine says of the time, as 1993 rolled over to 1994. A bit of history here for those who may not know, Spike Edney was Queen’s tour keyboardist for their ’84 and ’86 tours. Subsequently, when Queen ceased touring, Spike was a member of Roger Taylor’s band outside of Queen, called The Cross, who toured and recorded three albums in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. The Cross disbanded just before Brian put The Brian May Band together in 1992 for the Back To The Light tour, so Spike also became a member of that band. Catherine goes on to say, “Spike and I had written a few songs that needed to be recorded. Roger needed a backing vocalist for his album. Spike suggested we make a fair trade. So, I recorded his tracks and in exchange I got three days at his studio. It was fabulous!” Roger’s album was called Happiness? and the songs he need Catherine for were “Everybody Hurts Sometime” and “Old Friends.”
Of her three days of recording with Spike at Roger’s studio, Cosford Mill in Surrey, Catherine recalls, “Roger popped his head in, but wasn’t involved in my session at all. His studio was very separate from his house, with rooms to sleep in the same cottage as the studio.”
Recording with Spike at Cosford allowed Catherine an opportunity to explore more fully the other side of music: writing songs. “I always loved to write. I dabbled a bit in songwriting when I did my first musical tour, The Music Of Andrew Lloyd Webber,” Catherine explains, “There were a few writers on that tour, one of which was my dear friend Ty Taylor, now of Vintage Trouble. Whatever city we were in we would do some writing and recording. It wasn’t really until I had worked with Brian and moved to London that I started hanging out in some songwriters clubs.”
And being in London meant she was available and close by when Brian called up periodically, asking her to appear on his recordings, such as for the song “On My Way Up,” recorded for the second series of the TV show titled Frank Stubbs. “Shelley and I were both a part of the session,” Catherine recalls, “He hired us to come down to his studio a few months after we finished the tour. A few months later, he asked me to sing on the demo for a track called ‘What Are We Made Of?’ for the Pinocchio film he did. For a while, Brian was fighting for them to keep my vocal (I sang backing and lead duet with him). In the end, the record company wanted to use one of their artists, so Sissel got the gig! My backing vocal remained. I worked on his Spider-Man vocal for the [radio] series. That is all me singing, ‘Spidey!’ and Brian and I singing the rest of the vocals in there. Now, that was a fun session!” The song “On My Way Up” would later appear on Brian’s album Another World, while “What Are We Made Of?” was released on the Pinocchio soundtrack album. The Amazing Spider-Man tracks appear on singles released under Brian’s pseudonym MC Spy-D & ‘Friends.’
By this point, Roger, Brian and Queen’s bassist John Deacon were working on Made In Heaven, which featured the last recordings made by Freddie Mercury before his death in 1991. Another one of those rare opportunities presented itself to the young singer, being called in to work on the song “Let Me Live,” which used an unfinished vocal Mercury had recorded in ’83. “By then, I was working in my first West End show: Only The Lonely, starring as Claudette Orbison,” Catherine says, “A couple of us were hired for those sessions down at Roger’s studio. It turned out to be a three-day session for one song. It was quite amazing to hear Freddie’s vocals on something not yet made public. I felt like I got to be a part of something really special. Though it was a collaboration, Brian was really running the backing vocal session, as he worked it out, section by section. We had a few mics set up and Brian and Roger sang with us. After a few hours of working, there was always an amazing catered lunch. I remember laughing a lot and thinking that it was definitely one of the best and most memorable singing sessions I’ve ever been privileged to be a part of.”
In April of 1998, Cozy Powell, drummer of The Brian May Band, was killed in a car accident.
“Oh this was a very sad time. Cozy was a doll, a real diamond. Such a terrible tragedy. I remember I was doing a show in the West End called ‘Saucy Jack and the Space Vixens.’ I hadn’t seen Cozy in a while,” says Catherine, “I was reading the paper before the show and there it was. I think I called Neil (Murray) to cry.”
All the while working the London stage and session recordings, Catherine was writing and collaborating on her own material, as she explains, “Tony Moore, the Founder of the Kashmir Klub, became my first serious collaborator. He was able to take some crazy ideas I had and develop them into songs. For a period of time we were incredibly prolific, writing by day and performing what we had just written that night in the club. It was an incredibly creative and satisfying time musically.”
One such “crazy idea,” in fact, became the song “Crazy.”
“Ah, yes! Crazy! You might say this was my signature song. It stemmed from a very frustrating time in a relationship. I had gone back to New York to visit family for a week and took my pen to paper as I always did. I was trying to work out my frustration with a particular person and I was in a terrible mood,” says Catherine, “I think I actually snapped at my mother who in turn, kindly, but firmly, said I was really being a ‘bitch.’ She was worried about me. I immediately apologized and then wrote, ‘I don’t want to be a bitch…’ and the rest of the lyrics flew. It came out of a genuine bad time, a deep frustration and confusion as to what was happening in the relationship, but in spite of that, it made people laugh. And that was the most rewarding part of all.”
In 2000, Catherine entered the A Song For Europe contest, whose finalist would go on to compete in the Eurovision Song Contest. She entered two of her songs. Says Catherine, “Both ‘Crazy’ and ‘The Answer’ were entered at the request of Jonathan King after he had supported both songs in his ‘tip sheet.’ Both went to the BBC Radio vote so it was very exciting to hear them being played on the radio every morning. In all honesty, I thought that if one song was going to make it to the Top 4, it was going to be ‘The Answer,’ so we were all surprised that ‘Crazy’ got through.”
During Catherine’s time in the Song For Europe contest, record companies began circling. In the end, ‘Crazy’ placed 3rd. It turned out those record companies were only interested in whomever placed #1.
“I was devastated,” she remembers, “I was sure that no matter what, the exposure for my songs was going to bring a positive outcome, but I soon discovered that wasn’t going to happen, so I had to take a little time to recover, gather my thoughts and come back with a renewed energy.”
Finding something good
“They say that signs appear on the road as you should travel in your life, you just have to see them. This one was pretty blatant.” – Catherine Porter
The singer-songwriter now had to take a hard look at her creative direction. “My manager was instrumental at the time in making me go back and think about what really brought me to love music in the first place. What were my roots? What did I grow up listening to? What did I love? What did I want to say?”
It was the work of artists like Carole King and The Carpenters that Catherine grew up listening to and it was the influence of their music that motivated her as she began to write new a material. “With Kevin Malpass, we started on piano this time. We wrote a few songs and my manager happened to play them to Steve Jenkins from Jive Records, who was a friend of his. He was asking his advice, ‘what would you do with this?’ Steve’s reply? ‘I’d make a record.’ So, with Steve’s guidance, we wrote the rest of the album and started recording it. I was in heaven recording with some of my favorite musicians– James Pearson, Norman Wattroy, Dylan Howe, to name a few. What I didn’t know at the time was that Jive Records had just begun its journey in being taken over by BMG during our recording, a move I later discovered did not help my album. It was unfortunate that the timing was so bad, forcing a lack of support in promoting the album. I remain so proud of that album and all the heart and soul that went into making it. Kevin and I continued to write together for me as well as for other people. The collaboration continues today.”
The album, released on 2002, was called Something Good, with the single ‘She’s So Cool’ getting airplay and support from BBC’s Radio 2. The title track appeared in the film Undertaking Betty.
Catherine also dabbled in film, with a cameo in 2005’s Batman Begins.
“That is me, indeed! I played an assassin.” In the movie, her character assassinates the murderer of Bruce Wayne’s parents, inadvertently thwarting Wayne’s own plan to kill him in cold blood. “The role involved a day of safety and shooting lessons followed by a full day on set, focussing on my scene. There were over 100 extras all playing reporters, lawyers, general public waiting for the man to be released who had been convicted of murdering Batman’s folks years earlier. I had the job of making sure he didn’t exit the court house. It was all very exciting and fun and centered around me. Unfortunately, the way it was filmed, you can’t really tell it’s me!! You just see a mess of blonde hair, a few words mumbled, shots fired, I’m taken down and carried off by police and it’s all over in a matter of seconds. Two full days of work for me to get 10 seconds of film time. But it sure was fun!”
A New Treasure
In 2005, Catherine and her husband were blessed with their daughter Ruby, who was the inspiration for her next album, Gems For Ruby. She wanted to share with her daughter not only her favourite songs, but, as she describes it, “In that same lush style that my parents turned me onto.”
“’Gems’ was a great project to work on. Danny Saxon and Mark Jaimes were amazing to work with and had a ton of fantastic ideas already, so I put mine in the pile with theirs and we set out to see which ones worked and which didn’t. It was great to have a concept and let loose with it. I got to have some of my favorite songs in there. I have to say, there were so many favourites, but the surprise for me on that album was ‘More Today Than Yesterday.’ When I went to record the vocal, the guys had done a completely different arrangement than the one that is on the album. I had heard it a million times before recording, but somehow when I got into the studio, it just didn’t gel. So, Danny jumped on the grand piano in the studio we were recording in and tried some things out. What resulted turned out to be my favorite track on the album. I also love ‘Summer Of ‘69’ and was thrilled to one day get an email from Jim Vallance and Bryan Adams telling me my version of their song was by far their favorite. I think Brian May had sent it to , which led to this communication. I don’t think I’ve been given a bigger compliment than that. It was really thrilling.”
AMAZON: Gems For Ruby
That would not be Brian May’s only involvement with the new album. Another favourite song of Catherine’s was Queen’s ‘Somebody To Love’. As with all the songs on Gems, Catherine’s version features a new arrangement of Freddie Mercury’s classic.
“Of course, I love our version of ‘Somebody To Love.’ We had pretty much had all of it recorded when I approached Brian. He had such a positive response that the collaboration began. It was great to have him play. His solo is just so very ‘HIM.’ It really meant so much to me; a full circle moment.”
Gems For Ruby was released on 2009, with “Somebody To Love” as the single.
In a career full of unexpected doors opening, another one came in the form of dance club music.
“Kevin Malpass,” Catherine’s co-writer, and producer for her Something Good album, “had recommended me to a manager in the US that works with DJ’s. My first release was with a UK DJ called Matt Darey. Matt and I wrote ‘Blossom And Decay.’ From there, this manager introduced me to Paul Beckwith, who actually is a NJ-based producer. He’s not far away from where I live, so we got together.”
The result was a collaboration on the track ‘Back To Love’.
“‘Back To Love’ was interesting because Paul and I basically wrote an entire song; verses, choruses, bridge, etc. The record company heard it and loved the hook and some adlibs. So, they scrapped the rest and kept those! It’s a cool track. I love the dance/trance/house world. It’s very freeing for me to be given tracks to write to and just come up with whatever I want. The DJ’s work their magic after I’ve laid all my vocals down. For me, it’s basically still songwriting, but what happens to the song when the DJ/Producer gets their ears on it is always interesting.”
Shotgun Wedding Living in New York now, where music and theatre is always booming, Catherine is still busy both in the studio and onstage. She was recently the lead in the rock musical production of Next To Normal, winning the Suzi Bass Award for the part. She’s in a new band, too, called Shotgun Wedding.
“We are a City/Country band, meaning we are not pretending to be from Nashville or the South,” she clarifies, “There are no cowboy boots or hats. We are all pretty much from NYC and we love Country music. We do covers and originals.”
Shotgun Wedding performs in the New York City area, so keep your eyes out for them! Their debut album is available on iTunes: HERE
Catherine Porter’s music can be found on iTunes and Amazon.
Patrick Lemieux is a Canadian artist and writer. He is the co-author of the book The Queen Chronology: The Recording & Release History Of The Band, available on Amazon and BarnesAndNoble.com.