“My voice tends to be something that cuts through steel.”
In Greek mythology, the Sirens were known as dangerous and beautiful femme fatales who seduced many a sailor with their hypnotizing and beguiling vocal allure. In The B-52s, sister sirens Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson have been luring mariners and landlubbers alike for decades, captivating them with the many-faceted charms of their vocal prowess. The band’s new-wave and alt-rock classics include the beach-party dancefest of Rock Lobster, the festive come-hithering found at the infamous “tin roof… rusted!” Love Shack, the undeniable urge to explore in Roam, and the full-on elegiac positivity of Good Stuff.
It’s only taken Kate Pierson about four of those decades to step out from the band and emerge fully in front with her first-ever solo album, Guitars and Microphones (out today from Lazy Meadow Music/Kobalt Label Services on CD and digital services). The wait was well worth it. Produced by Tim Anderson (Ima Robot) and executive produced by the super-songstress Sia (Chandelier), G&M teems with energy, from the gender-pride-permeating Mister Sister to the emotional torch ballad Pulls You Under. “It took a long time, but I love it,” Pierson admits about finally flying solo. “Now I feel like I can take a lot more chances with my voice.”
Digital Trends got on the line with Pierson, 66, to discuss writing songs in France with Sia, leaving the subtleties intact in final mixes, and her personal favorite B-52s vocal moments. If you hear a whistling wind whispering in your ear, it’s probably Kate beckoning you to roam this wild planet, hip to hip.
Digital Trends: So, Kate, I want to add a word to the album title. I think it should be called Guitars and Microphones and Harmonies. What do you think?
Kate Pierson: Oh, yeah. (chuckles) I’m the queen of harmonies.
I’ll take that as a yes. I think my favorite line on the album might be in Bring Your Arms, when you’re talking about “running with a lightbulb,” which I think is a fantastic image.
Oh, I know. Actually, Sia wrote that song. The lyrics are just so incredibly evocative. She’s amazing with her lyrics. It’s a dream to work with her.
I think that line fits you very well, because you’re always taking chances and doing interesting things. You must have clearly identified with that song right away.
What’s interesting about it is it was written when my partner Monica [Coleman] and Sia and I were on vacation together in Toulouse [France]. We were just sitting around and Sia goes, “What are those lights on the beach?” We went down there, and found they were rescuing sea turtles and the eggs that had just been laid, and putting them in cages. The whole imagery of the song comes from that — seeing those people waving their arms with torches and rescuing those sea turtles.
Wow, that is amazing. When you went into the production cycle for this record, you must have had some specific notes as to how you wanted to sound on all of these songs.
I never set anything in stone. We had really good demos, which is amazing to me — that we wrote the stuff and got the demo in the same day. Usually when we write in The B-52s, it’s quite a collaborative process. We really take hours — and sometimes days — jamming, and then we listen and listen to them and go, “Oh, let’s use this part, and then this part.” It’s really like a collage.
“My people are listening mostly on computers or cell phones, through iTunes and stuff.”
But with Sia, as soon as we heard something that could be a chorus — boom, that was it. It wouldn’t necessarily depend on the lyrics either. I had a lot of lyrical ideas, but we would shape the lyrics to the melody.
The demos sort of set this album’s template, so I had a pretty good idea. I’d do the harmonies on the demos too, and that just added to it. As I said, I’m the queen of harmonies. I love love love to do harmonies.
That you do! Who do you consider inspirations as far as harmony vocalists go? Who are your “lightbulbs”?
I think Joni Mitchell is a really good example. She does her own harmonies. She’s someone who does unusual, unexpected, interesting harmonies. I like harmonizing with other people, but a lot of times, I do harmonize with myself. Who else? The Mamas & the Papas, of course. And Sia does amazing harmonies on her records too.
I recently did a John Lennon tribute at Symphony Space in New York [on December 5, 2014], and I got to sing harmony with Debbie Harry. It was such a thrill to do that. I think that listening to The Beatles as a kid infused such a harmonic thing in me, because those harmonies are not very typical. They sound easy, but they’re not. (chuckles) The Beatles had a huge impact on me. I did Strawberry Fields Forever, and we worked it out in an open tuning. That’s such a beautiful song, and I think I did it in a different way.
I think we’re of the same mindset, because there’s no reason to do a note-for-note Beatles cover and reproduce what’s already been done. You have such a particular character to your vocals, so we want what you do to be Kate’s version. It’s got to be your baby, literally.
Like you said, if I did anything, it would have to be the definitive cover.
I’d love to hear your take on Strawberry Fields Forever.
It’s a much more dreamy version. It was really fun reinterpreting it. Someone asked me to be on this Beatles tribute album, and I thought, “Gosh, there are so many choices.” But I really like the way their songs were done in Across the Universe, the movie (2007).
Back to Guitars and Microphones. Because there are so many layers and textures when it comes to the instrumentation, was high resolution something you were conscious of when you were creating the album? How should people listen to this record?
I’m not a fan of making it just old school. My people are listening mostly on computers or cell phones, through iTunes and stuff. I don’t listen on headphones a lot, but I played a remix that Steve Osborne [who produced the 2008 B-52s album Funplex] did of a song that’s not on this album, called Better Not Sting the Bee. It’s going to be coming out on a 7-inch with an alternate mix of Wolves by Chris Briade on the other side. I first listened to it on a little speaker, and then I listened to it on bigger speakers. It was ridiculous how much more I heard that way. I didn’t hear half of what’s on the track on the smaller ones, which was kind of disappointing.
“Recently, I bought an old Victrola. We had one when I was growing up, and my father had left me a thousand 78 records.”
Recently, I bought an old Victrola. We had one when I was growing up, and my father had left me a thousand 78 records. I’ll crank it up, and that sound is warm and beautiful. That being said, I’m very conscious of the way things are being mastered now, and Steve Osborne mixed the album with that very much in mind. And when I brought it to Emily Lazar at the Lodge, she’s really good at that too. She knows how to make it sound great for digital.
For me, something that sounds great is the bridge for Mister Sister, where there’s a line about being “deadbeat devious” —
(laughs) “Deadbeat delicious,” you mean!
Oh, where did I get that? Is it Freudian, or something? (both laugh) Well, anyway, that line is pulled back in the mix, and there’s also a bit of an echo on it. Is that your call about how to set the vocal there, and how it comes across?
Actually, that was something Steve Obsborne did in the mix. I mean, I nuanced it when I sang it, but the echoey thing — Steve did some nice little touches there, yeah. There’s a lot in there, and I think Steve is a dream mixer. I’d heard about the mastering studio The Lodge when I was listening to NPR and I thought, “Wow, it’s in New York, and it’s owned by a woman.” It turned out Emily had also done work with Sia. I really wanted the sound quality to be great for this album — I want it to sound great in your home, and digitally, and on the speakers in your car — so I went in there and listened to it on the speakers in there.
You don’t want people to miss out, especially on a song like Wolves, a ballad where your vocals are featured a lot more front and center, and there’s less instrumentation. We want to get the character of your voice and the echo of the space you’re singing in.
That’s primary to me — that you can hear the little breath I take. I don’t really gasp a lot or make a lot of melisma or anything like that, but you have to hear the little “unh” at the end, and the space surrounding the voice. My voice tends to be something that cuts through steel, you know. (both laugh)
I do know! That’s a good point about leaving the breaths in. Take somebody like Adele — on the highest-resolution versions of Skyfall, you can totally hear her take big breaths before she sings those really powerful lines in the chorus. Some producers might have cut that out to make it a “clean” mix, but I like hearing it because it brings us closer to the humanity of the person singing it.
That kind of quality of Adele’s voice coming through with such warmth is something I love. I’m always saying in the studio, “My vocals are too loud!” or “My vocals have too much effect on them!” I like some of it, but I’m not a fan of loading effects onto my voice.
The emotion on Crush Me With Your Love, where you hold those really long notes — I really feel what you’re talking about because of the way you do that.
Thank you. I loved singing that song. It was probably my favorite one to sing. I have never really done a ballad like that. And that one really comes from the heart when I sing it.
You talked earlier about listening to your father’s 78s — were you living in New Jersey at that point?
“I want it to sound great in your home, and digitally, and on the speakers in your car.”
New Jersey, yeah. My whole family comes from New Jersey. Weehawken is where I grew up.
I know it well; I used to live in Hoboken. Do you remember the first album that you really connected with when you were growing up?
I don’t want to date myself, but when I was really, really little, I heard Jerry Lee Lewis, Great Balls of Fire (1957). Dad had this old radio, and it was like going back in time — you know, those radios with the green eye. I remember hearing that song when I was a tiny, tiny tot, and I rolled up in a ball, laughing. It just made me laugh. It tickled me.
What are your personal best vocal moments in the B-52s catalog?
Boy. Umm, I think Roam [from 1989’s Cosmic Thing] and Revolution Earth [from 1992’s Good Stuff]. And on Channel Z [also from Cosmic Thing] — Cindy [Wilson] and I are really wailing on that. The things that Cindy and I did when we were fooling around in the studio… That ending was so over the top and wailing. I just remember thinking, “This is incredible, and it’s going to blow people’s minds.” But when I heard the record after it was finally done, it kind of faded, and you could hardly hear it! Sometimes I think there’s still so much more vocally that we can do.
Outside of your group work, I think what you did with Iggy Pop on Candy [from Iggy’s 1990 album Brick by Brick] affects people every time they hear it, me included. That was such a magical collaboration.
People love that song. That was a great and really fun to do. And that was the only time I did something in that sort of style.
How did you come up with doing it that way, and doing the spoken part?
Iggy had that all planned. But he gave me free rein in terms of the harmonies. He didn’t have any part for me, or anything. He said, “Move around with it a little bit.” There were a couple of word changes, but whenever I came in, I just came in with the harmonies. I came up with it that way automatically. The same with R.E.M. [for her contributions to Shiny Happy People, Near Wild Heaven, and Me in Honey, on 1991’s Out of Time] — they just said, “Do your thing.” (laughs)
Now, that signature throaty growl of yours — by the way, is there a specific phrase for it? That’s just what I call it.
(laughs) I guess you can call it a throaty growl, yes. I do like to put a little crick sometimes on my voice.
It’s an important element of the character of who you are as a vocalist — and it comes across in a big way on a song like Matrix. Some singers would tend to go the melisma route there: “Hey, let’s show off our vocal acrobatics.” At that point, what they’re singing becomes less important than how they’re doing it.
If that’s your style, that’s great — but it’s not me. I don’t want to go off on doing too many tricks with my voice. It’s all about the song — how you interpret the song, how you deliver the song. It’s not about, “I’m going to show off my voice.” I want it to be clear, and I want it to be the song. Now, I feel like I can take a lot more chances with my voice. And I have more to experiment with for the next record.