Arts & Entertainment

Press Pass: Katharine Whalen


(Photo: Carol Bales)

Katharine Whalen is a time-traveling songstress. As part of Squirrel Nut Zippers, a band that saw some late ’90s fame alongside swing revival favorites like Cherry Poppin’ Daddies and The Brian Setzer Orchestra, Whalen was playing an offbeat blend of swing, blues, and even klezmer music that seemed born irreverently from a 1930s jazz club. When Whalen set out on her own with “Jazz Squad” in 1999, she didn’t stray far from those ’30s sounds, opting to record her take on such jazz standards as “My Baby Just Cares for Me” and “That Old Feeling.”

After an extended hiatus, Whalen flashed forward to modern pop music, laced in hip-hop rhythms in one stroke and brooding trance grooves in the next, with 2005’s “Dirty Little Secret.” Whalen’s next album, “Madly Love,” will be another genre-melting release. This time the artist is taking her cues from the ’60s folk artists from her childhood, all flavored with blues and rock influences and delivered in her unmistakable voice, a sound between a growl and a coo which maintains the passion of the former and the softness of the latter.

Billed as Katharine Whalen and Her Fascinators, alongside her recently-formed band, Whalen will play Iota Club and Café Aug. 11 at 8:30 p.m., previewing “Madly Love,” a partly fan-financed endeavor set to be released next month in independent music stores across the nation. The News-Press spoke to Whalen before her show about her latest album, the swing revival era and starting over again.

LP: Why did you decide to begin performing and recording as a solo artist?
EW: Mainly it came about because I started writing this whole body of work and I really didn’t have an outlet for it within the Zippers, so I just put together a group to perform and record the songs.

LP: Where do you find inspiration?
EW: I find it in many strange places. Vintage National Geographics are a huge source of inspiration for me, old cook books, and definitely vintage textiles have a huge vibration for me. I’m really kind of magpie as far as bits of melody that I hear or other lyrics that I hear. I like to drive around with indie rock stations really, really low and kind of misconstrue what they say and write my own lyrics.

LP: How would you describe your soon-to-be-released album?
EW: The best way I can classify it is electric folk music. It’s really just inspired much more by the music and the fashions from the ’60s, whereas my earlier project was much more of a ’30s- and ’40s-based creative entity. This is the era of music I was listening to when I was a little tiny child, so it’s really special to me and I like it.

LP: In what ways did your time with Squirrel Nut Zippers influences the music you make now?
EW: I still feel as if I need to entertain people, which is definitely what the Squirrel Nut Zippers was about. We were entertainers and trying to make people feel up and excited. I want people to go away and feel like they’ve been entertained within themselves. Also, that was my first band, so I definitely cut my teeth there.

LP: In your opinion, what was it about the musical climate of the mid-1990s that allowed for so many acts that drew from eclectic music of days gone by to rise to mainstream success?
EW: I think that people were just very interested in going out and celebrating a lot. Most of the people I met at the shows were excited to have somewhere to wear their party dresses and suits and go have cocktails and be better than themselves. These were a lot of people with cubicles jobs, bored with their daily work, and it was nice for them to go out and be in a different era or a different world.

LP: How does it feel to be doing it all over again with a different group?
KW: It’s interesting. I find myself being happy. We went to Charlotte the other night and we played and we were able to be paid twice as much as we had been offered, which was a tiny amount of money, but we felt like a huge battle had been won. We sold five CDs, and to me that felt really amazing and fantastic. I realize that felt as much successful to me as it ever did when I was going around in a tour bus and selling places out. It’s all success, I guess you can measure it or not, but I feel successful within myself.

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