Here I Am: An Interview with Kate Pierson

Posted on Feb 16, 2015 in Interviews
Here I Am: An Interview with Kate Pierson

As the B-52s head toward their 40th anniversary next year, Kate Pierson is keeping herself busy this year with her first-ever solo album, Guitars and Microphones. The timbre of Pierson’s voice is so charmingly iconic that, even when applied to new material, it sounds thoroughly familiar. And her smart, catchy pop songs — crafted largely in tandem with Sia — are not so far from the Bs to be unfamiliar, either. Guitars and Microphones is a refreshing pop pastiche, a solid “debut” for the… get this… 66-year-old who plans to hit the road soon to support the set.

You’re probably getting asked this a lot, but what the heck took you so dadgum long to make a solo record?
Ha! Yeah… Well, I tried to do one about 12 years ago. I wrote a whole solo album and recorded some of it, even did a little tour with Sara Lee and Gail Ann Dorsey. So, I was ready to do it, but then the B-52s started Funplex and I got caught up in that, which was all-encompassing. Also, the Bs have had a really big touring schedule and I felt very locked in with the band. There was just one time when the band took a big break and I did that Nina project in Japan, in 1999. Cindy (Wilson) had taken a break from the band after Cosmic Thing. Then we did Good Stuff and toured for a year.

And then there was a time we were just trying to write. We were struggling, so I just started writing on my own and doing these things. I went to Japan and did quite a big tour there. It was a big success there, but it wasn’t released in the U.S. And, as I said, I kept writing and doing my own stuff. Anyway… it all brought me to this point. It’s all good. I guess the time is now. The planets are aligned and here I am. [Laughs]

Perfect timing! And the album is out on your own label (through Kobalt Music). How does this brave new world feel for an artist like you who has been around a couple blocks?
Yeah, it’s a whole different landscape now, which is very exciting. And that’s why we chose the Label Services deal through Kobalt. It’s on our label, but that’s kind of in name only. It’s really on Kobalt Label Services. A lot of it is do-it-yourself. We never could have gotten it done if it hadn’t been for my partner Monica (Coleman) who, basically, did all the artwork for the album cover. She took the photograph. I’ve always loved the photographs she’s done of me. They’re the best. So we started out doing photo sessions and then she did the video. She directed that. Together, we worked on editing, but she did most of that.

We have a little studio up here that looks like a little factory. Now we’re just putting out all this stuff. It’s very exciting. We’re rehearsing in there now to do live shows. It’s all self-generated. It’s a great feeling to have this sort of control over it, that you’re doing it yourself and it’s really art that’s coming from the heart. And it’s exactly what you want it to be. Now, it’s possible to do that. People are making their own records in their houses. It’s an exciting time.

That Monica sounds like a keeper! What’s the secret to writing a really good pop song that meets the mark on both style and substance? I mean, it’s easy enough to write a crappy, fluffy number. But, many of your songs, as catchy as they are, also touch on important topics — like the environment.
The secret sauce is the melody, and the beat. That’s what catches people first. They may not even hear the lyrics, at first, except for the chorus or the title. And I think the real payoff — Nile Rogers used to call the chorus the payoff — but also, I think, the real payoff is in the lyrics. If the lyrics are good… one of my favorite lyrics is “Clams on the half-shell and roller skate, roller skate.” So they can be just really party-inspiring lyrics or just something brilliant like “Tutti Frutti.” But, if you have something meaningful — a story — I think that’s amazing because it draws people more deeply into the song.

One of the stories you tell… you address gender identity and self-acceptance in “Mister Sister” from a place that absolutely understands and embraces the issue. Where did that come from?
My friend Allen — also known as Tangela — we used to do shows at Wigstock and we always used to call each other Mister Sister. And I thought it was a great metaphor for gender fluidity and wanting to write a song about a young boy — or it could be a girl — who had a gender dysmorphia and wasn’t liking what they saw in the mirror. Just that kind of power of transformation — becoming who they wanted to be and being accepted for that.

Well, you and the B-52s have always had a strong queer presence and sensibility. Did that make it easier for you to go for the flow as a self-described “late in life lesbian” and come out publicly?
I don’t know if it was so much that. Of course, always having gay friends and everyone around me being gay… but also it’s just the time, too. It’s a very accepting time. Thank goodness, things are changing. Now, finally, things are changing for trans people. I think that issue is important now and is kind of the final frontier of acceptance — giving trans people their rights and their recognition.

But I think it was easy because, for me, gender was always kind of fluid. I’d always been with men, but, when I met Monica, it just seemed like, “Wow. This is it.” So it just seemed like a very fluid transition, too, for myself. I think, also, society is much more accepting now. I didn’t even feel like, “Oh, I have to come out.” It was just a natural flow.

With you being in the midst of such a gay scene, was there ever speculation — baseless or not — before that about you?
No. I don’t think there was. People always say they were the last to know or that kind of thing. But I heard Alan Cumming talking about — I really am bisexual, I guess — but he said it’s important to him to say gay because it gets into this whole question of “What are you?” And people think of it as this sort of hard line that’s drawn. To me, it wasn’t like, “Wow. I’ve been looking all along!” Or something like that. To me, it was easy. Love is love to me.

On the other part of your sensibility… when you committed to your public style so many years ago, did you have any idea how central it would become to your brand?
We actually had a wig case, for a time. When we started out, the first show we did was interesting because we didn’t have a big plan on this look. It was just that Keith Strickland had this sort of waking dream about a little lounge band and they all had bouffants and they were called the Organizers or something. Then he had this other dream that someone whispered “the B-52s.” So we discussed that name for the band and that the band’s named after a hairdo because that was our slang term for a nose-combed, trajectory bouffant hairdo. And people were wearing those in Athens (Georgia) at the time, for real. Waitresses had big bouffants… it’s not like something done for a kitschy effect or retro pin-ups. They were just sporting some big hair.

It was the ‘70s…
Yeah, it was the South so you had to have some big hair! And we had this hairdresser named Laverne. She did up a big do for Cindy and me, and she said, “Honey, when you make love and you hang your head over that bed, your hair will not move!” [Laughs] She actually came to a show last year, or a couple years ago. We saw Laverne when we played in Athens and it was exciting to see her again.

But we went through some hairstyles. And we had a big wig case that had like 12 wigs in it and we had names for them. Cindy had a wig made out of chicken wire with woven hair. I had one called the Beaver Tail. We had the Birdcage. I had Stairway to Heaven. It was fun. It was the ‘80s… and ‘90s. One of our major hairstylists did all the hair for Cosmic Thing and Good Stuff. He did the “Deadbeat Club” and “Love Shack” videos. He did some major hairstyles for that.

And when you took them off, you were completely different people and no one knew who you were.
Yeah. You take a wig off and your identity completely changes. It’s like a mask. But we didn’t always wear wigs. We used our own hair a lot, teased up or with hair pieces. Still, it’s amazing, it’s just incredible how much hair can change your face… or your life! [Laughs]

[Laughs] Indeed. Through all that, you have had to sing “Rock Lobster” for nearly 40 years and “Love Shack” for 25. How do you keep songs fresh for yourself when you can’t really take them into a minor key and do them as a ballad?
To me, it’s like being in the moment with the song. It’s always got that rhythm and energy that connects. You can always recreate it. It’s always exciting because the audience is so excited when that song plays. We went to Europe and, for some reason, “Rock Lobster” was an instant mosh pit no matter where we were. That doesn’t really happen in the U.S. But that song… people just go crazy sometimes. They just let their inner freaks out when that song comes on. And “Love Shack,” people always just love it. So, it’s easier to do those songs again and again because of the audience reaction. And, also, the beat… you just get into it.

But, now, with your new record, you get to do a whole batch of new stuff…
And that is super, super exciting… especially because I started rehearsing the other day. I’ve done a couple of songs — I sat in with Martha Wainwright last year. But, now, rehearsing with a band and getting the songs in shape… hearing them yesterday, it felt so solid and surreal. It was like, “Wow. These songs have power.” And playing guitar also makes me feel like I’m much more part of the song.

A big part of the record came from you working with Sia — who is also your friend. What’s it like to work with someone who, presumably, grew up on your music?
We’ve been friends for a while now and Monica suggested, since it was my life-long dream — I kept saying to her, “I gotta do the solo album! I gotta get it out there!” — she suggested to Sia to jump-start it. And she gave me a big jump-start because she started writing for herself with her different collaborators and she wrote three songs, right off the bat, for me, based on a title idea Monica had called “Crush Me with Your Love” and two other tracks — “Matrix” and “Bring Your Arms” based on a trip the three of us took to Tulum, Mexico, where we witnessed this sea turtle egg rescue.

After that, we went on writing sessions together with Dallas Austin and Tim Anderson and Nick Valensi and Chris Braide. And we just got a great song every time. It was like magic. So it was really fun. A great collaboration. And, in most cases, I had a lyric or a title idea or some lyrics already written that I had compiled over the years. And, when we went to these writing sessions, it was a little scary thinking, “Oh, I’ve got nothing.” Or, “What are we going to do? How is this going to happen?” Because, when the B-52s come together, we write all collectively, too. Often, we would jam for days and days and days and sort of collage. We’d have too many great ideas. We’d have so many good ideas, it would take us a long time to cull the best parts and debate over what parts to put where. But that’s part of why the B-52s are unique.

In this writing process, it was much quicker, no-nonsense. We did each song, basically, in a day — at the most, two sessions. But most were just one day, including doing a great demo. Sia taught me a lot about a different kind of songwriting which is just more… with the B-52s, we’d go into a sort of trance with the jam. This was more like forming the lyrics to the melody instead of trying to think of them at the same time. Even though I had lyrics, those were kind of retrofitted to the melodies. That’s the long answer! [Laughs]

[Laughs] But a good one!
Thanks!

This article originally appeared on Cuepoint.