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Music

No Holiday: Katharine Whalen reflects on her 'odyssey'

Whalen

September 2, 1999
Web posted at: 4:03 p.m. EDT (2003 GMT)

By Jamie Allen
CNN Interactive Senior Writer

ATLANTA (CNN) -- Katharine Whalen has been window-shopping in Little Five Points, an eclectic Atlanta neighborhood of psychedelic shops, torn concert posters, body piercings, tattoos and the occasional adventurous yuppie.

The singer and banjo player sips on a Budweiser at a small table in the Star Community Bar -- a joint locally famous for its Elvis Shrine. She and her bandmates, the Jazz Squad, will play here later in the evening.

"I almost bought a pink cowboy hat down the street," recalls Whalen of her shopping excursion, "but it was too small."

It's interesting to hear Whalen talk about trying to find a hat that fits her, particularly one as unconventional as a pink Stetson. She's been trying to find an original voice to fit her since she started in the music business.


"The thing I like about that style of music and that time period was everyone was doing these songs. You could be anyone, from the heavy to the grandma, and you could sing 'My Old Flame.'"
-- Katharine Whalen


Most recently, the sultry songstress of the Squirrel Nut Zippers (SNZ) finally has stepped out on her own with her first solo album, "Katharine Whalen's Jazz Squad" from Mammoth Records. It's Whalen's chance to embrace the spotlight, instead of sharing it with two other singers as she does in SNZ.

But she still hears carping from critics who say her "hat" doesn't fit, so to speak. The most common complaint about her: She's a Billie Holiday knockoff, an insinuation that she doesn't have an original tone in her body.

"I have run out of opinions on that," Whalen, 31, says of the criticism. "I don't want to sound like Billie Holiday. Certainly, I'd like to sound like myself and I'm sure as I mature as a singer I sound more and more like myself. I'm getting closer to where I want to be."

MULTIMEDIA

Selections from "Katharine Whalen's Jazz Squad"

"Deed I Do"
[170k MPEG-3] or [230k WAV]

"Now or Never"
[175k MPEG-3] or [240k WAV]

"Sugar"
[170k MPEG-3] or [230k WAV]

(Courtesy Mammoth Records)

'It's little places'

Whalen's show at the Star Bar is part of her most recent "tour," a three-concert trek through Georgia and her home state of North Carolina to promote her new release. Earlier this summer, she played 10 shows in the Northeast, including one sparsely attended affair in New York City.

"But that didn't bother me," she says of the crowd's size.

The brevity of the tour and modesty of the audiences are a far cry from Whalen's other gig as the ethereal throwback singer with SNZ -- the band that became a pop-radio favorite, and helped jump-start the swing revival with the calypso hit "Hell."

"The Jazz Squad is not that kind of project," says Whalen in a drawl that would make her mama proud. "It's little places. We just kind of hang out. We sit around at a table and people come and talk to us."

In other words, Whalen and her husband Jim Mathus, who plays guitar in the Jazz Squad when he's not playing and singing in SNZ, are enjoying themselves in the big sigh that comes after touring to a growing legion of SNZ fans for three years running.

"The Zippers got so big toward the end, we were removed from all the people," says Whalen.

Asked if "toward the end" means the Zippers have officially broken up, she shakes her head, saying they're just taking time off. A new SNZ album is scheduled for recording this fall.

"It's a secret that bands take time off," she says. "They say, 'We're working on a new album.' But in fact they're sleeping and being with their wives and cats and stuff."

Whalen and her husband Jim (sitting, left)

'More Manhattan'

Whalen and Mathus, meanwhile, have committed their spare time to the Jazz Squad project and the low-key summer tours.

On the new record, released in May, Whalen covers jazz favorites from the 1920s and '30s, a salute to golden sounds and a different time in music. "Deed I Do," "Sugar," "Just You, Just Me," and "That Old Feeling" are some of the featured tracks.

"This material is more Manhattan," she says, "these songs I've been singing for a couple of years. We were learning them in the dressing rooms at Zippers shows just to keep alive, learning new songs.

"The thing I like about that style of music and that time period was everyone was doing these songs," she says. "People were doing them on their organ in their living room, people were doing them in their supper club by the lake, people were doing them in the big jazz clubs. You could be anyone, from the heavy to the grandma, and you could sing 'My Old Flame.' I like that."

At the table, it's obvious that Whalen likes kicking back and telling stories. She's the type of Southern gal who still says "big ol' time" -- as in, "We had one."

It's a phrase left over from growing up in the backwoods of North Carolina. But while her success story began on rural roads, there were no moments in her upbringing in which Whalen grabbed a handful of dirt and claimed she'd never go hungry again.

Instead, she sees her TV-less youth in mountain country now with a bucolic tinge of childhood's vision.

"My stepdad was really into the Foxfire books and he built a log cabin. We didn't have electricity. We just had gravity water from a spring. It was beautiful. We lived in a beautiful rhododendron forest in a hollow. It was cold in the winter, but it was great in the summer."

The passion

Whalen says she had no serious dreams of becoming a singer or musician, but admits that for a short time after seeing an opera singer perform at a local community center she harbored innocent thoughts of doing the same.

"I was determined that I was going to work daytimes in the laundermat -- I really liked it in there because it was all steamy and hot. And at night I was going to be an opera singer. This was my little fantasy, for like a week.

"I don't know why I thought I had to have two jobs," she considers. "Guess I was being realistic."

The story, however, of how she became a singer sounds more like fate at work than a realistic plan.

After a punk-rock teen-age existence, Whalen pursued her artistic endeavors in painting and sewing, while waitressing to pay the bills. She first grew interested in jazz in her 20s when a friend played "Benny Goodman: Live at Carnegie Hall" for her.

"I loved it and started seeking out other jazz," she says.

Around that time she met Mathus in Chapel Hill, who was playing in a rock band, but had grown disenchanted with that style of music.

"We started having the (jazz) passion together," says Whalen.

Katharine's odyssey

The two eventually moved into an old farmhouse near Hillsborough, North Carolina, renovating the place and listening to old music. But Whalen was incredibly shy about her singing voice and refused to let anyone, including Mathus, hear her. That is, until she built up the nerve one day.

"I sang something that I knew, where I knew he would overhear," Whalen says. "He was like, 'You can sing fine. What are you talking about?'"

Soon, they were making music together.

"He mostly played piano when we started learning songs and I played banjo and we sang," she says. "He said, 'Well, let's get a bass player.' I was like, 'I'm not getting in a band. Don't try to make me get in a band. Don't trick me.'

"A couple weeks later he was like, 'Well, let's just have a drummer come in.' And then, 'Let's get a gig.'"

As the curtain went up on Squirrel Nut Zippers, Whalen was dealing with stage fright in front of nightly crowds.

"It was a real sort of odyssey for me," she says. "I had to decide early on that, 'No, I'm not going to turn to drugs and alcohol to get through this terrifying experience. And I'm not going to take on some kind of characterization so I can fake my way through it. I'm just going to have to be in the moment and do it and if I'm scared and I look scared people will just have to feel sorry for me or whatever they want to do.'"

 KATHARINE WHALEN'S JAZZ SQUAD:

Katharine Whalen
vocalist

Jim Mathus
Guitarist

Stu Cole
Bassist

Robert Griffin
Piano

Ted Zarras
Drums

Cecil Johnson
Tenor Sax, Soprano Sax

John Kennedy
Trombone

Mike Minguez
Clarinet

Je Widenhouse
Trumpet

DISCUSSION:
Is the swing movement a trend, or here to stay? Go to the boards!

'I'm doing the best job I can'

What people did was buy albums. "The Inevitable" (1995) introduced fans to the Zippers' Southern-influenced swing. "Hot" (1996), which contains the hit "Hell," sold over a million copies. "Perennial Favorites" (1998) had moderate success. The band has also released a live CD and a mostly-original collection of Christmas tunes.

The result: SNZ has its place in swing's comeback. Whalen, too. In a genre of zoot-suited males, she has been the lone siren, the full-figured chanteuse with dark tresses and a voice that makes fans swoon and critics cringe.

During her show in the intimate -- and less than packed -- confines of Star Bar, one fan is overheard saying to a friend, "Her voice makes you melt."

But reviews of her solo CD fall short. The Washington Post's Richard Harrington recently trumpeted a familiar tune: "Whalen has yet to take the evolutionary step toward finding her own voice ... she compounds the problem, not only sounding (chiefly) like a Holiday clone, but addressing a repertoire of '20s and '30s standards better suited to a more experienced and convincing singer."

Whalen stays away from this.

"I don't read a lot of press, obviously," says Whalen. "Most of the time I know I'm doing the best job I can and I stay more focused if I don't get off on a tangent. The criticism can throw you for a loop. You have no defenses against it and the person who wrote it is faceless. It's pretty wild."

But she concedes there's a reason she wanted that pink Stetson -- to go with a new voice she's trying to find.

"I'm really into country music right now," she reveals. "It's my favorite. Old country -- Loretta Lynn and some of these duets, like George Jones and Melba Montgomery. We have a group at home that does those songs.

"The country stuff is just bizarre to me, a totally different animal. It has been really interesting."

Hatless, Katharine Whalen searches on -- for a voice that fits.


RELATED STORIES:
Squirrel Nut Zippers defy labels with 'Perennial Favorites'
August 4, 1998
Lisa Stansfield returns with film, CD
July 9, 1999
Swing, Daddy-o! Dance music rising up current charts
July 17, 1998

RELATED SITES:
Mammoth Records: Katharine Whalen
Squirrel Nut Zippers - Official Site
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