Cat Popper: “Writing is complicated for me, because voices in my head tell me I should sound more like someone else”

Cat Popper
(Image credit: Vivian Wang)

Catherine ‘Cat’ Popper has played with a mighty list of celebs – Jack White, Brian Fallon, Ryan Adams & The Cardinals, Norah Jones, Puss N Boots, Willie Nelson, Peter Rowan and Tony Rice, Grace Potter, Jesse Malin, Tommy Stinson and Levon Helm’s Midnight Ramble Band among them. 

Tired of the road, she joined the Broadway show Diana in 2020, just in time for the pandemic to take that gig away – leaving her free to write her first solo song, Maybe It’s All Right. Not that she did it entirely willingly, as she explains.   

Cat, what led you to record solo music now? 

“I took a little break from the road in 2019, because it’s hard on my body, and I took the Diana gig last February. The great thing about Broadway is that you can sub out 50 percent of your shows. 

“It can be a little hairy when you’re first getting your subs in, but once the MD likes your sub, then you’re good to go. I know a guy who plays in a major rock band, and he has a Broadway show. They were touring widely, so he’d just take a leave of absence.”

Have you written much solo stuff in the past?

“I’ve written a few songs with Puss N Boots, but for the most part I’ve enjoyed being a band member. I’ve played with most of the people I ever wanted to play with, but I guess I always thought I should be writing. 

“I was really exhausted and burned out and fried, and when Covid hit it was so bad in New York, the last thing I wanted to do was pick up an instrument. I took a few months where we stayed in Long Island, and I didn’t even take an instrument with me. 

“In the end I picked a bass up because I felt guilty, and I set up the studio to help somebody out with a sound effects track, and I thought ‘While I have this up, what would it feel like if I picked up the guitar?’“

Writing is complicated for me, because it’s like a portal that opens up mean voices in my head that tell me that my playing should sound more like someone else

Did you enjoy the process?

“Writing is complicated for me, because it’s like a portal that opens up mean voices in my head that tell me that my playing should sound more like someone else, so I do it in small increments. 

“Finally I found myself writing Maybe It’s All Right, which is about the times when you don’t have faith that things are going to be okay, when you feel like you’re at the bottom of a well. 

“But if you introduce the idea that maybe things will be okay, it doesn’t mean that it’s going to make you feel better, but you can at least introduce that possibility. After I wrote that song, it just kept happening.”

And now it’s on YouTube.

“I played it to Jesse Malin a few months later, and he said it was good and that I should put it out. I told him that I’d rather not open that can of worms, so he said ‘Okay, why don’t you just do a video for it?’ and I said ‘See, I knew there was going to be some bullshit. Now I gotta do extra stuff!’ But it’s been truly rewarding. I just never had the bug to do my own songs before.”

What’s your history as a bass player?

“I was an upright player since I was 10, but I didn’t start playing electric until I was 30. I told Jimmy Coppolo who owned the New York Bass Boutique, ‘Tell me when you get a bass in that’s not too heavy and sounds good when you play it acoustically’ and he called me about this 1966 P-Bass.

“Everyone thought I was crazy because I paid $2500 for it, but fingerboard evenness and how the body vibrates acoustically are the most important things for me. If it needs assistance in the sound department, I have to start carrying a bunch of pedals and stuff around.”

You’re not a huge fan of five-string basses, correct?

“I grew up listening to James Jamerson, the Clash and Aston ‘Family Man’ Barrett, and I could always tell a five-string when I heard one. I will admit in print that a five-string bass is fun. 

“I played one on Seven Nation Army when I was in Jack White’s band nine years ago, and it was real easy, but I had such strong feelings about it that I would try and turn the headstock away from the photographers so they wouldn’t document it. 

“But you know, I’m the worst gear person. I don’t know what kind of strings are on my bass, although I know I play flatwounds because roundwound strings are often really uncomfortable for me. Finding an amp that worked was difficult, so thank God Ashdown gave me an endorsement, and now I have a house full of their stuff.”

Will you go back on tour when the right circumstances permit?

“Maybe. I turn down a lot of stuff because touring is hard. I remember there was one tour that I did not want to do. I kept putting it off, and then I was like ‘Fuck it. It’s gonna be amazing’ but I remember rolling out of my bunk one day and there was someone’s used earplugs stuck to my hand, and I thought ‘I can’t do this’. So we’ll see!”

  • Cat Popper's new single, Maybe It's Alright, is out now via Velvet Elk.

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