It’s been a few big years for Sydney’s Catcall. Since the DIY punk group, Kiosk, eased writing and performing in 2007, Catherine Kelleher has gone from bedroom demos and a self-released EP to creating her debut album, The Warmest Place. The album is full of life, sex, death, happiness, love, and heartbreak. It is a dedication to her deep love of ’80s pop, but there is nothing disposable about it.
In 2008, Catcall was nominated as a finalist in the Qantas Spirit of Youth Awards with local legends, Cloud Control and My Disco and in 2009, she signed to Ivy League Records. In 2011, she was awarded an APRA Professional Development award in the Popular Contemporary category. Live, she has notched up support slots with La Roux, Phoenix, CSS, The Gossip, Architecture in Helsinki, and Yacht and performed knockout sets at Homebake, Parklife, Falls Festival, and Big Day Out.
We’ve had Catcall’s album on steady rotation since its release in May. Yes, it’s good, fun pop music that makes us wanna dance, but it’s not just another glossy, forgettable pop album; it’s got soul—and so does Catherine. We had a great time talking with this amazing lady who shared with us about her musical beginnings in the punk band, Kiosk, how she was so shy about performing that her high school friends had no idea she could sing, her brief venture into the film industry, and how music became “a real savior” for her during a difficult time. Thank you, Catherine, for sharing your music and your story with us. Now hurry up and get over here to tour—we want to see you live!
Interview date: June 3, 2012
Describe your path to becoming a musician.
When I was in high school, I got into a load of music. I didn’t play at all; I never had lessons. I grew up in the suburbs, but started going to the city to see bands. I met kids who were in a band and became friends with them. We started a band called Kiosk, which was my very first musical experience. We didn’t know how to play anything when we started. I was into a lot of punk music then—the noisy, New Wave scene. Through that I learned how to play music and write songs. We would swap around instruments and play all sorts of things really badly. It developed into touring and I settled into my place in the band, which was writing the vocal melodies and lyrics.
When it came to a natural end around 2006, I decided I wanted to do a solo project that was really different than the music I did with Kiosk; I wanted to work with electronic music. I started making demos in my room with FruityLoops and drum machines. I wanted to use that to incite a collaboration with producers. My first collaboration was with a Melbourne punk-rocker turned producer. We did an EP together and the rest is history. That’s how it all started.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in the suburbs of Sydney in a place called Carlingford. Now I live in Surrey Hills, which is in the city.
Cool. Was creativity a part of your childhood?
Yeah. Definitely. I was involved in theater stuff throughout school. I took drama classes, but I never thought about it—I was very shy. Performing and singing was always something I did in my room. When I finished high school and my friends from high school found out I was doing music, they were really surprised because they had no idea I could sing. I was very into music, films, and culture growing up; it was a big part of my life and my identity.
Did you have a moment along the way when you knew that music was what you wanted to do?
It took a couple of years. I had working class parents that became middle class. They sent me to school and instilled in me that when you get a good education, you should do something that’s going to support you—not music. Music was always a hobby. It wasn’t until maybe a year or two into Catcall that I thought, “Yeah, I’m going to give this a shot and focus on it.”
Also, I didn’t think I was very good; I didn’t think that I was good enough to pursue it in that way. That’s how I’ve always treated it until the opportunity of a record deal came along and someone was willing to put money behind it. It made me think, sure, I’ll give this a shot. Opportunities come along and you take them.
It’s also difficult playing music and having to work a crappy, casual job, which I’ve done the last few years. You get to the point where it would be nice to not have to work that other job too.
You mentioned school. Did you go to university after high school?
I did. I wanted to be a filmmaker, but the Australian film industry is really depressing; there’s no audience. When you make a record in Australia, you actually get a lot of people to come to your show, whereas no one goes to see Australian films in Australia. I also found out that I didn’t really enjoy working on film sets. I did an Arts Communication degree and worked in film for the first year or two after university while I was starting Catcall. Then I decided I wanted to just focus on Catcall for a while and not do anything in film because it just wasn’t inspiring me; I didn’t want to make anything.
Are you self-taught as a musician?
I’ve never had any formal lessons. I kind of had a few vocal lessons when I moved into singing more, but they didn’t really work. I was seeing this vocal coach and she wanted me to change my style because she had her own idea of what a good singer is.
When I started working on the album, I worked with a producer who was in the Rockmelons, a big pop band in Australia. He was amazing and helped produce a lot of the vocals. Working with him made me become a better singer because he made sure I didn’t throw away all the things I learned when I was playing in the punk band. The main goal was to develop a vocal style that was strong and in tune. That’s the way I developed as a singer. In terms of writing, that’s all self-taught.
Would you consider your producer a mentor?
A massive mentor. He’s in his fifties and has been through a few eras of music. When I started working on the album demos and was going into that more poppy territory, I started to sing in a different way and was losing the edge. He brought me back. I thought that I should throw away my punk past and he made sure that I never threw it away and that I brought it into everything that I did. He said that was the only way that it would be interesting to me or to anybody.
“…I decided I needed to be able to give music a chance and that whatever I was doing besides music had to be really flexible. That way, when an opportunity came, I could take it without worrying about balancing everything.”
Was there a point in your life when you decided you had to take a big risk to move forward?
Yeah. I think that around 2009 I told myself I needed to just focus on music and take opportunities as they came. I got a manager; I was offered some shows; and I was going to be able to get a record deal in Australia. I went out and got a really flexible day job, moved into a place by myself, set up, and really focused. I was partying a lot and really unhappy because I was working this job in film and didn’t know if that’s what I should be doing. One day, I decided I needed to be able to give music a chance and that whatever I was doing besides music had to be really flexible. That way, when an opportunity came, I could take it without worrying about balancing everything.
Were you playing shows along the way while working on the album?
Yeah. I did a couple of tours and festivals and did some support for Phoenix and La Roux. I stopped for a while to do album production. There was a period where I didn’t play any shows because I was working on finishing the songs. I had been playing the original forms of the songs at shows and they changed quite a bit from when I started. Also, my shows were pretty basic at the time; it was part backing tracks and part instrumentation. That’s not what I wanted my shows to be—I wanted them to be all live. For that to happen, I needed to finish the songs. When I finished the album and put the band together, we started doing shows again. Because it was never to the point I wanted it to be, I never toured a whole heap. Now, I’m ready to do that. I guess it’s good because I’m not sick of the songs yet. It’s also really fun to play now because everything is live. I love my band and we have a really good time.
You guys just got back from some tour dates in Australia. Any more plans for touring this year?
I think we’ll be in Australia for the rest of the year through the Australian festival season, but we really want to tour overseas and everywhere. If I can get a label over there, hopefully we can make that happen. It would be really awesome.
Are your family and friends supportive of what you do?
Definitely. I think it took my mom a couple of years, but now she’s really annoying about it and calls me all the time. I’ve just done my press run with the album and she pretty much calls me several times a day to tell me that her friend heard it on the radio and another friend saw me in a magazine. She loves the album and is really supportive.
[Tina] I read the story on your site about how the album got started with that first track. Do you you mind sharing a bit about it?
Sure. I had been thinking about going solo even when I was in Kiosk, but it was a scary process because I wasn’t very confident. I was frightened about not being able to write music without Jack and Angie—my bandmates in Kiosk.
We had gotten back from tour and about two weeks later, my dad died suddenly from a heart attack, which is crazy because he was a cardiologist. It was really intense; I was grieving a lot. I retreated into music and was listening to a lot of it and going for long walks. Music was a real savior for me.
Just before the end of the year, I moved back into my mom’s house so I could be with her. For Christmas, I had asked her to get me a little recording set-up. I got that and started playing around. I retreated into making these songs. I guess I had wanted to make music that was fun—music that was an escape—because that kind of music saved me during this time. I didn’t listen to any depressing, emo music at all. I just listened to Kanye West, Nelly Furtado, and all these mix-tapes my friends were giving me. I began making more of that really fun, '80s-inspired, New Wave music and the concepts continued to develop for me.
Everything that I enjoy now in terms of culture and music is all really fun. I don’t know if it’s me growing older or what; when I was younger, I felt like I needed to watch really intense movies and listen to really intense music and everything had to be really deep. I still feel like the music is deep, but I wanted it to be enjoyable too.
The a capella song, “The Warmest Place”, was the first song I ever wrote by myself; that inspired “August” and then the whole concept began to come together. I thought, “Yup, this is what I want it to be about. This is what music is to me and how I want to experience music.” I think the theme of that will carry through to music that I do in the future as well.
Do you feel a responsibility to contribute to something bigger than yourself?
In terms of giving, I always want the music to be really giving. I never want to make pretentious music; I never want it to be inaccessible to people. Creatively, I never want anything to be without soul.
There are a lot of things personally that I support and whatnot. I like the idea of supporting women and inspiring young women to be themselves and not go down that path where they’re following the oversexualization and dumbing down of women that happens in pop music. I want to be part of a group of women that makes intelligent pop music because pop music reaches a lot of people. If I was able to inspire people in that way, I’d be super into that. I think that strong female influence is important for young girls.
Are you satisfied creatively?
Definitely. I’m super satisfied with the album, the shows. It’s a nice place to be in because I don’t care what happens now. I don’t care if it does really well—I mean, that would be great, don’t get me wrong, but I’m so happy with the way it’s turned out and I don’t think I could have done any better. I could only have done better if I would have had five more years to work on it, but you can’t dwell on it and wonder if it’s perfect or ready; imperfection is what makes things interesting.
Any thoughts about what you hope to be doing in 5 to 10 years?
I don’t know. I always think about the future, but sometimes it doesn’t involve music. Sometimes I hate my part-time day job, so I’m always thinking about ways to get out of that. Obviously, I want to make more albums and I hope I get to do that. Ideally, I’d love to be touring all over the world; that’s my dream. I’m kind of a realist though and everything depends on getting a label and getting funding so I can do that.
If you could go back and do one thing differently, what would it be?
I would go to school and do a different degree. I wish I did an Arts/Law degree because if I wanted to do that now, I would be able to—more job options. But I guess if I did that, I wouldn’t be here now. No regrets!
If you could give one piece of advice to a young musician starting out, what would it be?
The biggest thing I have learned is don’t look sideways. There was a period of time where I was looking around at what everyone else was doing and comparing myself to people—you just get really wigged out by that. Focus on being yourself in your music and don’t look at what anyone else is doing. Create your own thing.
How does where you live impact your creativity?
I live in Surrey Hills, which is a suburb close to the city. It’s a cool little place with a lot of galleries and artists, but it’s getting gentrified as most of those areas do. There are a lot of colorful characters and it’s a nice place to be because you have such convenient access to so much arts and culture, so there are no excuses.
Living here motivates me to keep on making things because people in Sydney are always doing things. They’re aiming really high and you can’t just be lazing around. You have to have something on the boiler or you’ll get left behind.
[Ryan] Sounds like New York.
Yeah, I think it’s pretty similar. A lot of people from Sydney end up getting restless and moving to New York because they need to be in the biggest place possible, doing the best they can do, but I’m pretty satisfied in Sydney.
“Focus on being yourself in your music and don’t look at what anyone else is doing. Create your own thing.”
Is it important to you to be part of a creative community of people?
It’s really important. I have friends in all different areas—artists, musicians, comedians even. It’s cool to see what everyone else is doing and be inspired by that. Being a part of a community motivates you. It’s awesome and I think it’s essential; it kind of defines you. And when you’re freaking out—cause creative people freak out all the time—you can share that as well.
What does a typical day look like for you?
I usually get up and go to work. Today I’m obviously not working. I’m obsessed with the news, so I watch that and then I’ll get a coffee and catch up on emails. After I catch up on emails, I’ll spend a few hours on the internet doing absolutely nothing. At some point, I’ll make music. Then I’ll try to convince myself to go to a yoga class that I won’t go to. I’ll watch a bit more TV and try to write something, get frustrated, and have a nap. If I’m on a roll with writing music, I’ll stay there for a couple hours.
What albums are you listening to right now?
I’m listening to Dude Ranch by Blink–182 for some reason and the Chromatic’s record, Kill for Love. I’m also listening to really random classic hits like “Run Like the Wind” by Christopher Cross and “Rooms on Fire” by Stevie Nicks. Whenever I’m driving around, I always listen to the classic hits radio. I’m also liking Blondie’s Parallel Lines. I’m just rediscovering Oasis and have been listening to (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? and I’ve gotten back into Sleater-Kinney, probably because of Portlandia. I listened to them a lot when my dad passed away. It was strange; I listened to them and TV on the Radio and then all this pop music.
What are your favorite movies?
Ghostbusters II—not number one. My boyfriend always asks, “Why not the first one?” I don’t know. I guess I just like that Vigo storyline. Also, The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Those are my two favorites, but I also like classic pop culture movies like John Hughes films.
Game of Thrones is my favorite at the moment; Parks and Recreation; The West Wing; The Sopranos; Mad Men. I’m also really getting into Girls.
Do you have a favorite book?
Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan; Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. I’m also reading Game of Thrones as well and I’m rereading Easton Ellis’ Less Than Zero.
I love food. I don’t know where to start. Tim Tams—I don’t think you guys have them there. They’re very Australian. They’re this chocolate biscuit. I also like Vietnamese food.
What kind of legacy do you hope to leave?
I find it difficult to think that way. I really wanted to make an album that people could enjoy down the track. You know how there’s some music that’s really now and you go back and listen to it and it just ages terribly? It’s like a really nice bottle of wine—I work in wine; that’s my day job. A nice bottle of wine that’s made well and had a lot of care put into it will last. It develops, but still retains its flavor. It’s enjoyed down the track. I drank a 17 year old Shiraz the other day and it tasted amazing. I wanted to put a lot of care and soul into this album and I think I’ll always do that with every album that I make.
I want to make music that’s inspired by different eras, but grounded in something that people can enjoy many years down the track because it’s not trying to play up to trends. I want the stories and melodies and lyrics to be enjoyable and universal. If I was going to dream in that way, I’d want to create music that someone my age would pick up in twenty years and really love and connect with like someone my age would now.
“I want to make music that’s inspired by different eras, but grounded in something that people can enjoy many years down the track because it’s not trying to play up to trends.”