Interview with Katie Cole on Life in LA, Music, Guitars and Glenn Campbell

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Australian born singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Katie Cole grew up in a family environment full of an eclectic mix of music from rock to classical. Her mother’s musical rock influences included the likes of rock legends Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and the Rolling Stones, while her father on the other hand enjoyed his classical music preferring Maria Callas over Mom’s rock. Both of Katie’s parents were trained pianists, so music was a very important part of her life growing up. Considering their training, it’s ironic that Katie taught herself to play the guitar and piano.

Katie began performing professionally around the age of 15 and focused on honing her musical and writing skills. Heavily influenced by Aretha Franklin, Annie Lennox, Sheryl Crow, Fleetwood Mac and Tom Petty, Katie continued over the years to write, perform and tour extensively, while writing songs for other artists like Gloria Gaynor and several others.

After discovering her work, Katie received an email from famed Los Angeles Producer Howard Willing (Smashing Pumpkins, Sheryl Crow, Counting Crows, OK Go), expressing his desire to work with her. She made the decision to visit Los Angeles to work with Willing and to hopefully further her career in the Music Capital of the US. After a few visits and working with Willing, the decision was made, and with a suitcase and guitar in hand, she boarded a plane to LA for good, and never looked back.

Since making the move, Katie has worked with Willing and released an EP, Lost Inside a Moment, and two albums, Melodiem and her latest, Lay It All Down. She’s provided backing vocals for several iconic music legends, opened for Glen Campbell, had Kris Kristofferson make a guest appearance on her latest release, and had one of her singles appear in an advertising campaign for Movado. In addition to her music, Katie has won several awards: ASCAP Plus Award in 2010 and 2011, the 2010 Movado Future Legend trophy which recognizes “accomplishments in the art of music,” and named “Best Country Artist” and “Artist of the Year” at the 2013 Artists in Music Awards, to name just a few.

Her latest album Lay it All Down has been described as a collection of Country, Folk and Americana tunes. She spends a great deal of time between Los Angeles and Nashville writing and performing, so check her website often for dates where you can catch a live performance.

GGM:  Your website bio quotes you as saying: “There are 2 places I feel completely at home. The first is in the studio transforming a song into a movie and the second place is on stage telling personal stories to complete strangers.” Can you share with us your thoughts on that?

KC:  Being a musician for me is a strange balance of being a hermit and creating music in an unabashed sense….and then there’s the other part where I become an exhibitionist and pretty much tell strangers my life story and personal experiences. It’s one extreme to another for sure. They both go hand in hand for me – there isn’t one without the other. But neither exist at the same time.

GGM:  You were born and raised in Melbourne, Australia, but currently live in Los Angeles. When did you make the move and how has it impacted your musical career?

KC:  I came over a couple of times in 2008 and beyond after some lengthy discussion with my now record Producer Howard Willing. He was somebody I very much wanted to work with after his work with artists like Sheryl Crow, Smashing Pumpkins and OK GO. So when he reached out to me, I pretty much started flapping my wings and took off. Well, technically I didn’t have wings, perhaps chicken wings or tenders. Not quite the same thing. It’s been a crazy ride ever since. Absolutely life changing. There are so many better chicken wings here to eat!! Also music. The music is great, too! (Photo to the left by Priscilla Witte.)

GGM:  What was your first thought when you arrived in LA?

KC:  I can clearly remember on my first trip over to LA and driving on the 101 freeway (six lane highway)… in peak hour traffic. There was a stopped pick-up truck in the middle lane on fire. I thought to myself “I’m not in Kansas anymore.” I also had yet to travel to Kansas – haha! It is such a crazy big city. It’s a real epicenter for entertainment and business, so my pupils were probably fully dilated for the first few months! So many landmarks, famous streets, and references to TV and film. It all was very surreal in the beginning.

GGM:  Yes, I know that freeway and it can be daunting driving the freeways of LA.  Let’s talk about your musical career. When did you first start playing a musical instrument and were you trained professionally? 

KC:  I was never trained at anything. I still can’t read or write music and it hasn’t been a huge setback. I suppose because I am more of a songwriter than shredding guitar player or piano virtuoso. That requires technical skill, practice and training. I started singing when I was a little tater tot. Sang in choirs and stuff, always thought everyone loved music as both my parents played piano and sang, too. Wrong!! I started tinkering on piano at around 12 and was quite good at learning classical pieces by ear. Then switched to the “dark side” and taught myself some rock guitar and learned a few songs. Nailed it!! I then took a hiatus for a few years and returned when I was 16 and started playing acoustic live shows. I wanted to play an instrument on a few songs, so I picked up the guitar again and haven’t put it down since. My arms are really quite tired!

GGM:  You play both piano and guitar, correct? What’s your preferred instrument for writing and can you tell us about your gear?

KC:  Yes, I still play both. I definitely fall back on vocal as my first instrument, guitar as my second, and piano as my third. Although I’ve played bass a few times when needed, but I play with a pick. I almost always write on guitar, but the iPhone plays a huge role. Don’t laugh!!! Using Voice Memo’s when melodies pop into my head. Life saver! As for my gear, I still have some guitars back in Australia, but in the USA, I have a couple of great Australian made Acoustic Guitars – a Maton 325 and a Cole Clark Fat Lady 2. Those have done a kajillion shows. I also borrow a lot of gear from my Producer, my favourite being a Gibson 335 electric. And I borrow Gibson Hummingbirds and J200’s for live shows whenever I can because they are amazing!

GGM:  Coming from a family with a musical background, they were supportive of your desire to be a musician?

KC:  Yeah I am lucky my family supports me. They are all musical and artsy sorts, so it makes sense. Honestly, it wasn’t even a “desire to be a musician.” I was born around music and singing so I started playing live in my teens and sort of just kept doing it. 

GGM:  Who were your early musical influences and how did they inspire your style of music?

KC:  I listened to EVERYTHING growing up. My tastes are really eclectic. I’m not like stereotype of liking both country AND western music. haha. I grew up listening to Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Janis, Hendrix, Stevie Wonder, Chopin, Beethoven, Maria Callas…you name it, it went into to my ears. I suppose I really fell in love with Aretha Franklin and Annie Lennox for their strong, soulful voices – Aretha being the queen of soul and Annie being a pop emergence that just had a way of using every part of her voice. I love Sheryl Crow and bands like Fleetwood Mac and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers for showing me that it’s tough to write something simple that has a deep weight to not only the lyric, but also the music. Classic American Rock, Americana, and Country speak the most to me now.

GGM:  What was your first professional gig?

KC:  I was 15 and it was a cafe. I sang Alanis, Sheryl Crow, Joan Osborne, U2 and Oasis. I got paid 50.00 and free coffee. It was awesome.

GGM:  That is a moment you will never forget!  Your first full length album Lay It Down was released earlier this year. Tell us about the album – the influence behind it, the writing and recording process, how you got Kris Kristofferson to sing on the album, the very talented musical team behind the music, and working with Howard Willing.

KC:  It was a really long process from start to finish as I used the pledge-based website Kickstarter to raise money to record it. So from the beginning, I started writing the songs, demoing, pre-production, mixing, mastering … then mixing and mastering again. It started as an EP and then stumbled into becoming an album. It makes financial sense to utilize studio time and musicians while you have it and them. Howard Willing (my occasionally very patient Record Producer) has worked with so many legends, one of them being Kris Kristofferson. I originally wrote the song called “Penelope” for a male artist with some life experience, to record. That didn’t happen and I just loved the song, so I decided to record the song anyway. When Howard was engineering an album for Kristofferson with Don Was producing, he threw out the idea of Kris being a guest vocalist on “Penelope” and the stars aligned completely. Amazing stuff. Kris Kristofferson is such a song and screen icon.

GGM:  Amazing how that worked out. You also had another amazing experience touring and singing with Country music legend Glen Campbell which must’ve been quite an experience – singing on his final studio album Ghost on the Canvas! How did that come about and what was the most memorable moment from that experience?

KC:  I got the opportunity to open up some shows for Glen Campbell during his promotion for the Meet Glen Campbell album. It was an incredible journey to not only open up for a legend, but I really learned about how people grew up with his music and how much the songs meant to the audiences. It’s very sad that he has Alzheimer’s disease now, but he always remembered me when I saw him. He’d sing “K-K-K-Katie….” I was able to have this experience again with my Producer Howard playing a role here. He was producing the final album “Ghost on the Canvas” and brought me in to sing on the album. I’d done some backing vocal sessions for him for other albums and he thought I would blend well. I sang all the female parts. I don’t think there was one defining moment that stood out from working / performing with Glen. It was all a learning experience – one I’ll never forget.

GGM:  What a great experience! The official music video for “Hearts Don’t Bend” from Lay It Down, which was shot at the Gibson Showroom in Beverly Hills, was recently released. It’s a great video and showcases your talent well. What was the guitar that was used in that video and can you tell us a little about it?

KC:  Firstly, thank you. “Hearts Don’t Bend” is probably my fave to play live from the new album. So I shot a video for this with the Director that shot my “(We started a) Fire” video, Justin Coloma. He is super creative and there are a couple of cool shots in there where he filmed from behind a Gibson guitar amp cabinet. I think if you gave that guy a piece of bread, he could make it look like a club sandwich on camera!!! So back to the beautiful Gibson showroom … my good friends at Gibson were nice enough to let us film there. So we borrowed a bunch of wonderful gear to perform with. I was playing a beautiful dark coloured J200 Western Classic. I think it’s known as the Sheryl Crow guitar there as she used it in her “Soak Up the sun” video. I love J200’s and bigger bodied acoustic guitars in general. 

GGM:  Sounds like a guitarist’s dream! You spend a great deal of time between two major music cities – Los Angeles and Nashville. How has that been working out for you?

KC:  I love Nashville. I’ve been traveling back and forth from LA to Nashville for years now. It feels like home to me there as I have a lot of great writers, friends and BBQ places I love! I see myself living there and am planning to move there soon.

GGM:  Awesome! Maybe we’ll get to see more of you since we’re not that far from Nashville.  Any new projects in the works and, if so, what (and when) can fans expect to hear?

KC:  I am always writing. I just released a new Christmas song I wrote. Completely weird writing a Christmas song in Los Angeles when it’s hot and leaf blowers are on overload in the background. Meanwhile lyrics are about angels, snow and Jesus. I have a highly evolved imagination I suppose … haha. I am also working on a follow up album, but before that comes out, I am releasing one or two more singles from my current album.

GGM:  Well you’ll experience the four seasons in Nashville! Any words of wisdom you would like to share with aspiring artists trying to break into the Country music scene?

KC:  Write what you know. Honesty plays a huge role in country music and country music lyrics. I think Nashville is THE place to be if you are doing that genre. So traveling there, moving there, and generally ingratiating yourself into the community is important. Going out, meeting people, writing – listening more and talking less.

A few fun questions:

Top 3 songs on my playlist are:

Serena Ryder – “Stompa”
Smashing Pumpkins – “One and All”
Keith Urban – “Somewhere in My Car”

First concert I ever attended was: Alanis Morissette
Music to me is: High Art
I would love to perform with: Tom Petty
My favorite music venue is: That I’ve played- Ravinia Pavilion opening up for Billy Corgan

To learn more about Katie and her music, visit her site at www.katiecoleofficial.com.

Cover Photo Credit:  Catie Lafoon

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