Catherine Russell Arrives Fashionably Late to the Solo Jazz Vocal Party


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I first became aware of singer Catherine Russell through fellow singer Carolyn Leonhart, who had good things to say about her fellow Steely Dan backup singer. I then found Russell's 2006 debut album, 'Cat,' a beguiling mix of old-time jazz, early blues, swing and the great American songbook (in the broadest sense of the word). But for some reason, I never had the chance to chat with this singer. Although 'Inside This Heart of Mine' came out in 2010, I decided that it was nonetheless finally time to catch up with the busy singer, who has her gigs as a leader and steady sideman work with Steely Dan, as well as past credits with Rosanne Cash, Jackson Browne and Cyndi Lauper. She can also be found sitting in with any number of jazz musicians around town if she's in town. I caught up with her via phone at her New York City apartment.

Even though your father played with Louis Armstrong and your mother was a bassist and singer who played with many jazz legends herself, you didn't start out as musician yourself. Why?

Naturally, you want to do something different than your parents do, but I figured out that it's really the only thing I can do [laughs]. I was a dancer first. I loved to dance and was in Katherine Dunham's company, which is one of the to African dance companies. We did 'Aida' at the old Metropolitan and then moved it to Lincoln Center. Dance was so competitive, and when she moved to Haiti I sort of just stopped.

Then you went into acting?

I loved theater and the study of acting helped me get through some stuff emotionally. It saved my life, but it is difficult to pursue as a profession. Music turned out to be a lot easier for me. I did the whole audition thing, but I wasn't one type or another. I was too young for this but too old for that. I was too short for this. My hair was dreadlocked, and has been for 23 years. People just did not know what to do with me. When I was in school I played maids and prostitutes. I was in the choruses of musicals.

How did this all help you as a singer and performer?

I think this background is immensely helpful for being a singer. It helps with interpreting lyrics and choosing material, picking material that is right for me to express myself through. That's how I immerse myself in the stories of all these incredible songwriters who wrote these beautiful lyrics. I'm sort of awestruck by all these amazing lyrics. It's my job to live through their great storytelling.

Watch Catherine Russell's Live 'Troubled Waters' Video

Steely Dan are known for their sardonic wit and dark themes, and the backup singers get some great punch lines. That music be fun for you to do.

The thing about Steely Dan is that everyone's roles are equal. So the backup singing parts are integral to the songs, just as the horn parts are, and everything else. The parts for us are so great. Donald Fagen arranges the vocal parts and his harmonic sense is so deep that he will give you a new part—he's constantly rearranging things—that gives you something to chew on harmonically, but it also highlights the lyric. He's really working at a higher level.

Musically speaking, what brought you to the place where jazz and blues intersect as they do in your music?

When I listen to music from the '20s, '30s, '40s, some '50s and some early rhythm & blues, I just start smiling. It makes me want to dance. It's a period of time where music and dance where very connected. The chord structures draw me in. The way things are arranged. Nothing is too long because people would change partners. The music was fun. The musicians I work with in my band are into that period of time, so it's fun for them to play the music.

Maybe a parental influence, too?

Maybe it's because my dad was a pioneer in that music. It was some of the first music I remember hearing. That may be why I identify with it. I feel good when I listen to it.
We played for a swing dance society in Maryland and it feels just great to play for dancers. I was walking around with a smile on my face for days afterwards. They came and danced all night. You look out there on the floor and think: Gee, maybe there can be world peace [laughs]. It's sounds corny, but people of all races and ages, doesn't matter who you are, were there dancing with each other and having a good time.

Who are your favorites?

Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Jimmie Lunceford, Louis Armstrong, Chick Webb, Fletcher Henderson.

You started fairly late in your solo career?

No I started very late [laughs]. The reason was that I did not foresee doing it. I sung lead in different bands. I demoed stuff and wrote songs with a friend of mine that were in the blues-rock vein. I was in a soul band for a while and did a record, but that didn't get much support. Then I had a full touring schedule, as well, so I wasn't home. I've basically been touring since 1989. Now I have the support that I need. Thank goodness before I turned 50 that I was able to have the support and encouragement from my partner. He told me that I needed to do this now, and luckily we got in under the wire.

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