Listen to two tracks from Katharine Whalen’s new album Dirty Little Secret. If you cannot see the music player below, click here to download the free Flash Player.
On the third Saturday of every June, the annual Hog Day Festival descends on the sleepy town of Hillsborough. Drawing up to 35,000 revelers (about seven times the town’s population), the festival’s blend of crafts and antique cars is reminiscent of an Apple Chill with barbecue instead of motorcycle gangs. The air becomes thick and complex with rich odors, the squeals of frenzied children, jaunty music and carnival lights.
On Father’s Day Sunday, in the quiet aftermath of all that sizzling pork and shimmering exhaust, downtown Hillsborough seems more bucolic and charming than ever. In a way, the transformation that overtakes and quickly leaves Hillsborough each Hog Day is an apt metaphor for former Squirrel Nut Zipper turned solo artist Katharine Whalen’s life.
Whalen looks perfectly at ease on the sunny back patio of Cup A Joe, not too far from her Efland farm. Everything about Whalen, from her winning smile to her mild drawl to the effortless grace of her gestures, radiates the mental peace and ruddy health of down-to-earth country life. If some people can manage to look stressed in repose, Whalen, even in motion, conveys the impression that she might swoon into a hammock with a glass of lemonade at any moment.
But her life isn’t as ordinary as it looks at a glance: Watching her idly stir coffee on a balmy Sunday morning, without an ounce of pretension in her bearing, you’d never guess that she’s a national music star who’s just completed her debut solo album of original material.
If you’ve kept track of Whalen over the course of her decade-plus musical career, then “pop,” with its implications of modernity, is about the last thing you’d ever associate with her. Her contributions to the Zippers’ concoction of antique genres amounted to Billie Holiday-channeling vocals and nimble banjo, and her earlier solo effort, Katharine Whalen’s Jazz Squad, was an album of jazz standards.
“Honestly,” she says of that record, “it was still just part of me trying to learn. My husband at the time [Squirrel Nut Zippers bandleader Jimbo Mathus] sort of put that project together for me. He thought it would be awesome if I could work with a piano player because I had never really done that. I picked some jazz songs that were kind of hard to sing, learned them and we cut a record. The songs were just my favorites, more obscure standards.”
Nevertheless, Whalen’s first solo album of original material, the sleek and effervescent Dirty Little Secret, is a pop record through and through, with all of the modern production techniques and genre-blurring the term implies. Recorded with producer David Sale, who wrote the tracks and played all the instruments, Dirty Little Secret is difficult to classify: Vestiges of Whalen’s beloved jazz and R&B are discernible in the slick arrangements, but they find themselves alongside sculpted trip-hop percussion, frosty new wave synths, electronic fillips and crunchy rock guitars.
Like the tracks, Whalen’s vocals are playful and sexy, evoking pop singers like Garbage’s Shirley Manson as often as Billie Holiday. “The Funnest Game” is a smoldering spy-flick noir about dangerous romance, whipped along by vibrant surf guitar and exuberant brass; the title track sounds like 10,000 Maniacs filtered through the saccharine harmonies of ’60s girl-groups; the indefatigable bounce of “You-Who” is pure Top 40 candy. The record’s dual nature is best described by its method of creation: It was recorded on a laptop in a barn, a collision of the modern and the rustic.
Dirty Little Secret also marks Whalen’s first foray into writing lyrics. “[Sale] would work up the tracks; the music barn’s real big and he stayed in there for a couple months,” she explains. “We wrote the lyrics together. I kept fighting with him, like, ‘I can’t do that, get off my back!’ And he’d be like, ‘Yes you can, now get that Sharpie out.’ We would just sit there and talk about what the story of the song was. Some of the songs he’d already written, so they’re probably his personal stories, but I connected with those. It’s all universal stuff. But he said, ‘Try to be personal; try to show yourself.’ He’s a very intense person, so he’ll bring that out of you.”
Considering the preponderance of lyrics about unhealthy relationships, it’s easy to assume that many of the songs are about Whalen’s ex-husband, Mathus, but that’s overly simplistic. As this is Whalen’s first outing as a writer, the songs are more reasonably interpreted as the emulsion of her life experience as a whole, not of any one facet of it.
Whalen was born in Greenville and grew up in the mountains near Hendersonville.
Her parents had “a lot of records sitting around the living room, leaned up on stuff”–the Beatles, the Everly Brothers, Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline. “For some reason,” Whalen laughs, “they really liked the song ‘Wooly Bully’ by Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs.”
But Whalen’s initiation into the kind of music with which she would make her name came later, when she befriended Dexter Romweber and Crow, the local rockabilly legends comprising Flat Duo Jets. “We were listening to a lot of rockabilly and early R&B,” Whalen recalls, “but Crow, the drummer, was really into Gene Krupa, who was the drummer for Benny Goodman. He played this live Benny Goodman record for me and it was really mind-blowing. That’s probably the first jazz I ever heard as a teen.”
A collector of old records, Whalen didn’t begin making music of her own until well into her 20s. “I guess I just wanted to keep up with the guys,” she explains with characteristic self-effacement. “Jimbo had grown up in the bluegrass tradition, and he started to teach me bluegrass. In that tradition, everybody sings or plays, whatever they can do. He said, ‘Well, you can probably sing, why don’t you try it?’ And I did; I tried and was like, ‘Oh wait, I can!’ I picked up the banjo around the same time. Never took voice or banjo lessons, but I had about a year to fool with it before the band started. Then we had to go professional almost immediately and I just had to go for it.”
In the wildly eclectic, anything-goes milieu of 1990s alternative rock, the Zippers were catapulted to fame on the strength of the single “Hell” from their second album, Hot. Swing music was enjoying a faddish mainstream cachet, creating an environment where the single’s maniacal calypso could find purchase. Suddenly, the “Hell” video was in rotation on MTV. The Zippers performed on national television shows like Late Night with David Letterman and Sesame Street (the latter while Whalen was pregnant with Cecelia Mae, the daughter she had with Mathus) while crisscrossing the country on a relentless tour schedule, spreading their vaudevillian hot-jazz gospel far and wide.
While Whalen is grateful for her time in the spotlight, you can tell she doesn’t miss it too much. “I love North Carolina,” the lifelong N.C. resident enthuses. “I never thought about living in a city. All the cars, and the noise; I really like the quiet out in the country. If I were to live anywhere else I’d probably go to Mexico. This job keeps you traveling a lot; the Zippers were on the road for eight years or something. I’ve seen lots of cities.”
In the seven years between Katharine Whalen’s Jazz Squad and Dirty Little Secret, Whalen kept busy raising Cecelia Mae, now 6 years old, as a single parent; singing with gypsy-jazz group Europa Jazz; and playing with country act Hooverville. Her return as a solo artist seems to have less to do with desire than with fortuitous circumstance. David Sale, Dirty Little Secret‘s producer, knows his way around a studio and the wiles of popular music in general–he had a very deliberate hit with his band Camus in 1997 (“U Who,” which appears on Whalen’s album as “You-Who”). “He was watching MTV one night,” Whalen says of Sale, “and he said, ‘I could do that; I’m going to make a hit song and a video.’ And he literally did: put together a very cool track and video, and he took it to Atlantic and got a huge deal on the merit of that one song. So then he had to write the rest of the songs and put his project together.” Since Camus, Sale has focused on his production work.
Although Whalen and Sale didn’t know each other before they recorded the album, they had a mutual friend in Hillsborough. The San Diego-based producer was visiting this mutual friend with three tracks he’d made, and he needed someone to sing demos on them. The friend called Whalen.
“When I sang them, he said, ‘Well, let’s make a couple more and let’s write them together,’” recalls Whalen. “Once we got going, we did seven in that session. He went back to San Diego and nothing happened for awhile. Then M.C. Records contacted me and asked if I wanted to make a jazz record. I said, ‘Well, I haven’t really been doing that so much, but I’ll send you what I’ve been doing. I sent them [the songs] thinking there was no way they’d connect with this pop stuff; I thought I’d just send it anyway, like a joke or something. But they said they loved it, and for me to put five more songs together.”
Of course, Whalen tapped Sale, whose contributions to the album are difficult to overstate, to finish the recording. Whalen trusted Sale as a musician, but his modern techniques took a little getting used to. “He had a laptop,” she says. “It was hard for me at first, just because I didn’t come from that kind of tradition. When we made records with the Zippers, I would try to get all my stuff down in one or two takes. On this new stuff, I got to go in and layer my vocals. I did feel myself fighting against it, and then I was like, why? This very interesting person has come into my life and I have this opportunity and I’m going to go for it.”
During the process, Whalen began to understand what all pop auteurs understand–that the computer is just another tool for humans to test their will against, like drums or guitars, and that the process isn’t as cold and impersonal as some imagine. “It opened my eyes to that,” she says. “I watched him interact with [the laptop] when we were doing vocals, and he would be really sore at the end of a session from what he had to do with his body to produce all this, to do all the stuff he was doing with the computer and the board. And anyway, I always have these other groups I can be with that are very organic, so I got it covered.”
Whalen is taking Dirty Little Secret on a short tour with Hobex as her backing band. “There’d be no way to do the record note for note,” Whalen says of her studio artifact, “but why would you want to? It’s a good dance set. It’s going to be high energy and fun, also very original sounding like the Zippers were. You’ll hear influences, but it’s awesome to be doing originals again. I love knowing when I get up there and start that no one’s heard the songs before, because we wrote them.”
But she isn’t interested in trying to replicate the Zippers’ success and hectic tour schedule. “I cannot do that,” she says without hesitation. “I have to stay home with my girl. I’ve already done that whole thing once; that’s not why I’m doing this. It’s an opportunity that presented itself and I don’t think you can say no to stuff like that.” And with those words, the self-proclaimed “country girl” who made a name for herself in the decidedly urban world of mainstream entertainment without succumbing to the siren song of the big city–who’s been to “Hell” and back, if you will–steps into the fair streets of a little town to take her daughter swimming.
For more on Whalen, see www.katharinewhalen.com.