BWW Interview: Catherine Porter of CATHERINE PORTER AND JIM VALLANCE at Birdland Theater
Catherine Porter is her own woman. She does things her own way, whether it is shifting back and forth between rock music and Broadway, relocating to different countries, or conquering health issues through the healing power of music. Living with her two children (one human and one canine) Catherine Porter gets out every day to experience life, whether talking Roxie for a walk, seeing to Ruby's schooling or singing at Susie Mosher's The Lineup or with her chum Elizabeth Ward Land. Her indomitable spirit and graceful Will Power have made her not only an artist others demand, but a friend people desire.
On Tuesday, January 28th, Catherine Porter will join forces with her gentleman friend, iconic songwriter Jim Vallance, for a duo show in The Birdland Theater that will feature not only some of his very well known music but some of her songs that people will be hearing for the first time. In the throes of final rehearsals for the concert, Catherine was kind enough to find some time to get on the phone with me to talk about music, family, her health, and puppies.
This interview has been edited for space and content.
How are you?
(Sound of dog barking)
Chatty dog! Hang on one second. Alright. Calm yourself down, dear one.
I heard the voice of Roxie in the background.
That is my pup, my second born.
What kind of dog is that?
She's a Morkie.
I'm obsessed with canines and I'm not allowed to own one, so I must play with everybody else's dogs. How old is she?
She is three and a half and she is eight and a half pounds of beauty and toughness, but also this sweet lovable quality. She has a mix of everything, but she's a small dog with big problems. She hates big dogs. She goes for bicycles, cars, like she's crazy, but she's also the most loving thing. Why can't you own a dog?
You must move!
Puppies often cause much less trouble than our own children.
They really do. She doesn't talk back. She's a little angel and she loves her mama. She loves me so much it's painful. I highly recommend having dogs. The last couple of years, I've been sick, so having a dog has just been very healing and it gets you outside, gets you walking, gets you meeting people, gets you in the fresh air. And she's very loyal. While I was recovering from the surgery, she just sat with me on the couch and was my little bed buddy. It's really beautiful. To heal with a dog is quite extraordinary and as an intense connection, she looks in my eyes -- very soulful.
It would appear that you are better.
A lot of it is smoke and mirrors right now. I do a pretty good job with makeup and if you've seen photos on Facebook or seen me out singing lately, it all looks like "Wow, she's doing great." But I've been chronically ill for the last five years and had a cancer diagnosis two years ago and had my kidney removed -- that was fun. There's something I haven't done before (Laughing) as far as life experiences go. That was a new one to add. I'm still working on a lot of stuff. So I'm powering through and I also have to say that there's something incredibly healing about singing for me. It's just healing and it's what I do. So I'm actually able to do it when not feeling well. It's like Dr. Theater in a way.
You're very open about your health. I've noticed you declare yourself as a cancer kicker.
Yeah, I say cancer kicker. I think I've kicked it. It was a rough couple of years for sure. In 2017, I was diagnosed. I left the theater for a while, didn't do any show for a bit... was still kind of in my band that I was in for a while, but a lot of it was about healing. I did a lot of writing, songwriting and I started writing articles about it. I'm pretty open about it because, through Sloan Kettering, they have a program called the Visible Ink Program. I was introduced to it by Marin Mazzie and Jason Danieley cause I had stood by for her in Next To Normal, so I got to know them quite well, and while Marin was going through her cancer battle she participated in this program, which is a writing program for patients. They put an anthology out as stories from some cancer patients, but they choose about 12 or 13 of them to present at an annual evening of their staff and they had people like Debra Monk be one of the people who performed. And the year before Marin had actually performed a piece. So I wrote a tribute to her last year and that got published and has also got performed -- Debra was the one who performed that. And David Hyde Pierce did a piece and it's a wonderful moving evening. Then the writers get to meet the performers - I had never met Debra before and she was a dear friend of Marin's, it was quite a special moment. This year I got another piece accepted to the performance, which is about all of my internal organs that I've named and talk to and meditate on. So that's going to be performed, it'll be interesting. Writing about any illness is very healing -- it's just helpful to process what's going on cause let's face it, cancer is a very scary diagnosis. It's not necessarily a death sentence but it's pretty scary. So writing about it in any way, shape or form, in journals, journaling or being able to have this program, Visible Ink, is actually cool because they give you a mentor. And my mentor thinks I'm funny, we enjoy working together, so I'm very lucky to have someone like that to bounce ideas off us. So stay tuned for some writing that's gonna be coming at ya again soon.
You're quite a profound writer. I was taking a look at your blog. I wish that you wrote more.
I've actually written a show. I took a lot of those stories and channeled it into ... I was writing about my kidney, which I named Kiki and, and then Dexter 'cause he had to be ambidextrous. He was my right kidney, that is kind of a superhero. And then Vladimir, my bladder. They all had their own little story and I've sort of made it into a little musical, if you will, that I've written some original songs with Jim Vallance for, but also use the songs that you know; so I kind of the sidelined the blog for a little bit and moved towards the show, which I've done -- we call it my out of town tryout has been at Canyon Ranch on their Broadway nights. They've asked me to do some Broadway nights there and I was like, "Do you mind if I just try my show out?"
And it's been really great to develop it there because it's exactly the place where people come to heal. It's a very healing place, in a very quiet Little Room with 40 chairs maybe, and a fireplace and a piano and it's been really fun to do it there. I think I'm doing it again in May, so we'll see how that develops.
I fully support the idea of taking your journey and turning it into a show because that is, after all, your primary art form and when you blog, you're giving that away. So why give it away when you can turn it into a show and perform it.
Right. And also if you can't make some money from your trials and tribulations, then what good are they? I'm kind of half-joking on that. But yeah, I agree.
You can be half-joking, but the truth is artists need to be paid. You know, a girl's got to eat.
So you've got to do your work for some income girl.
Yeah, I hear ya. I hear ya. I mean, I've been doing a lot of cabarets lately, but we all know those pay a lot of money.
Well now on the subject of cabarets, I've noticed that you've been singing with Elizabeth Ward Land, you've got the Jim Vallance show coming up. You're keeping really busy.
That must be incredibly rewarding, especially since you view your singing as healing therapy.
Absolutely. It's been a godsend. I don't know if you know my history, but I spent 11 years in London and I got my citizenship there; I did West end and I went to Australia and did Sunset Boulevard with Hugh Jackman and did it in the West End as well. But then I also did some rock band stuff working with Brian May from Queen. I bounced back and forth from songwriting to rock chick to theater girl - a big variety. Betty Shaffer was mezzo-soprano to then rock chick. I had such a ball there! And coming back here later, married and with a child, was like starting all over again. And for a long time, I felt like the gears were slow - it was hard managing all that, changing countries, getting married, having a child. So now it feels a bit like ... and I owe a lot of credit to Susie Mosher! Just performing at The Lineup with her sort of catapulted a lot of things. She sent a video of what we did to Jim Caruso and that's how we got the booking. She's like, "You've got it, we've got to get you more stuff." So it's a little bit like people are saying, "Where have you been? You know, how come we don't know you?" And I think it's hilarious 'cause I've actually been around quite a while. I'm not a kid. It feels like the reemergence of Catherine Porter a bit right now, which is great. It's nice to be either rediscovered or discovered -- it makes you feel like things are always possible. You just have to put yourself out for it.
I think that our careers and our lives come in waves and you're experiencing a new wave, and isn't that exciting to get to a point in our lives where newness is possible.
We should always remain curious, always remain hungry, and creative. And that's the lifeline that carries us through life. I'm so excited about possibilities and it's been hard -- there're some days when... I had rehearsal for my show yesterday and I had not slept the night before because I wasn't feeling well and that was rough. But the joy of singing yesterday got me through that. And that's always going to be... my heartbeat is singing. I'm just excited for keeping it fresh and interesting and doing new stuff and it's awesome that we're able to do that.
Tell me about your upcoming show at Birdland with Jim Vallance.
Well again, I have to thank Susie Mosher for that. Jim and I ... we're obviously dating. We met in 2009, sort of via the internet. I had a record deal in the UK; we made a record called Gems For Ruby, which were songs (my daughter's name is Ruby) songs from the seventies and eighties with two producers in the UK who were part of Simply Red, and we wanted to make a concept album that was songs from the seventies and eighties that we loved that we slowed down and sort of reinterpreted and put strings on them and just the different versions at them -- well-known songs. It's kind of hard to find songs that actually worked that way because most songs were hits because of the tempo and the way they were done. So I did 12 songs and one of them was the "Summer of 69" which is a ballad on my album. Also on that album is a song called "Somebody to Love" by Queen, and because I'd worked with Brian May of Queen, he did a guitar solo on it for me, which is so wonderful. So Brian got ahold of the album and any friend that he had whose song we did on it, he sent their song to. He sent "Summer of '69" to Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance. And Jim very sweetly found me on the internet and sent me a note saying, "Just wanted to let you know, Bryan and I heard your version of our song. You can imagine how many times the songs been covered, and yours is our favorite." Now to a girl singing... who doesn't want to hear from a composer that your version of their song is their favorite? It was quite a spectacular, wonderful moment. That just shows how sweet and lovely he is because he didn't have to pick up his computer and try to find me and send that to me at all. He could've just let it go. But he was a doll to do that. And from there we started a little penpal ship. Every now and then I'd hear from him, "Hey, how's your music going? I've submitted your song, hope you don't mind - my publisher has it..." you know, whatever. And I'd say, "Oh, I'm in a band called Shotgun Wedding. It's a country band -- here's the album." Cut to two and a half, three hours ago when they started working on Pretty Woman, he was in the city, so they were hanging out and working on the show and we met up finally for lunch after having not a lot of communication, but we were familiar with each other over the internet. So we started becoming really good friends through his work here at Pretty Woman, and it was just lovely to get to know him because he's one of my favorite songwriters, it was a thrill for me to have this person say nice things about my version of their songs. So one night Susie came to Liz Ward's show and saw me and said, "Can you please come and do The Lineup?" I introduced her to Jim and she said, "Oh, wow, do you want to do one of Jim's songs?" We figured out a little version of "Summer of '69" and that sort of catapulted us into this show. And now Jim, because he's so very generous, didn't want to just do an evening of Catherine Porter singing Jim Vallance songs because that would be kind of weird. He's very fair and he wanted to have half of it my songs that I've written over the years and two that we've written for my show, the cancer story, which is sort of untitled at the moment. It's been really great because they're very different songs. His are obviously commercial hits (Laughter) ... our songs are very different but somehow complementary. I'm quite excited about it. We have a wonderful band! So I'm excited! It's been a lot of work putting it together. There's no real throughline, it's not that kind of a show. I mean, ideally, this should probably be done in The Cutting Room or Iridium or something like that because it is more of a Nashville feel. I get to be a rock chick! It's just going to be a lot of fun. I'm excited.
So you bounce back and forth between rock chick and theater girl -how do you manage that with your voice?
I think this is what I've always done. A lot of people criticized me for that. I remember early on people saying, if you do one thing, you'll be more castable and that might've been the case - I might have become more well known had I done that. But I just didn't enjoy that. I loved that I got hired to do The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber with Michael Crawford and sang All I Ask of You with him nightly for a year around the world and also sang "I Don't Know How To Love Him" in the show; and that somebody saw me in that and thought I would be great to sing backing vocals for Brian May, opening for Guns And Roses. Those two gigs right there, from one year to the next, really speaks to how I've been viewed. Then the Andrew Lloyd Webber people kind of went, "Oh, I guess she doesn't do that anymore, she's a rock chick now." But then I auditioned for Sunset Boulevard after that and got cast as Betty Schaefer. I've always been versatile and lucky in that way and thought, you know what, I'm just going to follow that because it's so much more fun. I did a year in the West End and then decided to go into songwriting just because I felt like I had a lot to say. I put theater aside for a bit, did some formulating and I got a record deal and did that for a bit, then went back to theater, then went back to songwriting, had another record deal, became a mom and then came home and did Next To Normal. I just think it's been way more fun - maybe not as skyrocketing as it could have been had I stuck to one -- and if it gets confusing for people, I think people sort of lack imagination. But what do you do?
If people only see you one way it's because they have no vision.
Yeah, I think so. And that's okay because I'm at the point in my life where I'm like, "That's okay, I'll just create my own." And the people who do get it will hire me to be in their thing.
So tell me, you're a singer, and the songwriter whose song you've sung reaches out to you, and it's thrilling, and you begin dating, and you're a songwriter... have you guys started writing songs together?
We've written two for the cancer story that I'm working on and we'll be doing that at my show.
So how does it feel, as a songwriter, to be working with somebody who has written such iconic works of art?
Well, I have to say I was a little bit intimidated and so it took us a really long time to start writing together, but once we did, once the ice was broken, it was very natural. And the thing I have to say that Jim is that he's so generous, especially in writing my story. He's really let me take the lead on a lot of stuff because he knows it's coming. Like a lot of lyrics came from me because it's my story. I don't think I've ever met anyone that generous. He's a wonderful collaborator. Once we finish the show next Tuesday we have another little project that we're going to start working on I'm excited about, that will be all be original material that we'll write together.
So I have just one question left for you.
Oh, just one? Okay.
It's a toughie. Are you ready?
Oh, I think Alex Hanson. He was my other Joe. I'd say definitely Hugh over John -- I love John, working with him is a hoot. But when it came to the kiss, he had a lot of demands for it, which was hilarious and I loved him for it, but it was very tricky to figure out, 'cause he wanted me to face a certain direction. He wanted it to be open mouth, but no tongue. And he also wanted me to wear a lip coat so I wouldn't get lipstick on him. So it was a very complicated endeavor every night, which used to make me laugh because it was always like "What do I do?" It's quite funny. With Hugh it was lovely - everything with Hugh lovely, I love being on stage with him, but it was by no means a passionate kiss -- it looked passionate, I'm sure. But, yeah, Alex Hanson, better kisser.
It's all kiss-ography.
Yeah. I mean I've had to kiss a lot of guys in my day.
Well, it doesn't suck.
There will be no making out on stage at my show next week!
It's a rated G show.
It's rated G, my daughter would be there. We're going to keep it clean. We're keeping it strictly to the music! That Birdland theater is all about the music!
Follow Catherine Porter on Instagram @cathporter1 and Twitter @cathporter