Cat Popper Breathes New Life Into A Pere Ubu Classic

Hanging out in the salt marshes of New York City with the bassist extraordinaire

Catherine Popper (Art: Ron Hart)

It might surprise many people to know that there’s a salt marsh in the middle of New York City – and it might surprise them even more to find bassist extraordinaire Catherine Popper there.

Yet here she is, relaxing on a bench in bucolic parkland on Randall’s Island, a short drive from her home in Queens. As an avid birdwatcher, this is one of her favorite places. “I come out here in the mornings and take pictures. There’s a lot of red-winged blackbirds,” she says. She adds that at her apartment, she has window feeders for finches, mourning doves, “And a mockingbird named Herbie,” she says with a grin.

Popper isn’t just here to share her avian knowledge, though: she’s also game to talk about her stellar music career. Known as one of the most in-demand bass players: she has worked with Jack White, Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams, Levon Helm, Jesse Malin, and many more. She’s in the band Puss N Boots with Norah Jones and Sasha Dobson. And, starting last year, she also launched a solo career, releasing her debut single, “Maybe It’s All Right,” in November. Her latest song, out in May, is a cover of Pere Ubu’s “Breath.” Both tracks were released via Velvet Elk Records.

VIDEO: Cat Popper “Breath” directed by Vivian Wang

“I’ve always loved this song,” Popper says of her decision to record this particular track. “Pere Ubu reminds me of when I was a kid and I felt like there were people who are older than me who knew everything. Such a comforting feeling! So I just thought, ‘Well, let’s try it.’”

Recording last winter, Popper played all the instruments herself (except for the drums, which were done by Van Romaine) even though, as she says with a laugh, “I’m just not a very good guitarist. So I listened to some Keith Richards, and I was like ‘Oh, you just play a note every now and then, that’s plenty!’” She’s being modest: the gently chugging guitar and all the other parts give the track a rather feminine touch that makes it distinctively her own.

Popper admits that there’s another reason for choosing to do a cover song, instead of writing another one herself: “It takes a long time for me to generate a song. Lyrics are so painstaking,” she says. It took her a few months to write and record “Maybe It’s All Right” last year, which she recorded using the GarageBand app.

With “Breath,” Popper decided to take a more serious approach, teaching herself how to use Logic Pro recording software. “It was fun to learn the recording process, to do it right,” she says. “I said, ‘What would it be like if I actually recorded with a mic stand and processors?’ It was more of an experiment that came out so good.”

Cat Popper Breath, Velvet Elk 2021

Next up, Popper is working on more original material, though she says fans will need to have patience with her. “I am actively writing to see what happens,” she says, “but it’s not a marathon, and it’s not a sprint. It’s a constitutional – and it’s an ambling one, with loitering.”

Popper didn’t always have such a strong sense of how she should approach her musical career: her first musical attempts were, by her own admission, decidedly disappointing. She first showed an interest in music when she was very young, poking away on the piano her family owned when she was growing up in North Carolina – but when her parents finally signed her up for lessons, it “absolutely ruined any interest I had in the piano!” she says with a laugh.

Her next musical experiment was equally unsuccessful: “In fifth grade, all the popular girls played violin, and I was this kind of weird, nerdy girl.” So she took up that instrument, too, in an attempt to fit in – but soon realized it was a mistake: “I was like, ‘This is terrible. It’s so loud. It’s right in my face. What would be the opposite of this?’”

Around that time, Popper saw Sting playing an upright bass in a video for his band The Police. She was instantly entranced and told her music teacher that she wanted to switch to that instrument. This did not go over well – “She was like, ‘Women play the cello!’” – but Popper persisted until she got her way. “I don’t know why I was such a pain in the ass about it, but it worked,” she says.

With the upright bass, Popper finally found the right instrument. She proved so talented on it that she ended up attending the North Carolina School of the Arts, and then the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she joined the school’s jazz band. She finished her formal musical studies in New York City, where she moved so she could study at the prestigious Manhattan School of Music. 

 

VIDEO: Cat Popper sings Concrete Blonde’s “Joey” with Puss N Boots 

After arriving in New York, Popper taught herself to play the electric bass. She also threw herself into the city’s eclectic music scene, performing with a diverse mix of local bands. She’d play rock, jazz, Irish music, and klezmer – any gig she could get. She has remained highly diverse and in-demand ever since.

Popper has some theories about why she’s been hired so often. “I am really good at my job as a bass player. I always know the tunes. I’m always fifteen minutes early. I know a lot about [music] theory,” she says. “But half the thing, too, is: who do you want to be on the tour bus with? There’s so many bass players who are technically better than me, but who might be kind of weird to be on a bus with, or maybe even a drag.”

For now, Popper is taking some time off the road, though. Her next gig will be playing bass in the orchestra for Diana, the Broadway musical about Princess Diana’s life that is set to open this fall. It’s Popper’s second Broadway run – she previously played in the band for Head Over Heels, the show about The Go-Gos that ran in 2018. 

 

VIDEO: Head Over Heels On Broadway!

But Broadway – and the rest of New York City – seem very far away as Popper relaxes in the sunny salt marsh. A man walks by with a tiny black and white Pomeranian. As the dog makes a beeline for Popper, her owner introduces her as Panda. Popper’s cooing and petting makes the dog wiggle deliriously with joy. Popper seems equally captivated. “I would die for this dog,” she says. The owner chuckles. “Wow, that makes two of us,” he says. 

When Panda and her owner move on, headed deeper into the salt marsh, Popper watches them go. “I sit here and creep on everybody,” she says with a grin. As much as she has clearly enjoyed her time touring the world with various artists, she also seems quite content to stay put in New York for a while. Seeing her in this serene setting, it makes sense why she’s choosing a less intense approach to her music – and to life.

 

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Katherine Yeske Taylor

Katherine Yeske Taylor began her rock critic career in Atlanta in the late '80s, when she interviewed Georgia musical royalty such as the Indigo Girls, R.E.M. and the Black Crowes while she was still a teenager. Since then, she has done hundreds of interviews with a wide range of artists. She has written for dozens of magazines, including The Big Takeover, Aquarian Weekly, Stomp & Stammer, Creative Loafing, Jam Magazine, Color Red, Boston Rock, and many others. She contributed to two books (several entries for The Trouser Press Guide to the '90s, and a chapter for Rolling Stone's Alt-Rock-A-Rama). Additionally, she has written liner notes and artist bios for several major acts. She currently lives in New York City.  

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