Madly in Love with Katharine Whalen: An Interview
Katharine Whalen will perhaps always be most famous for her career in the Squirrel Nut Zippers, but her talent extends far beyond their cool retro stylings. Whalen has recorded three albums without the Zippers, including her most recent, Madly Love, which is her first outing with backing band The Fascinators. This record, described by Whalen as “electric folk” is full of delicious story-songs spun around infectious melodies and Whalen’s wonderfully slippery, versatile voice.
When I spoke with Whalen, she was at her farmhouse in her native North Carolina, preparing a roast chicken with white and sweet potatoes, French lentils, and red onion jam. I was already overwhelmed that she can, well, cook as well as she can rock.
And that’s not all she does. “I make fascinators out of vintage headbands and I decorate hats, and I wait tables, very glamorous, and I’m a mom, and I have an old farmhouse with animals. I have some cats and a dog and some goats and a miniature horse,” Whalen says of her busy but well-balanced lifestyle. Whalen also has an interest in photography, sponsored in part by her love of vintage National Geographics: “I have a huge fetish for vintage National Geographics. It’s the most relaxing thing in the world for me. I just like to look at the pictures. I like the older ones, 70s and back, really. I love the photography in those.”
“I have an old film camera and I have a 90mm lens, and I like to take pictures of miniature things, but with the camera they come out looking regular size. Some of the pictures are in our album artwork, like a picture of a little fox.”
But Whalen is sure to have her hands more than full, especially when you factor in her motherhood. “I have an eleven year-old daughter who’s a great writer herself actually. I use her spelling sentences in my songs actually. I have two songs written using just her spelling sentences.”
When she’s not using her daughter’s spelling sentences, Whalen puts a lot of energy into creating vivid characters that come alive through her soundscapes: “They really have their own character. Usually a piece of the music gets started, and then I’ll get a couple of lines, and then I’ll have to mess around with it a few days. And I know I’ve got it right when it makes me cry, just a little bit, out of one eye.”
Regarding her penchant for songs that tell stories, Whalen says, “I’ve always sung that type of song, so when I began writing, that was what I gravitated towards.” However, the songs she’s been penning since finishing Madly Love show a different side of her writing prowess.
“I think I’m going to start to write some simpler songs and have them mixed in and leaning more towards a rock and roll song. I wish I could play my tenor guitar and the tambourine at the same time. I’ll have to rig something up. Some of my songs are crying out for tambourines!” Whalen laughs.
There were, sadly, no tambourines present on Whalen’s first solo outing, Jazz Squad. “That was a very straight-up jazz recording session. We did a lot of pre-production and top-notch players and arrangements, and it was the first time I’d sung with a piano. I started singing in my twenties and had only sung with a guitar. The piano makes much more noise, more tones,” Whalen explains. Her second record, she said, was a more pop project where she was initially brought in to sing demos. Of Madly Love, “This is basically just a four-piece rock combo. Till I explore heavy metal,” she jokes.
Madly Love will feature at least one music video, this one made for the title track. “I made a video for Madly Love. It was a friend of ours from Greensboro, who had a production company named Monkey Whale, [and] had a tradition of bands coming into their kitchen and just playing little shows. They came here and recorded at the farm. The goats were working in the woods. They are not in the video. The horse was wild that day. She had to be tied up. She wanted to be the star. She’s not in the video.”
Indeed, Whalen’s farmhouse is the site of much inspiration for her. Take, for example, the album’s haunting lo-fi closer, “With You.” Written for Laura Tucker, a friend dying from cancer, the song explores Whalen’s own response to the loss of a friend and the tragic realization that Tucker’s parents would outlive her.
With touching ballads such as these, it’s easy to see why writing these songs makes Whalen cry.