To the discerning traveler, Bleeker Street in New York City’s Greenwich Village is the epicenter of where it’s at as far as great music venues, record stores, ultra trendy restaurants and boutiques are concerned. It’s also where the off-Broadway smash hit musical, Love, Janis is currently running at The Village Theatre. Portraying the life and career of rock queen Janis Joplin, the entire spoken text of this show has been transcribed from letters Janis wrote to her family. In addition, extracts from press, TV and radio interviews that were made between 1966 and 1970 are also used presenting a spellbinding insight into the struggles Janis encountered as she strived to fulfill her ambition of becoming a successful rock singer.
The Village Theatre’s intimacy provides the perfect setting for this production and the corner stage is about as big as you would expect to find in your average bar – reflected by the fact that the first four rows are actually bistro tables and chairs. So when the band launch into the opening song and “Janis” – adorned in typical Joplinesque hippy garb – blasts her way towards center stage simultaneously squeezing every single ounce of passion from Piece of My Heart, it’s hard to believe that this singer began her career at the age of five singing back up vocals on pet food commercials.
But it’s true.
Katrina Chester, lead singer with New York City rockers, LUXX, is currently performing the singing role of “Janis” four challenging times a week in order to satisfy the demands of the audiences that are filling the theatre night after night. Not surprisingly, the set list reads like a “Janis Joplin’s Greatest Hits” collection including Mercedes Benz, Me and Bobby McGee and Move Over to name but some of the songs that are featured in every performance.
Having already compared Katrina’s deep, raspy, gravelly sounding vocals to those of Janis Joplin in a LUXX album review that was published in Powerplay #14, this seemed like something I should be following up; and I did.
Katrina kindly agreed to meet me recently at the Tanti Baci Flower Room on 7th Avenue and while she was sharing some of her thoughts about the show as well as her career, the unrelenting sound of New York City traffic racing past provided a stark contrast to the fascinating conversation that was taking place inside this little Italian restaurant.
My opening question clearly evoked some interesting memories as Katrina suddenly spluttered on the mouthful of coffee she’d been preparing to swallow…
Would you like to tell me about your audition for “Janis”?
Katrina: It was horrible!!
Composure and crockery safely reinstated, I continued by asking Katrina how she heard they were looking for people to play “Janis”.
Katrina: Basically, I wouldn’t be in “Love, Janis” if it wasn’t for Rob Clores, the keyboard player in the show’s band. A chance meeting in a bar brought Rob to a recent LUXX gig and when we met afterwards, he convinced me to audition for the role of “Janis”. And so I went down – I guess late January – to audition, which I thought was singing. I go in there; I sing “Piece Of My Heart” no problem. Then they dropped a script in my lap and told me to cold read lines.
Katrina: I was the worst actress! I was standing there… holding my script in front of forty people including Laura Joplin, Michael Joplin, the producer Randy, the Nederlanders, the Guttermans… all the people that backed this whole show and made it possible. And there’s me… a rock and roll singer that tours the country three hundred days a year never acted a day in my life… and I was so terrified, mortified… my legs were shaking… it was horrible! And I leave there going: “There’s NO way they are going to pick me… no WAY!” And I decided from that minute, regardless of whether I got the role or not, there’s no way I am ever going to be put in that position again.
So what did you do?
Katrina: I started acting lessons like the next day. I said I didn’t even mind if I don’t get the job… but boy, I found something that I was so bad at… I swear to God I ain’t never gonna be put in that position again, even if I don’t have any desire to act again. So for five weeks, I had acting lessons and they called me back in to audition once more. This time I was prepared and they never even asked me to read, they just wanted me to sing.
You got it?
Katrina: I got it! But they were really worried about my acting and like the fact that I wasn’t a “Broadway Person”. I am a “Rock and Roll Person”. But they wanted someone who was a little more well rounded. So I worked my ass off to become what I thought would be an asset to the show and as it turns out now I’m doing it, I’m better off being myself – which is what I am now.
Katrina was selected from an initial batch of a couple of hundred hopefuls and in two short weeks learned the role that other “Janis’” had taken five weeks to accomplish.
How do you feel about the amount of acting you do in the role?
Katrina: Well, I have to say I probably I have a clouded view of this and it feels like it’s a LOT of acting to me! Not more than singing though, I sing eighteen Janis Joplin songs.
Katrina: Uh-huh!! It’s a lotta work… yeah… and I act inter-twining all of it…
A whole new ball game?
Katrina: Yeah… and I am definitely enjoying it. Everyone at the theatre, as well as Eric Massimino and all the guys in the “Janis” band, have totally supported me in so many ways and are the reason I’m up there night after night! Amelia Campbell and Cathy Curtain, the speaking actresses I perform with, are mind blowin’ and I’ve learned so much from them. We’re each other’s alter egos; they play the Janis that the mum, dad, Laura and Michael knew and their script is taken directly from the letters that Janis wrote home. I’m the crazy, outrageous, singing Janis the world saw.
What has this role done regarding your opinion of Janis Joplin?
Katrina: I gotta be honest; a lot of people’s opinions vary. Like I’ve talked to a few people who have seen the show and they say they never realized she was so fucked-up. I am totally the opposite. I never realized how normal she was! To me she’s a very normal insecure musician. As a musician, if you’re not insecure you’re not going to tap into that part of the music that is a common thread between all humans. So when I saw Janis Joplin before doing the show, I saw some cocky, you know… Southern Comfort-swiggin’ bitch that could sing her ass off. I thought she was a tough girl.
Katrina: I think she’s a lot more like me than I ever imagined!
Or you’re like her??
Katrina: Or I’m like her, whatever!! She’s like all of us. She’s not this unattainable tough hard bitch you know… there are elements of her like that, like there are elements of me and you. She hitchhiked from Port Arthur, Texas to San Francisco to audition for this band and … she’s a lot more like us than I ever imagined.
What parallels have you come across between your life and Janis’ life?
Katrina: I knew I wanted to be a singer w-a-y before she did… she didn’t find out until she was seventeen or so… so I had had this dream a lot sooner. I left home… did drugs… did singing in clubs trying to find myself musically… was always trying to make my parents happy… feeling like singing music was the only time I don’t worry about what I look like or what people think of me – like it’s the weirdest thing, I almost feel like I become someone else the way I feel Janis did. And it’s not escaping, it’s releasing… it’s the only time in the world when I really don’t fuckin’ care what anyone thinks of me. But off stage, I’m a completely different person! So yeah… all of those things.
How do you prepare yourself for each performance?
Katrina: I have a ritual. I watch a video of Janis I got from a bootleg video store here. And why I do it is not to be like “OK, now I am Janis Joplin” it’s none of that crap… it’s for me to realise that I am playing a real person. And you know what? I NEVER try to imitate or pretend. But I watch this video so I remember, “Katrina you are playing a real person here… don’t fuck around, this isn’t about you”. You know, it’s not about me at all although, there’s a lot of “me” in this show. But I don’t want ever to forget that I am playing a real person and not a fictional character.
Knowing of Katrina’s commitment to her band, LUXX, I asked her if taking the part of “Janis” was a tough decision to make and did she see it as a springboard to a solo career.
Katrina: Yeah, it was hard… I am putting a hold on fifteen other people’s lives and I had to ask them how they felt about it. But the guys are so supportive; they wouldn’t have let me not take it. And as I am allowed to mention LUXX in any radio promotions as well as to sell our CDs in the lobby, I feel like this is just another expression of LUXX.
How about LUXX’s fans, are they coming to see “Love, Janis”?
Katrina: Oh yeah! There are LUXX fans at almost every show waving signs from places like Ohio… they really help me when I see them out there, it gives me a perspective about why I’m doing this.
What will you do if the producers ask you to extend your run as “Janis”?
Katrina: I don’t really know! I’ll wait and see… I really miss my boys, desperately. They came to the show the other night and I almost cried just looking at them it was so dooshi I was like, “My God”… but LUXX got offered a really good tour for the summer so there’s a lot of stuff going on; finally a couple of labels are coming to the table that might be “getting” this so hopefully we’ll have a record out later this year or early next year.
I saw “Love, Janis” shortly after this interview took place and it was – in a word -incredible. Not only was my initial assessment of Katrina’s vocal prowess accurate but also when she delivered her spoken lines, they came across so naturally it was like this role had been created especially for her. As for the musicians who were emulating the bands that had backed Janis, they quite simply rocked and they rolled like they were men possessed. A truly outstanding show in every sense and well worth the hop, skip and jump across the Atlantic.
POWERFILE: Katrina Chester
Hometown: Rockland County, New York where Katrina lived until she was seventeen.
Earliest memory of wanting to become a rock and roll singer: The chip was planted in Katrina’s mind the moment she saw Judy Garland on TV singing Somewhere Over The Rainbow.
First public performance: Katrina recalls being taken to NYC by her dad when she was five years old and getting paid for performing on commercials for things like bagels, toys and dog food.
Musical influences: Katrina’s father and mentor was the late, great session drummer, Gary Chester*, who advised her to eat, live, sleep and shit music if she wanted to be successful. Other influences: Freddy Mercury, Jim Croce, James Taylor, Judy Garland, Sarah Vaughn, Etta James, Bessie Smith, Led Zeppelin, Doors.
Career highlights to date: Forming LUXX; writing My Indian – Katrina’s first song; playing to 20,000 people at the Locabazooka Festival in Boston right after the World Trade Center attacks last September and the overwhelming experience of feeling so much unity.
Career lowlight to date: The crushing sense of disappointment when Push Records folded thereby shattering the expectations LUXX had been anticipating as a result of getting their first record deal.
East Coast or West Coast: East Coast.
Sound choice: Middle Eastern/South African World Music plus: Disturbed, Stone Temple Pilots, Limp Bizkit, Nickelback.
Guest appearances: Katrina has recently recorded and toured with Trans-Siberian Orchestra and appears on The Music Box, a track from their second album. In addition you can hear her perform some unique, Middle-Eastern sounding vocal work on Spiral, a track from Godsmack’s latest album, Awake.
LUXX lines: LUXX was formed in 1996 as a result of Ian Hatton seeing Katrina singing in a New Jersey club. Ian wanted Katrina to start writing with him although for several months he omitted to inform her about his associations with Bonham, the Honeydrippers and Paul Rogers! The initial consequence of this collaboration was fifteen songs and the short-lived record deal with Push Records. Undeterred, LUXX released their self-produced follow up CD, hydroponic, and successfully promoted it – without the support of a label – by touring for three hundred days a year, garnering a loyal fan base en route.
Currently featuring the skills of Silent Witness bassist Hal “Benny” Selzer together with Dave Silver (drums), LUXX have recently supported multi-platinum rockers Godsmack, Fuel and Saliva. Managed by Paul Geary – whose client list includes Godsmack – LUXX are now working with LA producer, John Travis who, together with Geary, is trying hard to find the perfect record company for them. LUXX’s current 6-track CD sampler, Underground is available through the store on www.luxx.com and looking forward, you’ll be able to hear the band on the Miramax soundtrack of the new Pauly Shore film, “You’ll Never Wiez In this Town Again” scheduled for release this year.
Katrina Chester’s performing abilities are truly dynamic and she believes passionately that LUXX has what it takes to make it. When I asked Katrina to describe her feelings for the band – whose name incidentally means “light” in Latin – she told me her dearest wish is for LUXX be given a chance to prove themselves and said: “When we get up on that stage, there is nothing else in the world that is more important than what we’re sharing. It’s just the most incredible thing I have ever felt.”
Let there be light.
Love, Janis musicians:
Daniel Cipriano – Sax, Rob Clores – Keyboards, Larry Etkin – Trumpet, Joel Hoelkstra – Guitar, Joshua Kessler – Guitar. Eric Massimino – Bass, Joe Stefko – Drums