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  • Ben Province

Katie Cole on 'Rivers & Roads' EP, Touring with The Smashing Pumpkins

There's no secret formula that reveals what it takes to be successful in the music industry, but it's fair to say combining massive dreams with a big voice and versatile instrumental abilities is an excellent place to start.

That's the origin story of Australian singer-songwriter Katie Cole, whose Americana-tinged EP "Rivers & Roads" was released in May.

The five-track offering was mixed and engineered by Howard Willing, whose credits include Glen Campbell, Cheap Trick, Sheryl Crow, OK Go, and the Smashing Pumpkins, who Cole has regularly performed with live starting in 2015; she has sung and played multiple instruments with the band.

It was Willing who first invited Cole to fly to Los Angeles after learning he was one of three producers she would most like to work with. Using her own money, she accepted the offer, and the result would be the 2011 EP, "Lost Inside A Moment." But that was just the beginning of Cole's stateside musical journey.

Cole's ability to fill different roles comes into play on the new release, "Rivers & Roads." According to her website, the artist, who is now based in Nashville, sang every vocal part and was an electric guitarist and keyboardist, while being the sole writer of every song, and she also contributed to the EP's graphic design.

Among other credits in her career, Cole can be found on two albums by Glen Campbell, and she provided backing vocals on Dean Martin and Scarlett Johansson's recording of "I'll Be Home For Christmas," released in 2009 (mixed together years after Martin's 1995 passing).

Ben Province: As you've done on previous releases, you worked on "Rivers & Roads" with Howard Willing. Can you describe the impact he's had on your career?

Katie Cole: Howard has had a huge impact. One of the first things he taught me in the studio was casting the right players to play the right parts. This means that at any given time, Howard is factoring in a selection of players and what unique skills, energy or type of playing they can bring to the table. So it’s not about having a great player, but having the right great player in the room.

I know this opens up more questions. What is the right player? That is subjective. But some songs may require a player to be more interpretive or more folksy or bring more percussive elements to the session. Another important thing Howard taught me is that a song needs to be at its peak in demo form. If there are any weak spots, weak lyrics or slow sections, change them. A better recording of a good song won’t make it great. I generally rewrite my songs two-to-four times before I’m completely happy. I try to be objective about the impact of lyrics and melody. I’m really not that precious about rewriting. Your first idea isn’t always the best, and that’s OK.

BP: I saw that you tracked some of the EP at Sound Emporium Studios. With so much history that's happened there over the decades, how special was it to record at that studio?

KC: Sound Emporium has incredible history, with the founder having previously been responsible for artists like Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash. Nashville is full of blues and country music history in all the historic studios like SE and Blackbird, founded by Terry and Martina McBride. You don’t have to go far in Nashville to find out great music and artists have stood where you have.

BP: Can you describe how being a multi-instrumentalist guides your songwriting process?

KC: I have many different styles of songwriting. Sometimes, I like to write a melody and fill in the blanks, or more often, I will create a song title and concept first; then I will pair it with a melody. Overall, great songwriting, to me, is a combination of storytelling and raw emotion. Being able to play a few instruments isn’t a make-or-break for the actual songwriting process. It does allow me to work through how a song can sound and to produce a demo that will closely emulate what the finished product will sound like. But it doesn’t make me a better songwriter. Some songs I have partially written while in the shower or vacuuming. Having the ability to recognize and record an incoming idea is paramount. How you do that is somewhat irrelevant. I have thousands of short memos on my phone of partial ideas. Most sound terrible [laughs]. It’s how I end up rewriting that determines if an idea will become a great song or not.

BP: On your first LP, "Lay It All Down," you did the song "Penelope" with Kris Kristofferson. How did that collaboration come about?

KC: My collaborator Howard Willing was working with Kristofferson on an album with producer Don Was. This was very much a case of chance and the heavens opening up. Howard told me that he would ask Kris to listen to the song if there [was] time at the end of his session at Ocean Way studios in Los Angeles. I knew this was a million-to-one shot. But I remember at the end of that working day, I got a text from Howard, and it was a photograph of Kris Kristofferson holding the lyrics to “Penelope.” I just about died. So [Kris] tracked a background vocal part to the song that day, and the rest is history. I am very lucky. Very.

BP: I read that your early work led to you getting opening gigs for America, Glen Campbell and the Smashing Pumpkins. Take me through that process.

KC: It’s funny seeing these things written down. It makes it look like I had a plan or I submitted for opening slots for these artists and beep, boop, I performed [laughs]. I really feel like my life has been a series of random events that don’t connect in a linear fashion but do connect in hindsight. I moved from Melbourne, Australia to Los Angeles and started playing some shows and recording.

Howard and his label partner at the time, Julian Raymond, were working [with] several artists, including Glen Campbell. They asked if I wanted to open a few shows for Glen in Nev., and of course, I was thrilled. I got to dive into the music catalog of Glen Campbell and share the stage with him. It was amazing. At that time, they had also begun recording what would be [Campbell's album] “Ghost On The Canvas,” and had me sing on a few songs, too.

A couple of years later, after writing and recording two EPs and the LP “Lay It All Down,” I had an opportunity to do a performance for a charity. I was asked, as they thought I would pair well as a music guest with the legendary band America. So I, of course, agreed. The night was a huge hit, and I really enjoyed watching America play, too. So many great songs.

At this time, I was traveling back and forth from LA to Nashville for songwriting. I was playing shows, and I had some success on UK radio BBC Radio 2 with a few songs. My producer Howard, at this point, was working on an album with the Smashing Pumpkins called “Monuments to an Elegy.” Billy Corgan was familiar with me as an artist through our mutual connection, Howard. Billy asked Howard to ask me if I wanted to open up [his solo] show in Chicago at Ravinia Pavilion. This was in 2014. Then the following year, the Smashing Pumpkins were undertaking an acoustic-electro tour in 2015. Billy asked me to open up those shows in America. I agreed and was super excited. Before the tour had started, the conversation evolved; it led into asking me to play bass on a few songs to fill out the sound. So I did that double duty.

So I’d play a set of my songs, then run out [to] sell merch and take photos and then jump back on stage with the band. And then the following year, they did an extensive theater tour of the same kind, but brought back the original drummer Jimmy Chamberlin and the original guitarist James Iha ... I played bass on that tour also. It became a pretty organic evolution working with the band.

They saw I was capable of playing, singing and a true professional. So, my relationship started out as them knowing me as an artist, so me playing bass, guitar and keys along with singing.

Much like my touring relationship with the band, my recording relationship started much the same way. Billy asked me to sing a few [background vocal] parts on his solo album “Cotillions.” Then, while TSP were recording the 2020 album “Cyr,” he asked me to help create [background vocal] arrangements for the 20-song saga, then again on the 2022 three-part rock opera “Atum.” My role has just stretched and changed throughout the years based on what is needed. I’m versatile and I love a challenge. I’ such a fan of the band and really like I’m part of the Pumpkins family. It’s been eight years now. I’m so grateful for the all amazing opportunities and experiences they have afforded me.

BP: Do you have a favorite song to play live with them?

KC: No, that’s definitely a moving target. Each live show, a different song may stand out. That’s true for playing with the Pumpkins as much as it is for playing my own material. I think “Time on My Hands” will always be one of my favorites of mine to sing [and] perform. That song forces that emotion out of you.

Note: Interview was conducted by email and has been edited.


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