Lightning has struck twice for Katharine Whalen. It happened in the ’90s, when the Squirrel Nut Zippers, the jump blues/hot jazz outfit the North Carolina native had formed with her then-husband, Jim Mathus, hit pay dirt, inadvertent stars of the neo-swing movement. Fast-forward ten years, past the release of her first solo album, Katharine Whalen’s Jazz Squad, the demise of the Zippers, the birth of daughter Cecelia Mae, now six, and the responsibilities of single motherhood.
Enter producer/player David Sale, the San Diego-based former leader of Camus, who was in North Carolina working on a rock project while also seeking a vocalist to demo some unorthodox material he was working up on the side. A mutual friend suggested Whalen, who was sufficiently curious to meet with him. Sale played a few of the songs on guitar, then put the demos in progress on a tape for her to listen to in her car. After learning the songs, Whalen returned to his rented house and sang them in the backyard for him. The moment Sale heard her tantalizingly idiosyncratic singing, he was hooked. “I guess my voice was intriguing to him,” she says, understating it. “I think it just led him down the garden path, basically.” At that moment of spontaneous combustion, Sale’s experimental demo project began its radical transformation into a collaboration between two artists who’d started out as perfect strangers — one of boldness, sophistication and wit.
This unlikely partnership of opposites has been captured on the thoroughly distinctive album, Dirty Little Secret (released June 6 on M.C. Records), much of it recorded in what Whalen calls her “music barn,” which sits behind the renovated farmhouse in Efland, North Carolina, where Katharine and Cecelia live. “Dizzying and dazzling,” raved Download.com in an early review, describing the music as “the Squirrel Nut Zippers crossed with Portishead.” Whalen, who has never heard Portishead, describes it in her typically down-to-earth way as “the marriage of David’s songwriting and my weird voice. It’s a bizarre sound.”
When Sale insisted that they write together, Whalen initially resisted. “I told him, ‘I’m not a songwriter,’” she recalls. “He said it would make it more personal — ‘and it’s not hard,’ he said. So he would lay back on this little couch on my porch, I’d have a Sharpie and a notepad and we would just talk. He’d say, ‘Write that down — that’s funny,’ or whatever, and we would figure out the story and the characters.” Whalen wound up co-writing seven of the 12 songs, and she was startled to find that those she hadn’t contributed to seemed to fit her just as perfectly. “It was eerie, because I didn’t know him, and I didn’t think he knew anything about me or my life, so I kept thinking, ‘How did he know that?’”
Those seeming insights weren’t the only mysterious elements Sales brought to the record. He also conjured up all manner of strange sounds on what Whalen describes as “a totally battered laptop. I kept asking him, ‘Who played the drums? Where’s the rest of the band?’ He played piano on the album, and some guitar, but everything else he got from the ethers.” She remains baffled by how Sales did it. “I’m a banjo player, for God’s sakes! It’s hard to be more antique than that. I don’t even have a computer.” Whalen does have a MySpace page, however, thanks to Sale. The Splinter Group is working on her proper website as this is written, nudging her into the 21st century.
Listening to Dirty Little Secret, it’s difficult to tell what century it comes from — or what planet, for that matter. Opener “The Funnest Game” sounds like the mash-up of the James Bond guitar lick, a tipsy New Orleans brass band and a frantic drum-and-bass groove, over which Whalen’s sultry vocal floats like an approaching summer storm front. After seeming to gather its senses on the title song, which features a chorus hook as big as the door of the barn where it was cut, the music goes every which way but loose. “Meet Me by the Fire” is a girl-group song from Bizarro Universe, and the intimate “Long,” on which Whalen’s voice is miked so close that it feels like she’s singing inside your head. “You-Who,” a rollicking rendition of a song from the Dylanesque 1997 Camus album, comes off like a refraction of Basement Tapes R&B; “Follow” pairs an ancient-sounding piano with a blip-blip that could be emanating from a malfunctioning microchip; and “Three Blind Mice” introduces Cab Calloway-like cartoon characters to quantized beats. It’s safe to say there’s nothing out there that sounds remotely like this album.
Whalen is delighted at the serendipity that enabled Dirty Little Secret to come into existence, not least because it has returned her to the realm of original music after a prolonged period of interpretive singing, beginning with her album of jazz standards and extending through a number of performances of music from Carolinian songwriters with the Greensboro Pops Symphony Orchestra. Newly inspired, she’s presently writing material for a future Americana project.
The next step is bringing the songs of her new album to life onstage, where she’ll be fronting the skilled blue-eyed soul trio Hobex, old friends of hers — which oughta give these tunes yet more intriguing twists and turns. “They’re just a great band,” she says, getting back into road mindset. “They’re versatile — and they’ve got a van,” she laughs. “They’ve got road cases for their equipment — the stuff you need.” That van will carry them to New York City, World Café and Mountain Stage, among other tour stops, and Whalen can’t wait to get started. But she realizes the degree of commitment that is required of her.
“After going through success once,” she says, “I know how much work it takes. It’s a difficult job being on the road, especially for a single mom. But we’ll put on a really good show, and I really think this record will surprise people.” Her Dirty Little Secret experience has brought Whalen no end of surprises herself, musical and otherwise — unusual for an artist with a platinum album hanging on her wall. “I had no idea I was getting my own bio,” she says in one disarmingly candid moment.