By Andy Langer, Fri., July 16, 1999
Admitting their band "still needs a lot of development," Kitty Gordon co-founders Mark Addison and Nina Singh are perhaps the only two music industry insiders who have heard the local act's seven-song EP, Seven, and not thought "huge advance," "bidding war," and "radio-ready." Whether the duo's reluctance to hype their own project is a defense mechanism against the backlash that generally accompanies nextbigthing status, or because the break-up of Addison and Singh's last grab at the major label brass ring, the Borrowers, is still fresh enough to sting, Kitty Gordon are remaining cautious.
"There are other things you need beyond a radio-ready song," says Singh. "For starters, you have to have a band and a show to back it up."
Since March, when Kitty Gordon was first unveiled at South by Southwest 99's high-profile ASCAP showcase, Singh and Addison have been working virtually day and night on turning their Borrowers side project into a full-fledged band with a full-blown stage show. Roadblocks are obvious; first and foremost, the origins of Kitty Gordon lie in Addison's home studio, not the stage. And while some locals might confuse this incarnation of the band with an earlier project featuring Will Sexton and Stephen Doster, Kitty Gordon '99 is all Addison and Singh: they co-write the songs, and save for a few exceptions, they play all the instruments on their self-produced recordings.
In fact, considering that only a handful of their Wednesday night gigs at Steamboat have been cohesive, Seven isn't just Kitty Gordon's saving grace, it's also the reason their "development" is so fascinating; watching them try to live up to their debut is as satisfying and fun as if they already did. That's because Seven is a virtually flawless 24 minutes of pop. It's tender and cheeky, authoritative and nonchalant, and clearly more than just the latest post-Lilith "chick-rock" entry. If tunes like "Enuff" and "Dead Letter" sound like Sheryl Crow or Patti Griffin's best moments, they also sound wholly organic and original -- like the basement tapes they are. Better yet, while it's Singh and not Addison fronting Kitty Gordon on tape and in conversation, it's clear both are reveling in finding such fruitful common collaborative ground.
"Nina and I realized we were of the same mind as far as writing," explains Addison. "What words mean and what things should sound like. And we're still discovering. For a period of time -- literally every day -- we'd find another thing that we could both do exactly the same way."
Last fall, after the Borrowers completed what would become their second and final recording, Addison and Singh spent several months of 17-hour days cutting songs in Addison's basement studio. Exactly who would front Kitty Gordon was still a mystery; Addison sang for the Borrowers, with Singh drumming, but Kitty Gordon called for two voices. Then they listened to the tapes.
"It became apparent halfway through the recording process that our artistic voices, or at least the way they came through on tape, were perhaps more different than we thought -- two separate personalities," says Addison.
After toying with the idea of putting out a two-CD set, with one disc devoted to each singer, or a one-from-Addison/one-from-Singh flip-flop affair, Addison eventually bowed out of the running. By his own admission, he'd become less and less confident in his abilities to front a band again, while Singh was becoming more and more comfortable singing. Despite "girl-pop" winning out, Seven is as diverse as seven pop songs can be: full-on rockers mixed with dense loop-driven textures, quiet piano ballads, and perfectly middle-of-the-road radio fodder.
"The CD is a taste of where we could go without going too far in any one direction," says Singh.
"It's a calling card," asserts Addison. "It's like, 'Here's a little about us. And by the way, we're reserving the right to define ourselves however we see fit in the future.'"
The biggest clues as to how Singh and Addison might eventually approach decisions concerning Kitty Gordon's sound and business strategies may lie within the pair's personal biographies, as well as in the nuts and bolts of the Borrowers' saga. For starters, both Singh and Addison are from unusually musical families. Singh, who spent her formative years in Vancouver, grew up in a family that doubled as a performing troupe. Featuring her mother on sitar, father on harmonium, brother on tablas, and her dancing and singing along with the rest of her brothers and sisters, Singh came of age playing music in a traditional Indian ensemble.
Just as Singh's family was naturally supportive of her drumming, the London-born Addison grew up in London, New York, and Cleveland internalizing the talents of a rotating cast of singers and musicians his father, a conductor/ opera teacher, brought home for rehearsals. After a rough start on the family's pair of baby grand pianos, Addison eventually switched to guitar. Spending most of the Eighties getting nowhere in a series of popular Cleveland bar bands, he got what looked like a major break in 1987. According to Addison, director/screenwriter Paul Schrader based his heartland rock & roll story Light of Day, starring Joan Jett and Michael J. Fox, on one of Addison's bands, the Generators. In return, a long-haired, virtually unrecognizable Addison made a brief cameo as part of just such a bar band, which featured another struggling Cleveland musician, Nine Inch Nail-to-be Trent Reznor. After the film's release, Addison gave up music and began working odd jobs and driving a cab.
"Light of Day was part of what got me to quit music," says Addison of his late-Eighties hiatus from performing. "It was one of those, 'Oh my god! It's Hollywood!' things that doesn't mean anything. All that shit is absolutely meaningless. All that means anything in the music business is doing the fucking work -- writing the songs and recording as true as you can to the music. All this other shit, which is so easy to get affected by, doesn't matter. With that thought in mind, I moved to Los Angeles."
Like Addison, Singh eventually moved to Los Angeles. After chasing session work and a better-forgotten tour of duty with Johnny "Guitar" Watson, Singh wound up quitting music as well, opting to work in a Vancouver drum shop. When she returned to Los Angeles two years later, she wound up living in her car and reluctantly joining Savannah Blue, an all-women country/pop outfit. By the time she hooked up with Addison, his former acoustic duo the Borrowers had grown into a full-fledged outfit with bassist Josef Zimmerman and violinist Joshua Segal.
The new Borrowers lineup never had much trouble getting small club gigs in Los Angeles, but then neither did they catch on as quickly as the other acoustic guitar/violin acts they preceded like Dave Matthews or Counting Crows. After landing a publishing deal at their first SXSW showcase in 1994 -- on which they were paired with Will Sexton -- the Borrower's found their biggest fan and de facto booking agent in Austin: Will Sexton.
"Will would drag us down here kicking and screaming," says Singh. "He'd say, 'You better come for two weeks -- I've got you 10 nights of gigs lined up.'"
Procuring management at their second SXSW appearance, and a record deal just after a third, the Borrowers released their debut on Guardian Records, a short-lived offshoot of Capitol/EMI's classical label, Angel, which apparently saw the group as their ticket to success at adult radio. Despite a debut single, "Beautiful Struggle," spending six months on the AAA charts, the record itself sold less than 10,000 units, and today, Addison and Singh blame the failure on Guardian -- an operation that unknowingly allowed a promotions staffer to pick the Borrowers' second single.
"The promotions woman told us the whole label wanted a song called 'Jasmont's Rain' for the second single," recalls Addison. "We fought vehemently against it for a week. They put it out anyway and it died instantly. We found out later she'd convinced the label it was all our idea when they were actually against it all along."
By the time Guardian folded in 1997, Addison and Singh decided to stop their constant commute and move to Austin for good. At the same time, Segal began moonlighting with Joan Baez, Lisa Loeb, and the Indigo Girls, while Zimmerman also pursued other projects. To make matters worse, Addison says he became increasingly uncomfortable with how democratic the band had become. When work began on what became an Internet-only second release, Overcoming Gravity, the band had resorted to flipping coins to decide where they'd eat breakfast. By the time the album was finally available, Addison was back in Los Angeles to produce an album for singer-songwriter Mia Sharp, a three-month stint that left Singh in Austin with nothing to do.
"I realized I had all these songs Mark and I had written and I started going out and doing open mikes," relates Singh. "It was like, 'What the fuck else am I gonna do? I'm bored.' The Borrowers had been all I was doing. It wasn't like L.A., where I could go out and play all sorts of gigs with different bands. I was really into having the band. And when everyone was gone I realized, 'Holy shit! I have absolutely no other outlet.'"
After Sexton and Doster agreed to back Singh for a series of informal gigs at the Speakeasy, Addison returned to Austin in time to catch a Flipnotics show where the duo's material held its own against an all-star band featuring Sexton, Doster, Pat MacDonald, and David Baerwald. That's when longtime Ian Moore manager Jan Mirkin encouraged Singh to take the plunge and pursue Kitty Gordon as a serious project. Upon her agreement, Addison and Singh recorded 35 songs, pairing them down to Seven for a scheduled SXSW release. After a sole, shaky pre-conference gig, Kitty Gordon, now featuring Addison, bassist George Reiff, drummer J.J. Johnson, and guest pianist Tony Scalzo of Fastball, made their local and industry debut at SXSW. With the buzz advance copies of the album had generated, and on the strength of the showcase, Kitty Gordon received a slew of post-SXSW interest from label suitors.
"We're totally disinterested in a major-label deal," claims Addison. "The surest way to kill your creativity and to put your career in the hands of someone who has no idea what you're about is to do a major deal. We have kind of said we're not going to do it."
To that end, Singh and Addison have agreed to what they call a "down-home partnership" with Matchbox Records, the burgeoning local indie that has had surprising success with Podunk and Cadillac Voodoo Choir. According to Addison, the Matchbox deal is essentially a licensing agreement. Although the label will release and promote Kitty Gordon's full-length debut as early as fall, the band will own its own masters and retain complete creative control.
"There's nobody we're involved with who believed they should have anything to say creatively," Addison says. "It's one thing to be picked up by a major label when you've proved something already and have the clout to say 'no,' and another thing when you're still developing. What are the chances of finding a major label interested in development?"
With their Matchbox debut in the can, Kitty Gordon is once again focusing on their live show, including a stint on the second stage of Austin's Lilith Fair date next Tuesday. In fact, now that Singh has given up her stint in Trish Murphy's band -- also on Lilith's second stage -- and Addison has left Ian Moore's latest lineup (he produced the experimental Ian Moore's Got the Green Grass), both say they're fully committed to bringing Kitty Gordon the live entity up to par with Kitty Gordon the studio animal. The process should play itself out naturally, according to Addison, just like their major label-free career path.
"Live, we're a five-piece band. It's not like we're paying a couple of sidemen. But Kitty Gordon in the studio, up to now, is just Nina and I, writing and performing the songs. It's up to our discretion as people blossom in the band to see how they fit into the studio. Right now, we're a quasi-band -- we're still developing, ya know?"