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Kitty Margolis...The Interview

Kitty Margolis Kitty Margolis
On her new CD, singer Kitty Margolis draws listeners into her world.

"Left Coast Life" (Mad-Kat Records) is Margolis’ fourth recording and her most personal to date. Using a mix of original songs, pop standards and unconventional covers, the San Francisco-based vocalist illuminates and celebrates the attitudes and characters found out West. "Jaded poseur modern cool," she writes in "You Just Might Get It. "Style over substance is the cardinal rule."

Each song - whether its Frank Loesser’s lovely "Spring Will be a Little Late This Year" or "Pink Floyd’s barbed "Money" - serves as a road map into Margolis’ life and the terrain she shares with the dreamers, scamps and free spirits in her native California.

Like her music, Margolis is complex, smart and funny. She recently talked to JazzReview about her new CD. Along the way, she shared stories about going to the legendary Fillmore as a kid, attending Harvard and running her own record label. Your new CD has been described as your most personal, yet. Is that true?

Kitty Margolis: "In a way it is. I think it reflects more of my life. Part of the goal is to reflect my own experience in my singing rather than just pull generic repertoire. All of my recordings are somewhat autobiographical, but I would say this was more so." Did "Left Coast Life" start out as a concept album or did it happen to come together as one?

Kitty Margolis: "It’s funny you should ask. Traditionally, I have never started an album with a concept. What happens is I start collecting tunes and then I narrow the list to what speaks most to me at the time I’m making the album. I start arranging the songs and recording them. It so happens at the end, and it’s happened for the last three albums, the theme has emerged organically from my unconscious I would say. I have never had a title for an album before I started it. Each one of my albums has had a pretty strong theme. It’s something that has announced itself at the end rather than the beginning." How would you describe the West Coast attitude and lifestyle?

Kitty Margolis: "It’s pretty complex isn’t it? It’s a meeting place for a lot of different cultures. People come here for all kinds of reasons. I was lucky to be born here. This is a place that attracts different types of people. In the first paragraph of my liner notes I name a lot of the types of people who congregate here. One thing that stands out about people here to me is a kind of a pioneer spirit and a high tolerance for risk and adventure. There are lots of different directions you can go with that. In my music you will hear lots of different influences. I grew up not even realizing there was such a thing as categories in music. I would go to the Fillmore, a little 11-year-old kid, and see Miles Davis on the same bill as the Dead or B.B. King on the same bill as Cream. I didn’t realize that Miles is jazz, and Dead is a jam band. I thought everybody was jamming and improvising, and they were. A lot of different cultures meld here, and I think that shows in my music." There are two original songs on the CD. "It’s You" is a love song. (Joyce Cooling composed the music, and Margolis wrote the lyrics.) How did that one come about and fit into the overall CD?

Kitty Margolis: "It was a song that was written a long time ago that I have always wanted to record. Other people have recorded it. I recently found out that it’s a cult club hit in Japan right now. People have recorded it Japan recently. It’s an old song from the mid-‘80s. I had never recorded it for a CD. I just made demos of it. It’s a song that I have always liked, and I wanted to do my own version of it." How about "You Just Might Get It"?

Kitty Margolis: "That’s a brand new song that I wrote. It’s one of the ones that's getting a lot of radio play. It talks about some of those characters that you meet out here as well. You know, I think there is room for humor in jazz." Are you doing a lot of writing these days?

Kitty Margolis: "My writing efforts have mostly been concentrated in the areas of lyric writing and arranging. That’s the first full-on tune that I have done and recorded. It’s getting a groovy response. That’s encouraging to write more. It’s a good thing to do. The only thing stopping anybody from writing is their own sense of their own limitations." You also do some covers that aren’t jazz songs or even about California, but you make them work on this CD. Pink Floyd’s "Money" is an interesting choice.

Kitty Margolis: "My husband, Alfonso Montuori, came up with the idea. He’s the co-producer of the album. Wow, think about it. What’s happened in the Bay Area in the last 10 years? What did we see happen? Half the people in my band had to leave because they couldn’t afford to buy homes here. I think the lyrics are as pertinent now as when that song first came out. Money is something that everyone has been flocking to the West Coast to get. This is the center of the dot-com explosion and implosion. During the time that I made the album that’s exactly what happened. When I started making it, we were in a completely different place then when we ended up. That song fits the ride up and the ride down." How about Tom Waits’ "Take it With Me?"

Kitty Margolis: "I love that tune What do you take with you when you go? What is that? It’s love. That’s what the song meant to me. It’s about what really matters. It’s kinda the polar opposite of a tune like ‘Money’ or ‘You Just Might Get It’ or ‘Lonely at the Top.’ Those songs are kind of tongue in cheek. I guess you could say there’s a little social commentary on the album." You also did a version of Frank Loesser’s "Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year." That was a nice fit.

Kitty Margolis: "It’s a song that I have always liked. My father was very ill. I was actually singing that song when he died. If you hear a lot of emotion in that song, that’s the song I associate with losing him. That’s a part of my life. After Sept. 11, I think it’s a song that can apply to any loss." You spoke about growing up in San Francisco at a time when music was free of categories. Do you recall the first concert you went to?

Kitty Margolis: "I don’t know the first concert, but I saw Hendrix and Joplin and Miles and B.B. and Airplane and Dead, all these cats.

You know what really stands out in my mind was the first jazz club I went to. I might have seen jazz at the Fillmore, but I didn’t realize what it was. It was all music to me, which was great. There have always been musical categories, but I grew up without any consciousness of them, which was really cool. I was blessedly free of that. Nobody said to me this is folk and that’s country and this is blues.

I remember I was going to school at Harvard, and I went to New York to visit my aunt and uncle. My uncle somehow ended up taking me to the Village Vanguard. I remember clearly walking down the stairs and seeing this amazing cat with this crazy hat on and these dark glasses. He had three saxophones in his mouth. I was just transfixed. A little bit later in the evening he had two flutes he was playing through his nose. It turned out to be the great Rahsaan Roland Kirk. I mean I had a major paradigm shift right there and then. He just rocked my world. That was the moment, looking back on it, that it had to be jazz for me." What were you like when you were growing up?

Kitty Margolis: "You really want to know? I was a loner, pretty sensitive. I was a reader. I read a lot. I didn’t have a lot of friends, not really popular. I always enjoy saying that the people who end up as jazz singers were not the ones who were cheerleaders in high school. I think it’s so true. I was an outsider. I was a musician, starting in fourth grade. There was a shift that happened when I got my first guitar. I went from being kind of a little intellectual, unpopular kid into being a hip chick with a guitar at 12. People didn’t know what to think of me then." What were you doing at 12? Joni Mitchell songs?

Kitty Margolis: "Exactly. Joni Mitchell. Joan Baez. Bonnie Raitt. The holy trinity of folkie diva queens. I loved all these groups like the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Crosby, Stills, all those harmony groups. I credit a lot my understanding of harmony in jazz to having to figure out the harmonies in those groups to teach them to other girls to sing." Joni Mitchell is interesting. She does the jazz thing, too.

Kitty Margolis: "Yes. I didn’t hear ‘Twisted’ by Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. I heard it by Joni Mitchell. I’m sure that I’m the same as every other girl my age. They didn’t know who Lambert, Hendricks and Ross were. That song isn’t a Joni Mitchell tune, but we thought it was. God bless her for bringing Lambert, Hendricks and Ross to the folk lexicon. Then you go out and find out who Lambert, Hendricks and Ross are." Then you went and attended Harvard. How did that time, other than the trip to the Village Vanguard, influence you?

Kitty Margolis: "That’s when I got into my first working band. You know the free newspapers that are in every city? In Boston, there’s the Boston Phoenix. I picked up a copy of the Phoenix my third, fourth or fifth week of school and looked in the want ads. There was an ad saying, ‘Singer wanted for Western swing group. Must have experience and play rhythm guitar.’ I answered the ad. I had experience in the sense that I had been performing with my friends in high school, but I wasn’t allowed to be in bands. My parents, rightly so, didn’t want me running around in clubs at that age. I faked my way into the band. These were guys who had nothing to do with Harvard or any other university. They had graduated and were full-time professional musicians. I got in the band and moonlighted as a Western swing rhythm guitarist and harmony singer. While I was going to school during the day, we would tour around Boston and greater New England on the weekends and sometimes on the weeknights. I was pulling off this double life. It was quite a challenge to keep my grades happening, but I managed to do that. I was majoring in interesting stuff film, photography.

But, after spending two years there, I ultimately decided to take a year off. I came back here and realized I didn’t want to go back there. What I wanted to study wasn’t there. San Francisco State University had a world-renowned broadcasting and communication arts program, inside of which was a recording studio. I wanted to get my hands in the recording studio. I enrolled there and became a broadcasting major because you had to be a major to take the recording studio arts classes. That served me well now as I make my own albums. At State, there was also a strong jazz program with John Handy, who taught history of jazz, and Hal Stein, who taught jazz improvisation. I moved to North Beach and was near the Keystone. That’s when the jazz thing started for me. It turned out to be a good move although a lot of people think it was stupid to drop out of Harvard. I think it was the best thing I could have done. Anyway, it’s much chicer to be a Harvard dropout then it is to graduate. Bonnie Raitt is a Harvard drop out." Is that when you started hanging around the legendary Keystone?

Kitty Margolis: "Hanging out and performing. My teacher Hal Stein he had a Saturday night gig in North Beach. Long standing. But, he didn’t want to do it any more. He gave it to me, and said, ‘It’s yours now,’ trial by fire. I had this Saturday night gig and had to figure out how to do it. So, there I was." Has the jazz scene changed much?

Kitty Margolis: "My jazz scene has changed. I hardly ever play in the Bay Area any more. I mostly tour. As your career progresses, that’s a healthy thing. It’s hard to say if the jazz scene has changed or if my jazz scene has changed. You know a lot of the old timers are gone. One thing I treasure about my earlier years here is that I got a chance to know so many of the real heavyweights in jazz. I think it’s important for the generations to mingle together. Hanging out with the older cats, listening to their stories, is the most valuable thing." You also run your own record own label.

Kitty Margolis: "That’s right baby. You’re talking to the boss. I’m not only the client, I’m the boss. It’s a lot of work. I wish there were three of me." Why did you decide to start your own label?

Kitty Margolis: "I don’t think the music industry really encourages a lot of innovation from female jazz singers with exceptions of course. There are a few labels that do. I guess the reason is to have control of our own music and our own sound, to choose the people I work with, to choose the material myself. I guess basically you would call that an artistic control freak. It’s been a really rewarding way to go. There’s lots of work, but a lot of rewards." What’s next for you?

Kitty Margolis: "I’m setting up gigs for 2002. I’m working on a European tour in May and a couple of other nice things. There will be some more recordings fairly soon."

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Kitty Margolis
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