Kate Pierson has spent the majority of her career in the service of either her long-running band The B-52s or another recording artist. Over the years, she’s backed up her friends in R.E.M. on their breakthrough album Out Of Time, sung a duet with Iggy Pop (“Candy”) and appeared on Here Lies Love, David Byrne and Fatboy Slim’s epic 2010 musical about Imelda Marcos. So news of her very first solo album, the recently released Guitars and Microphones, was one of those pleasant surprises, something that seemed so out of the ordinary yet made perfect sense.
Not that Pierson has leapt out of the gate completely on her own. On Guitars, she is aided by Grammy-winning songwriter Sia and features some guitar support from Strokes member Nick Valensi. And everything about the album feels like fresh territory for the famed singer. She applies that amazing brassy voice to swinging electro pop (“Bring Your Arms”), ‘60s girl group-inspired jams (“Matrix,” “Crush Me With Your Love”) and some gentler folk melodies (“Pulls You Under”).
Paste caught up with Pierson to talk about writing with Sia, keeping her voice in shape and returning to the “mothership” that is the B-52s.
: So how does it feel to finally get your first solo album out?
Kate Pierson: It actually feels really fantastic. It’s one of those lifelong dreams that…I hate to use the term “bucket list,” but I really wanted to do this before I go to the beyond. It’s something that I tried to do about 10 years ago. I wrote a whole solo album and was performing the songs at Joe’s Pub in New York, but then The B-52s started working on Funplex. But then our touring started slowing down a bit and it opened up some time for me to write this. It felt really right.
: Something that I appreciated about the album was that you weren’t just trying to replicate the sound of The B-52s. The music feels like it couldn’t have been made by anyone else.
Pierson: I think to make it like a B-52s record, I would have had to consciously do that. This music just naturally became me. And co-writing with the people I was working with, it became very eclectic. I had no goal in mind. It turned out to be much more pop than I had conceived at first. Not Top 40 pop, but something more quirky.
: Let’s talk about one of your co-writers, Sia. How did you wind up working with her?
Pierson: We’ve been friends with her for a few years, since about 2009 or something. Monica [Coleman, Pierson’s partner] is the one that reached out to her about helping me on this. I started writing some stuff, thinking of doing some writing sessions together, but we had all gone on this trip together to Mexico and visited a sea turtle rescue where we were able to see these eggs being reburied and see these turtles being hatched. After we got home, Sia called and said, “I’ve written this song for you, ‘Bring Your Arms,’ which was all about the sea turtle experience.” You wouldn’t know that the song was about that but it was so wonderful. It was so me. We started doing some more writing sessions in L.A. and I couldn’t believe how fast it was. We decided, “Let’s not second-guess anything.” It was all very un-self consciously done.
: You’ve said that the title track for the album is about your childhood, a time when you started playing music and when you started your first band. The women that you played with, as far as I know, didn’t pursue music like you did after those days. What do you think made you want to keep going?
Pierson: I always knew I wanted to be a singer and a musician. My father was a guitar player and played in a big band when he was young. He always played guitar at home and still has all his old guitars. That was the inspiration for the title. I was immersed in it all my life, playing records all the time: big band stuff, Yma Sumac, Perez Prado, Frank Sinatra. Then I started my own band, The Sun Donuts. It was that time where Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger were writing really political songs so we did the same, writing about civil rights and protest songs. The other two women in the band…I do keep in touch with one of them. She lives in Elk Heart, Indiana and has four kids. For me, I just knew. What I didn’t do was run away to New York to become a singer. I went to college instead. I wish I had the gumption to do that, but maybe I wouldn’t have ended up where I am.
: What I was also struck by is that, unlike so many other singers, your voice hasn’t changed much over the years. How do you account for that?
Pierson: After Cosmic Thing, I started taking voice lessons and learned about relaxing and really how not to hurt your voice. In-ear monitors have saved me too. When you’re standing in front of guitars and drums and nobody wants to turn down, Cindy [Wilson, the B-52s other female vocalist] and I would have a hard time hearing each other. Those in-ear monitors helped a lot so we’re not competing with everything else on stage. That and I never scream so I never get hoarse.
: Even as you’re getting ready to tour and promote this new album, you still have dates lined up for B-52s shows this year and likely beyond. Is that an easy thing to just fall back into without much worry?
Pierson: To me, it’s like the mothership. I want to keep doing solo stuff and establish myself, but it’s so great to get back with the band. It feels so comfortable and fun. Everyone’s been texting each other. We’re still friends after all these years. We still hang out after the show. Nobody goes their separate ways once we’re offstage.