Interview: Catherine Popper, four-string extraordinaire

Interview: Catherine Popper, four-string extraordinaire

We meet in the warm and comfy surroundings of New York City’s Flux Studios, where Charlotte native Catherine Popper is busy recording with hardcore-punk pioneer Jesse Malin for his next solo record. On the other side of the studio glass, Lucinda Williams is sat in the producer’s chair – the multiple-Grammy-winning Americana veteran is one of a laundry list of A-list stars that Popper has worked with in her career, including Jack White, Willie Nelson, Norah Jones and, perhaps most famously, as a key creative component of Ryan Adams & The Cardinals for the classic Cold Roses album and beyond.

“She’s just a doll,” says Popper of her producer for the day. “Jesse invites all of our opinion, he does about 10 takes of a track. With Ryan, we had never heard the song and would be recording it trying to figure out what was coming next… like a G chord, or whatever. It’s cool that he trusts me – I’m a little sloppy, I’m not the player you call if you want precision. It’s going to be different each time.”
Finding your feet
Popper’s relationship with the bass guitar came in a roundabout way – she started out playing piano and violin before she discovered her calling, thanks to a brush with the law… “I was a really big Police fan and saw Sting,” she recalls. “After that, I was in an orchestra playing bass, for some reason they let me. I was a weird fucking kid!”
It was clearly the right decision. Popper’s knack for the four-string saw her earn a place at the Manhattan School Of Music, and she stayed in the city after graduating, earning her keep playing upright bass in the Big Apple’s jazz clubs. It was while playing in and around New York that she would first cross paths with Jesse Malin. The former D Generation frontman had released his debut solo record, The Fine Art Of Self Destruction, in 2002 and it had a huge impact on the wider New York scene at the time. Little did Catherine know, however, that the pair would soon strike up an enduring, fruitful creative relationship… “
We were on the periphery,” says Popper, laughing when we ask if the two moved in similar circles at the time. “We had spent time together but never really talked much, although we had danced around different people like Joseph Arthur. The Fine Art Of Self Destruction is one of my favourite records, so when he asked me to play with him, I was super-stoked. This is easily one of my favourite bands that I’ve toured with.
Popper with her “fucking awesome” 1966 Fender Precision Bass“I really like Jesse’s work ethic and enjoy listening to him do business on the phone, he’s so ‘New York’ and he reminds me of a New York that I kind of miss, the personalities. He makes it fun, eats healthy and there’s not a lot of drugs around. Everything just fits really well, I’m friends with everybody.”
Malin’s debut was also Ryan Adams’ first go-around as a record producer, and it didn’t take long for Popper to move into the Heartbreaker singer’s orbit. Then, in 2004, Adams fell off stage and broke his arm, forcing the workaholic guitarist to take some time out and think about what he was going to do next. The result was initially a collaboration between Adams and singer-songwriter JP Bowersock, but their next call was Popper, and with the addition of drummer Brad Pemberton and steel guitarist Cindy Cashdollar, Ryan Adams & The Cardinals was born. “I loved being in that band with Catherine Popper – she was amazing,” Adams later reflected. “She was my good friend and I love her playing. The band were balanced because of Cat. I could never have made Cold Roses, one of my favourite records, without Catherine.”
That Cardinals debut still stands out as one of Adams’ most enduring and beloved of his superhumanly prolific career to date, and Popper looks back on her time in the band fondly. “It’s special to me for certain reasons,” she explains. “I’m often amazed that it translates for people, I’ll be on tour and a stage hand will come up to me shaking and talk about that record. People have an affinity with Cold Roses; I’m surprised how much it affected people. For me, I’ll think about what happened on a certain day, there’s a lot of subtext. It was a very dynamic time for all of us in that band, there was a lot that was messy which I think made it very exciting. I think in any band, you write these songs that people love and it can feel like you’re chasing the dragon when you play them again. It was a wild experience and I’m still tired from those days. It was stuff you can only do when you’re young and I wasn’t even that young at the time, I was in my early 30s.”
Night shift
The Cardinals set a different tone for Adams, and the era, with outlaw-country bar rockers, road songs and Neil Young flavoured wild-prairie laments – all wrapped up in abundant guitar arrangements recorded through the night. “We’d be recording until noon the next day,” says Popper, “and there was a lot of screaming and arguing with Black Sabbath playing in the background, and things like smoking on the tour bus, so you’d be breathing in this recycled air all the time… but we were all so into it, the record is a snapshot of that time.”
Adams has suggested that Cold Roses emerged from a conviction to “keep his job” and not make zeitgeist-y records, but ones that would keep selling long after their release. It’s not a stretch to say that the double-album was his attempt to record an Exile On Main St.-style long listen. “It’s literally like a Stones record where everybody remembers and everyone was there!” Popper chuckles. “I walked in one night and there were people from other bands just sleeping on the studio floor. I was like: ‘What are you doing here… and why the fuck would you want to be here!?’ When we were recording Cherry Lane, Ryan wanted to take the microphone out into the street and record in the traffic or something… but then we needed the sound of glass smashing in the bathroom… but then who’s gonna clean up the glass? It was hard a lot of times, but he’s also one of the funniest people I’ve ever met.”

Adams followed up Cold Roses with the second of his three long-players released in 2005. Jacksonville City Nights, which featured Popper, head in hands, on the cover. It was Adams at his most confessional and plaintive – a country record delivered without a hint of irony.
“The way the record was recorded was even more important than the songs,” says Popper. “Ryan would come raging in, like: ‘Let’s go, hit record,’ and Tom Schick, the producer, would be like: ‘But none of the microphones are on…’ but we’re hitting record anyway, because we had to capture the duet [Dear John] with Norah Jones!
“He sat down at the piano with her and it was so amazing to watch. It’s funny, because I know Norah well [the pair perform together in alt-country band Puss N Boots] and she doesn’t record that way! I was so proud of her, because I could tell she was uncomfortable not quite knowing the song, but it really works and it’s so dynamic. You can hear feet slipping off the pedals because one of the mics isn’t on and you’re hearing it on the room mic, that’s one of my favourite things about that record.
“I remember recording When The Rope Gets Tight, which later became Don’t Fail Me Now, Ryan was so drunk I was leaning in to sing, play bass and then drop down a beat. It made a lot of sense and that worked, following him and singing at the same time, I didn’t know the song and was trying to catch those downbeats and the vibrato. It was so late and we were fucked up and high.”
NC state of mind
Throughout their time together, Popper and Adams – both originally hailing from North Carolina – shared a beautifully dishevelled partnership, which brought the instinctive energy of the studio to The Cardinals’ live sound.
“We sang well together,” Popper reflects on their collaboration. “The first time I sang live, I really didn’t want to do it. I’m not shy with a bass in my hand, but the microphone thing was new for me. I was feeling intimidated and Ryan came in with a bottle of whiskey and a butcher’s knife and said: ‘Look at these while you sing.’ I remember listening back to Why Do They Leave? at the Ryman and was like: ‘Holy shit, we sound great, like we’re mad at each other.’”
Popper remained with The Cardinals during the recording sessions that spawned III/IV – an album that was rejected by his label at the time and eventually appeared in 2010 – and his Cardinals-backed 2007 solo record Easy Tiger. The sessions for the latter, however, saw a change in approach to more orthodox recording techniques, as well as a significant overhaul of personnel – including Popper’s departure.

“It’s a lot less interesting than people think it is; it was just time,” Popper insists of her reasons for leaving the project behind. “He switched producers and Jamie [Candiloro] came in to record at Electric Lady. I’m on a couple of tracks, I’ll hear them some place and be like: ‘That’s me’.”
Popper’s stint in The Cardinals was obviously a creative and memorable one, but as if to confirm that she’s closed the book on her time in the band, she’s recently parted ways with a vital piece of equipment from her Cardinals era – and she doesn’t, in truth, sound overly sentimental about letting go of it.
“I just sold the Guild Starfire that I played on all the Ryan records,” Popper explains. “I need $3,000 more than I need a bass that I don’t play anymore and I’m always disappointed with the sound. I have a ’66 Fender Precision, which is fucking awesome
to play. People say to me: ‘I can’t believe you travel with that’, and I’m like: ‘I don’t want to play music if I’m not on that bass’.
“Eventually, I’d like a nice little Mustang or Tele Bass,” Popper says. “I use flatwound strings to brighten the sound on the P-Bass with Ashdown amps, they give it a nice woody tone so it doesn’t end up sounding like a tampon commercial!”
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