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Having established herself with remarkable tributes to Janis Joplin and Led Zeppelin, Kansas City native Kat Bowser has electrified audiences with her powerful voice and thrilling covers of songs with deep origins in the blues, not to mention some of the best music to have been inspired by it. She has had plenty of opportunities to record over the years, but live performance had long been her forte. It was that which brought her to Fort Wayne from Nashville, the chance to share her love of Joplin on the occasion of the singer’s 70th birthday. With a packed crowd at C2G, Bowser earned plenty of Indiana fans, including one particular local icon who helped inspire her to take this music to the recording studio. “This is all Doc West’s fault,” says producer Mark Hornsby, which leads Bowser to laugh in agreement. “When Kat performed at that Janis show, Doc was blown away, and he and Kat just really hit it off. He’s been a big advocate for bringing more rock and blues stuff up here, and he really encouraged us to record.”
Of course, that was hardly a stretch, since Hornsby also works at Sweetwater Sound, which happens to have a world-renowned recording studio at the heart of a legendary music business. While much of Fort Wayne may not fully appreciate it, Sweetwater has established the Summit City as a leading resource for recording and for technology and gear, making it a haunt for some legendary performers over the years.
“People don’t realize that we have celebrity musicians in here on a weekly basis, and some people have no idea what Sweetwater is,” says Hornsby. “We have the ability to bring in some famous session musicians, and we thought it would be a great opportunity for Kat to record some of this great blues music that she does so well.”
“The concept was born from working with my band,” adds Bowser. “The Band of Blues are dear friends and well known within the industry, and I wanted the collaborative effort of working on this record. I was excited by the people in the band and the musicians we could bring to work on it.”
Bowser and Hornsby began working with guitarist Mitch Gallagher, also from Sweetwater, on choosing songs which could best display Bowser’s talents and could bring their blues concept to life. As Bowser notes, there are many forms of blues – from the swampy, gritty sound to the jazz-tinged swing of New Orleans. Finding a way to bring that all together fell to the trio as they chose what songs they wanted to include in the collection.
“The process of finding 20 songs to start with, in a world of music where there are so many songs out there, led us to find powerful blues songs that we could make our own,” says Gallagher. “It’s challenging to find just the right songs. The process was arduous.”
But clearly fun for the trio who have been perfecting the sound for more than a year, trying to find their own voice in the songs. Hornsby divides the final selection of songs into three categories: those that will be recognizable, those that are original to them or have not been previously recorded and those that are somewhat hidden treasures by well-known artists. One of the latter is “Half Moon,” from Joplin’s last album, Pearl.
“Janis resonated with a lot of people, so it can be dangerous to cover her songs, which is why not very many people record those songs,” says Hornsby.
“It’s treading on holy ground,” says Bowser.
“So you can be setting yourself up by doing that because fans of Janis’s can be very critical. But I think Kat’s versions of the songs resonate with audiences, and you could see that at the C2G show. Kat puts her own stamp on it and really does make it her own.”
Then, once a set of songs were chosen, it was time to tap into the talent already drawn to Sweetwater, and that has seen some of the country’s most legendary session musicians step to the plate as part of Bowser’s album. Among them John “J.R.” Robinson whose credits include work with Quincy Jones, Barbra Streisand, Rufus, Lionel Richie and Steve Winwood, not to mention work on films and as the drummer for “We Are the World.” Robinson is also acclaimed as the most recorded drummer in the world, and now Bowser joins his impressive list of credentials.
While bringing together top-drawer talent for the project, the aim is still very true to the blues, says Gallagher.
“The trick is to not over-think it,” he says. “We want to keep things fresh, and we never played a song more than three times so we could keep that freshness and spontaneity.”
“Most of the songs are being recorded in one take,” says Hornsby.
While Bowser reiterates that the primary drive to make the album was the fun of collaboration with fellow musicians, there is definitely interest in promoting it once it’s released, hopefully in early 2014. Holding up a firm release date are their efforts to bring some more musical royalty to participate in shows promoting the album. A CD release party is likely, as are performances in support of it. In Keeping with the approach to the recording process itself, the marketing campaign will be both local and national. Another Joplin concert is scheduled for January 18 at C2G and will once again feature the talents of Sweetwater Sound’s roster of musicians, including its president Chuck Surack. By then the details of the album should be set, and Bowser can begin sharing her new record with the world.
“There’s a lot of energy in a genre like the blues,” says Hornsby. “When you look at the music that’s come out of studios like Muscle Shoals, Motown, Stax and Chess, you don’t have individuals coming into a room and laying down their tracks one at a time. You have the musicians together in one room. Studio A here at Sweetwater is a remarkable sounding room. If people are thinking of a pop, polished album, that’s not what we’re doing.”
“We’re going to do something raw, that rocks and is in your face,” says Gallagher. “We’re really looking to serve the songs.”