This entry in The Out There Side blog series celebrates the release of a new album by J Catz — a virtual band — created during a year of pandemic lockdown with help from GarageBand, WeTransfer, iPhones, and a lot of dear friends. Readers can stream the album on Spotify, iTunes, etc: J Catz: Can’t We All Just Go Dutch?
This musical sojourn started a couple years back when my niece, Jordan Cherry, visited New York City and, per tradition, we went on a long run together and visited our favorite photo backdrop along the Hudson River.
Afterward, we stopped in for some carbo-replenishment in the form of a couple of beer pitchers at the Dive Bar, our fave local pub. With liquid encouragement, we decided to make a musical album together. As we were talking, I somehow got off on a rant about bill-sharing disputes, saying, “Can’t we all just go Dutch?”
“Hey, that’s an album title!” Jordan declared.
“Yes, and we can show a picture of Van Gogh on the cover!” I exclaimed. “The self-portrait after he cut off his ear!”
“Yes! And we can put the ear on the back cover!” Jordan replied.
We thought we were on to something. Soon after, my wife Vivian and daughter Julia joined us, and we excitedly shared these ideas, to their bemusement. (Jules is a talented artist, and I suggested she could paint the cover, even Simpsonizing it, in homage to our TV heroes…)
Like a lot of ideas, that one came and went, at least in my mind. But a couple of weeks later Julia came home with the cover art — “Vincent & Ear” — which she had painted in her art class at LaGuardia High School. I sent the pix to Jordan. Eureka! We concurred: Jules followed up on the artwork so we need to follow up on the album!
Musically, we had always had the most fun jamming with friends in the living room, so we wanted the album to have that kind of vibe. We started out recording together in our respective homes — in NYC and Austin — during our customary visits. One early effort was an old tune of mine called “Dishwasher Blues,” to which Jordan adds keys and I add ambient dish noise.
Then COVID hit. In the spring of 2020, Jordan had bought a plane ticket to New York to attend my annual birthday bash. But, as a nurse practitioner at Seton Hospital, she was ordered not to travel to our city, the US pandemic epicenter at that time … so the trip was off (as was the party).
Jordan had written a party tune for the occasion called “NYC Good Times for All.” We later decided to make it into a virtual party — inviting some usual suspects: Eric Gotthelf, Kevin Daly, and Melissa Welsh — and Jordan added a new post-Covid ending. We carried on remotely, writing songs and sending them to each other, adding parts in GarageBand. We decided to get a bunch of musical friends in on the act — after all, contributors can become instant fans!
Thus many folks have made time to contribute their talents. George “Ellsworth” Tocci has been busy running the Bull Run restaurant in Shirley, MA, but he lays down dueling guitar parts for another Jordan tune called “Shut Up & Dance.” His jamming partner is Jon Leal — who is busy enjoying retirement from his education career and playing with The Ziggernauts. Ellsworth also plays harp on my old song about a mean boss, “Edge of Allegiance,” which had been recorded pre-COVID with music teachers Michelle Saacks on piano and Marco Brehm on bass.
Many of our musical friends hail from Canyon High School. My lifelong buddy Patrick Murray contributes slide guitar to a childhood reverie tune called “Never Even Kissed.” Joining in on piano and backing vocals is CHS pal Kelli Campbell Lane, who plays in the Amarillo band A-Town Rockers when she’s not teaching music.
Another Amarillo music teacher, Kim Miller, sings the ballad “My Turn to Cry,” with lyrics written by lifelong friend Kelley Gardner. Patrick again plays slide here, with a flute solo by my sister (Jordan’s mom), Teddi Cherry.
The deejay outro for that song comes from lifelong buddy Marty Kuhlman, who also contributes lyrics to another tune: “Howlin at the Moon.” This features harmonica by Vivian’s former boss Robert Goldsmith (who has retired from being COO of The Frick Collection, but not from his blues band).
Some of the music is actually recorded in person, utilizing creativity (and social distance). Eric Gotthelf brings his astrophysicist sensibility to the coffee table, and my former guitar teacher and running buddy Douglas DaSilva adds guitar work to several tracks — including Jordan’s instrumental “Indigo” — in his living room, during post-run carbo-replenishing sessions.
At my place of employment (which shall go nameless to protect the innocent), several co-workers contribute their talents in a secluded corner of the basement behind the beer stacks, affectionately known as Beer Stax Studio.
Here spirited contributions fill out the first two tracks. The COVID carol “This Place Down Here” benefits from Ethan “Banjo Slim” Putnam on banjo, Kelly Smith on vocals, Colin Higgins on guitar, and Maxx Kaplan on conga. Melissa Nieves adds three-part harmony to Jordan’s ballad “Deep Blue Sea.” Both songs are anchored by Jed Kronfeld’s bass.
Co-worker Katherine McLaughlin — who sings on Broadway stages in non-COVID times — adds harmony to “Can’t Go Back” and humor to “Dishwasher Blues,” the starter tune that serves as an album closer. (Katherine is also a runner — our jog down to the magic boxcar brought things full-circle…)
Another serendipitous recording space popped up last summer: an outdoor porch at Mastens Lake, where a group of friendly families rented cabins for a few weeks. Here we add recordings by my nephew Ben Sarowitz — playing lead guitar on Jordan’s pet montage, “A Cat in Spats + Out of the Blue” — and vocals from lake vacationers including Julia Crager, Zo Nichols, Griffin Daly, Vivian Gill, and Michele Parrella. They sing on “Song to Platypus,” written after a New York Times story Julia sent me about how the species is endangered by wildfires. And Julia harmonizes on a song I created back when she was tiny: “Little One.”
In fact, it’s the memory of this idyllic, outdoor setting that best sums up the spirit of the project: Everybody had a hard year. Everybody saw the sun shine. We’ve all gotta be going somewhere — and we’re all in this together.
Click here to stream the album: J Catz: Can’t We All Just Go Dutch.