An Interview with Gail Petersen of The Catholic Girls

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Logo-Preview-2-1.png

Things to Do: Listen to Rock N Roll School for Girls by the Catholic Girls  | Houston Press

You’ve heard of The Runaways, but how about The Catholic Girls? New Jersey based group, The Catholic Girls are working their way back into our hearts, minds and earholes with their upcoming career spanning anthology, Rock ‘N’ Roll School For Girls which you can pick up from their website here. The band itself is something of a local legend. They were the first all-girl New Wave band to sign to a major label, and they even had a planned slot to perform on Saturday Night Live in 1983, only to have it snatched away from them as they were deemed too edgy for network television. While that was then, this is now, and these days, The Catholic Girls are roaring back, stronger than ever. If you’re looking for something new and interesting, dive into this anthology and see what you’ve been missing. But first, meet Gail Petersen, the leader of the group. She’s also an accomplished novelist as well, proving that she is far from a one trick pony. You can grab a copy of her novel, The Making of a Monster here. Gail is a shining and positive influence for young women in music. Her perseverance and success are true examples of what can be accomplished if you ignore detractors and push forward and follow your gut. Enjoy getting to know Gail. I know I did.

Andrew:
Gail, thank you for taking the time to speak with us. It’s been a weird year, hasn’t it? What have you been doing to pass the time?

Gail:
Despite the difficulties of this past year, I’ve continued writing both songs and three different novels that I’m working on. I believe creating art is something that doesn’t stop even when you’re concerned about what’s happening in the world and how it affects you and everyone you know and love. You need to take that worry and try to channel it into something that speaks for you. I’ve always absorbed what’s going on around me, what people say to me, what they’re feeling, what they care about, what I see on a TV and movies, what I see as I walk or drive by — anything, really and then put glimpses of all of it into lyrics, melody or the characters who are living their lives in my song or novels.

Andrew:
Tell us about backstory. How did you get into music? What was the gateway so to speak?

Gail:
My parents, who were not musicians nor could they even carry a tune, loved all types of music from Broadway to R&B to older Blues like Billie Holiday to pure Pop and Rock ‘N’ Roll. I started singing as a child, probably because I was inspired by hearing great music, and my father loved the vibrato he heard in my three- or four-year-old voice. But there was no money for any kind of vocal or music lessons, so I just sang along to records and radio. Then I began writing my own lyrics that began as poems but later morphed into the structure of a song. At around age 12, I became frustrated that a lot of songs that were sung by women weren’t in a key that worked for me, so I begged my parents for a guitar. Well, I got it and it was a very cheap acoustic one, and taught myself to play on that. It started out as a way for me to have songs that I could sing (since it was mostly “guy” songs that fit my voice and people in the 70s discouraged you from singing those – they seemed to prefer a high soprano) and it became what I wanted and needed to do.

Andrew:
As an artist and guitarist, who were some of your earliest and more important influences?

Gail:
I’m sure I was influenced by what my parents had in their record collection because I always gravitated to a good song whether it was blues or Sinatra or The Beatles. But what really intrigued me was when the Second British Invasion occurred and I started hearing Elvis Costello, The Pretenders, Squeeze, Split Enz that had that 60s Pop sound but with a really driving beat and lyrics that mattered. That, in turn, made me go back and take a look at the oldies of the 60s and get to love Motown, James Brown, The Byrds and others.

Catholic Girls | Nostalgia Central

Andrew:
You’re an original member of The Catholic Girls. Tell us how the band got its start.

Gail:
In late seventies, I wanted to start a band that, for me, would be a way to express myself. At the time, guys seemed to really want to control a band they were in and that was difficult to work with. I happened to connect with Roxy Anderson who had similar feelings. She wanted to start a band and Roxy decided to put up an ad which basically said let’s start an “all girl” band. If The Runaways could do it, why can’t we? So that’s how that came about. It made perfect sense to me. So, we started a band and as a matter of course, we pulled other friends of ours into the group. At the time, women were wearing Spandex. We hated that, so we said well why can’t we move more towards what we know. We spent 12 years in Catholic private school so we decided to wear what we knew and felt comfortable in — we were ourselves and ourselves onstage. We did redesign them to be more modern and sleek, but they looked like school uniforms and then we became The Catholic Girls for the 1st time. We basically did what the guys have been doing forever which was get an idea, put a band together with your friends and wear what you wanted to wear. That’s exactly what we did. I will say that the uniforms had quite an effect. Initially when we’d walk out onstage, people laughed and thought they’d be in for a really “girly-sounding” show, but we’d open loud and with a massive song and the laughing stopped dead — the audiences often fell silent. Their jaws dropped because we were very powerful. Those were really electric moments and unforgettable. Things changed.

Andrew:
The Catholic Girls gained some traction in the 80’s when the band released its self-titled debut record in 1982. Tell us what you remember about the recording on that record.

Gail:
Working as a new recording artist who was basically a local band who worked in local studios and had total control over the recordings…well you go from that to working with a major record label that has a lot of power and opinion — they have power over your budget and a laundry list of things. They have the power, and what they wanted at times was difficult to tolerate. They wanted to bring in real pro players instead of our own band members to play the parts. In our case, we fought to play our own instruments and we got what we wanted, but it was a fight to the finish. We played all the parts; every note. In general, you have a lot of people watching over you – from the A&R department to the promotion department; then you have your producer, your executive producer, and all of them have a lot of opinions. There were a lot of long discussions that sometimes ended up as long fights about how you want to sound and how you want your recording to sound and how you want your master to sound. We got much of what we wanted in the recording, but not everything in the mastering. We got less. We wanted a massive drum sound; the kind of drum sound that Peter Gabriel later showed on “Shock the Monkey.” We lost that fight, and the drums were turned down, our vocals at times were sped up. We found that out much later in the mastering that some tracks were sped up to give us that more girly girl sound. Then of course you have to fight for which songs are on the album and later, which song to release for a single. MCA wanted “Boys Can Cry” which was a lighter type of tune. We wanted to release “Someone New” as a single, which was a lot darker and we thought more powerful as a single then “Boys Can Cry,” but again, we lost that argument. As a new band, you learn the meaning of “compromise.” Things were often a fight to the finish. We won many of those and if we listen to the original tracks it might be quite different from the actual mastering. Overall, the experience was good, but you do end up having to compromise and work more as a corporate team — and Rock bands are not really made for teams outside themselves.

In the end, you get a giant education in recording and the business and “the business.” In the end we did get universally tremendous reviews for the final recording from almost every major newspaper and publication in the country including the Hollywood Reporter, Variety, Music Connection and others. So, we did well when it came to that, but there were more complications later on after the record was released. The Go-Go’s record was released slightly before ours, so they got some of the benefits of being first on radio that we weren’t able to get. There was some effect to our record being released later, and simultaneously, not as much money put into promotion.

Andrew:
After your debut, the band went out on tour and was even slated to appear on Saturday Night Live, but that ended up never happening. Why was the SNL appearance cancelled? Was it censorship? If so, what are your thoughts on that?

Gail:
After the recording was released we did, like I said, get tremendous press and great publicity from most magazines and publications. There was no Internet at the time and we relied on the MCA’s publicity department who did a great job and we got fantastic reviews, so we did get to go out on 2 national tours which was good, but we could have gotten better tours (like opening for Adam Ant, super-popular at the time). Unfortunately we weren’t getting as much support from MCA records at that time once they got a new president, who happened to be Irving Azoff, who was the manager of The Go-Go’s and suddenly, many people who brought us into the company and loved us (we were to start prepping for a 2nd album) were fired — and so we went out on the 2 national tours without any support. We were a scheduled to be on Saturday Night Live but it was cancelled. I don’t think I would call it censorship, but they felt that the band was very controversial because of our name (The Catholic Girls) so our appearance on SNL was cancelled. If it wasn’t, I think things may have worked out a little differently. As I said, at that time, we were not getting full support for our tours so even though we did them, it was really a matter of us doing the dates to keep the money flowing in to continue the tours. Again, on tour for the live appearances, we got tremendous press it was all positive.

Catholic Girls

Andrew:
In 2002, the band released Make Me Believe, 20 years after your debut. What was the recording of that album like compared to your debut? What had changed for the band?

Gail:
In 1999, we came back together as The Catholic Girls and we worked and saved our money, and we got ourselves enough of a budget to put out an album. In this case, the album was Make Me Believe in 2002 and even then, we still had issues with the production and our producer and still, we didn’t get everything we wanted as far as the sound. But we did put a lot into the album and the arrangements of the songs. The title track, “Make Me Believe” was a terrific song and was based on the Columbine Tragedy. It happened slightly before I wrote the song, and it really affected me. The idea that students and kids in school were shot really shook me. I was horrified, and I wrote “Make Me Believe” to be a heartrending song lyrically. It was, in a way, a prayer, and if you listen to the words closely or read them you see it’s a prayer. I think it showed how horrifying that experience was for those children and that was one of the driving forces behind the album. I’ve included that song in the new Anthology, and it’s a slightly different, earlier, version than on that album. It turned out that in 1999 our touring drummer Kyd Ellsworth who was playing drums on both of our US tours was now also a bass player by 2002 and she was on the recording of Make Me Believe, and she was a very important part of that CD.

Andrew:
Since 2002, the band has actively toured and made a lot of waves in the College Rock and web scene, released several albums leading up to Somebody Better Get A Room and the upcoming Anthology release. Tell us more about those releases.

Gail:
All of our releases from 2006–2017 were independent in nature. We recorded, produced and mastered them ourselves. We also released them as indies and promoted them that way. The good part of making CDs like this is that we were in control of how instruments and vocals sounded. We used a digital recorder (nothing even as high tech as Pro-Tools). While we would have loved to have the money to be able to go into a studio and record the way we wanted to, we made what was available to us work for us. Here are some examples of those 4 albums – For songs like “Shame on You,” “Don’t Go Away,” and “Where’s The Logic” from Kiss Me One More Time, I sang through a Shure 58 Mic in a hallway to a basement (where there was the least chance of noise getting into the track). On that same CD, both Roxy and I played keyboards to achieve the right mood for “Don’t Go Away.” On the CD Exposed, we double tracked a drum machine for “Airplay” and “You Never Know Why.” With Grounded and Sleep we made sure we had our signature 8ths on guitar to drive the songs. As for the latest release Rock ‘N’ Roll School For Girls we had input on that as well as to what songs were included in the anthology, how the songs were meant to sound, and the nuances of lyrics that had been lost in very early demos as well as in our MCA release. The big benefit with this new 2 CD Set was that we had the expertise of John Haley, a real master at restoration and the UK label JSP getting it released to the public.

We were also very open to change — for example, during the time that we were doing our independent releases, we added a guy to the band. His name was Steve Berger and he was playing bass as well and that worked out very well, so even though we called ourselves The Catholic Girls, we had no problem adding a guy to the band who was the right guy and could really plays his instrument.

When we were doing those new independent releases, we also were trying to emphasize that we were not just a “girl” band; we were a Rock band and we did number of different types of music that showed that. We weren’t just doing Candy Pop and we could do a driving Hard Rock tune like “Airplay” or we could also do a touching ballad like “Without a Country” a song about homelessness and not “feeling” like you have a home even if you have one. As we moved towards the new anthology, we added a song that nobody ever heard called, “I Was a Lady,” that is not a Country song or a standard Western song. It’s more of a Western song that also works as Rock. We added that song and it’s got a whole different feel from many of the other tunes, but lyrically it still means something and has depth.

Andrew:
What are a few albums that mean the most to you and why?

Gail:
For me it’s mostly been songs and not necessarily entire albums that got to me. Examples are: “I Got You” by Split Enz, “Free Money” by Patti Smith, “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” by Bessie Smith, “Get Up Offa That Thing” by James Brown, “Wishing” by Flock of Seagulls, “Just What I Needed” by The Cars, “No Reply” by The Beatles, “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted” by Jimmy Ruffin, “Homosapien” by Pete Shelly, and “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” by Tony Bennett. My opinion is that these songs have raw emotion, make you feel something, they translate thoughts and ideas into powerful feelings. The lyrics matter and they are more than just words. They paint stories. Those stories can be about love, desire, the world, fun, how to cry, how to laugh, and how to live.

Catholic Girls - Rock N' Roll School For Girls - Amazon.com Music

Andrew:
Let’s talk about the music industry a bit. There are a lot of artists out there whom are fantastic, but get stuck in the underground, while others go on to great success. What is it about our culture that causes this to happen? Do think the general public is truly listening?

Gail:
Yes, there are a lot of artists out there whose music does not see the light of day, but I don’t think it’s the culture that’s responsible for it. I think quite a bit of it is the record industry and the money and how the record industry has changed over the years. For example, when we started with The Catholic Girls, that’s just about the time when radio consulting started. When they came into the picture, they had a lot of power over radio stations and what they would play. People want all different kinds of music, but record labels often decide what they believe the public wants, and of course the record labels want to make money out of it. They spend lots of money convincing the public what they should hear. And when it gets to radio, the radio consultants often decided what songs belonged on the radio on what songs didn’t belong on the radio. In the eighties there were a lot of “major” record labels. You had MCA, A&M, RCA and Atlantic, and even IRS which was the a smaller major label at the time – but you had a lot of different labels and that has now dwindled down to where there are only a few major record labels, maybe 3 gigantic ones a lot of independents and they decide what to put on their labels and then on the air. Then, you have the complexity of various types of radio stations from level 1 level 2, level 3, college radio stations and more. So, you can get your music on the radio but whether you get to major radio or not, or make a lot of money that is often determined who has, and who’s getting the money. Major radio stations still end up deciding what goes on so the public may not be getting a lot of what they want. 95% of the music that’s out there may be terrific and may still not see the light of day for all those various reasons. Of course, now you also have streaming services. Now the good part about it is you can get your music on many streaming services and but the artist makes hardly any money from the streaming services when somebody plays it you make, maybe less than a penny for play so that’s a good part in a bad part. New outlets can be very complex to understand.

Andrew;
In the world we live in today, we are more or less dominated by capitalism and the never-ending barrage of social media. How has this affected music as an artform? Is an artist’s ability to get their music out there hindered by all this, or helped?

Gail:
Today we are bombarded by an onslaught of social media and on the surface it appears that there are many many, many ways to get your music heard and some of that’s true, but on the other hand what it appears to be is not necessarily so. It’s still just as hard to reach these major outlets to get your music heard as an artist. Certainly, there are less big record labels so more independents are putting out more music, but having a tough time to get heard and when you get heard you would like, or hope, that an artist makes some money even to just subsidize themselves. Some of these services that you have, like IHeart, Pandora or Spotify are there as well as others. With Spotify, you may get paid pennies or less than for plays of your music. IHeart works differently and so does Pandora. In fact, there is so much of this going on that it’s hard to figure out in the first place where to put your music and how to put it out there. Yes, you have to be creative and keep trying because otherwise you will not get there at all. When we started as The Catholic Girls, in the 80s, there were lots of clubs and lots of places to play and club owners did foster music they wanted to hear and new music the public wanted to hear, so a lot of bands could go out on any given day of the week or the weekend and play their music and build a following and get more traction. Then, live venues became less and less with the 90s, the 2000s, making it harder to build following. But, even as late as 2015 we did a live performance that not only went over well but gave us the chance to connect with John Haley and Vinnie Mazella. Vinnie had been a long-time fan but seeing and feeling the music live made it apparent to him and John that this music needed to be heard by as many people as possible. However, now you have to talk about the effects of the pandemic that make playing live impossible for obvious reasons. And while the trend has been moving to create in digital formats and working remotely, even more so with the pandemic, we have to look toward what’s coming next. We won’t always be staring at our computers and TVs for music performance. Live performances will return because its part of the human experience. People still need the feel, the impact and the connection of the real thing. When The Beatles were very young and they were playing out, they were always developing their audience — you had the time to feel what the audience was listening to and what they wanted. With the 60s, 70s, 80s, and the 90s, you could still play out but by the 2000s and now, there are just less venues, less ways to even know how to develop an audience, so one thing that would be great to see in the future is more and more and more clubs and when they open, the clubs should foster live music so that artist can get out there and build a following, listen to their own music, learn from what the audience is reacting to. Right now, it’s a tough situation.

Andrew:
Aside from music, it’s my understanding that you’re a writer as well, and like to focus on the Thriller genre? How do your other passions inform and inspire your music?

Gail:
My novels and my songs both tell stories, so in a way they each inform each other. My published novel is a horror story and I am writing 3 books currently which are in the Thriller genre but as for how it informs my music I am not so sure it does, but the passion of the writing music and the passion of writing stories is equally forceful to me and that’s what means really mean something to me. My published novel, which is called The Making of a Monster is about a vampire, but that vampire spends quite a bit of time in the music world and I used my experiences to drive some of that, so it’s pretty accurate. That novel The Making of a Monster is still available as an e-book and you can search almost anywhere for it. Both my songs and my novels, for me, almost feel like movies, because it’s very visual. I write my novels in a very visual way. I think my lyrics in my music are also very visual. I’m not saying that movies are the ultimate art form, but movies are very powerful and emotional. Emotion drives my music and I think also drives my fiction writing. My newest novel is actually a thriller and a mystery and it does, in this case, connect directly to movies, so now I am working through all of those art forms. Additionally, I’m currently searching for a publisher for the 3 new novels and I’m also working on a fourth which does touch on the world of music, so I’ll have a lot to say in the future about music and how it works, and sometimes doesn’t work.

Tastes Like Rock - The Catholic Girls Concert at the Living Room

Andrew:
What type of guitars and gear are you using these days?

Gail:
I can tell you as far as guitars go, I use a Kramer guitar along with Ovation and I also use a Fender amp. Roxy uses a Gibson SG and also uses a Fender amp. We both use BOSS pedals. Our bass player uses a Steinberger and another uses a Fender Precision.      

Andrew:
Are you into vinyl? Tapes? CDs? Or are you all digital now? Where do you like to shop for music?

Gail;
Yes, I love vinyl albums and I do love CDs. Both seem to have differing ranges for tonality. I have recorded things digitally and I enjoy it. I buy everything from vinyl to CDs and I’ve gotten a little bit of digital, but as far as creating vinyl, let’s say our new 2 CD set which has songs like 40 something songs there, well, the price of doing that on the vinyl for us would have been prohibitive. It would have been astronomical. So we chose the CD format for this set. I still shop for music in Mom and Pop record stores. I love them! I also do shop online at places like Amazon and I shop in large stores like Barnes & Noble who always also carry music and fiction. I love to shop for real books rather than e-books. I love the feel of a new book, and I love the smell of a book. That’s unforgettable. I feel the same way about a vinyl record. That too — is unforgettable. A great CD package is wonderful as well.

Andrew:
Last question. In a world that’s been so confined by the constraints of big business and the alienation caused due to the internet age, how do artists find their footing these days? What advice would you have for younger artists?

Gail:
One thing I would say is that the constraints of big business were around in 1980 and they are still around in 2021. Big business generally drives everything with money. As far as the Internet, in a way, there are no constraints. You can record digitally, you can get music out there somehow with the aid of the web, but I think the main thing is to keep writing. I’d say that to any younger artists. A friend of mine asked me the same question recently and my answer is the same. You keep writing and you write music that is MEMORABLE. It was the same back in 1980 as it is in 2021, and I don’t care what genre of music you’re writing. It could be Hardcore Rock music, it could be Hip-Hop, it could be Rap, it could be middle of the road (for lack of a better word, soft music)…you gotta write a song that is memorable. Somehow, it has to stand out. People have to be able to hum it, sing it, play it, and want to play it again and again and again – and with a little luck, you can get noticed especially given the Internet. You can get it out there. If you’re one of the lucky ones that can put something out on YouTube or any of the other services that allow you to do that, you may get noticed and you’ll get noticed more if people remember your songs. They have to be memorable. The same way as it was in the past. And you have to also look to the future. You have to be able to move with the times into the future. And in the future, there may be other, new ways of presenting music that we don’t even know about, that we haven’t even dreamed about, but you can’t let yourself become obsolete. You have to move with the world and look at every opportunity that the future has, and then as a young artist maybe you can eventually get to be an old artist who is very well known or maybe you can transform the future of music yourself if you come up with something really inventive. I don’t know right this second what that might be but I certainly have my mind on it.
I have no intention of becoming obsolete in the new, unknown world. There are always infinite possibilities, and I plan on being there.

Interested in diving deeper into the work of The Catholic Girls? Check out the link below:

Dig this interview? Check out the full archives of Vinyl Writer Interviews, by Andrew Daly, here: www.vinylwritermusic.com/interview

Published by Andrew Daly

Since he was a young child growing up on Long Island, NY, Andrew has always loved writing and collecting physical music. Present-day, Andrew is proud to share his love of music with the world through his writing, and the result is nothing short of beautiful: articles and interviews written by a music addict for fellow music addicts. Andrew lives on Long Island and works as a Horticultural Operations Manager by day and runs the Vinyl Writer Music website by night.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: