Music Bugle Exclusive – Q & A – The Catholic Girls

Artwork for ‘Rock N’ Roll School For Girls.’

By Nicholas Jason Lopez

Last November, The Catholic Girls unleashed a two-CD retrospective anthology called ‘The Catholic Girls: Rock N’ Roll School For Girls’ via JSP Records, which covers the years 1979-2017.

The 41-track anthology includes 18 remixed from their 1982 self-titled debut album and 23 fully restored, previously unreleased recordings comprised of demos. It was remixed and remastered by acclaimed audio engineer John H. Haley of Harmony Restorations LLC and assisted by Vincent J. Mazella.

The Catholic Girls – originally composed of the quartet of songwriter/lead singer/rhythm guitarist Gail Petersen, Marilyn O’Connor, Joanne Holland and lead guitarist/background vocalist Roxy Andersen – emerged in the early 1980’s as one of the first all-female new wave bands to be signed by a major label (MCA) and were included in the same conversation as similar acts like The Go-Go’s, The Bangles and Bananarama.

Their band name and genre affected their marketability in a sensitive time period for religion, as a slot on “Saturday Night Live” was cancelled because they were deemed “too controversial.” However, through their time, despite various lineup changes, they managed to play alongside acts like Tom Petty, Judas Priest, Gang Of Four, Tommy Tutone, The Kinks, The Clash, REM and The Ramones and received heavy airplay on MTV with their hit “Boys Can Cry.”

The Music Bugle had the opportunity to speak with Petersen and Haley about the anthology and more.

Music Bugle – What was it like working on the two-CD release?

John Haley – For me and my colleague Vinnie Mazella, who assisted me with all the audio engineering work, in a word, thrilling. We assembled a good many tapes of The Catholic Girls’ unreleased material
from both Gail Petersen and Roxy Andersen, who gave us their helpful comments on much of it. We went through it all, discussing it constantly with Gail. We were very familiar with all of their released albums, but when we got this early material into shape where we could evaluate it, we were blown away by its quality, including some wonderful previously unheard songs. Even for the songs we knew well from their albums, many were there in these terrific earlier, unreleased versions. In some cases, we had to make choices among various alternate unreleased versions of the same songs. We discovered that The Catholic Girls were clearly already a very accomplished band well before their 1982 debut album came out on MCA.  Further, we discovered that Gail’s outstanding talents as a song composer and lyricist were already fully formed from the get-go and as lead singer, she was also a brilliant performer, with her band mates responding on the same high level. I think Gail has always been just one of those unique, extraordinarily talented individuals whom we come across only rarely in the course of a lifetime. Vinnie and I dealt with getting all these early recordings to sound good and this treasure trove of great early material became Disc One of the set. For Disc Two, again with constant input from Gail, we selected tracks from all their released albums, spanning the period 1982 to 2017, remixing them to bring up the voices and make various other appropriate changes to make them sound better. In the case of the eight tracks – of the original 10 – from their 1982 debut album, we worked to get the songs to sound the way they had been performed at the recording sessions, correcting various changes introduced by MCA after the fact to make the group’s sound conform to somebody’s idea of what a more typical “girl group” was supposed to sound like at the time. We were very happy with all the results.

Gail Petersen – For me, most of the work was digging through old cassette tapes and finding demos and song takes that could be salvaged. It was exciting finding these things and realizing how many of these tracks hadn’t seen the light of day and now would. It also brought back a lot of memories for me. Hearing one of these old tracks, I could remember exactly where I was when we recorded it or what I was thinking when I wrote the song.  Later on, the work I put into it was telling John Haley the correct key for the song – so many cassettes can get out of tune – and also, the lyrics on the song, which could be hard to hear. I also had to search for old photographs to accompany the material, which was fun as well. It was a challenge, but I really enjoyed doing it and was thrilled with the outcome.

Music Bugle – What do you find has changed the most within the music industry from the 1970’s to nowadays?

John Haley – Gail would be able to respond to this better than I can, since my involvement back in the 1970’s was mostly that of music consumer and enthusiast. For me, the biggest changes in the music business have resulted from the changes in mass music formats over the years, first from records and cassettes, to digital physical formats like the CD, to today’s more elusive “digital” media, such as streaming and  downloading, where ownership of physical product is de-emphasized. I feel strongly that the way streaming and downloading are structured today, it has become much harder for musicians to benefit financially from their efforts, which is going to have an ever-increasing negative impact on musicians’ creativity, unless big changes are made.

Gail Petersen – In some ways, we were very lucky to have formed in the late 70s. It was a time when music was very vibrant and there were many places to play live. By playing live, we were able to get better and better both with our shows and also, with my writing. We developed an image that way. In that time period, there was so much good music around that every day, you could go to the record store, pick up a new 45 and hear a hit. Nowadays, there’s hardly any live scene, so it’s hard for a band to get ahead. There’s also not the same inspiration that you get in hearing other great bands and wanting to achieve, or even surpass, their level in order to get a major label offer.

Music Bugle – How have you been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic?

Gail Petersen – Like everyone, the pandemic has kept us inside and isolated. ‘Rock N’ Roll School For Girls’ had already been in the works for two years. It was a blessing when it came out, because it gave me a lot to do from my own house, like doing interviews and seeking reviews. The Catholic Girls hadn’t been playing much live, so it didn’t affect that. In the old days, I would have gone crazy with so little interaction with the public, but nowadays, I was able to take it better. I just looked forward to a better future.

John Haley – Being basically confined to home for a year has been a challenge for everyone, in all walks of life, but for me, as well as many others involved in the music business, it has caused us to focus on revisiting past recordings with an even keener eye toward pulling them out of the closet and exploiting them – in a good sense. We see that musicians everywhere, essentially idled from being able to perform live, have followed this path, resulting in an unusually large bunch of retrospective releases in 2020. Like Gail said, The Catholic Girls’ retrospective project was well underway a couple of years before the pandemic hit, but it nevertheless ended up being released in the midst of the pandemic, in November, 2020. As to whether this will have proved to be a good thing or a bad thing, I think the jury is still out on that.

Music Bugle – Do you have any advice for aspiring musicians?

John Haley – Yes. Do everything you can to find your own voice as a songwriter and performer and hold onto that, no matter what. I strongly believe that in the world of popular music, individual creativity is what matters most. No creative person lives in a vacuum and it is impossible not to hear and absorb what others do and have done, but to the greatest extent one can, follow your own muse, while at the same time, trying to create music that is both memorable and meaningful to other people. To that end, work on being a good tunesmith – e.g., all of Gail Petersen’s songs!

Gail Petersen – My advice to musicians is basically – don’t stop. It takes a while to reach your peak and you should keep working toward that, no matter what. Take in everything you hear, whether it’s your style or not and know you can only get better with time and also, be yourself. Be you! People in the audience can feel it, almost sense it, when you’re doing or being something phoney. It may sound like a bit of a cliche, but you really need to be what you are! The Catholic Girls started out in a spandex outfits trying to do heavier music and it wasn’t us. Once we changed to the uniforms and a more pop/rock sound – all of which was what we truly were, then people responded very well to us.

Music Bugle – Who are you listening to right now, music-wise?

John Haley – My musical tastes are decidedly eclectic and they are influenced a lot by the kind of restoration projects I am working on at the moment. In addition to rock and pop music that was popular in
my own lifetime, I am drawn to 1930’s and 1940’s pop music of all kinds, with a lot of interest in jazz music, up through the heyday of bebop jazz music that flourished up through the mid-1950’s and as a classically trained musician, I am always listening to a broad range of classical music. 

Gail Petersen – Actually, I’m not listening to music of many new people today. I haven’t found anyone who gives me that electric thrill in my soul like I used to feel, so instead, I spend time on YouTube listening to and watching bands from the 80s. There were hits all over the place then. I find that music still inspires me and makes me want to keep writing songs. The music of today is missing that urgency that was apparent in the 60s, 70s, 80s and even into the 90s, but in the 2000s, music lost its grit and became more about dancing and how hot you could look. It became all about the show and nothing about the heart and soul of the music.

Music Bugle – What’s a quote that motivates you to keep doing what you do?

John Haley – My grandfather used to say to me, “There is always plenty of room at the top” and that has inspired me to put aside my fears and “go for it,” with whatever endeavor I am pursuing. You have to know your own strengths and not be afraid of applying them with all your passion and hope. 

Gail Petersen – No quote motivates me. Instead, it really motivates me when someone tells me I can’t or will never do what I want to do. I was told that over and over again as I began in the music business – that I didn’t have a soprano voice, so I wouldn’t make it, that I didn’t have the personality to be a musical performer, so I wouldn’t make it – and that all girl bands never worked. I proved of all of the naysayers wrong.

Music Bugle – What has been your biggest challenge lately?

John Haley – Completing the work on restoration projects that I have open, that need to be finished and released. The projects are very exciting for me to work on, but it is often work that is very time-
consuming, to do it right and I have to get from here to there with it.

Gail Petersen – For me, it’s getting the other people in the band to move as quickly and earnestly as they did in the past. I still have that overwhelming drive, that fire inside me that makes me keep on going, no matter what. My bandmates seem to have lost some of that along the way, so it’s a big challenge to get them to do a project with me, but at worst, when it happens, I just end up doing more or most of the work myself.

Music Bugle – Away from music, what’s something that people might be surprised to know about you?

Gail Petersen – In addition to music, I am a fiction author. I had a book published in the 90s, “THE MAKING OF A MONSTER,” that was about a female vampire – at the time, one of the first. I did book tours and appeared at the World Horror Convention. Currently, I’m working on two different novels, both fiction, that I’d love to have published.

John Haley – I am retired from a 40-plus year career as a commercial litigation lawyer, but with an undergraduate degree in music and involvement in music of all kinds my whole life. 

Music Bugle – What was a memorable moment that stuck out to you while at a show?

Gail Petersen – I can think of two offhand. In the early days, we were just getting our image and act together, but one night, it all came together. We had the uniforms and we had been rehearsing the set as a show. It was at a club we’d played before, so no one expected it. The show began with us purposely doing a slow opening and then, we just exploded and crashed on through the whole set. People came up and stood and just stared at us. That’s when I knew we had them and we had also found our place in the music scene. Another big moment is when we started opening for bigger acts. One night, we opened for The Clash. We walked out and everybody started making fun of us for being girls, etc.. We ignored them and just starting rocking. Before long, the crowd was going nuts and demanded two encores at the end. Later, they tried to crash through our dressing room door just to be near us. That’s when I knew we would get a record deal soon and we did.

John Haley – I will say that I found the live concerts by The Catholic Girls that I attended in 2015-16 exhilarating and those ultimately led to our CD project. I just couldn’t believe that here were The Catholic Girls, these superb performers with such remarkably long experience, in front of me, performing greater than ever.

Music Bugle – Does social media help or hurt musicians?

John Haley – I think it’s a double-edged sword. It’s a great thing that performers can communicate in a personal way with fans and others directly on Facebook – and other online social media – in a way
that was not really possible previously. The flipside of social media might be the expectation of many users of it that all information and musical media ought to be free on the internet and in fact, the various streaming services, which charge modest fixed subscription fees, have largely made that happen. The way things are presently structured, streaming services serve mostly to kill actual sales for artists, while benefiting them hardly any at all, financially. 

Gail Petersen – It’s both good and bad. Good, because it reconnected us with fans that we would never have known were out there and we got to communicate directly with them. Bad, because streaming services have made music just about free, so the musicians end up getting nothing out of it. That’s a big disappointment and in fact, it hurts the process of music-making. It does cost money to create music and record it. You can’t put all this work into something and then just live with the attitude that music should be free. Meanwhile, you can’t get services from a doctor or get a meal at a restaurant for free. It’s not fair at all.

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