When Katrina Leskanich told me down the telephone line, ‘The sun is shining, finally’ in London, I took it with a pinch of salt, not least as earlier that day I revisited a grainy mid-‘80s promo video in which she was strutting around the capital in capped t-shirt singing about soaring temperatures, while her bandmates were wrapped up in overcoats.
You’ll no doubt remember Walking on Sunshine, the breakthrough Katrina and the Waves single, and 12 years later the same outfit had a second top-10 hit, securing the UK’s fifth (and most recent) Eurovision Song Contest win in the process with Love, Shine a Light.
While that debut chart success charted 32 years ago, royalties are still coming in for an instantly-recognisable feelgood tune, not least when the sun’s out and summer is on the mind for radio DJs all over. It was Katrina’s bandmate Kimberley Rew – who’d had a spell away with Robyn Hitchcock in The Soft Boys – who wrote that track, a version appearing on the 1983 Katrina and the Waves debut album. But second time around a remix (and the video) helped break them. And just when they were in danger of being labelled ‘two-hit wonders’ – the hits drying up after follow-up Sun Street – came that Eurovision victory, which may even be our last following the UK’s move towards Brexit, making it even less likely that we grab ‘douze points’ from anywhere south or east of these shores.
While born and raised in Kansas, Katrina has been based in the UK since the mid-‘70s, with London her home since the late ‘90s. She’d moved around a fair bit before though, her Dad – a colonel in the US Air Force – having served all over with the US Air Force and the family – with Katrina one of six siblings – going with him.
“We lived in about eight different states in America, then Germany and Holland, then to England in 1976, and I’ve stayed here pretty much ever since, although I divide myself between here and America. I work there a lot but choose to live here. I often think through some of the winters I haven’t quite chosen right, but you got a beautiful day over here and it’s fantastic.”
My excuse for talking to Katrina is the Back to the 80s Live tour, in particular a show at Preston Guild Hall on Saturday, April 15th, also featuring Paul Young, Sonia, Hazell Dean, Tight Fit, and Nathan Moore (Brother Beyond). And bearing in mind Katrina’s transitory past, when the headliner sings his cover of Marvin Gaye’s Wherever I Lay My Hat, I tell her she has every right to tell him he’s stolen her song.
“Exactly. It’s like, ‘Paul, you’re singing my story here! It’s really great to be with him on this tour though. He’s a great entertainer, as is everybody else on this show. I’m going to be on tour with Paul in America in July and August too, going all over on the same bus. And you really get to know someone very well when you’re sharing a bathroom on a bus and it’s like a 32-hour drive from Colorado to Florida! There’ll also be Howard Jones, Men Without Hats, Annabella from Bow Wow Wow on the American tour. And there are a lot of shows – about 26 in a month.”
Mention Katrina and the Waves, and you’ll probably find people either namecheck that first hit or the third. Can that get a bit tiresome?
“Yeah, but I guess it’s better than them not knowing what to say. The name Katrina and the Waves probably has less currency than mentioning Walking on Sunshine or in this country Love, Shine a Light. People don’t always remember who did a song. I’ve had many people come and tell me how much they loved my song Echo Beach or how much they loved my song 99 Red Balloons. I get a lot of credit for stuff I never did, but that’s kind of where the lines are a little blurred about who exactly did what.
“There are so few women who came from the ’80s scene, yet proportionately to the amount of men still working from that era it seems there are more women than men out there now. It seems that everywhere you look there’s Carol Decker or Kim Wilde.”
Of course, she’s set herself up now, and I tell her I might come along to a show and shout for Brass in Pocket when she’s on.
“Ha! Oh, I get it all the time. Now I just go, ‘Thank you!’ In an interview a while ago someone said, ‘Now, Walking on Sunshine, that was like 1968, right?’ I said, ‘Yeah, wasn’t I singing well for eight years old!’
While the band’s second and third albums somewhat flopped, there were a few hits that never quite happened, not least a further stand-out from chief songwriter Kimberley Rew, Going Down to Liverpool. I love that song, but – I admit to Katrina – it was The Bangles’ version I heard first and that made a bigger impression accordingly. That said, they never actually had a proper hit here with it either. It certainly deserved better.
“I know. The thing is that The Bangles covered that way before we were signed to Capitol Records, and did a really interesting video …”
I remember it well, with Leonard Nimoy co-starring, riding Susanna Hoffs and co. around in a cab, before the band had their big breakthrough with another cover, Prince’s Manic Monday.
“Yeah. Pretty weird. MTV were quite intrigued by that and then Columbia Records, who they were with, asked who did that song originally. It was relaid that it was this group with a girl. We were touring in Canada at the time, having a small deal with a Canadian label (Attic), and these guys showed up to a show and before we knew it we were signed by Capitol. So that was very much thanks to The Bangles’ covering our song, although it wasn’t really a big hit for them.”
So what about that Walking on Sunshine promo video, on location near Tower Bridge – was that filmed around this time of year? It looked like it was cold that day.
“It was bloody freezing! It was February 3. We had £1,000 to make this video with Chris Tookey, who had previously directed a TV show called Revolver. He’s a film critic now. It was the first we’d ever made and we didn’t have a clue. They told us, ‘We’re going down to the docks. I didn’t know where that was. At the time I was living in Norfolk, near the military bases by the Suffolk border. We came down to London and were walking around what is now an area of luxury condos and flats. At the time it was dilapidated and I don’t know how we got permission to jump around in that warehouse.
“I remember people saying, ‘Mind when you jump, the floor’s really rotten and you could fall through’. They also kept saying, ‘Act like it’s really hot, but there was steam pouring out of my mouth, so I was told to sing but don’t breathe! It was crazy but we filmed the whole thing in about an hour then did the inside shoot. I don’t even know where that was. I think by then the Jack Daniels had come out, and we didn’t really care. I was frozen to the bone. I just wanted it to be over. Of course, the boys are in big army surplus overcoats. They always had it so easy. I had to do all the dirty work, freezing my ass off!”
I get the impression the band were all good mates then, but _ I put it to her – there was a little animosity later, Katrina quitting in ’98 and a legal dispute following.
“Not really, no more so than you’d have in any normal divorce. We knew after we won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1997 that everything was going to change. The perception of the group was completely different. It became all about me and that was a tricky thing.
“I went into BBC Radio 2, working there for a year, and did some musical theatre shows (playing the lead role in Leader of the Pack), wrote a couple of books and kind of did my own thing for a while. Now it’s kind of come back, with this enormous demand for ‘80s music and artists. I think people look back on it with fond memories of a good time, all the nostalgia and sentimentality involved with that.”
While Katrina will be singing live to track on this tour, I have to ask – is there ever likely to be a Katrina and the Waves reunion?
“Oh no, those guys were older than me and they’ve very much officially retired. “
Despite her Topeka roots, Katrina’s probably more European than most of us, with Irish, German and Czech ancestry and all those country-to-country moves. She certainly doesn’t come over as a great believer in closed borders and xenophobia.
“Well no. I don’t really belong anywhere and I’ve stopped trying to figure out where I do belong. It’s very time-consuming and doesn’t really lead anywhere. It became less and less important to be from some place. But London’s the best place for someone like me – it’s just full of foreigners. We’re all over the place here!”
Going right back, was her early spell in first band Mama’s Cookin’ her pop and rock apprenticeship?
“That was just a way to try and make it in the music business. I was coming out of high school and being put under a lot of pressure by my parents to go to Kansas University and go do the right thing. I put a band together and we played a bunch of cover songs to GIs and other military guys. We did all the RAF and USAF bases. At the age of 18 I was the band’s manager, phoning up these clubs, asking to speak to entertainments managers, saying, ‘Listen, we’ve got a band that plays American music, and the GIs will love it’.
“That’s how we got started, and then a couple of English guys in Cambridge heard I was a good singer and wanted to get a band together with a woman. At the time that was still a novelty. My phone rang and I dragged along my friend Vince (de la Cruz, Katrina’s ex and a fellow ‘USAF brat’ who sang and played slide guitar). We’d known each other since we were teenagers. That’s how The Waves got started.”
So who were your heroes at that stage? Who first inspired you to front a band?
“It was always Chrissie Hynde. There were so few women that played guitar, and I very much fashioned myself on her, with the hair and the Fender Telecaster. She was another American who came to England, so I took all of my cues from Chrissie. I loved Linda Ronstadt, and had the Patti Smith album. I was very interested in any woman who was making it in the music business. It was same with all the girl groups and writers for those groups like Ellie Greenwich. And I loved the Velvet Underground, fashioning myself after Nico for a while. It always goes back to Chrissie though. And she’s still going.”
Away from her life in music, there’s also Katrina’s publishing sideline, working on the Metropoodle photographic guide books with her partner Sher Harper, centred around their beloved pooch, Peggy Lee. And is that right that there’s an autobiography coming (for Katrina that is, rather than Peggy Lee)?
“I’ve been toying around with that for an awful long time. It’s a very challenging, difficult thing to do. It’s much more fun to work on Metropoodle, the new name for our Peggy Lee Loves London book. She has two books – a London guide and a Cornwall guide, and they’ll both be on Kindle very shortly. They’re photographic books you can use as guide books, full of my favourite aspects of London, where I live, and Cornwall, where I love.”
I was aware of her love for Cornwall through her most recent solo album, Blisland, its title celebrating a small village near Bodmin which Katrina fell in love with.
“Exactly. The Blisland Inn is one of the first places if you’re on your way into Cornwall. It’s great to hang a right there and go grab a beer! I also Iove going down to St Just and Cape Cornwall, very remote, with some fantastic pubs around there. Zennor too, with some lovely drives around there. Really cool.”
I smile at this point, Katrina putting the emphasis on the last syllable of Zennor, just as she had with Norfolk earlier, those tell-tale US tones still there four decades after joining us.
And while the ’80s retro circuit continues to call, this May will mark 20 years since the UK’s last Eurovision success. So did Katrina get to properly party in Dublin back in ’97?
“It was insane! We had Prince Charles on one phone and Tony Blair on the other, and the President of Ireland (Mary Robinson), and everybody and their brother came out of the woodwork, offering their congratulations. It was a gigantic party, and what a great place to win. After the show we were sitting around with Terry Wogan drinking Black Velvet, smoking huge cigars, not even having a hangover the next day. When you’re celebrating something as truly magnificent as winning the Eurovision Song Contest when everyone said it couldn’t be done, you’re pretty happy!”
In fact, they won by a record points margin, becoming the most credible victors since ABBA with Waterloo in 1974. And Katrina’s had a hand in the competition since, helping out with various entries in Sweden, Belgium and Austria. She was on the You Decide UK entry panel here last year too. Has she heard this year’s UK entry by Cardiff’s Lucie Jones?
“Yeah … it’s okay. You have to bear in mind you have to come up with something incredibly strong and commercial. I don’t know if that’s it. The Swedes are very good at constructing hit songs and know exactly what they’re doing. There was a song called Euphoria by Loreen – the 2012 Eurovision winner – an amazing song, cleverly crafted, a global smash, one you heard everywhere, and that’s really the calibre we’re talking about.
“Forget about old school Boom Bang-a-Bang. Those kind of quirky novelty songs are never going to win again. People want important, big statements.”
The politics might not help either. We seem to be on a hiding to nothing, seen as a stand-off island wanting to be divorced from Europe anyway.
“Well yeah, there’s a really great excuse this year not to do well, called Brexit. Did no one think that when they voted out? I’m surprised Cheryl Baker didn’t stand up and ask, ‘What’ll happen to the Eurovision?’”
A fair point, if not delivered with a little humour. And is Katrina – set to release the 18-track The Very Best of Katrina retrospective in early May – tempted to head to Kiev for this year’s final?
“No, I’m returning my library book, and won’t be able to make it. Such a shame.”
Katrina will be appearing at Back to the ‘80s Live at Preston Guild Hall on Saturday, April 15 alongside headliner Paul Young, Sonia, Nathan Moore (Brother Beyond), Hazell Dean and Tight Fit, with tickets £25 from the box office (01772 804444) or online via this link.
With thanks to Sher Harper for supplying the extra photographs.