This year has been a dark time for rock ‘n’ roll, with the coronavirus pandemic sidelining the live music industry. But rock music has long been about responding to troubled times with cathartic songs to provide fans with an emotional rescue and inspiration for fighting the power. Jefferson Starship has risen to the occasion for the Rebel Alliance’s current battle against the Empire with their new album Mother of the Sun, featuring a historic collaboration with legendary former band member and OG rock goddess Grace Slick.
PopMatters recently caught up with Jefferson Starship’s current Space Captain Cathy Richardson, who has been compellingly filling Slick’s moon boots since joining the band in 2008. While the pandemic crisis has put a hold on the band’s tour plans, the pause also provided an opportunity to finish up the album.
Richardson says the group started working on it in 2016, shortly after founder and rock legend Paul Kantner’s untimely departure from the Earth, but that it was a slow process due to heavy touring and members living in different cities. But the 2020 release now feels like synchronicity due to the zeitgeist flavor of lead tracks “It’s About Time” and “What Are We Waiting For”. “It’s just amazing, the timing of it coming out when it did, with where we are right now as a country and everything, it’s unbelievably timely,” Richardson acknowledged. She said the project launched itself into orbit with “What Are We Waiting For”, an anthemic collaboration between her and drummer Donny Baldwin sparked by a classic Kantner catchphrase.
“If he [Donny] were adjusting his drums between songs and it was taking too long, Paul would turn around and say ‘What are we waiting for?’, kind of gruffly,” Richardson explained with a chuckle regarding Kantner’s famous moody temperament. “So when we very first got together [after Kantner had passed away], it was like one of the very first things that happened. We invited Paul’s spirit into the room with us, and Donny just started playing that drum groove, and I started playing those chords. Then Donny starts singing ‘What are we waiting for,’ and he yelled out a few Paulisms before that, and then it just became like this chant, and we started coming in with the different vocal parts.”
The sense that Kantner’s spirit was with them in creating the song further inspired Richardson in the completion of the lyrics. “I wrote the verse with Paul very much in mind with the cosmic themes and the social consciousness themes… so that was the first song we wrote and it really was kind of the guiding light, the song that Grace heard, and was the whole reason she wanted to write with us,” Richardson explained as to how the collaboration with Slick came about.
That led to Richardson spending some time with Slick at her home in Los Angeles, where she and China Slick Kantner [Grace and Paul’s Gen-X daughter] were hanging out in the early part of 2017 as the national women’s march in protest of the Trump regime was taking place.
“She [Grace] was watching the different speeches, and she was like ‘This is so great man, this is just like the ’60s, this is just like what we were doing. But here we are 50 years later, and it’s the same thing again and again. You know, you make progress and take two steps forward, and they knock you down, and you get back up and keep coming at them, and that’s what everybody’s gotta do,” Richardson said, relating Slick’s enthusiasm for the activist resurgence.
“I said we should write a theme song for this movement, and she said, ‘Yeah that sounds really cool,” Richardson added. It was then sometime later when Richardson received some lyrics in the mail at her home in the Chicago area, with a letter saying, “There’s probably too much here but take what you want and throw away the rest…”
These lyrics helped form “It’s About Time”, another empowering anthem for the progressive movement, women’s liberation, and saving the planet. Co-written with virtuoso lead guitarist Jude Gold, the song harkens back to the revolutionary spirit of Jefferson Airplane’s classic Volunteers album from 1969.
Mother of the Sun also includes a rocking collaboration between Richardson and longtime band member David Freiberg on “Setting Sun”, another zeitgeisty track for veteran rock ‘n’ rollers as Freiberg provides a stirring lead vocal around the theme of a cosmic cowboy growing older but still yearning to see the breaking dawn of a new era again. Then there’s the stirring Richardson/Gold power ballad “Runaway Again”, a dazzling live track re-creation by Gold of Jefferson Airplane guitarist Jorma Kaukonen’s classic instrumental “Embryonic Journey”, and a collaboration between keyboardist Chris Smith and the Airplane’s late great vocalist Marty Balin (who passed away in 2018) on “Don’t Be Sad Anymore”.
Jefferson Starship’s future inherently came into some question when Kantner joined the star ancestors since he was the lone remaining original member of the band. But there had been a growing synergy ever since Kantner brought Richardson into the group, which gave Jefferson Starship a re-empowered hyperdrive.
“We definitely wanted to keep going — we love each other, we’ve been in the trenches for so long, on the road constantly, traveling everywhere, going through everything together emotionally with Paul. The last couple of years of his life, he was not very well. He missed a ton of shows, so the five of us, we were already doing it, we had been doing it for some time,” Richardson explained. But he added that there were fear and tension around the issues of whether fans would want their money back when Kantner was unable to perform and whether promoters would pay the group.
“And we realized that we were a great band, and we were able to kind of carry it without him, and fans reacted super positively,” Richardson added. She said it was then at Kantner’s funeral that China Slick Kantner approached her to ask that the band keep going, with the Slick family giving the band the same license they had given Kantner (amidst the convoluted legal entanglements surrounding the various versions of the band over the years.)
“I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s amazing!’, I got chills and got on the phone with Grace and her business managers and they said they wanted us to keep going and it was all just very amazing,” Richardson said of what is indeed a very rare situation in rock history.
Photo: Courtesy of the artist’s PR
Any doubts that any Bay Area music fans might have had about the band carrying on without Kantner were firmly laid to rest when Jefferson Starship headlined the annual Haight Ashbury Street Fair in 2016. The band delivered a smashing set billed as a Kantner tribute on a gorgeous sunny day on Haight Street. The set was heavy on Airplane classics, as well as some mesmerizing deep cuts from Kantner’s classic 1970 album Blows Against the Empire. It was the first time he used the name of Jefferson Starship for the sci-fi concept album about a group of idealistic counterculture rebels who hijack a starship in a revolt against the oppression of “Uncle Samuel” so that they can seek to create a more utopian society away from Earth.
While the band is sadly unable to tour in honor of the album’s 50th anniversary, a coveted limited edition vinyl re-issue is on tap for Record Store Day on 27 November, so fans will want to be careful about potential Thanksgiving hangovers.
Kantner’s longtime love of science fiction has powered Jefferson Starship from the beginning with Blows Against the Empire and another classic 1970 deep cut in “Have You Seen the Saucers”, in which he seems to have detailed many of the issues surrounding the UFO coverup (in a way that has to make former Blink 182 rocker Tom DeLonge envious). That led to the band’s headlining appearance at the 2009 Roswell UFO Festival, one of the highlights of Richardson’s early days in the band. They delivered a special sci-fi themed set that featured a stunning duet on “Saucers” from Richardson and former lead vocalist Darby Gould.
Between her obligations with the band and raising a family at home, Richardson says she hasn’t really had time to follow DeLonge’s impressive work seeking the truth that’s out there with his groundbreaking organization To the Stars Academy of Arts & Sciences (TTSA). But she did hear about the New York Times stories that TTSA helped force out regarding the Navy footage released that documented UFO sightings by Navy pilots that remain unexplained.
“Well, I hope they’re coming to save us,” Richardson said regarding Earth’s hipper ET visitors, in a sentiment shared by so many people here in this foul year of our lord 2020. Like 99 percent of the rock ‘n’ roll community, she says her focus is on promoting her band’s new album and getting out the vote to defeat the neo-fascist Trump regime. “Right now it’s the new record and trying to get people to vote Trump out in this election and down-ballot, take over the whole Congress. Because we’re in a very bad spot right now with the Supreme Court,” Richardson lamented.
With her ability to deliver both the majestic rock power and the counterculture idealism that carries the torch for the psychedelic rock revolution of the 1960s, Cathy Richardson is helping pilot Jefferson Starship into a bold new era of sonic exploration.
Photo: Courtesy of the artist’s PR