Singer Josie Cotton has a timeless quality about her. Considered one of New Wave’s most iconic voices, she has enjoyed a long and interesting career through which she has explored many different sounds. Rising to fame with hits such as “Johnny Are You Queer?”, “Jimmy Loves Maryanne” and “He Could Be The One”, Cotton has had a busy couple of years. Along with recent album releases, she and LA punk pioneer Paul Roesssler formed Kitten Robot Records last year. A lifelong lover of science fiction and B-movies, Cotton released Invasion Of The B-Girls in May on which she covered theme songs of campy cult films. “I first got the idea one night when I was watching Ghidora the Three-Headed Monster,” she recalls. “I had seen that movie so many times, but there is a moment in that movie when these tiny twin princesses who live in a flower are singing the most heartbreakingly beautiful song to Mothra… pleading with her to save the world. It was strange and beautiful and funny and sad all at the same time”. “It suddenly occurred to me that I could do a whole record of theme songs from B-movies,” she says excitedly. “So I went on a search and watched an insane amount of movies for about a year. That’s the time frame I was indoctrinated into the cult of Russ Meyers. My criteria was it had to be a ‘great’ song from a ‘bad’ movie… ‘bad’ meaning ‘good’ and ‘great’ meaning it was a fantastic ‘song‘.” In August she re-released her first album, Convertible Music, originally released via Elektra Records in 1982. “Convertible Music essentially put me on the map as a recording artist and songwriter which was my ultimate goal,” she says. “It’s funny though I think my name ended up being more famous than I am if that makes any sense.” Last year, her publisher was contacted by someone with the hit tv show Stranger Things looking for unreleased songs from the 80s. After some digging, Cotton and her team found the tapes of unreleased songs, which had been feared to have been lost in a fire, that would have been her third album for Elektra Records. They released the album, Everything Is Oh Yeah, in the latter part of last year. Last year also saw the release of two new singles, “Ukranian Cowboy” and “Cold War Spy”. “It was a cowboy song I could never seem to finish writing,” she explains. “But I was fooling around with it on the guitar one night with the news on in the background and when I got to the chorus, I heard the newscaster say ‘Russia’ at that exact moment. It hit me like a tons of bricks how rich it would be to make the song about that. And Russia is way bigger than Texas!”. “So I brought it to Paul [Roessler, producer Screamers, Nina Hagen] who is a kind of musical genius and he immediately added this polka beat with tubas and drunken trombones and balalaikas. We were laughing so hard we were crying …also very Russian. I do remember at one point asking Paul if I could really say ‘the purge of Stalin’ in a pop song.” She also released a video for “Ukranian Cowboy” that is reminiscent of Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made For Walkin'”. With plans to release 2 new videos and a new album, as well as release her entire catalog through her label, fans of Josie Cotton have plenty to look forward to! You can connect with Josie Cotton and purchase her albums via the following links. Cover photo credit: Piper Ferguson.
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You recently released the reissue of your first album Convertible Music and added the bonus track “(Let’s Do) The Blackout”, which was on the b-side to your original 12″ for “Johnny Are You Queer”. You mentioned that you were excited to release that track on the reissue and reach a wider audience with it, because no-one besides your hardcore fans had really heard it. What can you tell me about the track?
After I said I was excited, I wondered if I was really excited or not (laughs). It’s more that I just happen to love that song and I wanted more people to have heard it. Even people who were fans of that record, Convertible Music, did not know about that song. I just always thought it was hilarious. The lyrics are so funny and that was it. It was like the child that got lost at the fair (laughs).
You have compared making Convertible Music to a David Lynch movie gone wrong but that there were a lot of laughs. What can you tell me about making the album and the good memories you have from recording the album?
Yeah! There were technical difficulties at the recording studio we were at with the machine. It was speeding up and slowing down so minutely that you couldn’t really hear it audibly, but it made a lot of tension of what was actually happening. You could almost feel things going in and out of tune, but so quickly that you weren’t really sure if it was happening. It was mentally challenging to go through that (laughs). It turned out that the Studer 2″ machine was speeding up and slowing down, which had never happened before. We just spent a lot of time…6 months recording the album 3 times…to get it right. That becomes a situation where you, like, hate all of the songs at the end (laughs)! It’s an album that I am really proud of. There was a fun atmosphere while we were making the record. There was a lot of care and love going on and the Paine brothers (Bobby and Larson) were hilarious storytellers and even at the worst, we would be laughing. It became like wartime humor where you are laughing about the dead bodies. You have to or you’ll go mad. It’s like going to a war when something is that problematic. Also, the record label was in shambles and it was just like a trial by fire.
You’ve talked about how your producers Bobby and Larson Paine were great mentors and taught you so much about songwriting and record production. What can you tell me about working with them and what you learned from them in the process?
Yeah! I would add to that singing, because I was a singer who was really able to sing in a lot of different styles and I loved doing it. My tastes are very varied. It was actually kind of a kiss of death in finding your voice. I was able to be a chameleon. They did focus on my particular, authentic voice. That was very liberating for me because I was trying to be every artist in the world, out of respect and love, but I was able to find my real authentic voice. That’s a huge gift that you can give a singer. And with songwriting, the same thing. They were master craftsmen and were completely on another level of songwriting. They helped me to understand what a real song is. I learned production and all of it from them andC just being in their presence. They were wonderful.
There is a provision in the industry that you discovered that allows artists to get their masters back of their albums after a 30 year period. What has that been like for you to get your rights back to your first two albums from Elektra Records and having the ability to release your music how you’d like? What can you tell me about the record label you started?
Yeah. That’s an amazing feeling, for recording artists to be in possession of their tapes. It’s something new. I don’t believe this was the case until very recently. It just worked out that the 80s artists had that option, if you know about it. If you don’t know about it, there’s a window that closes and then slams shut if you don’t know the timeframe. I accidentally found out about it, so that was a lucky break. Because you make a record and then someone else owns it and they have control over what happens to it and if they want to release it or not. It’s a very lonely feeling to have something you created taken out of your hands. It’s very amazing to have this put back in your control. That’s what happened.
Last year you released two new songs, “Ukranian Cowboy” and “Cold War Spy”, which you called an unintentional Communist concept record. What can you tell me about the themes you explore in those songs, as well as the video for “Ukranian Cowboy”? It looks like it was probably a lot of fun to make!
It was so fun! “Ukranian Cowboy” was a song I had sitting around. I didn’t have a real chorus that I was happy with. The verses were already written for the most part. There were a lot of Communist references (laughs). I got to sneak “the purge of Stalin” into one of the verses, which is really fun to say in a pop song. It was a song about Texas and the same kind of concept about love…you know “there’s a hole in my soul as big as Texas”. I just never quite finished it and was listening to the news one night and was rehashing this song I had laying around for so long and was trying to finish it. I knew there was something there. There was all of this news on Russia. It was about a year ago. It was like RUSSIA! RUSSIA! I was like “Oh my god! Russia is so much bigger than Texas, so I switched the lyric to “there’s a hole in my soul as big a Russia”. It was hilarious to me. I just thought it was so timely. I went to my partner at my studio, Paul Roessler, and he added in all of these tubas and gypsy music and polka. At first I was like “This is too funny. We can’t make a joke song. This is a really sad song”. And then, over a few days, I realized it was just kind of brilliant of him to include that in the song. And the video just became an insane movie, like a spaghetti western with Stalin overtones. It became a ridiculous ride through Morricone’s soundtrack and whatnot. I was really thrilled. I was scared no one would like it so I didn’t play it for anyone in my band. They didn’t know I was going to London to shoot the video. I was just so afraid that someone would try to discourage me and tell me it was crazy. So I just finished it and knew I had to do that. “Cold War Spy” was just about my obsession with spys and the Stasi in particular during the Cold War. I just did a lot of research and there are a lot of recordings of the Stasi and the indoctrination tapes and it was just horrifying! I find it really interesting and was trying to make it romantic and fun and yet talking about our society now and the loss of intellectual freedom and the reading of books being banned. I was trying to do so much. It was the hardest song I ever wrote, that one, because I didn’t want it to be too dark and scare people but also didn’t want it to be too light. And yet it was in the 60s, kind of the swinging 1960s era, and it was challenging. Thank you for mentioning that. I’m really proud of those two songs.
Your recently released album Everything Is Oh Yeah was supposed to be your third album with Elektra before being dropped from the label. What can you tell me about rediscovering those songs and what it was like to release a “new” album made up of songs that were 35 years old? Did you change the songs at all before releasing the album or did you keep them as they were when you initially recorded them?
I really thought the tapes had been lost. They were these gigantic 2″ tapes that were scattered about, and I had not intended to unearth them until my publisher said that Stranger Things was looking for material that was never released and 80s records that were never released, which is an odd request. If you made a record why wouldn’t you release it? But I had one of those and I asked Paul if we had those tapes. I didn’t even know. I had gone through a fire in Malibu and they were telling you to leave your house, so I didn’t know what we had. Turns out they were all completely fine, without any degradation. Sometimes there’s stretching or cracking. They were in a vault somewhere. Still I was dreading it. I didn’t know what to expect and had great trepidation listening to it. It was an odd part of my career and not the happiest memory for me, but as we were listening, I realized that it was something special. It actually was important to me to finish the record and release it. I had no idea how people were going to take it because you just don’t know. I really had no expectations. The response I got was so wonderful, because it was just like people who had grown up in the 80s and had great love for my first two records and then I disappeared. When they heard the record, it was like their youth returning to them, like no time had gone by. It was like a time warp. We were trying not to change. I was dying to get rid of the drum machines, believe me! It was like “Oh god, no! Not the drum machine! Can we just put real drums on there?”. They were like NO! We were going to follow that soldier into the battle. We really kept it as it was and it was kind of wonderful. It really makes some of my fans extremely happy, to hear it, and to have the third record that they were all expecting. It turned out to be a wonderful thing to do.
You’ve talked about your love for science fiction and for exploitation and B movies. What do you feel it was that drew you specifically to science fiction? You have said that as a child that science fiction was like an escape for you.
Well, I was an only child and there weren’t any kids in my neighborhood. I was just a weird and alienated girl and when I would see those movies…I have no explanation of why they would make me so happy. And being scared. I loved it, going into other worlds and other planets. It was just a perfect escape out of this world. It made me euphoric in a way. Science fiction in itself is always so fascinating to me. I’m a huge science fiction fan…reading, as well as movies. It just stayed with me and I have an extreme love for Godzilla, for instance (laughs). I’ve never seen a Godzilla movie I didn’t love. They are just my companions, my childhood companions, and then I grew up and am still kind 0f a child. Luckily, the Russ Meyer exploitation movies didn’t happen when I was quite so young. That’s a whole other element of B movies that weren’t mainstream at all. That’s where I fell in love with films. I still watch these movies. I just watched ‘Attack Of The Mushroom People’ and it was so good! They’re all from a certain era-the 1960s and 70s and sometimes in the 80s. There’s just something about that era and so many you can get on Amazon and all of these different movie apps you can get. There are some really obscure movies that are available now. When I did that record a while ago, Invasion of The B-Girls, you had to go and find some porno shop that actually had, like, weird movies in the back (laughs)! That’s what I did! There was a guy that had this whole set up, but also had a tiny section where he knew all of those movies and directed me. I was like “What’s the worst movie you have that might have a song” and that would be my question. He was like “Well, I don’t know if there’s a song but it’s pretty bad! You’ll love it!”. That’s how that went.
With Invasion of The B-Girls, you have talked about how there were several of the films that did not have theme songs and that you have thought about writing some yourself. Do you have any plans to release an album of original theme songs for the films that didn’t have them?
(Laughs)! Well, I have started doing that. At the time, it was an idea I had and I loved the idea. I didn’t know if it was something I would actually implement, but I find myself doing it now and I have a couple that I am pretty excited about. It’s definitely a need for some of these movies. They really should have had a theme song. I’m trying to figure out a way to do that and to just to elevate it a little bit without becoming so obvious. We’ll see how that works out.
While working on Invasion of The B-Girls, you fell in love with researching and having a concept in mind and exploring different concepts for different records. What is it that you love about the idea of concepts and themes for your albums?
Well, it’s not that I love that idea so much. It just seems to be how…I mean I do love it, but it’s just how my mind works. I’m an information person and think I’m writing more like an author. I love a storyline and history, to put that in that context. It just makes me, I don’t know, see rainbows. I’m fascinated with research and am then able to make something that has a story. I guess I’m just so bored now with just writing normal songs (laughs). I mean, you could just keep writing, like “I loved him and he left”, but I’m a little weary of the limitations in songwriting, for myself. I will love songs that have no storyline and nothing and will be just crazy about them, but for my own writing, it peaks my interest when I have something to say that’s something slightly different than what you normally hear in a song.
Along with your love for songwriting, you have also done journalism, as well. What can you tell me about that aspect of your writing and what sparked your love for writing at a young age?
Well, with the writing, I was writing poems at a young age just out of sadness, honestly. Sad poems. A sad little girl. It’s a great way of tempering your thoughts and it was like therapy for me, I guess. Then I just seemed to have a knack for writing and the written word, separate from music. That’s something I contemplate doing more of when the music stops making sense. I think it would be amazing to write a science fiction novel and go into that full force. We’ll see. Right now it’s coming out in the songs.
With your love for movies and writing, do you see yourself ever writing a screenplay for a movie?
I don’t know. I’ve always thought that the best movies come out of a book. The best screenplays come out of books that are already written because there’s so much backstory. You have so much happening on the screen that you cannot even see. There are things you can’t see but they’re there in the background. I can’t see myself writing a screenplay and have it be in any way satisfying. I would want to go in much deeper than that. That’s just how I’m seeing it right now.
You have said that you had avoided participating in 80s tours but that you have done some recently. What has that experience been like for you?
I’ve done quite a few of these shows now and started doing them in 2019. The ones I’m doing, the Lost 80s tours, only let you do a couple of songs and they have to be your hits. As a performer, it’s lovely to see the people reacting so positively and it makes them so happy. They give you so much response and love. It’s kind of the reaction I always wanted but never got because I kind of disappeared right at a certain point. It feels great when you have thousands of people just really thrilled to see your face and hear that one song, and I do like that. It’s a little empty feeling for me, though, because I’ve done other records and have evolved and have tried to expand as an artist. It does feel a little empty in moments when I think of some of the things I want to be doing on stage. But I’m happy. That’s a quality problem. All that love is much appreciated.
What’s next for you? I read that you are working on a new album.
Yes. I’m writing and writing is hard. Writing is so hard (laughs). That is happening and I wish it was faster, but I am about halfway through a record. It seems to be following pretty much in the footsteps of “Ukranian Cowboy” with a spaghetti western feeling. I don’t know where this is coming from, but there is a lot of western, Morricone elements going on. I’m just kind of following that. You don’t know where it comes from, but it’s fun to see what’s happening in that way. We’re releasing all of my old catalog, so I have to sneak in certain new things. I don’t want to just be thought of from my older material. From The Hip is next and then I think it’s going to be Pussycat Babylon and very few people heard these records, so I’m really looking forward to that. I mean, us musicians just want someone to hear us (laughs)! It’s really that simple.
Do you have any performances coming up? I know with coronavirus that artists are doing a lot of livestream performances and drive-in concerts and things like that.
The closest I got was this “Flatten The Curve” song I was on a few weeks ago, with a lot of different artists. We all recorded remotely and that was odd, to be video taping myself and recording my own vocals in front of a mirror. We were supposed to have a show in San Francisco in September, but I feel that is pretty much not going to happen. We were supposed to do some pretty big venues all across the country, but we just don’t know. There’s no way to plan it out right now. I’m planning on a couple of new videos. I actually had a video planned and it got cancelled. I think now that everyone knows a little more how to be safe and how to do something with a couple of people that makes it all safe. Mainly, two new videos and a new record are what’s happening. That’s my plan. It’s sad because we were supposed to go to Japan and New York on tour, but we’ll see. Everyone is in the same boat and it’s quite a learning lesson. I can’t quite figure out what I’m learning, but I’m supposed to be learning. Aren’t we supposed to be learning something (laughs)? I do have a new connection with my cats (laughs)! They’re really happy I’m around. I think a lot of interesting art is going to come out of this period and so much positive social and political results. I think it’s cleaning and clearing the decks. They’re being wiped down and it just seems that it kind of had to happen for everything to reboot. I just have to believe that there is some meaning to it all. I need to believe that.