Rocket Queen: Talk to Me

The unique appeal of Katharine Hepburn’s Voice, and the death of music journalist Rickey Wright.

D.W. Burnam will defend musical theater, but can't abide by the horrible, Beyoncé-driven "homage" we've just witnessed during the 81st Academy Awards telecast. Burnam is one half of Seattle-based duo Katharine Hepburn's Voice (which becomes a trio in live performances with the addition of bassist Eli Chuckovich). We are sipping red wine in the cozy, thrift-store-furnished kitchen of his bandmate, Shannon Perry, who also loves musicals, citing Yentl as a particular favorite. "Barbara Streisand singing and leaning out on the bow of that boat?" she says with strident admiration. "She did that waaaay before Kate Winslet [in Titanic]."It's not surprising that Burnam and Perry are both proponents and critics of the merging of visual and performance art. Their band is an intriguing study in what happened when Burnam, an East Coast art-school transplant, met Perry, an Eastside cartoonist, in Seattle, to find common ground on a darkly-lit platform of lo-fi pop that strives to hit the higher notes. "It's bedroom music, but we're trying to move it into the living room," jokes Perry.Even if she weren't in an increasingly popular band, people around Seattle would know Perry. She's a highly intelligent and flamboyant figure who draws and inks her own tattoos and cultivates a collection of oddball vintage taxidermy (the deceptively fluffy duckling on her end table is 75 years old), and who until recently was instantly recognizable for her astonishing collection of wildly oversized eyeglasses. "I decided the glasses were too much of a social gimmick," she explains. As a result, they now hang in neat rows on her wall like artwork, alongside candy-colored antique window frames and surreal comics drawn by her own hand.Perry and Burnam forged their friendship while playing in now-defunct local electroclash act Dalmatians back in 2001. "I joined the Dalmatians just because I wanted to be friends with you," says Perry, gesturing toward Burnam. "We'd been talking about playing music together," Burnam adds of their initial connection. "Then when we went on tour, we'd make songs up in the car.""Dalmatians was a lot of yelling, digital [sounds], and dancing, and we wanted to do something more thoughtful and less party-time," Perry continues. Katharine Hepburn's Voice's self-titled debut dropped in 2006, sophomore effort Unlimited Nights and Weekends followed in 2007, and they've just completed Stand Up, due to hit stores mid-March. Recorded in both their bedrooms and in Chuckovich's basement studio over the past year, this third release takes their melancholy, synth- and beat-fortified pop to more sophisticated but organically homespun levels. "He's more like soundscapey guy and I'm more like ditty girl," says Perry, explaining their back-and-forth writing process, sharing sound files via e-mail before breaking them down further in a live context. "He helps me to be less trite."Treading that line between twee and thoughtful is tricky, but it's a delicate balancing act they pull off, thanks in large part to Perry's elegant and versatile voice. It sounds equally convincing whether she's singing about boy troubles ("Crushin' Out!") or cultural inertia ("Stop Dancing/Start the Pilgrimage"). The 17 songs clock in at less than 34 minutes, something Burnam acknowledges isn't ideal, but simply a function of how they work. "When we're done, we're done. We're nothing like the Minutemen, but I've been deferring to the Minutemen lately. I like short songs; they're like little ideas."The band will embark on a West Coast tour with their comrades in Partman Parthorse next month; they also have a gig scheduled in the backyard of Henry Art Museum communications director Betsey Brock, and are entertaining ideas of building collapsible sets to bring to their live shows. "I like to think that we have no rules on what we can do," says Perry.Such a free and passion-driven spirit sounds eerily similar to that which inhabited local music writer Rickey Wright, who passed away last week due to complications from several strokes. Wright, originally from Norfolk, Virginia, wrote for multiple local publications (including this one), and first got his start as a music editor at Amazon in the late '90s. He leaves behind many mournful friends and admirers, among them former Amazon music editor Tod Nelson."I interviewed Rickey for his job at Amazon, and it was among the most pleasurable interviews I ever conducted," recalls Nelson. "It quickly devolved into an ad-hoc discussion of our mutual musical interests, but what became evident was that Rickey's music interests ran deeper and were more far-ranging than I could imagine. He always wrote from a point of passion—he wasn't a rock 'critic,' more of an aficionado."Another former Amazon colleague, Beth Massa, echoes Nelson's sentiments about Wright's infectious love of music. "If you needed to know something about popular music, you could consult a book or go online, or you could talk to Rickey. A book or a Web site can provide you whatever infinite data you need: the cross-references, the sidebars, the trivia, the discographies, track listings, and reviews. What [it] couldn't give you was all that plus the passion, the conversation, the excitement, the joy, the love. That's what Rickey gave in addition to his exceptional knowledge."

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