Meet the Original Katy Perry: The B-52’s Kate Pierson Talks Style & Sia

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The B-52’s circa 1986. From left: Fred Schneider, Keith Strickland, Cindy Wilson, and Kate Pierson. Photo: © Laura Levine/Corbis

Color. It’s in The B-52’s DNA. In fact, it’s hard to think of a band with a more brightly hued signature style. The party-hearty outfit from Athens, Georgia was born from kitsch, taking their name not from a warplane—they’re unabashed peaceniks—but from a beehive hairdo that resembled the plane’s nose. Over seven albums, unforgettable music videos like “Love Shack” and “Roam,” and relentless touring, their sound evolved from cartoonish New Wave to a warmer, more genial pop rock, and their look borrowed from nearly every corner of the thrift shop. Kate Pierson has been the most colorful member of that band from the onset—and we’re not just talking about her penchant for loud prints. The flame-haired, siren-voiced singer, keyboardist, and bassist has a kaleidoscopic music career as well, having collaborated with the likes of The Ramones, R.E.M. and Iggy Pop. These days, she can add hotelier to her mantle, as the owner of two resort properties, Kate’s Lazy Meadow and Kate’s Lazy Desert, that are as retro-licious as the woman herself. But until now, one description has eluded Pierson’s resume: solo artist. That changes with this week’s release of Guitars and Microphones, Pierson’s solo debut.

“I’ve wanted to do a solo record for a long time,” says Pierson, on the line from upstate New York, where she lives in the country with her partner, Monica Coleman. “Back in high school I had this folk protest band, and I used to write all the time. And then when I got in The B-52s, we began to write collectively, collaboratively—most all of our songs are written by jamming together. So I guess I started to feel like I couldn’t write outside of those family boundaries.” The solo spark was lit anew in 1999 when Pierson wrote and performed songs with NiNa, a supergroup led by Japan’s Masahide Sakuma. But it wasn’t until 2012 that Coleman set the wheels in motion, by putting a bug in the ear of their mutual friend, a woman with a pop Midas touch, Sia Furler.

Sia and Kate Pierson at Bette Middler’s Annual Hulaween Gala, 2009. Photo: © LAN/Corbis

“Monica knew how much I wanted to do this record,” recalls Pierson. “And we went with Sia on this trip to Tulum, and Monica just mentioned to her on that trip, like, ‘It’s Kate’s dream to finally accomplish this, can you give her a little kick start?’” Furler was happy to oblige, setting Pierson up for writing sessions with her friends Dallas Austin, Nick Valensi of The Strokes, and Chris Braide, and penning songs herself, including, “Bring Your Arms,” inspired by a sea turtle rescue that the women had witnessed in Tulum. “She called me up one day and said, ‘I just wrote this great song for you, it just kind of popped out,’” says Pierson. “She kind of tuned into what she thought I was feeling.” That empathy, Pierson says, is Furler’s true songwriting talent. “I think Sia’s gift is sensitivity, really feeling deep, deep emotion. She’s just a genius, really, with melodies and lyrics. She can just sit there, curl up with her dogs, in her pajamas, and just write amazing songs. We call her our ‘sweet genius.’”

Pierson has recently been going through old photos for an upcoming music video, and it’s served to remind her of the enormity of the styles she has worked over the years, some more outré than others. “We have really run the gamut!”, she exclaims. “I mean, we have pretty much mined it all. From the wigs to the costumes, if you can name it, we’ve done it.” That includes more than a couple ventures into space-age looks, reflecting The B-52s’ long fascination with evoking a cartoon-y sort of cosmos, from “Planet Claire” to albums titled Wild Planet and Cosmic Thing. “I was doing space girl outfits way before Katy Perry or Gaga!” Pierson says. “When I was a little, I used to think, ‘That’s the way people in the future are gonna dress! They’ll be wearing space suits, and it will be all silver, all the time, it’s gonna glitter’.”

Kate Pierson, 2015. Photography: Monica Coleman

Early stylistic influences on Pierson and the band included Fellini and Diana Vreeland-era Vogue, and she fondly recalls the outfits designed for Cosmic Thing and Good Stuff by that master of whimsy, Todd Oldham. But when asked to name her favorite get-ups from her decades of designs, she cites two by designer Federico Maquahe: a white “onesie”, hand-painted with flowers, that she wore in the opening scenes of the “Love Shack” video, and a sheer red party dress featured in the clip for “Shiny Happy People,” her 1991 collaboration with R.E.M. Pierson’s not one to take fashion too seriously, and even when others think she’s missed on her choices, she’s okay with it. “I was named on the worst-dressed list at the Grammys a couple of years ago,” she admits. “I had on Tom Ford, and I thought it was the most amazing dress ever. But I got put on the worst-dressed list. Luckily, at least I was pictured alongside Adele, J-Lo, and whoever—all these superstars who were also called worst-dressed, so that was a good thing!”

Kate Pierson’s Guitars and Microphones is out February 17th

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