Ground-breaking, delightful, and iconic, three words to describe each and every song in The Catholic Girls’ catalog – from their witty 1982 debut to their genre-defying two-CD anthology.
Gail Petersen of The Catholic Girls is a singer-songwriter, a writer, and an artist. Her approach to creating stems from her homegrown passion for live music and slick approach to originality. Being a creative is who she knew she was from a young age and continues to work hard to be – regardless of the social, political, or musical curve balls thrown her way.
Decades after her father caught her singing in vibrato, the rockstar’s new wave band has an anthology out that tracks her progression as an artist alongside her bandmates and best friends. Rock ‘N Roll School for Girls takes 41 songs that span almost four decades and puts them onto a double CD for fans news and old to relish in and relate to. It’s newly restored and remastered songs from pre-debut demos to reunited tunes. Bar none, they all have that some ferocious tenacity and high quality musicality that has consistently made The Catholic Girls what they are: a real life rock band. From their electric, authentic rock and roll sound to their do-it-yourself attitude and their glittery, yet punky songwriting, Gail and the Catholic Girls have songs that ring true and strike a chord in everyone. Go back in time, relish in the early days of this unique group of talent, and enjoy these expertly mixed ‘new’ tracks as you read through our robust conversation with frontwoman Gail.
When it came down to choosing what songs made it onto the album, including remixes and those never-before released, what were the deciding factors?
There were a lot of different deciding factors. Some of it was demos that we did in the early eighties that just never saw the light of day – or they weren’t done the way we wanted them done on the original album. It was tracks that were destined to be on the second album, which we never got made, which I can explain later. Then there was just a selection of tracks that we have done since we reformed in 1999 that were on a total of four different CDs that we did ourselves, all indie, and it was just a selection of ones that could have been restored properly.
Even though it spans all these different decades, it sounds very cohesive.
Oh, thank you. Thank you. I think that the songs do hold up no matter what. I think the idea of a good song is that it can exist in the past and it can exist all the way through today, no matter what it can still ring true.
Even just the lyrical content, the musicality – it all is very exciting and relatable, which I think is why now was a good time to release this because it is timeless.
Yes, I think you’re absolutely right. Actually, this whole CD was actually almost two years in the making, so it was absolutely coincidental that it came out at this time, but it ended up being very good timing in a lot of ways because people could take the time to really listen to the album and get a sense of our entire history.
It’s also a time where people are just looking for things to occupy them and delve into, but it is an interesting time to just be creative in and of itself. You said this album was two years in the making, but in the past year or so, as an artist, have you found it difficult to find inspiration or create music and art?
I never find it difficult to create art no matter what, because there are things that inspire me in any way, shape, or form. That comes down to just what people even say to me, what people are thinking, what people are feeling, movies I watched, and things like that. All of that comes into my brain and comes back out in a song. Even something like… there’s a song on there, “Make Me Believe,” which was put out approximately in the early 2000s, and that was when I was thinking about Columbine at the time, which was a rare occurrence then, if you think about it. It was shocking, Columbine, like my God, that was the most horrible thing I could think of, for children to be put in that kind of situation. It was basically a prayer that went out and when you think about it still applies nowadays because it’s become such a common occurrence – until we were all inside – but it was a common occurrence for school shootings to happen, but it wasn’t at that time when I wrote that. It still applies, and even going back to the early eighties where I wrote a song that was a thinly disguised song about domestic violence.
What made you want to delve into that topic musically? Because I feel like musicians do put a lot of personal feeling and expression into songs, but it’s not always done so effortlessly, which I think you continue to do.
At that time, there was a good friend of mine and she was involved in a relationship with a guy and he was just treating her horribly. I didn’t realize that at first until I saw some bruising on her face. I had to talk her into basically leaving him. I mean, we were very young at the time, but I had to talk her out of that and to go somewhere else to get away from him, so I wrote the song in response to that. I always make them more or less in third person, but it was about her and that sort of that kind of thing where you say, “If I go back to you I’ll end up in the hospital,” which was a direct experience that my friend was going through at the time.
Wow. That is so unfortunate, but hopefully she was able to get out. The fact that you were able to write this song almost like a warning and as a telltale sign for a lot of people maybe meant that a lot of listeners could relate it to their friends or their family or themselves.
Yeah, she did get out of it and I was very thankful for that. That’s why I wrote that song. It just inspired me to do that. The Catholic Girls, we were an all girl band, which was just coincidental in a way, because we didn’t set out to be an all girl band. It was just a natural thing. We wanted to be a band without limits. If you can imagine this in the late seventies, early eighties, you tried to get in with guys at that time, but they were very controlling and they wanted it to be the ones in charge of deciding everything. It just happened that I knew Roxy, who was learning guitar at the time, and she was looking for a band and I was looking for a band, so we decided, “Well, why not put it together? And why not just ask our friends?” To me, that was the easiest way to do it, to have people that you knew. We started out like that and we always wanted to be a band taken seriously.
Just from what I’ve listened to, it feels like there’s a really great connection that you have with your band mates and the people you’ve worked with. Why is that important to have those equally as skilled, but equally as passionate and creative people around you?
Playing music with people, just the same as if you do any sort of art form with people, there’s a chemistry. It’s the same thing as maybe to say like a sexual chemistry, but it’s not in this case. You have that connection with somebody and when you have that connection, it makes it a lot easier to get what you’re thinking, what you’re feeling, across to people. That kind of chemistry and electricity, that just happens when you have the right people that you’re working with. It just not only inspires you, but the audience feels that as well. They can feel that. I’ve had people come up and say to me, “My God, you know, I never knew that you guys rocked so much. We can just feel it. You guys just got to me. You hit my soul, totally.”
That’s amazing. I could feel that electricity and I could feel that give and take between all of you just through a recording. I think that is really special and helps the music really connect with, like you said, the audience.
Yes, yes. It’s a connection between yourself and other people. That ability to reach people that way, that means a lot to me as a writer and a musician. That connection that you have with people, that you can reach people’s hearts and souls and minds and bodies in a way. I mean, they just feel the whole thing. That is one of the reasons why I even went into music in the first place. I also write, too. I write fiction, as well, so a lot of my songs are sort of, I think, stories. A lot of the songs, they’re like mini movies to me and they paint a picture of what I feel. For instance, when the band did break up for a while, when we went our separate ways, it was very upsetting at the time to not get another record, of course. What I did in my path at that time was that I wrote a book and I had that published. I went that way as a means of expression, but then back in 1999, I ended up hooking back up with Roxy. We met at a barbecue and I came with my family there, but then we started playing and we were like, “Oh my gosh, we gotta do this again.” We felt that same thing, that exact same thing we felt when we were kids.
It feels as though you’ve always had an eye, or I guess an ear, for what you’ve wanted to do artistically. How did you find your voice and your passion? Because it seems that it came off so effortlessly throughout your life and your career.
Well, it always seems effortless in retrospect, but I think when I was very young, my father actually heard me singing and said, “Do that thing again,” and I was like “What?” He meant the vibrato that I had and I had no idea what it was. He said, “Yeah, do that,” and my parents didn’t have any money, they didn’t have anything. They certainly weren’t musicians, but they heard that and it started me wanting to sing all the time. I was singing and I even wrote my own little book when I was seven, that kind of thing. Eventually, in high school, I was writing poetry, but I was teaching myself guitar simultaneously. It was like 1979 and there was just a British invasion happening again. That came over and it was really something, so I said, “Well, you know, I want to do that. That’s what I want to do.” I want to be like that where the lyrics really mattered, where you could play the music, you could connect with your audience and you could have lyrics that meant something. That’s the thing that I did with the band, The Catholic Girls. I found my voice that way. Music gave me a great outlet to be able to do that. I was looking to find people that were able to do that. That was a time when there was a great live scene, of course, and we did as a band in those days what you could: open for some really incredible acts. We got to open for The Clash and the Ramones and those kinds of bands. We were playing things like The Dirt Club, which existed in New Jersey, and then places like The Ritz in New York, and Roseland Ballroom I should mention that because that was New Year’s Eve one time. We knew we had been working on our whole thing and trying to figure it out and we decided at that time – this is like 1980, approximately – we were trying to wear the things that the women were wearing at the time, which was spandex and that kind of stuff. We said, “Yeah, this just doesn’t feel right. Why don’t we just wear what we always wore for 12 years now?” which was Catholic school uniforms. We decided to be ourselves basically and come out like that. There was a moment when we did that and it all came together, but we were on stage, and I think it was when we opened for The Clash, and there was this moment of complete silence. We came out and then people started yelling, “Boo girls, get off the stage,” and all this stuff. And we said, “To heck with you!” We had our backs to the audience and we started with a drum beat and everybody got silent. We had candles in the background and we started with a song “God Made You For Me,” which was the saying, “Who made you, God made you, why did God make you?” And everybody’s just staring at us and then everything went boom, into a real rock and electric moment. That’s when I said, “This is it we’ve got it.” Nobody was complaining anymore. Everybody was like, “Whoa, let’s hear them.” And it wasn’t just like, “Oh, it’s a bunch of girls on stage.” It was, “No, this is a band on stage, a rock band.”
Absolutely. You put these people in their place and you got rid of every stereotype to do not only what you were good at, but what you enjoy doing.
We were and are ourselves. And I have to mention at the time in New Jersey at The Aquarian was there and they were always very supportive of the band, as a matter of fact.
We love to hear that. During that era, The Aquarian was really truly a publication that was helping rock bands get out there. I’m just so glad that at the time they could have done that for you – and we could do that again!
Yeah. They were there for us. They even featured this on the cover one time when we were starting on our tour. We did a whole tour of the United States after our album came out. Of course the bummer thing for us at the time was we didn’t get our second album. That was all because of politics. Of course, in the music industry at the time, Irving Azoff who managed The Go-Gos, happened to take over MCA at the time, right as we were going to kind of start our tour, and he fired everybody that we knew at the record label. His whole intention was to bring them on board and it was in his mind that there couldn’t be two girl bands. We did lose our contract because of that. We were all sad and so we still continued without much tour support without anything just doing our tour. We went across the whole United States twice and still performed. We always performed, as I say in one song, like we were at Madison Square Garden, because that was the thing at the time. Whether we did a show where there were two people in the audience or 5,000 people in the audience, we did a show that was a big show, no matter what. We always did that. Even if there’s just a few people in the audience, you connect with them, because they’re there for you and they deserve it. I have to say, from having the whole Internet, while it can be a pain in some ways, it can also be good because we found that there were fans all over the country and all over the world that existed that we didn’t even know about prior to the Internet being available.
The internet is extremely connecting, especially right now. Do you think that the Internet has played a role in your career or just in the industry as a whole?
You know, it has both a bad and a good side to it, because on one hand, there’s things like the streaming services, which don’t really pay the artist. There’s hardly any money coming out of that. That’s the bad part of it. The good part is that you are able to hear from people like we’ve had people say, “Oh, I bought this, I’ve had this. I was at this show. I was at that show. Always loved your band.” So there’s a good and bad part of everything. Now, for instance, the little label that did this, JSP, they’re located in London – a place that we always wanted to go, but didn’t get the tour support to be able to tour there like we wanted to. We would have loved to have done that, though, so in a way, this is our way of getting there. We got to England somehow!
It worked out because now we have this whole anthology to listen to – and fans can grow from there.
Yes, absolutely. There’s songs that were on the first album, but we had done demos – like I said, we were working like crazy on these demos – and they were the ones that could be rescued by the person who did this. John Haley was a restoration expert and it happened that he and his partner came to see us play. They got that idea. They thought, “Oh my God, this is good music. Why haven’t I heard it?” And John Haley had done things previously with this little label JSP with people like Judy Garland and Ella Fitzgerald, but he had never done rock. His partner said, “You know, I’ve been a fan of this band,” and they started listening to us. After he listened, he was able to take from those old tiny cassettes that were so messed up and he could find ones that were decent, that he could restore and do an incredible job on. You would never have even heard some of these songs if it were not for that.
I was wondering, if there was a chance (eventually) to perform any of these, like newly mixed mastered, or just newly released songs live, what one would you choose to win over a crowd with? Because I think there are so many that would just stand out on stage.
I’ll tell you, it would be a tough decision. What I always used to do is base the set on, say, the crowds sometimes, or I would base it on where we were or what we were doing at the time. It would totally depend on how it was that day. Like I said, it would be hard to pick it, sometimes we needed to start with a bunch of really pounded songs and then we could get quiet, or sometimes in the case, such as when John Haley and his Vinny did see us, we started out quiet and then we built. It’s almost too hard to say. I would just guess what my feeling was at that time of the show and what I was playing to and who I was playing to, I should say.
Such an interesting way to look at it. I love that, you know, that everyone kind of gets their unique show, then it’s not like you’re seeing two of the same.
I can’t tell you how many times I would be backstage saying to Roxanne, “You know what? I think I want to move this song here. And I want to move that, this is my feeling, my gut, my instinct tells me this is what to do right now.” We would then rewrite the set right then and it always worked, which is something I just felt well in.
I love that. How exciting for you, the audience, and everyone involved.
Right, so people, when they came, they knew they were going to get a Catholic Girls show, but they didn’t know which songs. It could be very exciting to see which came up.
Now, I just want to quickly ask you, because we are a Jersey based paper. As you know, I have to ask you about the aptly named “Night Shift (The New Jersey Song).” I love this song for probably biased reasons, but what is the story behind it? If there is one to tell.
Well, with “Night Shift,” we called it the Jersey song in a way, because it stands for the fact that you need to get away somewhere. You need to feel something, you need a break or whatever it is in that case from whatever it is. At that point, maybe working a job you didn’t like, or you were trying to get away from a boyfriend you were irritated about, or something. Then, you would get onto the Parkway, and it was the traditional thing to get on the Parkway, and head down to the shore, because you just felt better somehow down at the Jersey shore. That’s what it always meant. So yes, it definitely was a Jersey song. You know, it has the images of pizza and all that and that kind of fun thing where you could just open the windows and head down to the shore and forget about everything.
As someone who has been born and raised in Jersey, that is exactly how I felt listening to the song. I was brought back to pre-coronavirus pandemic times and just those moments with the right people at the right time.
Thank you. Thank you. That’s what I mean, the songs do last. If it’s a good song, it can transcend generations no matter what.
Rock ‘N Roll School for Girls is available NOW for purchase and on all streaming services!