(This interview was originally published May 25, 2012 on the now-retired Kickin’ it Old School blog. It is one installment in an incredible series of interviews we are republishing on Rediscover the ’80s for posterity and your enjoyment. These are more than just interviews in a way; they are more like ’80s timelines or oral histories on their respective subject matters. Please keep in mind the original date because some content could be specific to the time of the interview, though the majority should be timeless and totally rad.)
When the opportunity presents itself to ask a few questions to someone who contributed to the awesomeness of the ’80s, I will continue to share those answers with you right here. Again, lucky for me (and hopefully you), .
This time that awesomeness is Katrina Leskanich. Yes, she is that Katrina formerly fromKatrina and the Waves. She is best known as the namesake and lead singer of the band that had the 1985 hit “Walking On Sunshine”. The song was a hit in the ’80s, but has gone on to have a life of its own appearing in countless movies and commercials. Find out more about Katrina, her former band and their memorable hit song and much more as we get on to some selections from…
Q: When did you know you wanted to be a professional musician? When and how did you get your own start in the music industry? Please tell us a little about what you did prior to Katrina and the Waves.
Katrina: Since the age of fourteen, I was interested in music and took up the guitar with one of those song books (Cat Stevens I think) and just slowly getting my fingers to follow the dots. I had a lot of sisters so there was always someone trying to sing along with gusto while I would yell “wait, wait, wait” trying to get the next chord. I grew up on military bases in the US and then mostly Europe, Germany, Holland and the UK and my parents always insisted we went to church. If there was a church choir, the choir master’s eyes would always light up when the Leskanich girls walked in (all 5 of us) because we almost make an instant choir. You could expect to be at one base for two to three years so the turnover left a lot of church choirs low on singers at times.
Katrina: My Dad was in the military so we moved every few years. Although I was born in Kansas I couldn’t tell you too much about the state. My musical influences while I lived in the States were the records my Mom and Dad listened to: The Mamas and the Papas, Elvis, Carole King and then my big sisters’ records: Partridge Family, Osmonds, Rare Earth, Cher.
Later, I loved the West Coast music of Karla Bonoff, Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris and women singers like the Wilson sisters (Heart) and Pat Benatar. Then I got into girl groups from the 60s: the Shirelles, the Crystals, the Shangri-Las. I loved the writing of Ellie Greenwich and later on the Velvet Underground and Patti Smith.
Katrina: Vince [de la Cruz] and I were in a group called Mama’s Cookin’ in the UK. I was the band’s manager and got us gigs on the U.S. Air Force bases. The guys loved us because we played only American music and we played and sang it note for note. Later on a guy from Cambridge called wanting to put a band together with a girl singer and he had heard I was good. I dragged Vince along and said he had to be in the band as well and that’s how The Waves were formed. Later on when Kim [Rew] joined, we added on the Katrina bit because it was still a novelty to have a girl in a group and we liked the sound of it: Katrina and the Waves. Kim brought what the band did not have at the time, original material. He was a good writer and in the beginning when he joined he was the lead singer. Eventually, he started writing more and more songs for me so the dynamic changed and I became the “lead singer”.
By this time, the band was now called Katrina and the Waves and was made up of Leskanich on lead vocals, Rew lead guitarist (and primary songwriter), de la Cruz on bass and Alex Cooper on drums. In 1983, they recorded a ten track LP at their own expense to be sold at their shows with one of those tracks being an early version of “Walking On Sunshine”. The LP was shopped around to various labels, but only Attic Records in Canada responded with an offer. Consequently, although they were based in England, Katrina and The Waves’ first album Walking On Sunshine was released only in Canada. The band would eventually sign an international record deal with Capitol Records in 1985.
Q: “Walking On Sunshine” was originally part of your 1983 LP, but really became a hit when released on your 1985 album. Kimberley Rew is credited with writing the song. Please take us back to when “Walking On Sunshine” was written and recorded. What can you tell us about back story about how that particular song was conceived and brought to life? How was the 1985 version different from the original?
Katrina: We all came together at a rehearsal in Feltwell, Norfolk (kind of the sticks) where Vince and I were living at the time with our parents. Vince had access to an ex-projection room that belonged to the church so we lined the room with egg cartons and blankets. It was smelly and cold but at least there was a loo. In February 1982, Kim had the flu but still rode his bike the twelve miles from where he lived to rehearsal and said he had a new song to present. “Walking On Sunshine”. I liked the beat because it was like “You Can’t Hurry Love”. Vince hated the song and thought it was irritating and Alex struggled a bit with the beat. I thought the “whoa oh” bit was way too high but Kim kinda pushed us all. Honestly at the time it was just another song and one that never went down well live when everybody was waiting for us to get off so they could hear Blue Monday. I said to Kim “that Sunshine song keeps going through my head” and he thought it was a good sign. The 1985 version differed in that Scott Litt, a fresh-off-the-rack record producer added the drum intro which, together with a hot summer, made it irresistible for radio DJs.
Q: I read that it was originally supposed to be a ballad, but that it was your idea to speed it up and “belt the song out”. Is this actually true?
Katrina: Nope, never. Never a ballad. In fact, the original (which can be heard on the first Attic label version) is much FASTER.
Katrina and the Waves released a re-recorded version of “Walking On Sunshine” in April of 1985. It was a worldwide hit peaking at #9 on the Billboard Hot 100 that summer. There aren’t too many songs that can make you feel better than this upbeat and fun hit. The song’s success helped earn the band a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist. The band smartly kept the publishing rights and have been rewarded with the lucrative royalties it has produced consistently even to this day. Here is the music video for “Walking On Sunshine” by Katrina and the Waves…
Q: Did you have any feeling that the single was going to be something special or receive the response it did? And that it would be remembered so well so many years later?
Katrina: “Walking On Sunshine” was never meant to be the first single. When we got signed for an international deal by Capitol Records out of Los Angeles, they wanted to go with “Do You Want Crying” as the first single. Capitol sent out a sampler of four tracks and all the DJs said, “It’s the Sunshine song because we can talk over the intro and it’s got the right energy for summer”. 1985 was a very hot year for English artists breaking in the U.S. and it was a scorcher everywhere in the States that year so the song was at home on the airwaves. It was a case of right place at the right time with the right song.
Q: What changed for you personally and for the band after this single’s success? Were you prepared for attention and all of the other things that come with a pop hit?
Katrina: I was a dish washer and bagged groceries for a living and, although I was independent and had lived on my own for six years in the UK, the success threw me outta whack. I was lucky to be in a band of guys and have a female manager who always took good care of me and stepped up whenever they could to support me and help me cope. But the reality of it is, the press really only want to talk to the girl and all the focus was on me. I felt uncomfortable with that and then, when I realized I had to step up and be the “star”, it turned me into a real nightmare for a while so it was hard to find the balance.
Q: Your “Walking On Sunshine” video received lots of exposure on MTV back then. What are your thoughts on the impact that MTV had on music in the ’80s, especially in America? What do you remember about making the “Walking On Sunshine” video?
Katrina: It became the “thing” you had to do to break in America to spend a fortune on videos. Obviously other acts that had large budgets did so because it was so important to be on the all great and powerful MTV. No one realized how many women were cleaning the house with the TV on which was obviously a better friend than the radio if you could hear a song you like and come back into the living room to see what the band or singer looked like. We made videos later in our career that cost more than my home!
The “Walking On Sunshine” video, however, was shot in London on one absolutely freezing day for nothing. The director kept saying “try and look warm”. You can see STEAM coming out of my mouth! The indoor stuff was such a relief and you can see how happy we were to be warm. We didn’t really know how important (or viewed) the video would become and you can see we are not that bothered and keep making stupid faces to each other. At the end of the song I am only shaking my head a lot to hide the fact I didn’t bother to memorize the last outro bit of singing.
Q: When you have a mega hit song like that, do you (or did you) ever get sick of playing it? What are your feelings regarding “Walking On Sunshine” today 27 years later?
Katrina: “Walking On Sunshine” is always my safety net and I know however the set is going I will always be saved by that song. It is like a sweet trusted friend who always makes me happy and joyful and gives me the understanding and the bond with the audience that is almost tangible. It really has become the one constant in my life and the one thing I can count on to bring happiness to myself and others.
Q: The song has also been used countless times in film, television and commercials. Please tell us your favorite places where “Walking On Sunshine” has been used.
Q: I read where Modern English is quite happy with the income they receive from the use of “Melt With You” in commercials and films. Other artists don’t like to have their work used in that way. What are your feelings in that regard? Do you ever cringe when you hear your song used in a particular commercial or scene that is not ideal?
Katrina: I am not that bothered as I know that moment will pass and be forgotten. It’s always nice to hear your own material from time to time on the radio or TV, but the rest of the time you’re just thinking about something else like what to have for lunch.
Q: What do you remember best about the decade of ’80s music? What lasting impact do you feel music from the ’80s has made?
Katrina: I thought at the time (in the 80s) no one would ever want to hear this music again as I thought a lot of it was quite pompous and took itself way too seriously. The same as for the clothes! Now it’s just nice for me that people still want to hear it and I kinda like a lot more of the music more than I used to. I was a bit of a snob and thought only the old music of the ’60s and ’70s was any good. These days ’80s music IS the old music. Ha, ha!
Q: How did Katrina & the Waves come out of nowhere to end up entering and winning the 1997 Eurovision Song Contest?
Katrina: We were asked for a good song to represent at the Eurovision Song Contest and we had “Love Shine a Light” in the bottom drawer. It was never recorded on an album because it was “too Eurovision”. Then the Samaritans [charity] used it for an anniversary anthem which put the song back in the frame.
Q: What led you to leave the group in 1998? Did you ever regret that or was it just time to move on?
Katrina: I thought the band had run its course and we had different ideas about the future of the group and going into production, etc. I wanted to move to London and work on the radio for a while and do my own thing. I am very happy about the way things worked out although it took a long time to settle down and find myself again and figure out what to do. Life is great now.
Q: Please tell us a little about where your music career has taken you since that time. How have your priorities or goals changed over the years?
Katrina: I had my own radio show on BBC Radio, performed the lead part in the musical Leader of the Pack about the life of Ellie Greenwich and I’ve got my own band in the UK plus a lot of other great bands I work with all across Europe. Although this is still my living, there is more focus on fun and enjoyment and if it’s not then I won’t do it.
Q: Please tell us about your new band, Katrina and The Romance.
Katrina: It’s early days with Katrina and The Romance as we have yet to do our first full show. But, after several showcases, it’s looking really good and we have a lot of talent there in Ben Crabbe from De Kreuners and Dany Lademacher from Herman Brood and His Wild Romance. We have a lot of shows lined up for this summer so stay tuned.
Q: What else is Katrina Leskanich up to nowadays? Musically and otherwise? What can we expect in the future?
Katrina: I’ve recorded a couple of Beatles tracks along with some other female artists like Kim Wilde and Toyah for a Beatles compilation album which will be out later this year. I’ve also been writing a book about London, which is where I live now, and it’s a photographic book with a bit of text and it’s an alternative guide to London – called Peggy Lee Loves London.
I am very happy that Katrina was able to take some time to answer my questions so I could share them with you here. Special thanks to Sher Harper for helping coordinate the effort. You can find out more and keep up with her at her official Katrina website and at her official Facebook page or on Twitter @KatrinasWeb. I want to take this opportunity to again thank Katrina Leskanich for her contributions to ’80s pop culture especially by helping us to walk on sunshine and, even more, for going back to the ’80s with us here for a little while as well.