When I met the two ladies from We Are Golden, Sarah Rudinoff and Gretta Harley, it was in a bar on Capitol Hill, mostly quiet with Frank Sinatra playing in the background. I didn’t so much as interview them as let them tell me about the band and their upcoming show at The Triple Door on Wednesday, July 29 while my tape recorder ran. After getting to the bar at 5:30pm and having a great conversation with both Rudinoff and Harley, the receipt on my bar tab said I closed it out at 7:15. I should also mention that I brought 30 minutes of free, microcassette space on my tape recorder.
The band has elements of blues, rock, pop and jazz, reminding me of what Amy Winehouse sounded like before she became the punch line of too many bad jokes.
Rudinoff is a legendary Seattle actress and has been one of the most recognizable names in local theater for many years, appearing on stage as the star of plays like Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Smoky Joe’s Café and winner of The Stranger’s Genius Award for theater in 2004. As the lead singer of We Are Golden, her voice is the first thing you notice: it’s big, often sultry, voice that commands the attention of everyone in the room.
Harley is both a classically-trained musician and a punk rocker, playing guitar in punk bands like Maxi Badd, Eyefulls and The Stevedores. She was also an original founder of Home Alive and teaches at Cornish College. In We Are Golden, she plays guitar, piano and sings backup onstage.
I really enjoyed talking to both Harley and Rudinoff, who were often very funny. Rudinoff explained it best to me a few days prior to our interview when she said I’d recognize them because they would be “the ladies who look ready to rock!”
I guess I should start at the beginning. You (Sarah) have been a legendary actress here in Seattle, what made you want to decide to shift away from that and start a rock band?
Sarah Rudinoff: I moved to New York and LA to do acting and I moved back to Seattle and was working in the bigger theaters and was writing my own things and realized that I don’t want to do act full-time. If I wanted to act full-time I wouldn’t be living in Seattle, I’d be living in New York or LA; you know, making a living. It just wasn’t going to happen, where I could make a living where I could get a house or take a vacation every millennium. I was also getting really burnt out; I was doing eight shows a week: next show, next show, next show. It wasn’t like I was punching the clock in doing this thing that I loved but it just felt like “ok, next”.
I was also doing these weird music projects with people and I always just wanted to do music. In my mind there was always going to be a time for music but that time was never showing up, but really I wasn’t making time for it. But I would rather go see a band than a play as an audience member. I was just going to do a solo show with more music than dialogue or stories; it was going to be music-based with stories in between the music, instead of music in between the stories, which is what a lot of my shows were.
So I was looking for somebody to be my music director and wanted someone who could play piano and guitar, which, oddly, is harder to find (than I thought). Our mutual friend, Sheila Daniels, who was teaching at Cornish and was a theater teacher there, she said “I know someone at Cornish who is a classically trained piano player and plays guitar in a lot of rock bands. So, we (Gretta and I) met, we actually met at Top Pot (Donuts on Capitol Hill, next door to the bar where this interview took place). We met and we really hit it off. I found some players and Gretta found some players and we had an all-female band, but not on purpose.
We had Gina Mainwal on drums; Nancy Wharton, who was a studio cello player and bassist.
Gretta Harley: She was in The Walkabouts.
Sarah: Yeah, she’s great, she played bass and cello. Marchette DuBois played accordion and piano, so we did this whole thing. Gretta had this thing where she couldn’t play for seven years and her hands basically stopped working, and so she was just coming out of all of this physical therapy and started to play again. She started composing and working on more composition, so she said “I’m going to say yes to you, but I want you to know that I’m coming out of this injury” and it was a really vulnerable time for Gretta and she actually asked Marchette to play as an extra piano player in case in her hands gave out.
Gretta: To have her as like an understudy to me.
Sarah: But her hands didn’t give out and we ran the show four nights a week.
Gretta: Yeah, decided instead of having Marchette sit on the side as an understudy to bring her into the band as an accordionist and so she played through the whole show but we had a backup plan to have her shuffle onto the piano if she had to. She could also play guitar. I was getting ice treatments and massage treatments a couple of times a week. I don’t have to do that anymore but I couldn’t play for a really long time. I had to do a bunch of different therapies. At the six year-mark, I started to be able to plunk out a little bit and when she asked me I was just starting to play again and I said “yeah” and then I called her and said “I have to tell you something”. I really wanted to do it. I didn’t know Sarah’s work because I wasn’t in that world (theater); I’m now more in that world than I was then but I just really liked her energy.
Sarah: We had a really good run and afterwards, and you know I had never written any original music, and we played the last show at the Mirabeau Room, with “Awesome”. We didn’t know it was going to be the last show there at the time, it was just a gig. We were working on some new songs.
Gretta: Not yet.
Sarah: Was it all covers that night?
Gretta: That show we were just telling you about, Last Year’s Kisses, was at the Theater Off Jackson. The way that I remember it is that after that show, we wanted to keep the band going but we were doing all covers and then we were asked to do the Mirabeau Room show and then after that show, Sean (Nelson) came up to us and said (to Sarah) “you need to put those covers away and start doing your own music”.
Sarah: It was kind of magical night. You know how there are certain nights where everything is just magical? That night we did a couple of blues covers and I seriously felt like I left my body and was floating over the audience. I truly didn’t know where I went; I literally had an out-of-body experience. Everyone was rushing over to us and it was just one of those crazy nights. So the next day we started talking and decided this needs to be full-on and we need to start writing music. And then Josh (Roman, the band’s cello player for a while) talked to me after the show and said “I have a benefit coming up, would you like to come over to my house and work on your stuff?” We worked on a bunch of cello things and I said “well, I’m starting a band” and Josh started playing cello with us.
Gretta: It was the three of us for a while. We started writing music together and then he came in and it was like “what a thrill”; he’s an amazing virtuoso with a gorgeous sound. He’s really great.
Sarah: Yeah, we had three songs at the time and we got asked to open for Miranda July’s rock and roll reading at Neumo’s.
Gretta: Yeah, it was a four-band bill: us, Lavender Diamond, “Awesome” and Miranda July. We only had three songs and we played those three songs.
I have no idea what excuse I had for not going to that show.
Gretta: Josh played with us and then he only played with us again at Bumbershoot and he recorded with us.
Sarah: He’s on the EP. Then, literally, Yo-Yo Ma’s manager came to town and she represents like eight classical musicians all over the world, and now Josh.
Gretta: He’s just a doll.
Sarah: We just talked to him when we were all in New York and said he was just in Japan…and said “Yo-Yo told me to do this…” and I asked him if he really calls him “Yo-Yo” and he said, “Well, that is his name”.
So we started slowly building the band, we have a clarinet player, Rob Witmer, who is also in “Awesome”. He plays clarinet and saxophone. He hasn’t busted out the accordion yet.
But really, the band is us; we write the music and make the arrangements. Right now it’s write, write, write more music. The EP we came out with last year is five songs. We joined the musical world as the musical world was changing. “Nobody really puts out full albums anymore; you should just put out singles or EPs.”
Gretta: They say to give your music away, not to sell it.
Sarah: We’ll just make the music and find the best way to get it out there, really. We called the little tour to LA and New York that we just got off of the “Bring the Music to the People Tour”.
Gretta: We did a residency in Port Townsend last summer where we wrote all of the music you have on the live CD (which was never released but was songs recorded at a performance at the Columbia City Theater), those were all written over a five-day span at that residency. We had our own rooms and one had a piano in it and I’d be up until two in the morning working on arrangements and she’d be up at 6 every morning. We’d get together around 9:30 or 10.
Sarah: I know, I always thought being a performer was a wrong choice because of my natural sleeping patterns. I should have been a farmer or a baker.
Gretta: Yeah, you should have been a farmer or baker.
Sarah and I are both very compulsive, so we say that we’ve met each other’s match. When we’re working on rehearsal or the artwork or something, we both see all of the little details and we both have so many ideas about how to make things better. “What about this? What about that?” I’ve met my match with this minutia and attention to detail, it’s amazing.
The poor people who work with us. We’re nice to work with but we’re both really specific, too. I like to collaborate, like the poster for our Triple Door show is by Ellen Forney and Corianton Hale, they were the two designers on the poster and that was pretty smooth, but we really like to say “these are our ideas and go” and then when they come back we’re really specific about how we want our project to feel.
Sarah: It’s all cohesive to art, from the press release to the performance; it’s all a project.
Gretta: I think we have a lot of fun with it, though.
Sarah: For this show we were thinking, after a few people asked if we had an opening act, that for a show at the Triple Door, who could open and thought “we could have them open or we could have that band open” but then we thought “we both do our musical things outside of the band”. I do this cabaret thing with more covers. I really love doing covers but people say to me “you shouldn’t do covers” but to me, that’s like saying “you really should write your own monologue and master it”. Basically, performing someone else’s monologue is doing a cover, if you think about it; it’s your interpretation of someone else’s story.
Gretta is doing a performance with all of these Seattle chamber players. She has an incredible quartet of musicians; they do shows at places like On the Boards and Benaroya Hall. They commissioned Gretta to write a piece for them and they’re going to play that piece.
Gretta: There is only one person from that because the other three are in Wagner-land with the Symphony.
Sarah: It’ll be a really great classical set. We basically thought “let’s us open for us”.
When I started the band I didn’t want to do anything with theater. I said “this is not a theatrical thing”, I wanted to be in a straight-ahead rock band. I don’t want to perform that way, I just want to be the singer in a band, I was trying to find ways to separate myself out but I realized I couldn’t do that.
Gretta: And I tried bringing you back to theater.