Katrina Leskanich

Still walking on sunshine

Former Katrina And The Waves frontwoman Katrina Leskanich is happy flying solo as a hard-working musician.

By Naila Francis

The bill is an unlikely one. This Katrina Leskanich, former frontwoman of ’80s pop-rock band Katrina And The Waves, admits even if she is excited to be on it with her first North American tour since 1989.

The Retro Futura Tour, which kicks off in New York Thursday before coming to the Keswick Theatre in Glenside on Friday, also features Howard Jones, The Thompson Twins’ Tom Bailey, former Ultravox frontman Midge Ure and China Crisis.

“These are mostly English groups except for me,” says Leskanich, a Topeka, Kansas, native whose father’s service in the Air Force eventually led the family to England, following an itinerant childhood, where she’s lived since 1976.

“What is huge in the UK is the ’80s pop circuit. People just can’t get enough of it,” she says. “This tour came along out of the blue and I thought, ‘This is an interesting bill. I like the artists.’ I don’t know if it’s a real obvious marriage for me, but I really like the artists.

“I think you’d more expect me to be with The Bangles, The Go-Go’s, something like that, but there must be a reason for me to be stretched in this way to be joining in with all these cool guys.”

For the woman who bounced her way onto the airwaves with the irrepressible feel-good smash “Walking on Sunshine,” from Katrina And The Waves’ 1985 Capitol Records debut, the invitation to join the tour sparked a surprisingly fecund period. She wrote her new album, “Blisland,” out today, to have added songs to share on the road with her band.

“I thought I was done recording albums. I do tour and I work a lot in Europe. It’s very Norway today, Belgium tomorrow, Germany the day after tomorrow. It’s a little bit hectic. It is trains, planes and automobiles and the odd ferry. That takes up most of my time,” she says. “But I thought if I was ever going to have an audience for new material, now was the time so I might as well do it.”

Leskanich, who left Katrina And The Waves in 1998 — despite a handful of other charting singles and a 1997 Eurovision Song Contest win with “Love Shine a Light,” the group never duplicated the success of its mega-hit — has always been content with her solo career.

“I’ve had a lot of fun having to find my own way,” she says, noting the improbability of a Waves reunion. “I don’t know how much they would want to do it or how much I would want to. What I’ve got being on my own has been much, much more rewarding.”

Still she admits to being baffled by her decision to, in 2011, release an EP, “Spiritualize,” featuring a collection of songs she’d had hanging around for years.

She did issue a live album in 2010, but “Blisland” is her first studio effort in 10 years.

“This is the first album I’ve recorded where I specifically wrote material for this record,” says Leskanich, 54. “The music is influenced by a lot of my beliefs, by where I stand right now, how I see the world. I just wasn’t able to express that before. Sometimes, they say you should never write a book until you’re in your 50s. Maybe it’s the same for me with writing songs. I didn’t understand enough of what I was writing about or singing about before.”

“Blisland” spans a rangy eclecticism from lustrous pop-rock and rollicking country to wailing, guitar-driven blues. While there’s a searching quality to several tracks, as she ponders the emptiness that can assail modern family life and unravels the sorrow of a series of personal losses — including her parents, two sisters and her 10-year-old dog — the jaunty “Farmer’s Song” is an ode to her mom and dad and the farm they purchased in England. Leskanich says whenever she visited and tried to talk current events with them, they’d blame their ignorance on a never-ending list of chores.

“They would say, ‘You’ll have to tell me this in a minute because we have to go tend to the hay. It’s starting to rain …’ or ‘We’re too busy, we have the hogs to feed,'” she recalls. “It’s just kind of a fun song. You know, with farmers, there’s just more important things than reading the newspaper or watching TV.”

The breezy title track, which pays tribute to those places that heal and renew us, was the first song she wrote for the album. It was inspired by the village of Blisland in Cornwall in the Southwest of England.

“It’s very much like the Southwest of America, where you have beautiful sunsets and beautiful beaches. I was very much reassured and made happy by the time I spent in Cornwall and I felt really good about the songs reflecting my time there,” she says. “I wanted also to write songs that reflected the genres of music I listened to when I was going through my mom’s record collection — the Eagles, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Carole King’s ‘Tapestry,’ Mama Cass … her album ‘Mama’s Big Ones’ is still my favorite album of all time.”

If it’s a palette that diverges from the mainstream pop machine, Leskanich isn’t courting that kind of success.

“It’s obviously more of a personal approach. I don’t have a record label and I wasn’t interested in coming up with anything that’s going to fit in a box,” she says. “Inevitably, it’s going to be different from everything else you hear and maybe, just maybe, it might sound fresh, even though it’s by design quite retrospective.”

Of course, audiences who catch the Retro Futura Tour will be treated to “Walking on Sunshine,” which she jokes has a bigger career than her own. (Among its countless film and commercial placements over the years, the song recently inspired a musical comedy, “Walking on Sunshine,” starring Leona Lewis and featuring hits from the ’80s). Leskanich includes her own bluesy version of the Top 40 hit on “Blisland” but favors the original in concert.

“When I do it live, you’ll know it’s coming,” she says. “You’ll hear that drumbeat — and there it is.”

Though it’s become something of her calling card, the song was actually written by Kimberley Rew, the singer-songwriter and guitarist who initially fronted The Waves before he started penning material for Leskanich’s voice. When the band was dropped from Capitol, Rew held onto the publishing rights for the song.

“Because I didn’t write ‘Walking on Sunshine,’ I am a working singer. I have to do that to pay my bills,” she says. “I live quite humbly, but it’s exactly the way I like it because I’d hate to be too comfortable …. To have to be pushed out of my comfort zone and work when I don’t feel like it or don’t want to or a gig’s not great and not paying a lot of money or it’s 350 miles away and there’s no direct motorway to get there, it’s good to do that. It’s good to work.

“Also, I’m aware of the tick-tock of the clock and singers’ voices just go, so I cherish every moment that I have.”

She has ventured away from music over the years, most notably as a BBC radio host and playing the lead role in “Leader of the Pack,” a musical celebrating the life of Ellie Greenwich, author of songs such as “Be My Baby,” “River Deep, Mountain High” and “Do Wah Diddy.” Last year, she published her first book, “Peggy Lee Loves London: My London Guide,” featuring her poodle in a photographic city tour guide series.

But music remains her first love.

“It’s still the biggest buzz I get out of doing anything in life except maybe eating a pizza which is absolute perfection — and every once in a while, you run into one of those,” says Leskanich.

– The Bucks County Courier Times and The Intelligencer