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'A Night with Janis Joplin': Inside one performer's 14-year relationship with the singer

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Singer Kacee Clanton reveals how her relationship with the music icon is constantly evolving, and her intent is to emulate, not imitate, Joplin.

It's one thing to portray a famous person in one stage show — it's another thing entirely to portray that same person over the course of multiple shows spanning over a decade. But that's what singer Kacee Clanton has done, first playing Janis Joplin in the show "Love, Janis," and now in the musical, "A Night with Janis Joplin."

The show is so demanding vocally that it requires two singers. On weekends, when there are two shows daily, Clanton shares the role with Mary Bridget Davies. But Clanton is no understudy. She also shared the role on Broadway,  she's fronted Joplin's band, Big Brother and the Holding Company, she's sung backup for Joe Cocker, and she's released two albums of her own music.

When Clanton joined us at The Frame studios, she told us about the first time she portrayed Joplin, her secrets to surviving the vocal wear-and-tear of replicating the singer's intense style, and how her relationship with Joplin still changes, despite having played her for almost 15 years now.

Interview Highlights:

Prior to this incarnation of Janis in "A Night with Janis Joplin," you starred in a different Joplin-themed musical, "Love, Janis." You've played with Big Brother and the Holding Company, and you're even wearing the bandana, the beads, the earrings— so at what point does your life stop and Janis Joplin's life begin? Or are they one and the same at this point?

[laughs] There's definitely a Kacee that's wholly separate from Janis. I was raised in Northern California and my parents had a VW bus with daisies on the side, and I think I was just raised to be a little bit bohemian.

Later in my life, when I was approached about doing "Love, Janis," I didn't really understand what they saw in me that suggested Janis, until I started studying footage and getting a little more in-depth. Then I thought, Oh, my, I do kind of remind myself of her! [laughs]

What did you discover? What did you stumble upon?

Mannerisms in general, just watching the way she cued her band, or the way she did her hair. That's when I understood what they were seeing, and I hadn't understood that when I first started.

But then as I got much deeper into her and her life, and as I've played her for many years, I just keep learning more and more about her. I've lived on the road for so long that I think that whole loneliness thing, and the isolation she experienced, that's very much a part of my life, so I've found her in all of that.

Is it possible for anyone to do this show every night of the week?

[laughs] I don't think it's healthy, and that's the reason there are two of us. I'm there to give Mary Bridget Davies a break. She's the other Janis and she also got the Tony nomination on Broadway!

Joplin's way of singing is almost beyond imitation, so how conscious are you of creating a sound that's close, but not a copy? Are you creating something that's unique to your own voice?

Absolutely. Our director's very specific about us not imitating — he wants us to emulate, not imitate. Thank goodness for that, because I don't know that anyone could imitate her. Janis was one of a kind, and I don't think that she'll ever be repeated. But what Mary and I have both discovered over the years is that, initially, you have to have a bit of that gravel in your voice, but your vocal cords have to be strong enough to withstand it.

Beyond that, Janis told the truth at every moment that she was on stage, because she had no other story to tell. She was young, inexperienced, and catapulted into this place of legend before she knew what was going on. [laughs] I think that forced her out on the edge, and she had to be completely 100% honest. And when you do this show, if you walk out on stage and you tell the truth through the whole show — as cliché as it sounds — that's the truth of Janis, and that's what the audience will take home with them.

Why do you think Janis has such an enduring appeal? When I saw the show, while there were people there who clearly grew up listening to her, there were also a lot of people who were too young to have ever known her. So what is it that people still find so captivating?

Again, I want to say that she was a truth-teller, a storyteller, and a force to be reckoned with, and I think that appeals to a lot of people. But even beyond that, it's about the songs. I have to tip my hat to all these people like Jerry Ragovoy [co-writer of "Piece of My Heart"], Bob Neuwirth [co-writer of "Mercedes Benz"], and everybody that was writing all these incredible songs. And her interpretation of them just appealed to so many people.

I read that, as a child, you studied Gospel and Contemporary Christian music. This seems a little different from that, so how does one beget the other?

Janis was raised on Nina Simone and various gospel artists, and back in the day when I was doing "Love, Janis," I was growing into my Janis and getting to know her over the years. But it wasn't until I did this particular show that I realized where Janis and I truly meet: we were both raised on the same stuff. I listened to Nina Simone and Odetta and Bessie Smith, and I think that's how I found her. It wasn't that I grew up always listening to Janis — it was that we both grew up listening to the same kinds of music. In different eras, but the same artists, and that's how I know her.

"A Night with Janis Joplin" is at the Pasadena Playhouse until Aug. 23.

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