Black cats have a mistaken reputation of being sinister — especially around Halloween — but cat lovers know they’re just regular felines with inky fur coats.
Rachel McCullough, songwriter and lead singer of the Bucks County-based band Black Cat Habitat, relates to black kitties and their bad rep. Since childhood McCullough has lived with a stutter and understands what it’s like to be misjudged.
“It’s like that with my speech, so many times I felt misunderstood,” McCullough says. “I liked having a name that meant inclusiveness and that’s how Black Cat Habitat came to be. A ‘black cat habitat’ is not only a place for the misunderstood; it’s music for the misunderstood.”
“It’s a place where we can come together, and my band is a demonstration of that,” she adds. “We all have diverse influences, but we come together and really have a lot of fun with each other, bringing ideas, trying things at rehearsal, and the result is a beautiful, textural, multi-layered sound.”
On Friday, October 5, Black Cat Habitat (BCH) will bring its soulful and melodic indie pop-rock to the eighth annual New Jersey Disability Pride Parade and Celebration in Trenton.
Sponsored by the Edison-based Alliance Center for Independence, it’s a festive gathering of hundreds of people and organizations representing a wide variety of disabilities, who will march and roll from the New Jersey State House Annex at 131 State Street to the celebration site at East Lafayette Street/Mill Hill Park.
BCH will perform at the free event sometime around 1 p.m. The celebration, featuring a host of other speakers, musicians, dancers, comedians, and more, goes from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
“I was researching events celebrating National Disability Awareness Month and found a page where you could apply to perform,” McCullough says. “When I told my story to the folks at the Alliance Center for Independence, they said ‘come on down, we’d love to have you.’”
“Music has always been that safe place where I could just be myself,” she adds. “For whatever reason, I don’t stutter when I sing.”
Then, Saturday, October 6, Black Cat Habitat will perform at Small World Coffee in Princeton.
Rounding out BCH are Trenton resident Tony Simpson on bass, Ron Kirkland of Morrisville, Pennsylvania, on drums, as well as newcomer Neal Blumberg on lead guitar.
Veterans of such New Hope, Pennsylvania, venues as John and Peter’s and Havana, as well as Sweeney’s Saloon in Philadelphia and other locations just outside the city, BCH is pleased to be expanding its performance sphere to Princeton and central Jersey.
There’s a certain 1980s and especially a ‘90s sensibility to the group, and McCullough’s voice has been compared to such rock chanteuses as Alanis Morissette, Gwen Stefani, Belinda Carlisle, Juliana Hatfield, and Chrissy Hynde of the Pretenders.
Addressing subjects of love, longing, and finding your own habitat, McCullough is an ambitious songwriter joking that, “Try as I might, I can’t stop writing songs.”
“Really, I will wake up with song ideas in my head, the melody in my head, and that’s what sticks,” she says.
To this writer’s ears, Maria McKee and Lone Justice came to mind hearing the beguiling “Jam the Signal,” the title song from BCH’s 2016 album. You can’t really liken it to most pop or rock, though, it evades comparison.
Thanks in part to the bass, the song makes an interesting departure during the bridge — McCullough says she likes to throw in unusual notes here and there — while the lead guitarist wends his way tidily throughout.
McCullough’s voice contrasts between strength and vulnerability, and all those years in bands and in the studio have given her masterful phrasing. You can also tell that the band members are listening to and respecting one another.
The debut album was produced by Pier Giacalone at Hopetown Sound Recording Studio in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, and recorded when the group was still just McCullough.
“I recorded ‘Jam the Signal’ with studio musicians because we hadn’t found each other yet,” McCullough says. “I initially started BCH as a solo project, but I missed playing with other musicians.”
“Over the years I played with some great bassists and drummers in the area, and eventually I met Tony, Ron, and Neal,” she says. “By the time we all had met we’d all been in different bands and had our own histories with playing out, rehearsing, recording — everything that goes along with being in a working band.”
McCullough says BCH had been a trio for some time, but the group was talking about how and if a lead guitarist might boost its sound. The group found Blumberg through bandmix.com (an online classified advertising platform for musicians) and knew right away that he was “the guy.”
“BCH started out as me being a songwriter, then each one of my band mates elevated the sound of the group and brought in a special ingredient and aspect,” McCullough says. “Our influences ran the gamut from the Beatles to Laura Marling to Bootsy Collins to the Allman Brothers. I think that’s what makes our sound somewhat unique.”
McCullough grew up in Long Island, New York, but moved with her family to Middlesex County, where her father worked in the automotive industry and her mother was a homemaker.
“My parents loved music, but they were more interested in classical music — although they did introduce me to the Beatles, whom I love,” McCullough says, noting that she sang in the choir at North Brunswick Township High School.
“The Beatles were probably my first influence, because of their harmonies,” she says. “I just absorbed music wherever I could, including watching a lot of MTV. I’m part of that generation.”
She names rockers like U2, the Jam, Blondie, Linda Ronstadt, Aimee Mann, the Foo Fighters, and “all things Sub Pop” as influences, referring to the Seattle-based Sub Pop record label.
McCullough did undergraduate work at Rider University, then went to graduate and post-graduate school at SUNY Albany, earning her Ph.D. in criminal justice.
McCullough gets queried as to whether her stuttering impeded the pursuit of her doctorate, and she has a story about overcoming a specific obstacle: defending her dissertation.
“By the time it came for my (dissertation) defense, I was so nervous,” she says. “On the way that day, I was listening to the radio in the car and what came on was the Sex Pistols’ ‘Anarchy in the UK.’ I just started jamming to the song and it got me ready. I felt like a prize fighter going into the ring. I will always give credit to that song.”
McCullough says being in school for all those years was a great way to hone her skills as a musician and performer.
“Throughout my college days, I would go out to clubs and listen to bands playing, but while my friends wanted to date the guys in the band, I wanted to be in the band, onstage and playing,” she says. “It wasn’t until graduate school, though, that I consciously made a decision to pursue music.”
Her performing odyssey began in upstate New York as a singer-songwriter with a band called the Oysters, playing originals and an array of covers, everything from the Eagles to heavy metal band Danzig.
After spending years in the Hudson Valley area, McCullough moved to Washington, D.C., and was part of an alt-pop band called Rubin Kinkaid. The name is a wink to the early 1970s TV show “The Partridge Family” — their fictional manager was named Reuben Kincaid.
The group had some success in D.C. with albums such as “Pink Elephant,” “Don’t Ask,” and “Not a War,” all of which received positive reviews from critics in the city. McCullough’s original song “Deserve” won a John Lennon Song Contest Honor, as well.
“After getting my doctorate, I went to work in an administrative capacity managing public safety grants,” she says. “All the while I was building my band, Rubin Kinkaid, rehearsing, and playing at nights and on the weekend. For a brief time I reviewed bands for an online news outlet — no pay, but I loved meeting and interviewing bands.”
McCullough came to Bucks County when her husband, Tom McCullough, got a job in internet technology. She continues to work in grant management, which supports her songwriting, recording, and performing.
As for the other BCH members’ day jobs, Simpson and Kirkland are retired, and Blumberg works in information technology.
Describing Bucks County as a happy medium between the city and the countryside, McCullough says, “There’s a lot of music in the area, so many wonderful venues, great bands, and singer-songwriters.”
She says she also appreciates “the open mic nights where I’ve had a chance to try my new music and connect with other artists.”
The new music includes one of her recently penned songs, “Becoming,” something she says she is anxious to present live.
New Jersey Disability Pride Parade and Celebration, Mill Hill Park (East Lafayette Street, between South Warren and South Broad), Trenton. Friday, October 5, 1 p.m. Festivities from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Free. 732-738-4388 or www.adacil.org/nj-disability-pride-parade
Small World Coffee, 14 Witherspoon Street, Princeton. Saturday, October 6, 8:30 p.m. Free. 609-924-4377 or www.smallworldcoffee.com
More information: www.blackcathabitat.com