Kathi DeFrancis toured the country in a folk band in her early twenties, and learned to be an entertainer as part of a magic show. As a songwriter and pianist, she’s been in numerous ensembles, including the Mother Folkers. She fronted her own band, recording three albums of her own, three with the Mother Folkers, and appeared on several others. Kathi has musical children and grandchildren. She is truly one of the special musical people of Denver.
Kathi has lived in the same Denver neighborhood most of her life. The house she grew up in is within blocks of the house she lives in now — a duplex her grandmother Noni purchased in the 1940s. Her brother lives in the duplex next door.
Her block near City Park has been home to numerous musicians over the years. Neighbors have pulled up many a lawn chair to enjoy the impromptu music making of resident musicians.
Kathi attended Catholic schools, and studied classical piano as a teen. “Chopin was, and still is my favorite,” she says. The nuns influenced her thoughts about what could be possible for a woman.
“The nuns were feminists,” Kathi says. “People talk about feminism in the United States starting in the 1970s. But it’s been around forever, since before the suffragists.”
The Mother Folkers
Kathi is a founding member of The Mother Folkers. The band played annual concerts for 25 years, and still performs occasionally after 40 years. The most recent concerts have been benefits for band members with family medical expenses.
“When the band got started in 1973, many talented women performed in bands with male band members,” Kathi says. “Yet, it was hard to be taken seriously as women musicians.”
In fact, sometimes Kathi was relegated to singing without a microphone because her voice was so loud, and men played the instruments she was completely capable of playing.
“We still have this today – women are often thought of as the singer who needs to look good,” Kathy says.
As the MoFos were formed, various women were performing as solo artists or in bands. The founders had an idea that if women musicians played a show as a group, they could draw a larger crowd by bringing together their distinct group of fans.
“We honestly thought no one would come, other than parents and the men in our lives,” Kathy explains. “We just wanted to do it for ourselves — to have fun playing music with other women.”
Harry Tuft, owner of the Denver Folklore Center, thought it was a great idea, and offered the concert hall. He booked a Friday night, and quickly had to add an additional Saturday and Sunday night.
“The Mother Folker concerts soon became something amazing, with a loyal fan base.” Kathi says. “We knew these women were musicians — good musicians — and they were strong. We loved each other, and we loved to play.”
“The early shows were very informal – more like a hootenanny, where if you knew the song, you joined in,” Kathy says.
Initially, the rehearsals were sparse. One exception was “The Maple Leaf Rag,” with Kathi on piano, Mary Flower on guitar and Mary Stribling on electric bass.
Several recordings later, the striving for perfection became more apparent.
“Promoters wanted to take the Mother Folkers on the road, but we couldn’t all do it,” Kathi says. “We had families, jobs or other gigs. It was a large group to coordinate.”
After twenty years, Kathi left the group. “The membership was forever changing in the early years, but got static after a decade or so,” she says. “I felt we needed new blood, and I was willing to make way to create that opportunity.”
The next year, several more members left the band. “Deborah Schmit-Lobis, Liz Barnez, Pamela Robinson, Rebecca Leonard and Suzy Nelson joined the group,” she says. “It became a whole new, thrilling group, continuing on with astounding musicianship.”
During the ‘70s, Kathi was sometimes asked how they could have a band without a man in it. “We didn’t need to depend on men to make music,” Kathi says. “We thought it would be a one-off concert; no one ever dreamed it would last for decades.”
Thoughts from the porch
Kathi discusses the fun spirit of the MoFo shows, including lounge lizard guest artists, her philosophy of music-making and the joy she finds in performing. (Source: conversations with Ellen Audley on Kathi’s front porch, April 2016)
Live at the Arvada Center, 25th Anniversary Concert. Kathi performs “The Lord Was a Woman,” ©Candye Kane. Kathi’s daughter Angie performs in the rust-colored blouse next to saxophonist Pamela Robinson.
When Kathi writes songs, the words and melody usually arrive at the same, even if she’s not in front of the piano.
“I’m not like many songwriters, who either write the lyrics first or the music first,” she says.
Kathi has always been deeply moved and inspired by Bette White’s beautiful and powerful songs. Bette and Kathi’s friendship spans five decades.
“Bette is such a great, amazing songwriter,” Kathi says. She’d tell me, “You need to decide you’re a songwriter, and then ya just sit down and ya do it!”
Bette (now Rutherford) remembers she and Kathi constantly writing songs and sharing them with each other.
“Kathi’s house was always open to anyone who wanted to play music or write songs,” Bette says. “The collaborative, friendly environment fed everyone’s growth. It was an anchoring place for the local music community.”
From raucous to poignant, and always sincere, a sampling of Kathi’s recordings:
This is one of Kathi’s favorite songs and places.
“Chimayo is one of those places that is absolutely magical — it’s holy to many people,” Kathi says. “It’s in New Mexico, between Sante Fe and Taos. It was just one of those times I can never forget; I can still bring back my feelings from that time.”
Credits: Kathi, piano and vocal; Eileen Niehouse, mandola; Vicki Taylor and Carla Sciaky, violins; Elena Klaver and Bonnie Carol, percussion; Mary Stribling, bass.
Bread Bakin’ Man
Written in the long tradition of the double entendre, this song has left many women wondering who the bread bakin’ man is. Kathi’s lips are sealed.
Credits: Kathi: vocals; Mary Flower, guitar and dobro; Mary Stribling, bass. Assistance with lyrics: daughters Angie and Jahnavi.
Home Before Morning
Inspired by Lynda Van Devanter’s book by the same title. Another one of Kathi’s favorites, this duet features Sumi “voice like a cello” Seacat.
Credits: Kathi, vocals and piano; Sumi Seacat, harmony vocal; Carla Sciaky, violin; Mary Stribling, bass.
Wish I Had Someone to Love Me
Some live life without the continuity of one love, unlike those who’ve been married for decades in a loving relationship.
Credits: Kathi, vocals and piano; Carla Sciaky, concertina; Mary Stribling, bass.
Credits: Kathi: vocals; Cliff Young, vocal and piano; Roots and Branches (Doris Lee and Sherri Landun), harmony vocals.
The next generation
Kathi’s daughters, Jahnavi (“Jah”) and Angie, remember growing up in a house with lots of music.They remember falling asleep on the landing of the steps near their upstairs bedrooms while picking parties and rehearsals went into the wee hours of morning.
“Angie didn’t want to listen from bed,” Jah explains. “She wanted to be as close to the music as she possibly could. I’d pull the blankets off the bed and Angie and I would cuddle up together and eventually fall asleep.”
The sisters attended many concerts, and were part of whatever musical scene was happening.
Jah performs original electronic music, with the folkie-punk-electro band “Normal Ones.” She doesn’t face the oppressive mentality about women playing music that her mother did. While growing up, she didn’t feel limited in what she could pursue. Though there are still barriers today, she credits Kathi’s generation for breaking a lot of them down.
“It’s extremely powerful in retrospect to have been exposed to so many musicians and their community hand-in-hand,” she says. “It was super powerful to be around a lot of women musicians with deep friendships. It led me to want to create the same in my life.”
Kathi looks forward to returning to playing Chopin after recent cataract surgery. She has a few songs she’d like to finish, and new ones she’d like to write about the importance of love and family.
Reflecting on her life in music, she says, “I’m grateful to have played music for so much of my life. I’ve known interesting, creative people and made many wonderful friends.”