Getting Their Voice Back
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. This January, Dee Dee Penny — nee Kristin Welchez, wife of Crocodiles frontman Brandon Welchez – was feeling lava-hot in the dead of winter. Her garage-rock collective Dum Dum Girls was about to release its third long-playing record via Sub Pop, Too True, and she’d booked an appearance with David Letterman to premiere its kickoff single, the funereal march “Lost Boys and Girls Club.” But the sizzle soon froze over as she careened headlong into some cold, harsh reality.
“It was just a bad-luck sort of week,” the singer/guitarist sighs, grimly. “I was on a family vacation the week before the album came out and I was staying with my in-laws. But they both were sick, and I probably doomed myself to it because I kept thinking ‘Fuck! I’m gonna get a cold!’ I unfortunately have a very weak respiratory system, so I always get bronchitis. So that’s what happened – I started getting really sick. We played our show in L.A. and that one was fine.” Then she flew back home to New York – where she and her husband moved two years ago – for the Letterman appearance. “And that was a real struggle – despite being back from my bigger trauma, of course I get bronchitis right before “Letterman”!”
For Penny, it was merely the arsenic icing on an already poison-laced cake. Life had been difficult for her over the past few years. Three close friends had passed away, as well as her mother, from cancer in 2010, and she spent most of her last two releases – 2011’s chiming Only In Dreams album and the 2012 EP End of Daze – processing the tragic losses, assisted by her longtime studio co-conspirator, The Raveonettes’ Sune Rose Wagner. “I know that experiencing the death of a close family member is not really a huge deal in the big picture,” she explains, doing her best to rationalize what she went through. “But it is something that heavily affected me, personally, and it really consumed me and what I was able to write about. It gives you a pretty instant new perspective on things, and I’m at that point in my life where this is just going to happen, more and more. And it’s very much a motivating factor to really not hang on to the bullshit.”
By the end of 2012, Penny thought her skies had cleared. She was wrong. 2013 quickly became her annus horribilus, easily the worst year of her life. Which made that “Letterman” snafu all the more ominous. She knew how to warble. Knew how her entire life. “Having studied with a voice teacher – and having studied music in college, not just from a garage-band, or an I-sing-in-a-punk-band way – I always had the structure of a more classically-trained singer,” she recalls. “So my voice is something that I’ve always had – I’ve always felt like I could count on it without much effort.” But her throat had started acting up, her cool-kitten-ish croon cutting out on her in concert after concert.
“I had to force myself through a song, and while performing I was starting to become self-conscious,” she recollects with a shiver. “And when I started having performance problems, that was really stressful, and they sort of came to head when I started recording this album.” She’d tracked all of the instrumental parts. But when it came to step up to the mic, she faltered. “I was just unable to sing – there was no way that I could record an album with the condition that my voice was in.” And she’d heard all the modern-day horror stories – talented vocalists like The Vaccines’ Justin Young and Pink Martini’s China Forbes developing vocal-cord nodes that bled, forming scar tissue that necessitated several serious operations. “So I was trying not to go dark or anything,” she chuckles wryly. “But then you think about Julie Andrews, someone who had the voice of an angel and lost it permanently. I couldn’t even fathom what that would be like. I mean, you’d better be in a very zenlike relationship with your life to be able to handle something like that.” Pause. “Knock on wood.”
The diagnosis? Yes, Penny had begun to develop those dreaded nodes, often the death knell for professional entertainers. She had been in her old haunt of Los Angeles recording, so she left said sessions in limbo, went back to the Big Apple, took three months off from singing, and started mapping out how to get her brassy voice back. “My vocal nodes were very much at the beginning stages, so it was just an issue of removing the strain, as well as the swelling, because incorrect friction can sort of dissipate on its own,” she says with newfound medical authority. She reacquainted herself with a vocal coach, began rehabilitation therapy. “And it was terrifying, because it’s everything that has defined me my whole life, singing, and more recently, It’s what I do for a living.”
Essentially, the artist cedes, she had to re-learn her skill all over again. She was told that she’d developed some terrible habits, rocking out with her traditionally all-female Dum Dum Girls, fleshed out onstage by an ever-shifting lineup that’s included many women who’ve struck out on their own, like Frankie Rose and Sisu bandleader Sandra Vu. Instead of using the single muscle that is the vocal cord, she’d been using her neck and her tongue to overcompensate, which made her condition even worse. The toughest part, she says, was suddenly understanding how difficult these habits would be to shake. “They put me through a lot of ridiculous vocal exercises,” she grumbles. “But I guess it’s the equivalent of breaking your leg and then you have to start going to physical therapy, where you have to learn things like how to move your ankle or your knee. But all these little repetitive exercises help re-train the muscles how to work.”
Instinctively, Penny has always been a very private person. Someone who doesn’t air her troubles in public. When she arrived in New York, Welchez (with whom she tracked a recent single as Haunted Hearts, “Something That Feels Bad is Something That Feels Good”) was still out on tour with Crocodiles, so he didn’t immediately grasp the gravity of his wife’s situation upon his return. “He just knew that I was having problems and that I’d stated seeing a vocal coach,” she says. “I don’t think he expected to come back from L.A. saying ‘I just cant sing. I’m gonna have to take time off, and I don’t know when – or if – I’m gonna be able to finish the record.’ It was really, really traumatic, and I definitely was very private about the seriousness that I felt about the situation. But it ended up coming at a good time, because he had a lot of time off, as well, so it wasn’t as depressing as it might have been if I was just at home alone, dealing with it while he was on tour. So we had a good six months of reacquainting ourselves with New York. Otherwise, it probably would have gotten a lot darker.”
And now? All that diligence and down time paid off. “My voice is actually not back 100%, but it’s certainly at a percent that I’m comfortable with,” admits Penny, who – like Justin Young before her – sings softer, more cocktail-lounge smooth on “Too True.” And it’s a style that befits, and complements, her mature new outlook and songwriting approach. It opens with the dreamy, whisper-trilled “Cult of Love,” with Duane Eddy-booming guitar lines wriggling in and out, then upshifts into a chugging “Evil Blooms,” a bell-tolling, decadent-poet-referencing “Rimbaud Eyes,” and a gentle acoustic jangle called “Are You Okay,” that sounds like a conversation between Penny and her significant other. The reverb-drenched “Trouble is my Name” processional closes the disc, with the diva in classic torch-song mode: “I had a vision/ I wanted to be dead…I had a vision/ Destruction ruled.” The cover photo features the typically black-garbed bombshell in vintage pinup-girl mode, coyly and confidently looking over her shoulder as if nothing bad has ever befallen her.
Penny concedes that “Trouble” is a crucial cut. “There’s a big underlying theme on this record that I didn’t plan out beforehand, but when I go back and objectively analyze the songs and piece together the subconscious things I can see it at work behind closed doors,” she notes. “And I think this record for me marks the first time in a long time that I’ve moved on the very traumatic events in my life that informed “Only in Dreams” and “End of Daze.” It marks the first time that I felt like I was past that. And how I got past that was through a lot of personal revelation and finally understanding how – through a traumatic event – my life kind of went off the rails. So the good and bad things I finally understand, understand how they were sort of necessary for me to move forward, and (“Trouble”) specifically is an acknowledgement of that. An acceptance of that. Trying to be okay with what’s happened? That’s the only way you can move forward.”
Musically, Penny wanted to make advances on Too True. And in Wagner, she had the perfect lever to her fulcrum. When Penny first conceived her Dum Dum Girls project back in 2008, and began issuing EPs until Sub Pop picked her up for her Richard Gottehrer-co-produced 2010 debut “I Will Be,” she was more band-oriented. Over the years, with Wagner’s help, she’s become increasingly DIY.
“How I work is, I demo things on my computer pretty thoroughly, using drum samples or drum loops. And then I record bass, rhythm guitar, lead guitar, vocals, whatever. And then I take these pretty-finished demos into the studio, and Sune’s really great at drum programming, so that’s something he’s done for the last couple of records. And he’ll sometimes play certain parts.
“Like, I’m not a strong bass player, so even if I’ve written a great bass part, he can play it a lot better. Same goes for certain guitar leads where, melodically, the idea is good, but my execution is obviously lacking. But the biggest thing Sune did on this record was that I wanted there to be a third guitar component to most of the songs. I wanted there to be a lot of textural guitar, because in the past I’ve done a lot of legato-layered reverb guitar – even on “Daze,” there’s a lot more reverb-washy, long, ethereal guitar songs, but for this I wanted something that was still….still sparkly like that, but something a lot faster to imply movement. And that had to do with me changing how I played rhythm guitar. Instead of doing this sort of shuffle that I’ve done since I taught myself how to play guitar – badly – I intentionally strummed in a faster manner, which slowed the overall tempo down. And that’s something I didn’t know how to do at all, but I would give Sune ideas, like ‘I want there to be textural guitar, but arpeggiated really fast, like Johnny Marr. And he would take directions from me and bring that back to the song.”
Penny puts a great deal of thought into her music. And she bristles at being passed off as another ‘60s-girl-group revival outfit – she has much higher aspirations than that. Some fans haven’t understood her gentler vocals and more densely-layered backdrops of “Too True,” and she’s fine with that. Because she’s easily one of rock’s most literate, altogether intelligent frontwomen. “I always joke that I had more books than friends as a kid,” she laughs, finally lightening up a bit. “And that’s always been a big part of me. I’m very much an introverted person, and I get my interaction – not with people – but with books, films, or music.”
The rocker goes on to explain some various things that played an asthetic role in Too True, like Faspar Noe’s striking film “Enter the Void,” the Denis Johnson’s pulpy novel “Already Dead: A Californa Gothic,” and a deluxe edition of Anais Nin’s “House of Incest.” “It’s the one that’s accompanied by these photo montages by an artist named Val Telberg,” she enthuses. “That was a big thing for me in the last couple of years – I got really into her surreal, very beautiful style. It was just very, very moving to me. And very haunting. And that was just something I really felt a connection at the time I was, uh, incubating what eventually became this record!”
– Tom Lanham
Appearing March 31 at Empty Bottle, Chicago