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Cover Story: Dorothy

| April 30, 2018

Dorothy Martin

In the music industry, never underestimate the sound man. From his back-of-club vantage point, he usually sees – and knows – all.

Two years ago, singer Dorothy Martin was playing a small San Francisco nightclub with her namesake outfit Dorothy, to a rabid crowd of mostly teenaged girls, who had copied the quasi-Goth look she sported on the cover of her brilliant blues-metal debut Rockisdead down to the last scarlet-lipsticked letter. It was eerie, watching them gather in small doppelganger packs to study their idol up close, alert to any subtle changes in her fashion sense. The show was running well past midnight, and as this writer was preparing to head out to prep for a pre-dawn workday, I stopped to chat with the concert’s engineer, a genial fellow named Scott from the band’s native Los Angeles. “You weren’t thinking of leaving, were you?” he inquired. “If you were don’t, or you’ll miss the set’s big surprise, a song she’s only performed a couple of times before. I’m not going to tell you what it is, but you do not want to miss this!” Exhausted but curious, I stood next to him at the mixing board to see what was coming – it wasn’t penciled in on his set list.

Martin did not disappoint. Her appropriately long-haired backing band began building the riffs slowly, tentatively at first, until her raspy banshee howl made clear what she had dared to cover – Screaming Jay Hawkins’ creepy classic “I Put a Spell On You,” which she proceeded to tear up like a seasoned roadhouse veteran, throwing her whole body into the chorus. The kids just stared. The significance of such an old-school R&B catalog choice was probably lost on most of them, but they applauded politely anyway for this song they weren’t expecting. “See? Was I right, or what?” grinned Scott, with a convivial chicken-wing nudge. Yes, we both agreed. We had just seen greatness, a true star in the making that – by our calculations – could be headlining her own arena tour within the year.

The estimate was off. Way, way off. Although she masked it well in her take-no-prisoners stage command, Martin was falling apart inside, and soon after that tour ended, her band would fall apart, too. The illusion fooled just about everyone. “But Scott knew,” Martin sighs, somberly. “And he was with us on this last tour, and he told me, ‘You’ve come so far, and I am so proud of you.’ So I’m happy to call him a friend, and a part of the family, and we’ll have him on tour whenever our schedules allow. So a few people knew, but not everybody understands because they can’t relate if they don’t struggle with the same thing. So to everybody else, it wasn’t that big of a deal – ‘So you’re hungover – so what?’ And I’m like, ‘Uh, no – I’m dealing with guilt and shame every day, and I want to feel good about myself. I want to feel like I’m worthy of love’.”

That’s right, Martin adds. For ten long years she’d battled the bottle, and around the 2016 release of Rockisdead, the bottle was most assuredly winning. On most tour days, hangovers had riddled her with such anxiety – often bordering on panic – that she would disappear into her hotel room, refusing to see anyone until it was show time. Returning home afterward, the drunker she got, the more her old bandmates turned away from her, as did her original producers, Mark Jackson and Ian Scott. They needed to make money, so they pounced on opportunities elsewhere, and she’s fine with their survivalist decisions – she doesn’t blame them, and wishes them all well. “But at the time, I didn’t know where I was going to go, and there was a couple of months there where I didn’t leave my house at all – I just drank. I fell into a really deep depression, and it was dark.”

It’s not like Martin’s life had been going swimmingly before Mr. Booze moved in. In Hungary, she never knew her birth father – she only knows that she and her mother had to book it out of that country quick, finally settling in San Diego, where she started kindergarten speaking English as a third language behind Hungarian and German. As a kid, she was shy with no social skills, and she hid away inside R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps book series instead of interacting with other classmates. It gave her a vast vocabulary, and soon she was penning Gothic poetry, an art she’s maintained as Dorothy’s chief lyricist.

The optimist had high hopes of becoming a bioengineer. But they were scrapped when she followed a Moroccan boyfriend to Los Angeles where she was sucked into a green card scam, then eventually evicted from her home after he maxed out all her credit cards. Meanwhile, she was living in her car and on friends’ couches while existing on the fringes of the entertainment industry, finding work as a legwear model and as a TV, film, and music video extra with no reliable paycheck to show for it. Once she tracked a poorly-conceived pop EP in 2014, she swore off Hollywood forever and moved to Las Vegas with a new beau, where she settled into a life of placid – if reluctant – domesticity. But the death of her stepfather back in San Diego changed everything.

Flying home to attend the funeral and console her mom, Martin began cleaning out her childhood bedroom, at which point she found an old list of A&R contacts on which she’d once pinned all her champagne wishes and caviar dreams. Blindly, she sent out a mass E-mail to all of them, explaining how she truly wanted to pursue music again, and this was her “last-chance Texaco.” Only one responded – George Robertson, who told her she sounded like Janis Joplin and hooked her up with the Rockisdead production team and also became her manager. That relationship, too, would eventually be derailed.

Her friend, Pink/Gwen Stefani producer/singer/songwriter (4 Non Blondes) Linda Perry would inquire (no pun intended) what’s going on, she adds. “And I’d say, ‘I don’t know. I think my shit is over. It’s just over. It seems like nobody believes in me anymore, and I don’t know what the next step is.”

The keen-eared Perry believed otherwise. She thought the Dorothy story was just beginning, and she wondered why others didn’t hear the untapped potential in Martin’s truly powerhouse voice. So she took the straggler under her wing, in every way possible, by offering to not only manage her, but produce, engineer, and co-write every track on her new 28 Days in the Valley album for Jay-Z’s swank Roc Nation imprint. And Perry pummeled her protégé with tough love – no hangovers in the studio on her watch, she insisted. Sobriety was the only way forward. “She told me, ‘When I look at you I see a goddess, a strong woman who’s also very sensitive,’” Martin recalls. “so we decided to do this record together, and I’m just so grateful.”

But Dorothy Mach Two would be different. Perry framed the 28 Days material with an all-new backing band (drummer Jason Ganberg, bassist Eliot Lorango, and guitarists Nick Maybury and Leroy Wolfmeier). A group more in the classic mode of Robbie Robertson’s The Band, circa The Last Waltz, a DVD of which Martin was obsessed with on the tour bus. It’s a perfect match. Rockisdead was awash in steely power-chord anthems like “Missile,” “Raise Hell,” “Medicine Man,” and the stomping scorcher “Gun in My Hand.” The album packs just as much oomph but is couched in a more cosmic, Laurel Canyon sensibility, from the opening jangler “Flawless” (with the frank admission “You said you loved me but you threw me out in the garbage/Now I’m starting to stink, but everybody thinks I’m flawless”), through the Eagles-ish “Pretty When You’re High,” the Gospel-crescendoed “Mountain,” a neo-psychedelic “White Butterfly,” the blues growler “On My Knees,” and the coliseum-rock anthem “We Are STAARS.” There might be a certain subtle restraint tempering the coarser cuts, like the howling “Who Do You Love.” But they still rock with venomous conviction.

“It took a minute for me to figure things out,” admits Martin. “Everyone in the group had gone their separate ways, and you’ve got to understand – it was time for another album a full year before we started doing one. It was time a long time ago. But everything happens for a reason, and the timing was perfect. When Linda and I got in touch, she had wrapped up some stuff, and she had free time.” The time was right to give up drinking, as well. “I had wanted to quit for a long time, so eventually I did, and now I feel great,” she says. “But that doesn’t mean that it’s easy. I have days that are very difficult because I wasn’t dealing with my emotions for years. And when you put a band-aid on a forest fire, you feel these things that are just catastrophic.”

Like most recovering alcoholics, the Budapest-born, San Diego-raised rocker has broken down her addiction into interlocking parts. If she even has a single Corona, it could quickly lead to pill-popping,  arguments with friends, even fistfights. She isn’t joking – she’s a scrapper. In fact, she’s surprised she never wound up in jail. “So I don’t miss the hangovers,” she chuckles. “And I don’t miss waking up and thinking, ‘What did I say last night?” Or ‘Who did I fuck?’ That feeling is so disempowering and dark and gross. That’s like your own personal hell, and I didn’t need to live there anymore. So I found a solution, and I kind of want to stay close to the light now.” The word ‘church’ pops up here and there on 28 Days, and there’s almost sacred reverence to some of the reflective, lived-to-tell lyrics. “And I have visited churches – they are a place of peace and quiet for me,” she cedes. “And I’m not religious, actually, but I’m very spiritual, in that I believe in a power greater than myself. And I’m always asking for guidance and trying to live my life in a better way. I think I had it backwards before. But it’s okay because I wouldn’t have found these topics to speak on had I not gone through these things.”

Perry urged Martin not just to acknowledge her own pain and vulnerability, but to own it and turn it into alchemical song. As 28 Days got underway, Dorothy marked time with a 2017 standalone single “Down to the Bottom,” which straddled both worlds; One version boasted the original Dorothy lineup, while a second was tracked live in Perry’s studio with the new band. “I wanted to keep putting music out, and I wanted to remind people that I’m still out here,” she says. “So I wanted to give them a good rock song that would segue into the new album.” Listening back to 28 Days now, she finds it startling how many co-writes with Perry – while seeming like broader metaphors at first – actually turned out to be quite specifically about the lady herself.

Like the track “Mountain,” for instance. “That song is so personal to me,” Martin relates. “The lyrics came from such a subconscious place, and at first I thought ‘Oh – I’m singing about some girl and it’s just a made-up story.’ But then I realized that I was talking about me. And then I realized that when I’m talking about me is when I’m at my most unfiltered. I mean, I’m so broken that I’ve made myself numb. I’ve shut my heart down, I’ve shut my feelings down, I’ve numbed myself with – and without – alcohol. I was just putting up a wall, so this song is me trying to break through that. And the most fun thing about the song was watching the band sing the chorus around this big mic that Linda had in the studio. It was the greatest moment of all time for me – I was like, ‘Yes! Take me to church!’”

Thinking back on that two-year-old Bay Area gig, the vocalist swears she’s always happy to see her coterie of copycats. “I love taking pictures with them – it’s like we’re sisters,” she says. “And red lipstick is a classic. But I get a lot of young girls saying, ‘I’m a singer,’ or, ‘I’m in a band – how do I make it?’ But I tell them that there’s really no recipe, and I try to give them as much sound advice as I can, like surround yourself with people who have integrity, and find the best musicians you can and start working with them. Then you’ll find yourself gradually becoming an artist.” But trendspotting kittens will have a tough time keeping up with Martin. Her hair is now streaked, and her clothes are vaguely Joshua-Tree- mystical. “I’m the kind of person who wants to change their hair every week, so it’s hard for me to stick with one look for very long,” she says. “I get a little jumpy. So for this record, I switched things up in every way – sound-wise, look-wise, vibe-wise, everything.”

Don’t count on any new covers, Martin adds – “I Put a Spell on You” was a fun, one-off diversion, included because she’s always been a creepy, cryptic person at heart. “And I just love songs that have an eerie tone to them. And I was like, ‘You know what? Remember the time that Bette Midler did that song in Hocus Pocus? Yeah – that’s happening for Dorothy!’” But now, with two rollicking albums under its belt, the band has more than enough material to fill a full set, plus encores. There’s only one thing Martin has any quibble with – the concept that she could have boldly leapfrogged from dinky clubs to huge arenas in a scant 365 days. “There’s a lot of things that go into breaking a band on that level,” she says. “And I don’t think anyone makes it there in a solid year.

“But I definitely think that’s the trajectory we’re on, and that’s the goal. And you definitely have to win the fans over, and your audience grows, and that’s a long-term commitment. But you know what? I think the universe gives you only what you’re ready for.”

– Tom Lanham

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