From singing to soul-searching to ’28 Days in the Valley’ with: Dorothy Martin
Upon searching for some new unique music, a friend of mine suggested I check out this song “Flawless” — the first single off the upcoming Dorothy record, 28 Days In The Valley. I hit play and 30 seconds in, by the conclusion of the “Listen to me, I can’t be what you want me to” lyric I was mesmerized.
The voice was incredibly potent, but there was more to it than just that. This was a confident singer who was wholeheartedly subscribing to a concept of this is “my voice.” It reminded me if Dave Grohl’s 2013 SXSW keynote speech.
“I’m slipping into some kind of feeling, …got me believing”
I was very familiar with Dorothy’s great debut record ROCKISDEAD from two years ago, however this represented something different. The wave the words surf upon pulled me deep into this ocean (or valley) of feeling. Here was frontwoman, Dorothy Martin, coming out swinging, with a control that demonstrates a distinctiveness — exuding this is me, this is how I do it, and this how I feel about it.
What does it mean to find your voice? How do you do it? And what happens when you do?
Perhaps there is no right or wrong answer. It’s your own. But what Martin can attest to, and what 28 Days In The Valley represents to me is the art of standing for your voice. Within that movement is a passion and a purpose that has an undeniable ripple effect.
Amidst the final stretch of 32-date tour to start the year, and three weeks prior to the official release of 28 Days In The Valley, I had the chance to catch up with Dorothy Martin on an off-day in Reno. Here, we jump right into the multidimensional world of a voice, how to listen to it, and the influence of the one-and-only Linda Perry.
What is your singing history? When did you start and when did you discover that you loved singing?
The first time I heard the craziest voice was listening to The Dark Side of the Moon record that belonged to my dad. On “The Greatest Gig in the Sky” there’s so much wailing away. It’s daunting and eerie, and that struck a chord with me when I was a kid. I would just sit in my room in front of my mirror and sing along to anything I could get my hands on. As far as powerful female vocalists, I was fascinated by Janis Joplin. Whitney Houston and Celine Dion. I also listened to a lot of country music and learned how to yodel. But I knew I was a rocker. Heart was also a major influence on me. I would try to mimic the singers I was frequently listening do and I got good at sounding like certain people. I really didn’t have my own voice when I started singing. To this day, I feel like my voice is a mashup of all those artists that I leaned on for support.
Eventually, I wanted to really learn how to sing. I joined the choir. They taught me warm-ups, some songs, and there was a little bit of information in there, but I learned the most when I studied with a classical teacher down in La Jolla, California. I would save up my money, get in the car and drive down there as much as I could. It would take up most of my time in the evenings during the week. I learned about various methods. It strengthened my voice and showed me I could do incredible things. I even sang in Italian.
A few years later, I attended a summer camp with Coreen Sheehan, who teaches rock vocals. Coreen showed me the mechanics of the voice and taught me about it being a muscle. It was almost as if you’re an athlete and just like anything else you have to nourish it, build it up, strengthen it and learn how to take care of it.
The combination of self-exploration and mentorship guided me to finding my voice. It goes a long with listening to other artists as well. I would listen to Robert Plant and think — oh, he can do this. I’d like to try that. You have to put it up in your head voice. Everybody’s got it. So, my method was to take what I learned, apply it to me, and do what’s best for me.
Was there also a point where you discovered singing was form of expression? Meaning, not only can you belt out tunes, but there’s poetic art to singing that you make personal.
Yes, that’s where it gets interesting. Once you understand the mechanics of the voice and how to use your voice, then you apply the human spirit to it and it’s a whole new ballgame. If someone is hitting all their runs perfectly and they’re like a machine, and there’s no emotion or energy behind what they’re doing, then they are not going to give audiences goosebumps. They are not going to change the vibration of the listener to something that feels good. It’s a big responsibility as a singer to know that sound is powerful. When it’s a group of people making sounds it’s extra powerful. I’ll listen to things like Buddhist Monks chanting and I’ll get goosebumps all over my body, and I’ll be amazed by how it opens up something. The band and I get in a circle and do an om mediation before every show. It really helps our energy and it connects us to each other. It’s an important ritual.
I’ve also discovered that when I think I’m warmed up, it’s not even the beginning. An hour into our set, I start feeling completely warmed up. Sometimes the floodgates will open, and I’ll be able to do things with my voice that I never thought I could do. It’s all through channeling. It’s incredible to go to that place. It’s an entirely new dimension that I hope all vocalists that are reading this get to discover.
Your voice is so authentic and assumingly, an extension of you. Do you recall a specific point in your process of discovering your “this is me” sound?
Linda Perry was very influential in that. I don’t think I’m the best singer. As far as runs go, I’m very sloppy. I have moments of greatness that I feel I tap into and then I also have off days. Linda said I can do a lot with my voice, there are a lot of different sounds that I am able to create. I thought that was very interesting. I can almost get into a character. The more I do that, the easier it becomes and then it’s another color paint brush in my arsenal. Applying that live is totally different than in the studio. There’s adrenaline, your jumping around, and the audience impacts you. If an audience is flat, it’s draining to me. If they are about to crowd surf, then it boosts everything for me and feeds my performance. We are all connected.
I get into these habits where I am doing my warm-ups and I’ll just hit a wall, so I’ll put on Joan Baez and I’ll warm up to Diamonds & Rust because it’s so real, so beautiful, and is coming from such an open place. It can be a mental game. If just running these scales means you are not having fun, then you have to change it.
As a singer, how is it for to write for other artists? Do you enjoy it?
I didn’t write for as many other artists as people think. The more frustrating part of my early days was not finding the right producers. I was working with too many people that didn’t allow me to grow or they lacked the tools that worked for me. Looking back, everything did serve its purpose however. You plateau for awhile then reach the next level. There’s a cycle to it where each experience is a stepping stone in your past. I like to be challenged. Linda Perry challenged me a lot. That was great for me to have that experience. When I get back in the studio with her, I want to be challenged even more, like — how can we top this album? What can I write about now?
When you know the subject you want to write or sing about, what’s your process for finding what to tap into with your voice to match the emotion of your subject matter? For example, if it’s an angry subject matter, most people would naturally assume your vocal will be louder and aggressive. But some of the best angry lyrics are also in very mellow songs. How do you figure that out?
Sometimes you can be incredibly effective when you are quiet and vulnerable. Vulnerability is very powerful. I try to not know what I am going to write about. The best stuff is a surprise — you’re like, “Oh, I got it” in a moment of inspiration. When you pre-plan what you are going to do you ruin the openness. You put it in a box. It’s funny, when you end up doing that, sometimes the song ends up being the complete opposite of what you thought it would be. You have to just go with it. That’s how it was meant to end up. I try to let go of the control and let the music dictate. It’s a channeling thing. Kurt Cobain was very angry. The music was loud, and it was still beautiful. Then, you can be quiet and just as powerful.
It’s interesting, on the new record, we didn’t try to write anything, we just allowed the songs to be written.
I think that’s when the best art happens — when you just let it flow and it comes from deep within.
Yeah, for sure. I’ve worked with producers that are cerebral and they are trying to force the pieces together. It’s grueling to be in that situation. There’s nothing inspired that’s happening. The inspiration does come because you are there for so long and you are really trying, there will be moments, but someone who doesn’t understand the flow as much as someone who does, isn’t as effective. It’s good to have all those experiences so that you can determine the difference.
On your new record, 28 Days in the Valley, do you explore any new ground with your voice?
Yes, I tried a lot of new things. There’s definitely some alternative sounds and more psychedelic stuff that allowed me to be quieter. I didn’t have to push my voice too hard. On “Who Do You Love” people are telling me I sound like Grace Slick, which is funny because I did not listen to a ton of Grace Slick. There are some Jefferson Airplane vibes. Vocally, this record is much more dynamic for me. I got into this habit where I was relying on playing songs in a high key. We got accustomed to me screaming over loud music. It messed with my range. I can’t hit some of the super high notes that I used to. That makes me quite angry because people will say, “You can do it, I’ve heard you do it before.” And my response is, “Well, fuck you. This is my voice, I can’t just go buy a new voice like you can a guitar.” If somebody was telling you to overwork your hands in a way that was unhealthy, you would be pissed too. I make sure my voice is treated with care. I know when to back-off now and be a little more relaxed. There are different techniques I have employed as a singer. I am glad I get to sing on super chill songs that are more about the vibe than showing off.
That was my initial reaction when I first heard “Flawless” — it was a singer relaying “This is me, this is my voice.”
The album is so full of great songs. I don’t usually enjoy going back and listening to my songs. Because this was such a group effort between the band, Linda and I, I don’t feel like I am listening to my songs so much. Getting to hear what Leroy Wulfmeier and Nick Maybury are doing on guitar shows there are so many layers. It’s really fun to listen to. They are very well-written and there’s a positive message. I’m really proud of it. I’m excited for people to hear it.
I was watching your recent performance at the Bowery Ballroom in New York City. As you hit the stage, the band started jamming and before you started singing “White Butterfly”, you had some very powerful words for the crowd. It was based around — everyone having their own voice, being yourself, unity, and living in the moment. Is that a theme to what you are trying to say with this record?
Yeah, this album was a spiritual journey for me. I got sober around the time of making this, and I was struggling with that for years. I would white knuckle my sobriety and then I would relapse constantly. I did not have any recovery. This was a beautiful shift in my life. A lot of stress that I had been carrying around was relieved. I’m super grateful to be surrounded by such great people now. This is about healing people through music — spiritually and emotionally. I hope that’s what it does when people hear it. I think it’s more obvious during live shows. There was an incident with Nick’s guitar board before the Bowery show. Our manager told us just to go with it. I thought — this is happening for a reason and I have something to say to the audience. I trusted it and just went with it. I hope people hear that message.
It’s all certainly very moving and inspiring. Given your overall experience, what would be your words of wisdom to those who are searching for or discovering their voice?
It’s really important that every day you meditate and become focused on what you want. You have to set your attentions rather than just letting life happen to you. Know that you are in control in a way where you can ask, and it’s given to you by the universe. If you want to discover who you are, put yourself out there and life will bring you the experiences you need. Trust the process. It’s going to happen. Trust that everything is going to manifest for you and there is more to life than we are led to believe there is — by society and the media. When you tap into that its super powerful. It gives your life meaning and purpose. You can bring upon a lot of change when you are living that in your everyday life. You become almost superhuman — spiritually charged, where you carry that message to the next person. That’s how I think we all need to approach our lives, from that foundation. Think outside the box. Believe in something greater. It’s there. I’ve seen miracles happen. I’m really lucky to be doing what I am doing. I pray and I’m grateful. That energy snowballs and opens a lot of doors.
Dorothy’s 28 Days In The Valley is out March 16th. Pre-Order HERE:
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