Dragonette's Martina Sorbara on writing songs about cheating without actually cheating
Dragonette (Joel Stouffer, Martina Sorbara and Dan Kurtz) play the Larimer Lounge this Friday, September 21.
Dragonette has been hot on the underground pop music scene for years, but only last year did they come charging out of the gate onto mainstream radio with "Hello," a global party-starter that saw Dragonette collaborate with French DJ-producer Martin Solveig. Almost overnight, Dragonette went from pop's consistently great, best-kept secret to Canada's first pop export this side of the 21st century that is cool to play at house parties.
The band, which resides in the U.K. these days, is set to release its third album, Bodyparts, next Tuesday, September 25. We recently spoke with lead singer Martina Sorbara about what we can expect from Bodyparts, hibernating before shows, how she can't look up at the stars without being mind-fucked and why she and her husband, multi-instrumentalist Dan Kurtz, aren't pop's next Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks.
Westword: You guys have said you consider Galore [Dragonette's debut album] a female, a lady entity, and Fixin To Thrill [the follow-up] is like the brother to that. So where does Bodyparts fit into that family?
Sorbara: [laughs] I have no idea. I don't know. It was an analogy I think that was destined for failure as soon as there was a third album, because you can't be like, "Oh it's a girl again!"
"It's a hermaphrodite. Yay!" [laughs] So... yeah, I don't know where Bodyparts fits in on that analogy. I think Bodyparts is very different than both of them. It was made under different circumstances. Fixin To Thrill was the album we made after leaving our label, Mercury, so it was like, "I have no idea who is listening, if anybody."
I think there was a lot of weird expectation from the label on the first album that had this totally... in retrospect... stuff built around it. And so then when we made Fixin To Thrill, there was a kind of "fuck that" attitude. "I don't want anybody telling me what I'm gonna be, how this is the next big thing or whatever. I don't give a fuck."
It's funny because your early stuff before Galore -- "Teacher Teacher," "Shock Box" -- they fit more in with Fixin To Thrill.
Yeah, they fit into more Fixin To Thrill land?
I would say so. They've got a harder, edgier vibe than Galore, which sounds to me a bit more polished and less in a raw way.
I guess it was more polished. We had more tools to polish it up with. The first songs we wrote, it was kind of like we were on this adventure with synthesizers. Having none of us really been worked with those instruments before, we were like, "Fuck yeah, that's heavy. This sounds so crazy."
Then when it was time to make the album, there was probably more opinions coming into it that weren't just us. Not that we didn't make the record we wanted to make, but it was kind of like sifted through in a way that left a bit more of a polished thing, which I think is where the feminine comes from. Not that feminine has to be polished. But in my mind there's more a femininity about the tracks and the sentiments, which totally represents one side of me.
You got a bit of a Beyoncé/Sasha Fierce thing going on?
[laughs] Well no, it's just that I'm a girl. I make cupcakes, [laughs] and a lot of other things as well. I think Fixin To Thrill was just being able to do whatever. Nobody except our manager, who has been with us the whole time, who is hugely helpful to us in terms of the writing process and bouncing things off him... there was nobody saying anything. "This should be like this" or "You're going to be massive." I think we were just like, "Whatever," and just throw it out there and see what happens."
But that's not what you experienced for Bodyparts?
Well, no. We started writing after "Hello" came out, and "Hello" was this insane thing that was this unexpected hit. All of the pressure came from ourselves and it took a long time to walk through it and shed that, like whatever potential pressure there was there. All of the sudden there's a whole audience of people listening to you, and you're like, "Wait, should I write a song for them too? Should we sit down and write a song for these new people that weren't here before?" And I think the answer is mostly no, but I think you can't not take that into consideration. So it took a while to push that to the side and get back to "Oh, actually that's not us. That's us and somebody." So it's partly the story, and partly the personality. But that's not Dragonette. That's Martin Solveig.
Do you do anything beforehand to get pumped or get psyched for the show?
Umm, I drink vodka. [laughs] People who have been in the dressing room before I go onstage always remark afterwards... they're like, "Oh my god, I thought this show was going to be really bad because you were lethargic and you were sleeping." Something happens beforehand where my whole body -- it's just so exhausted, and I don't know what it is. I think it's my body not wanting me to do anything, so that I have the energy that I need or something.
Just like a temporary hibernation state or something?
Totally! That's totally it. That's a really good way to put it. I get so sleepy and I can't move. [laughs] Maybe it's the vodka! I don't know.
When you performed "Live In This City" before it came out as a single and "My Legs Go" on tour in New York City in April, those songs really translated well live. And so to listen to the studio recording of "Live In This City," it almost has this ready-to-be-played-live element to it with the built-in handclaps and everything else. So with all this touring you've done, especially in the last six months, did that shape the writing process at all?
Yeah I think it did. And I think it reminded us that we're a live band. And so to write songs like, "Oh yeah, no... don't... we're not... this isn't like a club dance band or a dance DJ whatever." [laughs] All of the touring did remind us, "Oh yeah, this is what we do, and we're performers. We're musicians. We play. " All of our background is in playing live music and playing live. I think that that kind of just reminded us that those are the elements that we're strong at. So don't throw that away, don't make dance music just because that's what's dominating.
I love dance music. I love Martin Solveig. But I think that there's a more immediate and, dare I say, disposable quality to some dance music, whereas your stuff...
Well, I think that that's the same with everything, though. I think every genre gets overworked. There's gonna be the disposable, but there's also always gonna be the unique versions of that genre that attract us and remind us that there's kind of anomalous songs within a genre that becomes very diluted.
Are there some bands that you listen to now? I mean, I know that at one point you mentioned you are really into Niki & The Dove, but are there other bands, or maybe even Niki & The Dove, who you feel like are doing some really cool things and pushing the genre to its limits? Whether that be pop or dance or electro or what have you.
Um... I'm trying to think of who. I'm so, like, under a rock. I mentioned Niki & The Dove because it's the only new band I've listened to. But I know there are... I'm trying to think. I don't know. I think Niki & The Dove for me are appealing because there's emotion. I cringe when someone puts the word "DJ" in a song.
It's like, "Come onnnnnn, let's get out of the club. Can we leave the club for five minutes?" [laughs] But even in that song that's so good, "DJ Ease My Mind," it's so beautiful. The way that she [singer Malin Dahlström] approaches it at such a different angle -- that's what I'm attracted to and I always strive to do. I'm not trying to sing necessarily about something that no one's ever sung about before. It's about presenting a different version of a story that people can relate to.
A lot of your songs have a kind of spiritual element to them. "Jesus Doesn't Love Me," "Take It Like A Man," "True Believer," "Come On Be Good" and "Untouchable" have this kind of spiritual element to them. Are you particularly spiritual?
I don't know how to explain it. I'm not religious at all. I'm intrigued by religion, and I'm kind of religious about the world. [laughs]
That doesn't sound right... I'm in awe of the fact that there's a planet that people live on in this crazy place that is space and darkness. To me, I'm so obsessed with the strangeness of that that sometimes I can't even look at the stars. It just fucks my mind up. I know it's such an angsty teenage thing, but sometimes to stop and think about it... So yes, that's the way I'm spiritual. I'm kind of constantly aware of how weird it is that there's life.
And there's so many possibilities out there for other things. Just that there's life is cataclysmic happenstance.
Totally! And it blows my mind! And maybe that's where the spirituality that you see comes from. I don't know.
Is it ever weird working with your husband? When Dan sees your lyrics or when you're playing, do you ever have a Fleetwood Mac moment?
Dan has let it all wash over him and be like, "Maybe it's about us, maybe it's not." I think there's songs that I'm like, "Wait, if I write this, is that going to expose something that I don't want to expose?" But I think that we've grown enough together that we just allow it all to be there, because if we didn't, none of this would work.
There's a song called "Ghost" on the album. It's a song where he knows I've been untrue, or that's a lyric anyways. Or he knows I've cheated on him or something -- and that never happened. I generally write about nonfictional things, and I was really self-conscious of that because I know everything I write is so true, and I was writing this song.
It was based on a scene in this movie by Miranda July [The Future] when time freezes because she tells her husband that she cheated on him. And that just sat with me, and I wrote this song about that. And when Dan listened to it, I was like... When he listened to the lyrics I put down, I was like, "Fuck, this is gonna just look really bad." [laughs] "But I didn't cheat on you! I just wrote about it."
Are there any other songs like that where you broke the mold of songwriting for yourself?
Whether it doesn't make sense or ring true to me at that particular moment, the lyrics in the song always shift into place and become meaningful and tell a story that's true. Even if I don't think I'm writing autobiography, as I'm doing it, it generally becomes so. Even when I look back on it and I listen to it, it's like, "Oh, that's what that's about. This is actually something that was trying to get out. This is emotions or something that I was processing and the words came out and the meaning came after."
Take, for example, Katy Perry: She did the song "The One That Got Away," right? That became true for a different situation as well, with Russell Brand. And not to go into that whole thing, but almost it's like that, as a songwriter, songs take on different meanings for different people and different fans, but also as a songwriter they apply to your life in different ways at different points, too.
Totally! I think that that's one of the joys of it, of writing a song and speaking -- letting something deeper down speak, as opposed to just writing and trying to write the right thing or say the right thing or say something that's attractive and appealing to people, but try and take it from some place deep down means you get to... It gets to be real; it gets to live; it gets to change. Not that manufactured pop songs can't speak their own language as well.
Sure, but they are manufactured, you know. There's a team behind them.
Yeah, I find that the more manufactured they are, the less different meanings they can take on, I guess.
You've done quite a bit of work with other producers, too: Don Diablo, Felix Bloxsom, Kaskade, you even did "Okay Dolore" with your friend Sara [Sara Quin, of Tegan and Sara]. That was so cool when she came out on stage [in New York City] with you to do that song.
That was awesome. We had never done it before, because even when she sang on it, it was remotely. It was so fun. It was very exciting. We've never performed anything together. We've never shared voices.
How did you become friends?
We met fourteen years ago. [Sorbara began as a singer-songwriter in Canada before she and her husband formed Dragonette.] We were both young performers in Canada and we ended up... I think there was something in Toronto we were both playing, and we just kind of met, and then we met each other again at a festival. And then, yeah, I don't know. I can't remember how it was we stayed in touch. I don't remember changing information, but we've been friends a very long time.
It doesn't sound like your other songs, but at the same time it's so quintessential Dragonette.
Yeah! I don't know why. It just makes sense, even though it's such a weird anomaly on a record.
So is Dolore a person?
No, in Italian "O che dolore" means "What a pain." So I just made it phonetic, as opposed to the actual spelling of it. And so it sounds like I'm saying "Okay Dolore" but I'm actually saying "What a pain" in Italian.
New meaning to the song now. I've gotta listen to it again. Are there any people you'd like to work with in the future, on collaborations or anything?
I can't think of them right now. I don't know. There totally is. I only think of the right answer to this when I'm not in an interview, and I try to remember and I'm like that's who I want to work with, and then I can't. It just goes in my mind and disappears.
It's never happened with me before, except with Sara because she's my friend. I've never been like, "Oh yeah, I'm just gonna get in touch with, like, Annie Lennox, and we're gonna get her to sing on a song." I just don't really know how to tackle that process. But our good friend and neighbor, King Charles, who is an amazing performer -- you should check him out, he's really good -- we're trying to collaborate on something.
We have three songs actually that I think would be really good as duets, like with a guy and a girl, so that's what I'm trying to do even though my studio is torn down and I don't know when it's going to be set back up in my next place. So hopefully I'll have some collaboration with King Charles sometime in the next year.
So have you started work on the next album?
No, but we have a lot of songs floating about. Sometimes what happens with songs that sit around too long you just kind of move on emotionally. It's just too hard to get back in the head space of them. I think we may finish the ones we're working on and release them as an EP or something, or maybe they'll end up going on the next record. I don't know.
Is that what happened with "Our Summer" and "Volcano" and "My Things" [from the Our Summer Volcano EP]?
"My Things" was written early on with Fixin and it just didn't go with it. "Our Summer" was written afterwards, and there was the view to make it on the next album. But it was summer and it was like, "Fuck it. Just put it out there." Sometimes it's fun to not be precious about things and throw a song out.
It's definitely a treat for the fans, you know. You don't expect it, then boom! There's three new songs.
Yeah, well, it's fun for us. There's so much less frenzy around it than releasing an album. You just get to write a song and then have the satisfaction of putting it out and walking away.
Is it ever weird to pick those songs back up then during the live show?
No, it's great. You get to infuse new life to the set. You get to have like a brand new song to spice things up.
Do you change your live set each show? Your setlist?
No, no, no. It makes things all disjointed. It's fun to know that everybody knows what's happening. You do change them up. Maybe you'll decide to add a song now and then, but if you get a good setlist that feels right, there's no point in saying, "Well, we better change it for the sake of changing it."
What's your favorite song to perform live?
I love performing "Fixin To Thrill." I love performing "Easy." We have a new song that we've done, only performed once, on the album. It's called "Run Run Run" and I really loved singing that one and I've been enjoying it in rehearsals. It's a mix. I like the ones that I can rock out in, and then I also love the ones where I just get to use my voice and just sing as beautifully as I can.
There's this image in my mind of when you did the New York City show when your arms just went crazy. I brought a friend of mine to that show with me who hadn't heard of you guys before and so the thing that she noted about your stage presence... She's just like, "My god, it's like watching Stevie Nicks with these crazy awesome arms." It was such a perfect way to phrase that. So when you're up there, is it something you consciously think of?
No, I think the only thing I consciously think of is just to let my body go. I hate watching somebody... I really don't enjoy when I'm watching somebody and they look really conscious of themselves. So the only thing I consciously tell myself is to not be conscious. Just to sing and perform, and let my body do what it's gonna do. And let go a ton and just dance or sing or do both at the same time.
And the vodka probably helps with that too, I'm sure.
Well, it's never really more than one beforehand, but it may help with limbering me up.
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