Melissa McMahon, writer & columnist converses with lead singer, songwriter and fashionista Martina Sorbara of the electro-pop band Dragonette.
The frigid cold has permeated the air of this empty, dim, run-down bar. It smells of stale smoke and beer, and has a lifeless quality about it; the arcade machines abandoned, the single employee unloading cases of water. As I looked around my imagination filled the empty space with the crowds that would shortly swoon over the band that was soon to play. As I turned the corner though, the bar came to life with the sound of the drums- striking steadily with an impassioned pattern. On stage sporting a grey t-shirt and jeans stood bassist and producer Dan Kurtz, and drummer Joel. As the sound check began Joel begins drumming, unaccompanied, eyes closed and body swaying freely. Dan smiles, shaking his head as Martina (lead vocalist, songwriter & guitarist) jumps on stage completely bundled in winter attire. Her shoulders were raised, and her hands make cold fists by her side. She approaches the mic, takes a breath, and begins to sing a verse from their new song Animale- a track released in collaboration with Don Diablo. “Stamp your hind leg! Step behind me! Animale!” Her voice was strong- and crisp like the winter air as it resonates acapella throughout the bar.
They run through the ballad- a selection of older songs; Hello Delores, Easy, Fixing to Thrill and some new; Hello, Fire in Your New Shoes, Our Summer- all filling the space with brilliant ease. Their interactions were wonderfully entertaining. Dan looks across the stage and says most seriously, “Joel! What are you wearing?” He responds, “sex.” A laugh breaks across the room. “I don’t know how you wear sex – but I want some!” Leaning comfortably over her shoulder Dan helps his wife Martina as she tunes her guitar. Dan moves over his equipment, focused, effortlessly tinkering with the technicalities of sound and balance. Even in this empty bar, they play with such enjoyment, so naturally, with so much chemistry between them. Every note, every sound within their complete control and somehow, I believe every iota of it- it is real.
Dragonette is an unerringly original electro-pop trio that originated in Toronto. Although touring frequently, the band now resides and records in London, England- composing what lead singer Martina refers to as ‘basement pop.’
Creating music is nothing new to the dynamic group; Dan Kurtz (bassist and producer) was a member of The New Deal. Martina Sorbara was formerly characterized by her solo sudo jazz- folk sound that was featured in the Women and Songs 6 series.
That era, however, definitely doesn’t characterize them anymore as their autonomously created style has evolved into an electro-pop centered sound with some flecks of 70’s disco, dance/club and the occasional 80’s handclap. It is not solely their sound that is unique, but also their distinctively provocative lyrics. Their first record Galore, first released as an EP in 2005, then as an album in 2007 had songs entitled: I Get Around, Take it Like A Man, Shockbox, and the humorous Jesus Doesn’t Love Me. ( It reads: “I’ve got a little bit of dirty down in my soul. Jesus doesn’t love me anymore!”). Thereafter, their music evolved slightly into a deeper, more diversified sound with their second studio album; Fixin’ To Thrill. A rougher, edgier style featured songs; Liar, Pick up the Phone, Easy, and Come on Be Good. Finally, the most recent- Mixin’ to Thrill- is a compilation of unconventional remixes and a few fun new singles.
These themes toy with sexuality and female empowerment in a highly unconventional manner and constantly challenge commonly held views of beauty, power, society, and promiscuity. After the sound check is through, Martina veraciously explains their use of sexually driven lyrics. Seemingly astute, she comments, “a part of it is exploring a different kind of sexuality and other ways to feel beautiful rather than what we constantly see as one dimension of beauty.” She sits comfortably- winter hat still intact. Her voice is cheerful, calm and curiously high- pitched. “There’s only one aspect of beauty in the media, for the most part. I find it well, just boring. I think it’s actually just an expression of [myself] and what I like. So, the fact that I get to think it out, fill out the picture of that idea and project it on stage is just an element of the creative aspect of what I do.”
Similar to the Sinead or Grace Jones of our current time, Martina displays an enthralling androgynous appearance. With an elegant face, short hair and slim figure, she portrays an alternative sexiness naturally. In videos she has been seen in baggy jeans with a hoodie, a ruby gown, a nude colored bodysuit, and many pieces in between. This multi-dimensional sexuality could be a product of growing up with her twin brother, feeling always as one of the boys- never identifying with the ‘ultra-feminine.’ “Really [it’s] just what I’m attracted to. I don’t want to disrespect what anyone else does, because everyone has a different relationship to music, beauty, sexuality, and what is sexy and everything else. I’m simply not attracted to the ‘normal’ display of what is beautiful. I just have an attraction to a particular style of aesthetics musically, and professionally. I try to seek out more ways of displaying that.”
More recently, Dragonette released another EP, Mixin’ to Thrill, and they’ve begun branching out to collaborate with other DJ’s and production styles previously uncommon to the trio. “I think that the experience of working with DJ’s has kind of shown us other ways of writing pop music that isn’t formulated like 1st; chorus; 2nd;chorus; bridge-out. I mean we love pop music, and that format is great, its there because it works. It is a formula to try to get creative within. But having these songs with these DJ’s that don’t necessarily follow those formulas has sort of seeped into our brains. So we’re trying to incorporate that and see if pop can be made in a more unconventional way… I think we’re always going to write pop music because that is what we love. I mean its cool the way that world is really overlapping right now. Who knows, we could end up writing a guitar ballad record!”
It’s true! You never know what this band will be producing next and put quite genuinely, neither do they. “I have no idea! What I have pointed out though in our previous albums, there are very few themes connecting one song to another. The songs go all over the place and I think, even to try and describe those records after they’re made is sort of impossible for me. We have ADD when it comes to our style or our creation of music. To try and predict what the sound of our record is going to be is even harder. I don’t know, its probably going to be even more all over the place! All over different genres! Maybe? I think it would be awesome to have an overarching idea that we could follow. But, we don’t do that.”
When relaxing at home, in a modest flat in London where she lives with husband Dan, their home often filled with the same music. A random selection of vinyl records (usually chosen by the aesthetics of the cover, she laughingly admits), play repeatedly. “I have this Phoebe Snow record! Well, I have three. She is this random singer from the 70’s that I love, who has a very distinctive voice. Every time I put her on Dan is like, ‘Oh God! Get some new music, will you?’” Coyly, she laughs. “I listen to music to feel comforted, rather than research.” Her eyes are excited, vigilant. “Although, a few years ago when the Santogold record came out I listened the [hell] out of it! I feel like I need that back! I need more Santogold to come into my life! But it is supposed to come to me- that is what I believe- so I don’t look for anything. But truly, I need my next Santigold.”
Martina’s passion for writing music and the impulse she needs to create has always been present in her life. For years, she wrote during her former solo career, for the band, and more recently for artists like Cyndi Lauper. With a history of successful songwriting, I questioned her prerequisites for channeling the creative vocation needed to write a song. “I need tea. I need to feel alone. I need to be able to hear my unconscious. Because generally a lot of things come out when I’m just saying nonsense syllables. Then, I either hear a picture of what type of song it is, what the overall idea is, [or] the mood. Then I can pick out words. I don’t ever start with a storyline, ‘okay, this is a song about this and here are the lyrics.’…I have to pull them out of the music and from the back of my mind. So it pretty tedious work, though. I don’t think it is very economical, time-wise, because it takes a while to get back there. You can’t always rely on getting back there…I rely on a certain creative impulse that might not always be there. Whereas, I think that [other songwriter’s] approach is different, they have the chorus, or they have the hook its just fill in the blanks from there. Sometimes I wish I had more of that. I would be a little bit more reliable for myself.” But, the impulse is necessary. She believes it to be a struggle- waiting to discover what it is she is trying to sing about. “Because I always think what if it never comes again? What if I never have a clear picture of what it is I am trying to sing about? Its not even writers block it is just trepidation waiting.”
This same creativity carries through to her fashion sense. Innovative combinations of styles and other iconic pieces are always visible in Dragonette’s videos and displayed via her own day-to-day wardrobe.* “Fashion isn’t important in particular, as much as being aware of the visuals of your performance and having fun with your music and the way you’re presenting it… Before being in this band it was something to have fun with. Now I think that when I get on stage its really important for me not to put on anything that’s not me, to not put on an air or a different character. Not to look like a larger than life character. In the context of the kind of shows that we play, in the clubs that we play it makes more sense, and its easier for me to connect when I don’t put something on that isn’t actually true. I see often in the electro dance world this tendency to have crazy costumes and crazy costume changes and I think that unless you have the ability to fill out that show in a real and thought out way, and fill out the rest of that idea, you’re better off just to be in jeans and a t-shirt. That way you give a chance to the audience to actually see who you are and then grow into all the other Lady Gaga stuff…It has to be a well thought-out authentic creation.” Presenting herself in such a way could be what makes her such an alluring icon. Never contrived or imposed, her fashion sense, like their music is in the purist sense- authentic.
Martina has proved herself to be one of Canada’s most successful fashion icons, working alongside Vogue and Jean Paul Gautier; experimenting frequently with fashion and her own personal style. Filming their video Boys & Girls with Martin Sloveig in the Maison De Couture, was a ‘treat’ she recalls. “Even the random pieces and gowns hanging around were amazing. Even down to the rolling racks were crazy, let alone the gowns that were hanging off of them- all hand sewn and so on… Everything! ..To see where the creative action happens.. so rad!” With a lengthy dance number in said video, I jokingly ask whether the boys will be doing their fair share of dancing. Laughing, she replies, “Ha! I wish! No, I don’t wish… I like us all to feel ourselves and comfortable. I don’t think the boys are dancers. I am not a dancer. I dance onstage [but] I don’t follow any routines. I am just- well- letting go as it were.”
Martin Sloveig has been collaborating with Dragonette frequently now; with the aforementioned Boys & Girls, Hello, and a number of new tracks that Martina eludes, are in the works. “We’re now in the process of making more songs. He is really kind of kindred. We just spent a week with him in Paris, and its like, “Oh my god!” Whoa! You have the exact same image of the world as us! Its really strange having this random person walk into your life and then it feels like we kind of grew up together. He is really cool,” she says with a smile.
Compelled by the Art of Guy Bourdin, with a fondness for impersonators, fashion, tea and folk music- Martina reveals her reading material: David Sedaris, Me Talk Pretty One Day. Its not often that you see pop stars- let alone, indie pop stars- with insightful lyrics, displaying multidimensional forms of sexuality, and all the while creating and controlling all elements of their music from the composition to the production, and all that lies in between. The manifestation of their vision and talent portrayed through their music; and the way this music is presented expresses the truly dynamic, veracious and easy-going members that lie behind it. Somehow their music is liminal; paradoxical. Indie meets pop; deep lyrics meet light melodies; a sound that you can’t really pin down – which becomes fun and serious- or seriously fun.
The stage is dark. The silhouettes of the drums; the equipment; the outstanding microphones magnify the crowds anticipation. The opening act has already cleared, the crowd is growing anxious. Out, stroll three shadows, one slowly after another. The lights strike up; Joel’s drums sticks are suspended in the air and just before the song begins, Dan and Martina – as if on cue- lock eyes and smile. The show begins.