Graham Reid | | 10 min read
Martha Davis, frontwoman for a seemingly endless parade of band members as the Motels, has rarely stopped writing and performing since the first Motels line-up formed in 1971.
Fame struck them much later however and although their first two albums – Motels and Careful, '79 and '80 respectively – did exceptionally well in the Southern Hemisphere off the back of the taut hit Total Control from their debut – it wasn't until the third album All Four One that audiences in her own country discovered the band.
Then it was all on as they rode the swells of New Wave and toured with al the major players of the period, were in the vanguard of video clips tailored for MTV and songs like Only the Lonely unwittingly spoke to a gay audience.
They were big, Suddenly Last Summer from '83 was timeless classic, band members came and went, managers were dropped, Davis developed breast cancer in '84 then went solo, a decade later another Motels were formed, in 2007 she re-recorded her earlier hits in a stripped-down manner for the album Clean Modern and Reasonable, released a fine album Beautiful Life the following year which dealt with her mother's life and suicide . . .
In 2009 she also released an enticing jazz-noir single Mr Grey which pointed in a new direction and . . .
And Davis has never stopped writing and performing.
On the eve of an Australasian tour which brings her to New Zealand for the time since 1980 (dates) below, 63-year old Davis talks to Elsewhere. But first we have press *7 to “lock the room”.
So Martha, what room are you now locked in?
I'm locked in a room with a view of my beautiful farm and it is very gorgeous.
Home for you these days is Portland I believe.
Yes, about 45 minutes outside Portland and there are traces of snow left. We got snowed in for the last five day and have been unable to move.
That's a lovely part of the country, great bars.
Great bars, great food and a good place to be.
I have to tell you only found out about two days ago that Total Control was never a hit in America, but it was huge here.
I know, that meant nothing here. That whole album . . . nothing. But it was a shock to me when we went down to Australia for the first time and we got to do it in the set and there were arms in the air with lighters and I was wondering what was going on.
Right, and it's the first two albums I know best.
But in the States nobody knew anything until the third album. It was a headier time.
Let's talk about that heady time. What interests me is that you were older than your musical peers in the early Eighties. You had been married, had two kids by the time you were 18 and were already divorced.
Yes, I had my first child when I was 15 and I left my home n Berkeley California to become an airforce wife in Tampa, Florida. And if you want to talk about some culture shock that will do it.
You were just a kid yourself.
Yes I was.
So in a very real sense and to use a cliché, music saved you.
Absolutely, and it continues to save me. I think it's great when anyone has a place they can go and vent, which is basically what you do with any form of art, you just purge the emotions you have. I know as a person I tend to never lose my temper or get angry but I can do that in a song. It gets rid of those toxins.
Most people pay to go to a psychiatrist but I kind of get paid for that same experience.
You've quite frequently described yourself as a writer to make the distinction for a performer, does that take precedence for you over being a performer.
The fun part is I love to perform because you become then the storyteller, not so much a performer or a costume change artist, but someone who is going to tell that story. So I really enjoy that part of things, completely.
But in terms of who I think I am I do think of myself as a writer before a singer or performer. And I certainly didn't get into this business – and it's still my least favourite part of this business – is the celebrity of it.
I don't know why everybody wants to be a celebrity these days, it makes no sense to me at all.
As opposed to actually doing something.
Yeah, that's the thing. That idea of always having to have your make-up on, always having to look good? That sounds horrible to me. I manage to have the best of both worlds though. I had to go to Portland to do the Morning Show for Australian television the other day, but there's no studio on farm. There are sheep and cows but no studio.
So here we are in the middle of a snowstorm and they said, 'You really have to do this interview' and I said, 'What, I can't get out of the driveway' which is really long and winding. They said they'd get a four-wheel drive up, so that shows up and I'm all made up and in whatever you have to wear to be on televisions and she says 'I'm not going down that driveway, I'll get stuck' so here I am traipsing around in the snow in my make-up.
But this is the mature Martha Davis talking, there must have been a time when it was new and exciting?
I think I've always been this way. I don't understand the idea of wearing your persona 24 hours a day. I love that when I do go on stage I have a persona that comes over me . . . because that way when I come off and I take it all off then no one recognises me. That's fine by me.
I actually showed up to a show once when I was young for a soundcheck and they wouldn't let me in because they told me I wasn't me.
The Motels had what we jokingly call a revolving door membership for a very long time and then at one point decided to go solo. But you've almost always been with a band and latterly there are new Motels. I understand the necessity of having a band, but do you actually just like the idea of being in band, that collective idea.
I do, I really do. I'm not one of those people – even though I write sitting down with my acoustic guitar – I would no more want to go and sit in a room with people and perform like that. At some point I think I would be bored by just acoustic guitar, and I am definitely not the kind of player who could keep you entertained. I'm not Segovia.
I love textures and dynamics, I'm still waiting to play with a symphony. A band is therefore the bare essentials. I've had so many Motels. Frank Zappa had 200, I must have about 2000 by now.
One thing which set you apart was your understated vocal style, there is a restraint about it. Was that a style which just came naturally.
Yes, because I just do what comes out of my mouth according to what the song tells me. I've never had any training. Being a singer was a happy accident and I wanted to sing my own songs. If Bob Dylan could do it I could do it. People say they can't sing, but everyone can sing. I say to them what they should be doing is writing. Look at Tom Waits or Dylan, and even David Byrne. The first time I head him I was, 'What?'
It's about you telling the story and if you have a good story it's really not about the sound of the voice but the telling of the story.
Something like Suddenly Last Summer is a timeless song because of it's content but also because of that understated delivery. These song have served you well because they have appeared in movie soundtracks, I suspect because they don't overwhelm but rather compliment the images on screen. You have done well out of soundtracks. Do you make a decent living out of your catalogue?
I tell you what, everything used to be better in the old days. Every one of us has taken a hit because of the digital age and I don't think anyone was prepared for that or knew where it was going.
In the old days people used to go and buy an album which could be 12 of your songs, but now people will spend 99 cents and buy a song and that's it. The sheer numbers have changed.
I don't know when it happened but there really became a huge pool of musicians to pull from for any company that needed a song. And when you have that much to choose from it's a supply and demand thing, so the number have gone way down from the old days.
But more than ever the soundtrack and commercial stuff is where you can get good money. I remember back in the Eighties my old manager came to me for a deal to do a beer commercial and I said we would never do a commercial, because then you were never supposed to sell yourself for that kind of thing.
Nowadays I'm, 'God bring me a commercial'. A Superbowl commercial would be nice.
Then you could buy a new tractor for the farm.
Or a computer for the studio.
It must be gratifying for you to be going out these days and seeing how important those Motels songs were to people, they became milestones in their lives.
I am one of the luckiest people on the planet in so many ways. The band I've been working with for the last 10 years are exceptional, wonderful guys. Another musician met them for the first time recently and asked how it was possible to have that many great guys in the same band. Usually bands are notoriously difficult but we just go out and play and have fun, and the reaction from people has been wonderful, so now we are working on a new album.
Let's talk about your more recent material. Beautiful Life must have been very cathartic for you.
Yeah, it came from a very dark time about a very dark thing, about my Mom and her suicide. But it was also – and I didn't even realise this until I was almost over the project – completely paralleling my husband and my divorce. You know at times we feel guilty when we think, 'Oh my God, I've become my parents'. We had literally become my Mom and Dad and it was a dark and weird time but I love that album.
It is a courageous album. But does an album like that sell, did it do well?
What happen that album and the This album, and the Clean Modern and Reasonable – which was an Australian project – all came out at exactly the same time. This was because called This because we got so confused, because it was This album and not that album.
I was managing myself for the first time, my husband had managed me all those years – or not – and we just dropped them onto the internet, but that was like dropping them down a long long hole. You didn't even hear the puff at the bottom when they hit.
So you can't do that without the marketing and things and I had no clue how to do any of that. So they kind of disappeared. The This album has some great songs on it – and a couple of them we'll be playing when we come down – and that was more sort of Motels.
But Beautiful Life I suddenly decided I didn't want to push anymore and said, 'I'm going to pretend I never released it'. Because eventually some day I would love to do a show which is just that album, because it is a concept album and a journey. So that has been stuck on back-burner waiting for the right day. I'd love to do a beautiful theatrical, not like a musical, but a theatrical production which would be very stark and simple.
I understood there was some idea for a production already.
There was for a few minutes. A previous manager – and I have been burning through the managers – hooked me up with the director and he was like, “It could be like The Wall' and I think it does have potential as a theatrical release, but I would rather start with a stage production.
Mr Grey is an interesting jazz-noir song.
That cracks me up because I wrote it when I was 19 on a camping trip. You think that sounds like it came out of a camping trip when you were 19? The reason I'm so lucky with writing is I learned early one to just get out of my own way.
I never sit down and try to write a song, I have none of that structure. But sometimes the muse starts coming in herds and there will be an inspiration strike, and there will be a flurry activity. Then I go back to polishing the floors or whatever I am doing. But it really is being open to whatever comes your way, and I just finished a whole jazz album a couple of years ago because I have a lot of those types of song. But it feels too demo-y for me. I just want more stuff on it. I want Nelson Riddle to be on it!
We're talking about your contemporary stuff and you are an artist who has matured and grown, and you are still pushing in to new areas. Does it somehow pull you back when you think, 'Okay I'm going to do the Motels one more time'?
I'm very happy to do that but we also try to slip in some new songs as we go, and it's a pretty big catalogue. Right now the set list I'm putting together has songs we haven't ever played and some not in a long time and that keeps it fresh.
There are a lot of crazy Motels songs, there really are.
MARTHA DAVIS AND THE MOTELS NEW ZEALAND TOUR DATES
Friday March 21, The Studio, Auckland
Saturday March 22, Bodega, Wellington
Sunday March 23, Dux Live, Dunedin