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Martha Davis: In Total Control
Martha Davis strutted in heels onto the early new-wave scene in the late 1970s as part of The Motels – an intelligent, moody, yet still-catchy pop band. With her dark brunette 1940s femme-fatale style, Davis stood far apart from the squeaky, anemic, dyed-blonde lead singers of the day. (And those were just the men.)
The Motels didn’t perhaps have the gigantic career that some of their quirky contemporaries had, but semi-hits, Take the L (out of Lover), Suddenly, Last Summer, Total Control, and their biggest single Only the Lonely have cemented their sound into college-pop history. Davis has continued to write, record and perform music almost non-stop since then, in a solo career and in various reformations of The Motels.
Always a powerful female force in music, Martha Davis is now (like her song) in “Total Control” – of her music, her management, the business of her career, and of her fulfilling home life.
Rock Cellar Magazine sat down for a wonderfully long chat with Martha Davis and found her to be a gushing geyser of serpentine sentences and big ideas. Articulate and opinionated, Davis seems far more comfortable talking about books, politics, farming, history and the nature of society than about her long music career. In short, Martha Davis is, as ever, one cool chick.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Your love of classical music is well-documented; is that what you listen to at home these days or do your kids and grandkids turn you on to new stuff?
Martha Davis: I was just thinking about that the other day because somebody wanted me to do one of those radio shows where you take over the radio station and DJ for an hour. And I’m like, this is horrible! Because all I listen to is NPR and then I listen to classical music or I’ll listen to progressive radio. I’ve gotten political in my old age; I love Randi Rhodes, she’s my gal.
RCM: So are there any new singers or bands that you like?
MD: I don’t really listen to much pop music. I mean I love Radiohead because they’re so musical, and Arcade Fire’s cool, and Modest Mouse is cool, but for some reason – I don’t know if it’s my age – but I’m not drawn to seek out as much as I used to; that’s not one of my things that I do.
RCM: Are you still writing songs these days?
MD: Yes, but not as much, because I’m managing now. And I have to use the other side of my brain – which has been lined with cobwebs all these years (laughs). But it’s great because it’s given me a real sense of control.
Although I haven’t been writing as much music, I wrote a radio show – a radio drama – and I’ve been writing stories to go along with my kids album. So it’s more “writing-writing” than actual music-writing. I’ve written so many songs, I have so many songs stockpiled away that will never see the light of day, so now I’m sort of branching off and doing other things.
RCM: Can you talk a little bit about the album Apocalypso that came out last year?
MD: Apocalypso is the Motels album that was recorded at Capitol 30 years ago, and it’s like the stuff that never left the vault.
RCM: The original recordings?
MD: Same recordings. Capitol said they wouldn’t release it originally because they didn’t think it was commercial. But finally, after all these years, it was released by this brand new label called Omnivore Recordings, on orange vinyl – an actual album again! – and as CD as well. And there’s even some original outtakes from it, some demos that went along with it so that’s exciting.
RCM: The title Apocalypso was from a previous album, right?
MD: There was a song called Apocalypso. Some of the songs got re-recorded, and put on the All For One album. I like to call it “the dark underbelly” of All For One.
RCM: How did that latest record do?
MD: Apocalypso was a big success. It even won an award for “best reissue” which is kind of funny because it never got issued in the first place! It was such a beautiful package; Omnivore is an amazing record label. Great bunch of guys, all vastly talented in their various fields whether it’s publishing, art department, whatever – they did a wonderful job of putting it all together.
RCM: Omnivore seems to be collecting an impressive list of bands and artists – Sam Phillips, Alex Chilton, the Old 97’s, Bert Jansch, The Knack, Leon Russell, Richard Thompson…
MD: Cheryl [Pawelski] is an archivist; she worked for Capitol, she worked for Rhino… she’s got the connections, she knows the business. And she finds things that have never been released that are so rare and so beautiful.
To me, Onmivore represents what I remember of Capitol when I first got signed – everybody that worked at Capitol then were complete record geeks. They loved music, they signed acts because they loved the music, they stuck behind the acts. As we know, the majors now are nothing like that; it’s a lot of money men, it’s just different. So Omnivore to me is a return to a sort of older model of record label; every single one of them is just a music nerd.
RCM: A lot of Motels songs and your songs specifically are kind of dark. I’ve always classified songwriters as “major key” writers or “minor key” writers. You seem like a minor, no?
MD: I think it has a lot to do with Igor Stravinsky. I mean, I think of them as sort of “minor” songs, but Only the Lonely is all major; well there’s an e minor, but it’s actually more major than it is minor. I think a lot of it is the way that I throw my melodies.
I do a lot of dissonance, I do a lot of stuff that’s not comfortable; it’s not pretty – so that’s where I think that comes in. But I am drawn to minors and interestingly enough, I think women are more drawn to minor chords than men – somebody told me that one time. And Brady my Bass player hates minor chords – it’s hilarious!
I learned three chords when I was 8 years old – the same three everyone else learned E, A, and D. You can make a million songs with that, with those three chords you can go forever – Tom Petty is living proof of it. For me I never took lessons, I always was just alone in my room with my guitar just finding out stuff, and every time I found a new chord I thought I invented it, which of course I didn’t.
RCM: And lyrics – you wrote most of the Motels song lyrics – sometimes co-writing, right?
MD: Collaboration started a little bit later. Now I collaborate all the time, it’s easy it’s fun, but most of the collaboration started in the second line up with Jeff Jourard. But that caused problems, too, because when you’re young everything’s so precious.
When you get older you say “eh, fuck it,” but there was a song on the first Motels album called Dressing Up, and I wrote all the music and all the lyrics and it was kind of cool. But Jeff Jourard wrote the line that went dint dun-ah – that guitar line – and this big battle ensued that he wanted half the song, because he came up with the hook.
And I just got furious because in those days as a woman if both his name and my name are on the song, everybody’s gonna go, “oh she wrote the lyrics and he wrote the music” cause that’s how people think. And it caused a big rift and I just finally just gave in. But I stayed pissed off forever about that, mostly because I gave in. At that age I so wanted to make my name. I wanted to make it not as the pretty girl in the band – I didn’t even want to put my picture on the early albums – I wanted to be known for my music.
And I would fight with Capitol, and I would tell them I didn’t want anybody to pay for our music to get on the radio – that was hilarious! – and they’re like “yeah okay Martha, whatever!” (laughs) Nowadays, if they would be happy enough to pay to put it on the radio I would gladly let them do that, because that’s the way the world works. If anybody wants to use any of my music for a commercial, look me up!
RCM: We always ask this question of musicians: When you play live, everyone wants to hear only the old songs, and the hits. People get really pissed if you only play the new stuff. How do you deal with that? Can you honestly step out there every night and give your old music a fresh take?
MD: Yes; I’ve been playing the same songs for the thirty years, but the trick is… it’s not the same song, because every time you play it, you’re playing it in a different circumstance to a different audience. And every time those things are different, it makes that song different, it makes your delivery different – those things are nuances that are important.
If I was just going down and doing shtick every night, if I didn’t feel, if I didn’t still care about the songs maybe I would just do some flat, but I do.
I was playing Only the Lonely one time in Oregon – at gay pride concert; I just sat in, just as a freebie, just sorta jumped in. And it killed me, because I’ve always had this big gay following, and for some reason all of a sudden when I did that song that day, it struck me why – the lyrics to that song:
We walked… the loneliest mile. We smiled… without any style. We kissed all together wrong, no intention.
You think about what that means to a gay person, and how that relates, and I realized for the first time, I was saying something to them. The song is about alienation, it’s about pretending. I originally wrote it when I was touring the world the first time. We finally got signed and were going to Europe and people are giving me roses and we’re driving around in limousines. Meanwhile, I was in a horrible relationship, I was very lonely, and I was probably still grieving the loss of my parents. There was a lot of sadness on the top on the surface; there was this façade. And it’s pretend.
But that’s the same sentiment you would feel if you were gay and couldn’t come out, or if you felt that feeling of pretending to be something that you’re not. The main reason the song works, is that it’s true. It has to be true; it has to mean something to you. If it means something to you, it never stops meaning something to you.
Music more than anything else in the world – except maybe our sense of smell for some bizarre reason – it will transport you. It is like a time machine. I can sit there and sing Total Control, or Only the Lonely, whatever, and totally go back in time. And you want that to happen. I mean why would I want to go on stage, and feel like I’m half there? Why wouldn’t I want to engage?. So the emotions are the same emotions, but you can apply them to different things. Don’t waste emotions, ever. Use them!
RCM: Last time we talked you were working on your jazz album.
MD: Well, not really a jazz album, more standard sounding songs – standards. One of those ones you pour the wine, light the candles, and go for it.
RCM: Right. You were going to call it “I Have My Standards.” How’s that one coming along?
MD: Poor little dear, it’s just sitting there, waiting for… I like it the way it is, but it does sound a bit naked.
RCM: The songs are done, right? What’s holding it up now is the money what – a producer?
MD: Well, arranger, really. It’s a special little thing, and I really want it to come out sounding real “purty.” The thing with this album is that I want it to be real. I want a real string section, where all the instruments are real – to me that’s the right approach.
RCM: These albums of standards really has worked well for so many artists – Linda Ronstadt, Rod Stewart – with his Songbook albums, Paul McCartney’s latest, even Seth MacFarlane. And now Glenn Frey…
MD: Matter of fact I was talking to his orchestrator. Basically that’s where I’m at: I want it to be “Nelson Riddle-afied.” We have the bones, the whole thing is done in terms of the songs, but I’m looking now for some beautiful string arrangements, maybe some horns. Right now it’s just stand-up bass, drums, piano, and Marty [Jourard] playing saxophone. I’m thinking of using Kickstarter, because you know, it’s not cheap.
[Above is demo track for Mr. Grey from the 1980s. New recordings have yet to be released.]
RCM: This style of music seems real organic for you and your voice. And now there’s this HUGE market for this retro jazz sound…
MD: And that’s why you don’t want to screw it up…!
RCM: The difference is, your classics are all originals, right? Just that the style sort of evokes “the Capitol Sound” of the 1940s, ‘50s?
MD: Yes. From the ‘30s, ‘40s or ‘50s. They just come to me, and so I just decided after all these years of these things visiting me, I was just gonna put them all together and record them. I’ve been writing and collecting these songs for a long time. Mr. Grey for example I wrote when I was 19. These first ones are all low-key, mid-to-slow tempo, melody stuff, but then I have a bunch that are kinda Jumpin’ Jive, kinda crazy Cab Calloway songs that I want to do as well. So if I can get this first one done, maybe I can then do the “up” one.
RCM: But what – a lot of irons in the fire…?
MD: My life has been completely crazy! First, I’ve been managing myself for the last year. Then I’ve also got myself into cahoots with a Nova Scotian by the name of Farmer Gord – I got very interested in Permaculture; sustainable farming for my property up here.
RCM: You live in Oregon now, right? What’re you doing up there?
MD: Being a crazy farm girl. I live on 72 acres, and just before I left I was wildly working my ass off trying to get the area together so I could get my new two goats and a donkey that I have on hold for me until I get their little place ready to go.
RCM: And so “Farmer Gord” is a farmer who you’re working with?
MD: Yes you can look him up – farmergord.com. So he and I have started this thing. I came up with the name “ORO” which is “observation,” “respect” and “obligation,” and of course it also means gold. So crops are planted, there’s cows, there’s fresh milk, there’s eggs, it’s like I’ve got a full farm now as well as my other projects.
RCM: So is this for personal, use or community, or..?
MD: Well it’s for personal use for me, but he is also trying to make a living as a farmer. So I want my land developed – to get use out of my land – and then he sells at the local farmer’s markets and so on. I’m learning an awful lot, but it’s like I have a whole ‘nuther career going on.
RCM: What is “Permaculture?”
MD: Part of the thing about Permaculture and sustainable farming is not fighting the way nature wants to do things but working with nature. For example there’s a new book out called Weeds, by a British horticulturist [Richard Mabey] and he describes about how weeds – the things we battle all the time, that we poison and kill – are there, naturally, specifically to repair the soil. And people are starting to get an understanding of this – that the way that we’re farming now, that mass corporate farms are really really harmful to the food. People are learning though and there’s a big movement for this now. And people are beginning to understand that they can do stuff in their own back yard, or in their communities.
RCM: You’ve been in the news lately with the digital music lawsuit against EMI/Capitol. Kind of in the center of it, in fact…?
MD: Yeah, anybody who wants to know about it can read all about it online. The case is pretty much out there in print.
[Note: Davis’ lawsuit alleges Capitol and parent company EMI incorrectly defines digital downloads and streams by “sales theory” rather than a higher-paying “license theory” which would give higher royalties for The Motels and other signed artists. Capitol and EMI, argue that the agreements with the sellers of digital content are not licenses, but are the same agreements that Capitol has with brick and mortar stores selling CDs.]
RCM: Can you not talk about it? Or you just don’t feel like it?
MD: Well right now lawyers are talking to lawyers and other lawyers are talking to lawyers. All I can say is that at this time, as all of our revenues are going down because of digital downloading, and it’s kind of the insult to injury. You’re going to claim now that we only get this much money because you’re pretending it’s a hard package, like an album? At some point I’m just like “no.” We work really hard as artists. We spend a lot of money on our craft. We spend a lot of time on our craft. And these guys are making millions and millions of dollars and we’re watching our monies dry up. Because whereas people used to buy an album and you used to get royalties from 10, 12 songs… now you get one song because people are just downloading their one favorite song. So there’s a definite change in what the monetary revenue is, and then they’re even fudging it further. It’s a matter of them just paying us what a digital download is worth.
RCM: But even though it’s Martha Davis and the Motels, it’s lots of other bands, right?
MD: Yes, it’s like a class action; I’m representing all the EMI artists. I was sort of called ’cause I’m not really a “sue person.” This whole legal world to me is a world of mumbo-jumbo. I always say to the lawyers – “y’know when I talk to you on the phone you sound like a perfectly normal person but then I try to read what you write and I can’t understand a single word!”
It’s painstaking for me to go through these things and read them all, and understand, but already precedents have been set; I think Eminem won his case, others. Basically I think what they’re doing is going record company by record company to try and get it all straightened out. And hopefully it will be, and the artists will get their fair share.
RCM: Do you still own your music? There are a number of artists now that are re-recording all of the material to get additional rights to their songs, right?
MD: Yeah that’s one of the things that some people do so that they own the master, but it’s still Capitol that owns my stuff. And that would be fine, if they would actually release it! But that’s the thing – they just sit on it; nobody has been able to buy the entire Motels catalog because it’s not out. And then they’re maintaining that I still owe them money and I’m like, well, maybe you could recoup – if you put out my product! (laughs)
RCM: But in the meantime, should our readers go and buy Apocalypso, where you stand a fair chance of getting your money versus getting 99 cent digital downloads off of “All For One” for example?
MD: Yes, at Ominivore. Some of it is on Amazon and i-Tunes. I’m still trying to build my website, The Motels.Com, which I’ve been doing for 6 months. I’m not very talented in the world of “the interweb.”
RCM: Berton Averre of the Knack wrote for us about the time he was on a reality show called “Hit Me Baby One More Time” where bands compete against one another.
MD: Yep Yep.
RCM: Berton calls it “The Day Vanilla Ice Kicked My Butt.” The Motels were there on that same day – you covered the Norah Jones song Don’t Know Why, right? Do you remember that?
MD: Yep. He kicked my butt, too. Got taken down by “the Ice-Man” – who was actually a very very nice gentleman; he was pretty funny. He got us good.
RCM: You’ve always been known as being pretty outspoken in your politics and your opinions. Often when artists speak up about other things they’re told to “shut up and sing,” like with the Dixie Chicks. As one of “troubadours” is there anything you feel the need to speak out about?
MD: (laughs) I actually have conversations about this all the time. If nothing else, I believe in tolerance. The way I look at it is way bigger picture than most people do. Historically speaking this is still a young country. And we watch it vacillate between these extremes – the corporate, conservative, money-grubbing approach – it’ll go really far that direction, and then it will swiiiing back and it’ll open up and get real liberal…this stuff has gone on forever. For example there’s a book called Hellfire Nation where they were talking about abortion, in the 1800s when it was legal, and it all of a sudden became an issue again.
And a lot of these talking points, I think, have nothing to do with what is important. It’s like the shell game. They’re trying to get us all riled up about one thing so that they can do something else. There’s been a push forever from the moneyed end of things to control the masses. It looks to me as though our population is being dumbed down, that our population is not healthy right now, that our population is very frightened.
And when you put fear into people, and when you make them unhealthy, and when you make them unstable because they might get foreclosed on any day, what you have is a very malleable bunch of people. Fear is a big driver in all of this. And when people are frightened, they’re going to become extreme.
RCM: And it seems to get more divisive around election time, don’t you think?
MD: Yes and the divisiveness seems to be very intentional, and the driver is fear.
But, I am an eternal optimist. After studying enough history and seeing that this has gone on forever – nothing is new under the sun. Actually the biggest problem we have as humans is that every generation – every 20 years – everything is forgotten again! (laughs) When I was young I didn’t pay any attention to history – who cares about it? – but when you get older you start seeing that this is not new, this is what we do.
I believe that we will evolve past this. I believe that there will be a day when we will wise up. I think that part of the shenanigans that is going on is just that we’re young – as a species; we are not that evolved. I don’t know if we’re 3 years old in the sandbox or we’re teenagers, but we’re still sort of self-involved. The main thing in life is to be evolved enough to be outside of yourself – to realize that we are all one entity; we are all from the same soup.
RCM: So you don’t believe that with population growth, peak oil, 3rd world countries starting to drive cars that we’re going to revert to a tribal nature – fighting it out over limited resources? That’s a pessimist’s argument.
MD: Yeah, I would say that’s pretty pessimistic…!
RCM: But can we move fast enough, to say an alternative energy for example to counteract this..?
MD: This is the way humans behave. We always take it right to the edge of the cliff. When it gets really scary, something will happen – whether it’s language, or having a different awareness, these things kick in and somehow miraculously evolve as a species. If you look back at the patterns and the behavior and the crazy-ass stuff that humans have done – the evil, the Crusades, but then you look at the magnificent, almost impossible things that we’ve done! I mean the guys went to the moon with a computer that’s no better than a computer on a watch these days!
There’s never a downside without an upside. Luckily, as a musician I know this – this is how we live all the time – it’s like feast or famine, nothing new for me (laughs) And the place that we’re at right now, though perilous and horrible and scary for many, the ones that are going to survive are the ones who are truly creative – those who are going to figure out the problems and come up with solutions. “Necessity is the mother of invention,” and that’s exactly where we’re at.
The Motels – Total Control:
If I could give any political message right now it would be to say “don’t be afraid.” It’s time to just not let fear get ahold of you. And don’t just buy things at face value – use your heart, and not only what you’re reading online.
RCM: And Online now everything is moves so fast. And for the curious, the whole world is there now, every subculture everywhere.
MD: And that’s what’s going to save us; one of the main things. That “connectedness” of humans now has never ever occurred like this. We are starting to see that we are the same. That’s what the internet is going to allow – it’s going to allow people to see people as people.
Good stuff is happening. It’s just that one of the biggest problems is that sadly our news – when it stopped being news and started becoming entertainment – became this focal point for anything that is disturbing, arousing, or fear-making.
RCM: And we’re a bit guilty of it ourselves at Rock Cellar Magazine – as an “entertainment magazine.” People seem to skim for information that they can get quickly, and then it’s back to facebook. And the news seems to have to be entertaining as well. But issues are often times complex, and it seems like we’re all going a little thin, don’t you think?
MD: I believe that all of that is going to shake out, too. This is all new. We’re humans. We love new stuff. We’re trained to love new stuff. I was just listening to a great interview with [author] Toni Morrison and she was talking about “we used to be citizens. Now we’re consumers.” We need to become citizens again.
RCM: Are you concerned that in this economy – with less disposable income – that people are sacrificing spending for music? That people – especially kids – feel ok with stealing it, rather than buying it?
MD: Well, the same thing is happening with me. I’m trying to think of ways to do things differently so that there will be a desire for them. I have to be creative. I have to come up with something that’s beyond just the record.
Right now is an extraordinary time in music. I don’t think you can just make an album, like you used to – put 12 songs together and make an album. People today, the kids, they don’t think about buying albums they just buy songs. So if you’re going to make an album you have to make it special; you can’t just do the same old format. Like when I did the children’s record…
RCM: I listened to that for the first time today. This is music that adults would like.
MD: That’s why I did it. The first one I did was something like 15 years ago when my grandkids were little. Kids music is the most banal, stupid type of music, y’know? And my daughter kept asking me “Mom, this music is driving me crazy – just write something we can listen to!” And so I did the album, did all the artwork for it.
And we took it around, and the response we got from the record label was “this is too intelligent for children.” And I’m thinking – my favorite record when I was 5 years old was Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, so I don’t know what you guys are talking about. Fantasia – the music to that was so stirring to me as a tiny kid. I’ve always known that kids can hold a lot more information than we’re giving them…
RCM: So now we flash forward Red Frog Presents: 16 Songs For Parents And Children…
MD: Right, so all the kids loved the old album and I still loved it. But I wanted to gussy it up, give it a fresh face, but as happens… once I start getting on a project, I just started writing all new songs. There’s a few from the old album on there – Hole Beneath My Bed, She’s a Cow. But with this record, what I’ve started to do is write stories to go with each; I want to make it a book, with a cd.
You have to do things differently. You have to expend more energy and more creativity. You have to give people something that is “treasurable.”
RCM: You have a couple of grown daughters. Did either of them go into music?
MD: No, neither one.
RCM: Because I was going to ask whether if – knowing what you know, and the state of music today – whether now you would still encourage one’s kids – daughters – to even get into music.
MD: I would encourage anyone, if they have the calling to do music. The business end is hard, but first of all just do music. Don’t think about being a star. Today there’s two camps – there’s celebrity, and then there’s artists. We’re really heavy on the celebrity nowadays and not so much on the artist. For the artist it should be about giving, and not getting. And that’s where I think the disconnect is.
When I started I would just go in my room and just play guitar. And I never even thought about doing it professionally until I was like, twenty. It was just something I had, and that I was very happy to have, and am still very happy to have. It’s a gift. And the thing about a gift is…when somebody gives you something you don’t say “oh I really deserved that” you say “wow, thank you very much, I’m very humbled by this.” And there is no free lunch. You must work for what you get; you have to.
RCM: Who’s in your band these days?
MD: It’s Clint Walsh on guitar, Nick Johns on keyboards, and Brady Wills on bass; they’re pretty much set in stone. I have a couple drummers that I work with – Eric Gardner, who is a great fucking drummer and one of my dearest friends, and Tig Moore who substitutes when Eric can’t do the shows. This band is so good! And here’s a little tidbit for you – there are members of this band that have literally been with me longer than the old Motels were together. Some guys – like Eric? – have been with me 10 years; the Motels were together 8 years, so there you go. And they’re young and they’re cute and I love them!
RCM: Tell us a book you think everybody should read.
MD: Oh, Jesus I read so many books and I love so many books. I love to read, I don’t even have a TV in my room. Mink River was really incredible. There are so many great Oregon writers. I mean I love Chuck Palahniuk, there’s Tim Robbins, who’s up in Seattle – the northwest. The Imperfectionists was a great book. I love fanciful stuff.
See, the real problem is people not falling in love with art…and falling in love with the wrong people…!
RCM: There are still many of us who remember you from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. You ever get asked to act?
MD: Well I did get asked to do one film – Dorothy in Blue Velvet, by David Lynch…! And that script was so scary, and it was such a dramatic crazy role I thought “y’know, for a person that doesn’t act I think this is jumping way in the deep end!” So I backed away. I’m a firm believer that just because you’re a pop star doesn’t mean you’re an actor. But who knows – you never know what the future will bring. I’m a lot more open to stuff now than I used to be!
RCM: Our magazine likes to celebrate musicians who are still cranking it out after all these years. I’m sure the rockers from the 60s and 70s and 80s never thought they’d still be doing this after age 30, let alone into their 50s, 60s and 70s, right?
MD: I always say we have to get a new Las Vegas! Because I don’t think rock and rollers should have to go to Las Vegas – that’s Frank’s place. I think they should have their own place to go…!
June 9, 2022
February 15, 2021