MARTHA DAVIS: NOT TIED TO THE EARTH
illustration by bijou karman
Martha Davis—the original ‘it girl’ of the New Wave—has been at this for 40 years. She’s still single-tracking her vocals, and writing music that can cut you. As a singer, songwriter, performer, and bandleader, she’s been the muse of David Lynch and Giorgio Moroder, among many others. Without Martha Davis there is no Lana Del Rey—just listen to the way Del Rey sings, ‘It’s like I told you, honey.’ Strangely, it’s storming in L.A. when I called her at her farmhouse outside of Portland. I told her I had been up all night, and she told me she had already worked out, fed her ducks and made banana pancakes. She was also cooking her taxes and making sure the stable of young dudes who have made up her legendary band the Motels for the last few years were treated right by Uncle Sam. Hers is a saga that reads like an epic poem by Byron or Shelley, and her still-unfolding story rivals Edith Piaf’s for hardcore romance and beauty in the face of darkness. She was born in Berkeley, got pregnant when she was 15—and again when she was 17—then escaped the life of a Tampa Bay military wife and lived through her mother’s suicide, all while keeping a vow to follow her cherry red dreams. To hear her voice over the phone brings chills: L.A.’s ultimate femme fatale, one of the most gorgeous and enigmatic lead singers of all time, is talking to you. The girl who wrote “Total Control” and “Only the Lonely” is there, just a whisper away across a landline. In 1979 as L.A. punk was breaking, the Motels famously held court at Madame Wong’s and then shot to stardom. It only took them eight years on the Sunset Strip. The Motels perform Fri., May 20, at the Canyon Club and Sat., May 21, at the Yost Theater. This interview by Marion Belle.
Do you like to dance?
Martha Davis: Oh yeah—of course. I remember being 8 or 9 at home and it was raining. I was wearing this yellow tutu. I push away all the furniture and rugs from the living room and put on my mom’s old 78s. One of the records was Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. When I put that on, that was the first time I ever felt like I was in outer space—like I had literally left my body. I was not tied to the earth.
That sounds like your Rosebud?
Martha Davis: It was my Rosebud. Something about that music: Ravel, Debussy, Satie. I don’t know—I love a chord change! Bowie, too, of course.
Martha Davis: I’m still not over it. I don’t think I ever will be. The first time I ever sang it was the old Negro spirituals. Then it was soul music. I thought, ‘This is my thing—this is what I love.’ But there weren’t really any white girls singing that stuff. Of course I loved jazz. But I didn’t know what I was going to do. Then David Bowie comes along and combined everything—all of that into one, into something different, into pop music! And he showed us the way.
How did you go from loving pop music to making it? And why did you know you needed to go to L.A. to make it?
Martha Davis: When I was still in Berkeley, I was already playing a little. I wasn’t recording songs that I had written yet—I hadn’t made the leap. My friend [and original Motels’ bassist] Lisa Brennan was like, ‘You always talk about doing it—why don’t you just join my band?’ And I did. Once I was onstage, that was it—done deal. Then things went from dangerous to seriously dangerous! We moved down to L.A. to ‘make it overnight!’ That was the Warfield Foxes. L.A.—I had been before and I hated it. It really was hard to breathe then! They hadn’t figured out the right combination of chemicals to filter the pollution. And I loved Berkeley. I would ride my bike around the campus. My parent’s friends were all intellectuals, you know. I’d come home and they’d have this fascinating brain scientist listening to them talk. But I did not like the Bay Area music at all. It was the Dead and Jefferson Airplane. I was into Eno and Bowie! And L.A. was a fascination—so alien to me. The other good thing was at that time there was NO traffic! Melrose had literally nothing on it. The Beverly Center … that’s where I’d take my children to Pony Land! It was a field. On certain perfect days—fall days when it was clear and crisp—L.A. was great. I wrote a lot of great songs there. But in 1975, she wasn’t so pretty. She looked like a whore the morning after.
Where was your first apartment in L.A.?
Martha Davis: The corner of La Brea and Detroit. I got lucky because it was a really good place. I moved in with [then boyfriend and ex-Motels guitarist] Dean Chamberlain, a very great person. We had recently broken up but I think we were still sleeping in the same bed because of finances. It was me, the kids, the pets. But the landlady raised the rent $800 and we couldn’t afford it. I grabbed the kids and we slept in cars for a few weeks while I was looking everywhere but not finding anything. Finally I had to move into the Hell House in Echo Park! Let me tell you—it was not safe or pretty then. It was like an old craftsman. Paint sniffers in the basement, angel dust dealers. A huge old house that had once probably been amazing. There was a greenhouse on the second floor and five bedrooms, some of which had no ceilings. $185 a month and in shambles. The landlady’s son I think was schizophrenic. One night I heard these crazy noises downstairs like he was killing someone. I called the cops, took the girls, and left that night! Like, ‘You just got the head angel dust dealer busted! Get the fuck out of there.’ My daughters must have been 10 or 11, and 9. It was hell for the girls. It was an awful way for them to live at times. We were broke, broke, broke. There was no net, no grandparents, just us. And Mom was trying to be a pop star. They’d say, ‘Mom, when you make it, can we get new socks?’
Was there anyone in your life then? A guy?
Martha Davis: Not really, no. I mean, there were guys. Booty calls, you know. Dean and I had broken up. So it really was just us. But sex was always there. Sexuality is so important to what you do—such a controlling factor in all of your decisions. It’s also responsible for every crazy stupid thing. ‘Let’s do another threesome—yeah! That sounds like a good idea.’
You were there before L.A. punk—you even helped start it with your DIY Radio Free Hollywood shows. You were there when Sunset Strip glam and metal started, too. How did you fit in?
Martha Davis: I’m not sure we did fit in? It was such an explosion of uniqueness. It was easier to stay true to yourself that way. The bands were so diverse. It was more a focus on honing who you were. So many kinds of groups. There was 20/20! There was Smegma! And there was us.
What got you installed at Madame Wong’s?
Martha Davis: You know—you’re out looking for gigs. Somebody tells you there’s this place, and you make a call. Esther Wong says, ‘You come down!’ You play and there’s five people there but she likes you and says, ‘You come back!’ At first it was like … 8 people. Then 25. Then it was packed and we were on a roll. It was … full on. Punk meets … I don’t know? The beginnings of the New Wave thing. One night it was Devo, the next night Oingo Boingo. It was tremendously diverse, diverse enough so that people could find a niche. I was 29 years old, which wasn’t really that young, but it was so new. The thing about playing there was they served Ng Ka Py, which was Chinese liquor that was imported as medicine. They served it in brown crockery pots and when you poured it out it was bright orange! We did double shots before every show.
Before the success of Only the Lonely, what was the closest you came to leaving music behind? And why weren’t you able to?
Martha Davis: Oh man. I’m not really sure. Because you know, when my mom committed suicide … my dad said, ‘You’ve got to go back to school and be a secretary.’ Then I found her diary. She wanted to be an author. She’d been this brilliant English major at Berkeley but instead she got married and became the stereotypical 50s housewife for her husband. I read her diary and that was it—I said, ‘I’ve got to do music.’ And I moved to L.A. Once I went in, I was in for the duration. Going from being a band trying to make it to being signed happened so fast there wasn’t any time to think. We literally played a show at Madame Wong’s, got the deal, and the next day we were in the studio because our manager was so sure we were going to be signed that he’d already booked studio time. Then when they tell you to pack your stuff—‘You’re getting on a tour bus!’—or they’re flying you somewhere, that’s strange. It boggles the mind. From being completely broke to having a house with a swimming pool? When I finally got the record deal I put my girls in private school. After so long I figured they deserved to get out of the ghetto. But the creative part has always been my favorite part. Performing second. Celebrity is the work part, the ‘there’s no free lunch’ part. I wasn’t made to be a celebrity. I think in general artists prefer not to be in the spotlight. I was really lucky to record four albums for a major label. But I also suffered that awful thing of having success with an album that was my least favorite sound. At that point my head was spinning, like I was in this current being pulled down the river. [Capitol Records] had rejected Apocalypso, the album we submitted. And then the album they liked—the one we re-recorded—was the one that was so successful. So now I have the question, the doubts—am I wrong? I knew I had to get out or I was going to regret it.
I was reading YouTube® comments and they are very passionate about the Motels, your voice, and your beauty. The one that struck me the most was from a housewife who said something like, ‘Her songs sang my life for me.’ Has anyone done that for you?
Martha Davis: That’s a good question. Songs and music meant so much to me—they allow me to sing! I was this pregnant girl still thinking about that middle section in The Rite of Spring and wanting not to be tied to the earth. I had to sing and I knew the odds and everything, but at some point it seemed to be what I was meant to do. It was a total fluke that it worked.
Were you ever a drama queen?
Martha Davis: Not a drama queen. I play the victim, but never the helpless victim. I’m not a helpless person. I always get myself out of things. I have this Zen saying I made up when life isn’t going right—those days when you get up and trip over the chair and spill the coffee. ‘Well, I guess that’s what we’re doing today. The world’s gonna be pushing back.’ I try to go with it.
You had a lot on your plate, and trying to give the music and the performances everything—
Martha Davis: Yes, but you realize too that you have to be responsible. You’re not the gift. The gift is what came to you. That’s the most humbling thing on the planet. There’s no swagger—you’re just so grateful.
But doesn’t it take swagger to rise to that level of performance? To take to the stage and carry the message?
Martha Davis: Yeah—you’re right, I think. There is the responsibility of the persona. It’s this weird mixed thing, doing it right. You’re completely exposing yourself. You strip naked. You’re scared to death. And you have to swagger, be in a sense completely self-involved … the Ng Ka Py thing … whatever it takes to bulldoze that shit out of your brain. Drugs and alcohol are obvious ways but you have to be narcissistic or else you are probably aren’t going to draw attention to yourself doing this job. You have to put yourself first until that machine takes over. Wear a sandwich board or something!
I heard from Nic [Nicholas Allen Johns, producer for the Motels and Marion’s Fatal Jamz] that you never double-track vocals.
Martha Davis: That’s true. I guess in the old days they just didn’t put anything on my voice. I mean … I love harmonies and I have used them at times. Val [Garay, producer of Only the Lonely] said, ‘There’s not a voice that really matches with your voice.’ You know when you’re in a room with other musicians and there’s just … so much room. Your voice can feel so small. Listen—I was always just happy to be making music. Early Motels stuff is so vacant—so many holes. The holes were a big part of it.
‘Total Control,’ there’s a ton of space. There’s so much restraint in that recording.
Martha Davis: ‘Total Control’ I wrote as a punk song after I broke up with Dean. It was like aggro, man—lots of anger. [sings fast like a punk:] ‘Looking counter-clockwise / knowing what could happen / any moment maybe you / maybe even you.’ Then Jeff came up with this chord progression. I thought, ‘This is so much better than what I was doing.’ It became this aching thing. But that aggro thing was still under there. Have you seen the Jonathan Demme film Something Wild where they use it? The scene where he uses the song is Ray Liotta is in this car and he turns up the radio and it’s ‘Total Control.’ He turns it up and he starts beating the shit out of this guy.
Demme’s a smart dude. He heard the aggro vibes underneath.
Martha Davis: Yes, he did. Kinda neat.
Many people don’t know that you were approached by David Lynch to play the singer in Blue Velvet. Anyone who listens to the music you were making in 1985 and sees your photos and performances from that time will find that your connection to the character is shocking. Did you go in for an actual audition?
Martha Davis: I did—I went and met David Lynch. I read the script and at that point it was more horrifying, It wasn’t all there yet of that character. The son and the husband hadn’t been kidnapped yet and the character was just this bizarre crazy … frightening in a lot of ways thing. I couldn’t see myself as this person. He writes a beautiful script, though—David Lynch. He puts in all the sounds of the bugs chirping in the dirt. Bottom line was a lot of pop stars were getting into movies. And just because I’m a pop star I didn’t think I had the talent. But who knows if I had done it? I might be married to David Lynch! And I loved doing videos. I was so lucky. I got to work with just the best people. David Fincher. [Australian music video director] Russell Mulcahy. It was so wonderful. We would write little movies.
To me it’s a great achievement when people say ‘that’s so 80s’ because you were a part of creating a time that’s so vibrant, alive, and recognizable that it makes people happy. Like a movement in painting like Impressionism or Renoir.
Martha Davis: [laughs] I might not go that far!
I would! Every time I’ve seen you play I’ve thought, ‘Her new songs are as good or better than the older songs.’ There’s a piano ballad called ‘Mr. Gray’ that you usually smoke a cigarette during that seems as good as any Motels song I’ve heard.
Martha Davis: That’s from a jazz album called I Have My Standards. Dreamy sit-by-the-fire drink-wine smoky jazz stuff. We recorded twelve songs in two days. So awesome. Just stuff I had written. I never turn my muse away from my door. I wrote that when I was 19 on a camping trip. All of a sudden this weird jazz-blues song came out of me. That’s the thing—you gotta get out of the way and let them just come. I’m so lucky that they like visiting. Any artist will tell you … a lot of it is hard work but a lot of it is being open to these things that are floating around. When they decide to land on you you’re a lucky person. When I wrote ‘Only the Lonely’ I literally picked up my guitar and it was sitting there. It was complete in form. I wrote down the lyrics that were coming out. I wrote down the chords. Except that one little crazy high note that everyone’s so nuts for was an accident in the studio.
I’m nuts for that high note.
Martha Davis: I know. People love the high note. [laughs]
And you still hit it perfectly live.
Martha Davis: One night it didn’t happen, and the whole band was like, ‘Oh my God, I’ve never seen this happen.’ It’s happened to me a couple of times when I was really sick. I just said, ‘I’m sorry, we can’t finish until I get this note.’ I think I did it three times before I got it and by that point the audience was like, ‘Come on, you can do it!’
In the studio how did it happen?
Martha Davis: I think we were going into one of the choruses. My voice broke where it naturally breaks and everybody was like, ‘Oh my God! Oh my God!’ [laughs] How’s your record? Is it finished? I’m excited to hear it. Are you happy with it?
I really am, and that feels good because it’s taken like two years. And the music, as much as I heard it in all those stages … it still sounds very fresh to me. It takes so long right and you’re constantly protecting the song and trying to capture or keep it’s essence.
Martha Davis: I know—isn’t it fucking crazy? I think nowadays everyone’s so good at computers. You can take things and plug ‘em in and move ‘em around and it’s kind of like that real essence of a song—which is a journey—gets sometimes confused. I think that sometimes that what you feel in the music … we don’t feel that journey, we just sometimes feel some really cool parts. I don’t do all that shit. All I need to write is a pad of paper, a pen and a guitar. It’s already gotten so far past me. I used to have one of those Akai tape machines that took like big VHS tapes. I could get around on that machine. I loved that machine. But that’s not really my … I’d say I’m much more an arranger than I am a producer. Sonics, you know—they’re great when they’re great but I fucking do not get into that minutiae because I’m listening to the song. And the song doesn’t have to be fidelity-wise excellent if it’s a great song. To me it’s more about structures and the harmonies and stuff. And Nic’s fucking incredible in every direction. He gets in there and gets amazing sounds so I don’t feel bad—I don’t need to get in there and produce every nuance of the thing. I don’t care!
There’s a great picture of you sitting at the mixing board with [producer] Val Garay. How hands on were you in terms of getting the sound right?
Martha Davis: When we got signed in 79 we were working with John Carter [producer of the first Motels LP]. And we basically left Madame Wong’s—played our last show like Friday or Saturday and went into the studio Monday. And Carter’s like … ‘Play your set.’ We played it live and I had never been in a studio, I had no idea. Back then there was no home studio practicing. They didn’t give you any idea until you walked in. It didn’t sound anything like what we sounded like—it just didn’t. Because a recording doesn’t sound like what you sound like live! There’s no air moving, you know? There’s none of that crazy … it’s just different. I knew so little I was afraid to say anything. I was like, ‘These drums don’t sound like the drums … [but] they know what they’re doing, they’ll fix it … in the mix!’ [laughs] ‘And it’ll sound like us.’ And it never did sound like us to me! The first album is probably my favorite album. Second and third—the third being Apocalypso—I liked a lot. That was heavily influenced by Tim McGovern who was running the show at that time, not Val Garay. And then when Val Garay took over he had his own tonal thing, and like I said—I want to write the song and see if the song gets across. By the time we got to the Val Garay point of the program I was already kind of beat up. Both Tim McGovern and Val Garay are really forceful people with very strong feelings about what they want. I’m not confrontational and I’m definitely not Prince like, ‘This is my sound! It’s gotta be like this!’ I basically just sat along for the ride. The other problem I have is that when I’m making music, in whatever respect I’m making it—I’m happy! I’m not sitting there nit-picking it: ‘We’re making music—this is good!’ But in hindsight my least favorite albums are those very polished Val Garay albums. That’s not my go-to sound. I like stuff that’s edgy and weird. Bowie was the first influence. I loved the fact that when he would do a recording his takes would be not the flawless takes but the takes with the emotion. Something could be flat or a little out of tune but it was just the performance that he went after which was really spectacular. So as the career went on and the records stayed … I actually started feeling not as happy with the direction of the music. It wasn’t satisfying that weird itch, you know? That thing where you want to do something different with the music? It was very homogenous and very safe. And I don’t like safe—never have.
I think all of the records sound incredibly good. I’d argue it’s all very edgy.
Martha Davis: I always tried to write that way—raw, kind of lyrical. Probably thanks to Stravinsky I like to try to throw in notes that create that dissonance and that rubbing that creates tension. When you’re doing it, you’re always your own worst critic. But when I listen to those records I’m like, ‘ … nah.’ [laughs]
I know you’re trying, with the recording, to get to that sublime place and capture the truth. And you don’t always get there.
Martha Davis: Exactly. I have some rules in the studio: ‘The only ego allowed in the room is the song’s ego.’ When I write a song, it’s changed a little but I used to always write the music first. That’s your theater, that’s your stage. Lyrics—that’s your set dressing. The music has to describe this vivid experience and you garnish that with the lyrics. When I listen to music, as much as I’m a lyricist, I never listen to lyrics. I listen to a whole song as that thing. It’s not about hearing the lyrics. If they’re out of place, you know it, and if they’re wrong you know it. But if they’re right, it’s tremendous.
It sometimes feels to me that song writing can be kind of a sickness because, like you said, you stay open to it and it can alienate you from others—even other musicians—because you need that.
Martha Davis: You have to be protective of your inner self. That’s where it all comes from. Maybe there is a part of me that’s guarded in that sense? I know songs need to come out honestly. They need to feel when you read them or hear them that there’s real emotion or … it’s sort of an alien place. I keep going back to Bowie: that marvel of an unknowable thing that knows everything. I think I’m way more integrated now then I was when I started. I immediately went from where I was so scared that I literally wanted to run out of the building, almost, to crawling around on my knees to doing just crazy shit. I had no idea what came over me.
And you’re like, ‘Is this the real me?’ It goes back to you in the yellow tutu.
Martha Davis: It really is the great reveal.
That’s a great place to end.
Martha Davis: It was wonderful.
THE MOTELS WITH THE HAILERS ON FRI., MAY 20, AT THE CANYON CLUB, 28912 ROADSIDE DR., AGOURA HILLS. 7 PM / $20-$28 / ALL AGES BUT UNDER 18 W ADULT. GET TICKETS HERE! AND WITH FLOCK OF SEAGULLS AND DRAMARAMA AND MORE AT THE LIKE TOTALLY 80S FEST ON SAT., MAY 21, AT THE YOST THEATER, 307 N. SPURGEON AVE., SANTA ANA. NOON / $25 / ALL AGES. GET TICKETS HERE! VISIT THE MOTELS AT THEMOTELS.COM. MARTHA DAVIS IS CURRENTLY WORKING ON A TELEVISION SERIES AND A MUSICAL. THE MOTELS’ LATEST ALBUM IS SCHEDULED TO BE RELEASED THIS SUMMER.