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20 Questions: Martha Davis

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Tuesday, Jan 26, 2010
What's a red frog doing in Martha Davis's basement? Waiting for his record debut, naturally. On the eve of releasing her children's album, concurrent with launching a T-shirt line, recording a jazz record, producing a podcast, and digging through the vaults of the Motels, Martha Davis is primed for the year of the Metal Tiger.

Martha Davis does Julia Child? Well, why not? Such whimsy is central to Red Frog Presents 16 Songs for Parents and Children, the latest solo project by Martha Davis. With a cast of original characters that include Phineus T. Rabbit, Professor Owl, and Francis Bacon, the founder of the Motels reveals yet another facet of her wide-ranging artistry.


Red Frog is one of about half a dozen projects Davis has either coming to fruition or far along in the incubation process. The inspiration for a children’s album arrived 12 years ago, when Davis noticed that Barney the Purple Dinosaur and his ilk dominated the music her grandchildren listened to. “It was just horrifying,” she exclaims, “especially because when I was a kid, my first favorite album was Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. I remember seeing Fantasia when I was little, so I know that kids love beautiful, imaginative stuff. The storybooks that I had didn’t pull any punches. People died. They didn’t try to make everything safe and pretty and stupid for kids.”


Not that Red Frog isn’t a fun, zany album. Those who only know the sultry side of Martha Davis should be prepared to hear her embody all the different characters on the album, if not provide the narration for the stories. “I was a kid of the Warner Brothers cartoons,” she explains. “I grew up with that stuff. I have a crazy imagination, so it seems to make sense. As dark and brooding as some of my songs are, I’m pretty much a goof ball!”


That imagination didn’t wander too far to find the the project’s lead “actor”, Red Frog, who has the closing number on the album. An actual red frog visited Davis in her basement and has taken up residence there between her gym and rehearsal space. “I just let him wander around. I put a bowl of water down there for him and he just kicks it down there. One day, he’ll be sitting on an amplifier, the next day he’s in the gym. He’ll be the thread between the projects. He’s our mascot.”


He also made the album cover. Both Davis and artist Alicia Justice had exactly the same idea of how to render Red Frog in the album’s artwork: sporting a crown. “Now, I just have to fashion a little crown for red frog downstairs and figure out how to strap it on him,” Davis says, only half-kidding.


The scene on the album cover depicts an old-fashioned tableaux of a mother, father, and their children sitting in their living room listening to the radio with Red Frog, who rests atop a plush green pillow. Alicia Justice brought Davis’s original sketch to life with stunning detail and colors. “Freakin’ amazing,” Davis says about Justice and her artwork. “All she does is create. There are just piles of creation wherever she goes. Sometimes it will be jewelry, sometimes it will be hats, sometimes it will be these beautiful illustrations. She does these amazing, tiny little matchbook storybooks. She’s wonderful. We’re going to try to make her a big star.”


Song titles like “Arangatango” indicate both the album’s sense of play and the variety of musical styles Davis draws upon for each song. She explores everything from baroque to jazz, yet anyone who has an old Motels album will remember that amidst the new wave, Davis always incorporated other musical ingredients. When Davis went solo in the mid-‘80s, “I basically gave my muse permission to just do whatever they wanted to do,” she explains.


At the moment, her muse is working overtime. Red Frog invigorated the already-prolific Davis to the point where she penned up to ten songs a day. Once the kids album is released at the end of January, Davis will begin work on her jazz album. “I have all these songs that have been sitting there forever that happened to me. They just come and visit and it’s like, ‘You sound like an old jazz standard.’ I’m going to put them all together. Hopefully, I’ll have (former Motels keyboardist and sax player) Marty Jourard come down, and we’ll just try to knock it out. I want it sparse and simple”.


According to this year’s Chinese New Year, which arrives on Valentine’s Day, 2010 is the Year of the Metal Tiger, and Martha Davis is primed to sound a mighty roar. Between all her projects, which include a cinematic version of the album inspired by her mother’s suicide (Beautiful Life), a possible new Motels album, an active Facebook page, and a T-shirt line that recasts everyone’s favorite F-bomb (“Ka-Fuck”), Martha Davis took some time to visit with PopMatters for another installment of 20 questions.


1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
There’s a great book called Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee that made me bawl my brains out. It’s disturbing as hell, but you just got to read it. I can’t even describe it.


2. The fictional character most like you?
It’s a cross between the Mad Hatter and Auntie Mame, I think.


3. The greatest album ever?
Can I do categories? I listen to a ton of classical music and I really love classical music. One of my favorite albums ever is Outside (1995) by David Bowie. I totally got lost in that album. It’s actually a collaboration between him and Brian Eno. We love when those two get together! It’s about art crime. It’s a concept album. It’s set in the future. It’s crazy. It was when he was into that kind of Jungle-y stuff. It grabbed me. I did not stop playing it for four months straight. I couldn’t tell you a lyric in it. I’m just not a lyric person, believe it or not, though I love writing them. I’m very much more about music. Then, “Daphnis and Chloé” by Ravel. That piece of music has this choral section in it that is so beautiful, but there’s so much music that I love. 


4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
You have to understand that when I think of Star Trek, I think of James T. Kirk. Just about nothing is better than James T. Kirk. Then again, the first time I went to the Chinese Theater the first day that silly Star Wars opened and that giant ship took off overhead, that was like, “Oh my fucking god!” They’re kind of apples and oranges, in a weird way. I think I would probably say old Star Trek, because I think it’d just be funnier. I remember something about Tribbles.


5. Your ideal brain food?
Observation. Whether it’s people or overhearing a conversation, observing things immediately transforms into creativity, so I consider it brain food. 


6. You’re proud of this accomplishment, but why?
I’m going to be 59 on the 19th of this month (January). That’s a pretty good accomplishment! That, and my two children and my grandkids. It’s all an accomplishment. It’s called life.


7. You want to be remembered for…?
Inspiring, in whatever form that comes. Anybody can pretty much do anything if they put their brain to it, because Lord knows, it’s pretty miraculous that I’m here doing what I’m doing. People can come up and tell you they love your song, but there are times when people have come up and said, “I had leukemia. The only way I got through it was listening to you.” That’s what I think of as inspiration.


8. Of those who’ve come before, the most inspirational are?
Well, I’d have to say my mother. She absolutely put me on the path to this place where I am by, strangely enough, committing suicide. I know that doesn’t make any sense. When she did, she left her diary about her life. She wanted to be an artist and never did it. It came back to bite her, the fact that she stowed her dreams away to be the good wife. That’s what they did in those days. When she gave me the book, it was just basically her saying, “You can and should and must do this, or else you could end up like me.” It’s a strange, dark sort of inspiration, but it’s absolutely true. I was really thinking about doing music and I had two children. My dad was like, “You have to go back to school.” Then my mom dies, and I read her diary, and I’m like, “No! I have to do music.”


It’s a tough way to get inspiration, but she left behind this amazing gift. Don’t give up your dream. Just don’t. You have to try. I sat my kids down and said, “Well, rather than resent you later on, I’m going to do this thing.” It took eight years. For a while I played some of the songs from Beautiful Life (the album inspired by her mother’s death) in the set, but I was just like, “No, this is not how this music needs to be done,” because it is a linear piece that goes from start to finish, so I want to try and take it out and actually do a very stark but, hopefully, very beautiful stage presentation of it.


9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?
Igor Stravinsky, “The Rite of Spring”.


10. Your hidden talents…?
Upholstery, plumbing. I used to work on cars. I love refurbishing old furniture and I love gardening. I love just about anything you throw in front of me and I’ll try and do it. I really get excited about just about everything, except maybe right-wing politics.


11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?
Get a good lawyer and hold onto your publishing.


12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?
My guitar. When my dad worked at a place called Stiles Hall at UC Berkley. It was kind of like the university Y.M.C.A. There was this little guitar in the basement. He was worried that it was going to get damaged, mildewed, down in the basement, so he brought it home. That’s the guitar I’ve had since I was eight years old, and that’s the guitar that brought me “Only the Lonely” and a million other songs and kept me safe and sane during my childhood. It’s a beautiful guitar. It’s over 100 years old. I borrowed it and never took it back.


There’s an even better story that goes along with it, aside from just borrowing the guitar. The first three chords were taught to me by a young student who was on scholarship at UC Berkley from Watts. He was going to the law school there. My dad would hire him to come babysit us so he could have some extra money. He played guitar, so he taught me my first three guitar chords. That gentleman’s name is the Honorable Felton Henderson.  His first job when he graduated from college was to go work for Bobby Kennedy. He was the first African American to represent the government in the Civil Rights Movement, and now is a Superior Court Judge in California, the Ninth District. He was the one that raised all hell when they tried to repeal Affirmative Action. He was the one that went to the mat trying to stop that. Right now he’s battling the Prison Guard’s Union. I’m like, “Felton, be careful!”


The history of that guitar and me and everything that it’s brought me is amazing.


13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or…?
I’m not even that brand-y. I am an anti-fashion plate (laughs). I shop at the cheapest stores and enjoy a bargain more than anybody’s business. They’re trying to get me to be a fashionable person…and I’m capitulating. I’m a big thrift store person. You know what I really hate? I hate doing anything anybody else is doing! I’m most comfortable in some off-brand, jean-like thing, and some layered T-shirt assemblage.


14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?
There’d be musicians like David Bowie and Radiohead. David Lynch might stop by. Of course Gus Van Sant and Howard Bloom. Have you heard of Howard Bloom? Must read book: The Lucifer Principle. I would have my friends there, Alicia and Jacob and Gaye Ann. I’ve just collected wonderful, brilliant people… and usually a little bit insane! Who else? That’s one of those doors that if you open it… we’d have to get a Ritz annex.


15. Time travel: where, when and why?
That’s an interesting question. A lot of possibilities. My first inclination, strangely enough, would be to go back in time, about 300 years ago. I am totally enamored of Aboriginal people and their grace and beauty and the living with nature the way one should. I think I would go back to a time where there wasn’t all this hubbub. I think that would be really interesting. Of course, I might be dropped in the middle of some war between two tribes, but I’m thinking something more peaceful, by the banks of the river.


16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?
I don’t think I’d do any of the above. I’d go sit in the yard, probably, or clean the house. I believe in productive stress reduction. If you’re angry or uptight and you start doing something positive, you work through your anger or stress and by the time you’re done, you’ve got a clean house.


17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or…?
Not coffee, not vodka. Cigarettes are fun, but I don’t think they’re a necessity of life. Chocolate’s not a necessity of life, so it must be in the “other” category. If we’re talking just escape mechanisms, probably wine. I have gone many, many years without it, but in terms of an escape, that’s my favorite. Nice red wine.


18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?
It’s definitely not the city. I think it’s right where I’m sitting—in the beautiful, drizzly, foggy Northwest.


19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?
“I love you, President Dreamboat!” I’m so sorry that he has to put up with so much crap right now. I think he is a very bright, very caring man. I know a lot of progressives are really pissed off right now, but you know what? The man is doing everything he can under the circumstances. I also think he’s really smart and sometimes think he has tricks up his sleeve that we haven’t seen yet. I adore him. “Hang in there.” What a pile of shit he got handed to him.


20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on now?
Aside from being done with the kids’ album and getting that out and the jazz album, I’ve got some shows I’m doing. I’ve got a show coming up on 29 January at Dante’s in Portland, Oregon. I have several other projects. The (Motels) record This came out in 2008, but then we decided there was actually This, That, and The Other. I always overwrite for albums, so a lot of the outtakes are going to be compiled and put together. That is going to be the outtakes of This. The Other is a conglomeration of cool stuff that has been left behind. Hopefully, if all goes well, maybe a new Motels album. I was just down playing gigs with my boys, and we would love to do another, similar to This. They came up to my big old house. I have a studio and everybody stays here. It’s very large, with many bedrooms. Roll out of bed in the morning in your pajamas and start recording. It’s a great way to get away from everything and just concentrate on recording, so hopefully we can do that. It’s usually done in the winter months, when the gigging slows down and the elk herd is here and the snow is on the ground.


There’s a podcast thing that Gaye Ann and I are going to start doing, which is a spin off of a radio show we did together. There’s Ka-Fuck Inc., our new company that’s going to turn into a T-shirt line.


I have hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of songs, not all of which are wonderful songs, but some are great ones. In my new set, I have four songs that were written years ago that just never saw the light of day. I’m dusting them off and putting them back. We’re just going to start releasing them one song at a time. I’m trying to get stuff in movies. There’s interest in doing Beautiful Life as a cinematic piece. People are nosing around that project, which is awesome. Then Gaye Ann has this wonderful idea to do this cover album of cool, ‘60s-esque songs.


Then I’m going to try and get my vegetable garden to actually work! Every time I get one in, I go out on tour and I come back and all the lettuce has gone to seed.


Media
Martha Davis and the Motels - Total Control [Live, 01/09/10]
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