The thrill of the bass

Martina Sorbara of Dragonette talks to the Journal about Barcelona, Alice and Wonderland and songs comprised of one chord

Dragonette front-woman Martina Sorbara cites Madonna, Prince and Paul Simon as some of the artists she dreams of writing for.
Dragonette front-woman Martina Sorbara cites Madonna, Prince and Paul Simon as some of the artists she dreams of writing for.
Credit: 
Supplied
When they’re not on tour, Dragonette split their time between Toronto and London, England.
When they’re not on tour, Dragonette split their time between Toronto and London, England.
Credit: 
Supplied

Martina Sorbara reminds me of a human disco ball: multi-faceted, infectiously fun and able to compliment any musical endeavor.

The front-woman and lead singer of Toronto and U.K.-based band Dragonette was humble and honest, telling me about her approach to making music and the band’s evolution before they embark on their Ontario tour.

In a sea of folk and indie-rock, Dragonette have been a stand out in the Canadian music scene since the release of their debut album in 2007. Their pairing of sexy synth beats, provocative lyrics and danceable hooks got them noticed in 2008 with a Juno nomination for Best New Group—an ironic acknowledgement considering the group has been active in music since 2005. “That’s always how it is I think,” Sorbara said. “The band that won best group [Wintersleep] has been around even longer than we have.” Dragonette was conceived somewhat by chance when Sorbara met her current husband, bassist and producer Dan Kurtz and they began sonically experimenting together in a basement.

“It really was just Dan and I testing things out. It was both of us having fun and having some kind of adventure in the studio with any instrument you want just one click away.”

This up-for-anything approach is one that shines throughout my conversation with Sorbara—it’s clear she’s not the type of woman to turn down a chance for challenge.

“Dan came from a project of where writing songs was not really part of the program. He plays with New Deal where they go on stage live and basically improvise house music, which just really astounds me,” Sorbara said. “I was coming from a different place of just me on the guitar or piano or sometimes nothing else.”

A natural evolution from her past solo work, Kurtz and Sorbara’s differing musical backgrounds proved to complement each other.

“It was like an experiment and an adventure in that way. I don’t think for the first two or three, or even five or six songs, we had any idea it was going to be our duo project or whatever. I think it was kind of rewarding for me in ways the other stuff wasn’t—not that it wasn’t rewarding too—but it was the logical progression.”

Guitarist Chris Hugget and drummer Joel Stouffer round out the four-piece, making for a family dynamic on tour and at home.

“We’re all very close. There isn’t a time when we’re not all completely happy to hang out together,” Sorbara said. “We’re into group activities. We were at the West Edmonton Mall for a show and spent something like 24 hours there … then we rolled out of bed and went to see Alice in Wonderland in 3-D.”

An avid Alice fan, she divulged her thoughts on the film with a quick tangent.

“I liked it … until two thirds of the way though when it became Harry Potter,” she said with a laugh. “You see, Alice in Wonderland is my favourite thing on earth. I was so giddy in some parts of the movie I was just totally in love with it. But by the end I was like, ‘fuck this.’”

It makes sense that Sorbara is endeared by Alice’s character. There’s a common adventurous spirit between the two women.

“I’m in love with Barcelona. Dan and I lived together there for a month or so when we were writing … it reminds me of Montreal with a coastline and a beach,” Sorbara said. “It’s a romantic place with cool stuff to do and adventures to be found.”

Most of the time, Sorbara doesn’t need to look too far for the latest unique opportunity, whether she’s with Dragonette or elsewhere. In addition to appearing on tracks for both The Henrys and Basement Jaxx, she co-wrote “Grab a Hold” with Kurtz for Cyndi Lauper’s latest record, Brink ya to the Brink.

As bigger names come knocking and the band’s name creeps more into the mainstream, Sorbara keeps busy immersing herself in the music world, seldom turning down a chance to work her magic on a new track.

“It’s always honouring and flattering for me to be approached, even if nothing happens from it. It’s fun to be forced into doing something in a different light, in a different way,” she said. “Recently this DJ asked me to work with a demo he sent me and it was comprised of one chord. I was like, ‘What the fuck am I supposed to do with this?’

“Eventually I was like, ‘You know what, I’m just gonna do it.’ It was really fun to try to write a song and write a melody over something like that. It was a really cool track to work on because I would’ve never written those chords—or not chords—but that kind of challenge is really fun for me,” she said. “I’m really proud of the level I ended up with … any opportunity to be challenged is really what I strive for in having a career.”

When they’re not writing, recording or exploring and pushing their limits, Sorbara said Dragonette make the most of their time on the road.

“I think we’ve done a lot of shifting into what we are now, we started out with songs we just did on computers, playing with different music programs, synths, the occasional live instrument here and there and writing songs over top of fun beats we made.

“I think as live musicians that was something that trickled down and we had to make up after the fact becoming more solid in the live sense as we went along,” she said. “I feel like every tour we go on we learn something new about the live aspect of us, but at the same time playing live informs our writing and how the songs exist before we ever play them.”

The latest release from Dragonette, Fixin to Thrill, made its way to listeners in September 2009 and marked a decided difference and development from Galore.

“I think there’s a progression between them, ideally you want some kind of movement one way or another, whatever the changes or alterations are, the writing process was different, you know, in our house versus a tiny room we were renting,” Sorbara said. “We weren’t isolated, but there wasn’t a label we were appealing to, we were writing with no self-censoring. It was liberating and we were having a different kind of fun.”

Having fun with recording and touring time is important to Sorbara.

“I think the two are a happy vacation from the other. Once you’ve been held up in the studio for long enough, it’s great to be out and making the songs into live versions of themselves.”

After writing for a variety of acts and adding to her creative production over the years, Sorbara has high hopes for which artists she’d like to write for in the future.

“There’s probably a thousand people I would feel totally honoured to write a song for, but I don’t know in some ways I would want Peter Gabriel or Madonna … or Prince.” With dreams like these the sky’s the limit for Kurtz and Sorbara’s tunes as she adds with a healthy dose of sarcasm, “And Paul Simon, I can’t avoid his calls man, my phone’s ringing off the hook.”
Dragonette play Ale House with Birds of Wales on Wednesday March 31. Tickets are $10 and are available at The Brass, Destinations, The Jungle and ticketweb.ca

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