Q&A with Martha Davis of the Motels
It’s easy to fall in love with Martha Davis, the fierce front woman of the new wave band The Motels. Her husky voice, passionate performances and heart-breaking lyrics propelled her to fame in the 1970s and kept the various incantations of the Motels on Billboard’s Top Ten list with hits like “Only the Lonely” and “Remember the Nights.” While Davis has traded in the dark L.A. club scene for a rural Oregon homestead, she’s still writing music, screaming about political injustice and finding new, queer meaning in her old songs.
You’re living in Oregon now. What’s it like for you to be so far from the L.A. music scene?
Well, the bottom line is that I am and always have been a tomboy, outdoor kind of girl. I mean I am not a city dweller. I did my time in L.A. My saying about L.A. is that L.A. is the place that everyone has to go to get out of. [Laughs] And so I made it out alive, which was remarkable in itself, and I’m very much more at home here. I hate L.A.
Besides L.A., were there other places that influenced your music?
A lot of my writing was coming from my home of Berkeley. When I grew up there, it was kind of a cute little college town. I basically left when everyone simultaneously dropped acid. [Laughs] So, I went to become an Air Force wife in Tampa, Fla., which is really a culture shock from Berkeley. It was one of the most horrifying experiences of my life.
How did you transition from your life as a young air force wife to a New Wave star?
I came home and all of a sudden this picture flashed in front of my eyes of me sitting on base someplace, 50-years-old with my hair in rollers, chocolates in one hand and a beer in the next and fluffy slippers on my feet. All these things just popped into my head and I was like, Ahh! Plus, my husband was not a nice man…He was the one in that first Motels album, that line that says ‘he isn’t gonna kill you, he’s just gonna fuck up your pretty face.’
So now that you are over 50, is this where your 20-year-old self imagined you’d be?
I do that visualization with myself, but it’s usually not too far-futured. I envision things in a near-version future sense. My life was so crazy for so many years. It was like, planning for the future? Not really something I was doing. When I first moved to Hollywood to make it overnight I went to see a fortuneteller, and she told me, ‘Oh, oh! You’re going to be very, very rich. But not until you’re very, very old.’ So I’m still waiting to cash in on that.
Has anything surprised you about being over 50?
I really enjoy getting older. I mean, yes, we all sit in front of the mirror and go ‘what are these hairs on my chin?’ But …the thing is I love getting older, because each decade you get older, you get ten-fold back in sense of humor. I mean in your 20s everything is drama and chaos, and oh my God, and oh my God, and then you’re 30, and you’re like ‘well, maybe this isn’t so bad,’ and then you’re 40, and you’re like ‘that’s pretty ridiculous,’ and when you’re 50 you’re like ‘it’s a fucking laugh riot.’
A lot of young female musicians like Britney Spears are really under the microscope in terms of their bodies and sexuality. Did you feel that when you were younger?
Well, they’re not being watched. They’re being made. It’s a very different animal. In my book there are two kinds of people you see in the spotlight. There are artists, and there are entertainers. That genre is strictly entertainment. An artist would be someone who writes their own stuff. Britney is not sitting there breaking out the great song that she wrote last night, you know? Chrissie Hynde is an artist. Britney, not so much, poor dear. [laughs] You know what, it doesn’t have anything to do with being a woman in rock, it has to do with whether you’re any good or not. Don’t separate me because of my gender—that’s doing me a great disservice.
You have a huge gay following, and “Only The Lonely” has become a sort of gay anthem. Did you anticipate that when you were writing it?
No, no, no, no, no, because when I write songs I have no idea why I’m writing them. “Only The Lonely” is a classic example of me picking up my guitar and that song was sitting there. And it wasn’t until gay pride, when I was singing it and I just went, ‘holy shit, this is about being gay.’ [laughs] It’s not really, but it’s just that feeling of alienation, of wanting so badly to be able to be in a place that is comforting, and that is respected, and… to be supported, to be nurtured. And when I thought about it from that perspective I went ‘holy Christ, I get it.’ It does resonate. The resonance is not just about being gay or lesbian, it’s about isolation, and it’s about pretending—it’s about pretending because only the lonely can play.
Many of your Motels songs were angst-ridden. Are you happier now?
I’m at a point in my life where I’m probably the most content, the most happy. This year is the year of the tiger. I am a double tiger in Chinese astrology. This year is going to kick fucking ass. I’m feeling pretty feisty these days. Yes, there’s a dance in the old dame yet!