In a world where so much is fast and harsh, Sara Corrigan of the San Francisco band, Dolly Rocker, very decidedly takes things slow. Dolly Rocker, often compared to The Dirty Three and Cowboy Junkies, has just put out their new album, Funny Lullabies, this month. Though the music has taken on a more upswing feel than in their debut album, Hello Dolly Rocker!, it still draws from the same moody well-spring that is Sara Corrigan. In our interview, Sara describes some of the changes the band has endured through the years and gives a little insight into what Dolly Rocker is all about.
Dolly Rocker at Hotel Utah, San Francisco, 2000. Photo by David Bender.
Dolly Rocker has been through a lot of changes since its inception. Where/how did it begin, where has it gone and where is it now? (I know, big question!)
For the record, I should say that my dad is a Corrigan and my mom's maiden name is Duffy and I come from a long line of non-musicians on both sides of the family. With my sister Katie less than a year old in a VW bug, my parents drove from Toledo to San Francisco in 1970. They were just a bit too old to be real hippies, and the music I remember hearing in the house was either Frank Sinatra (my dad's choice) or a lot of female vocalists like Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, Joni Mitchell (my mom's). I took formal piano lessons through high school, but singing came to me really easily. It probably sounds like a cliche-- but it's true-- when I was little, all I ever wanted to be was a singer. As I got older though and entered high school, it just didn't seem realistic. My high school was very competitive and, from Day One, everyone worried about grades and what college they would go to. I went to a college in Portland that didn't have grades, but there I was constantly thinking about whatever poem or novel or play I was studying at the time and what I would say about it in my next paper. (I was an English major). But in college I did know a few people playing in bands and I realized performing and recording was something a person just like me could do. (I just couldn't figure how to be in college and in a band at the same time). The summer I moved back home after graduation, I started learning how to play guitar. Since I knew a thing or two about writing, my songwriting started almost simultaneously. Some of the first songs I ever wrote are tracks on "Hello, Dolly Rocker!," Dolly Rocker's first album.
You have pretty much BEEN Dolly Rocker. Why did you choose to name yourself for a Syd Barret song and have you ever considered just going by Sara Corrigan?
Maybe the reason I chose a new name boils down to a lack of self-confidence. I didn't think I, myself, could constitute an "act." After college, I started working in a bookstore and a friend of mine there, Craig, played in a band called Torn Memory (sort of My-Bloody-Valentine-like). He was lamenting that his bandmate David was having some ear trouble and seemed interested in playing quieter music; at the same time, he thought David would work well with me. I met David at a show and we started playing together. He'd add some lead guitar or bass to the songs. I chose to call our project "Dolly Rocker" because we were both Syd Barrett fans (Craig and David introduced his music to me) and I love that song. I guess I like being associated with that sweet girl in the song, wearing a cool dress, drinking tea. David and I did some four-tracking and were about to start sending some demos around town, but then David hit some financial troubles. San Francisco is an expensive city and David's father gave him an offer, practically speaking, he couldn't refuse: a job, a place to live, and a truck. It did mean he'd have to move back to Orange County. That was a rough time as I remember it now, but the next year I started playing the same songs and some new ones with Jim Gaylord, a new co-worker who played violin. Dolly Rocker has had so many configurations at this point (my name and that of Matt Boudreau, the engineer, are the only consistent names in the list of the two album's worth of credits) but that's almost the best reason for me not to go by "Sara Corrigan." (I'm a little more confident these days and I have played a couple solo shows at this point, thank you).
Jim, Sara, and Ken with Gabriel from Continental on drums. Cafe Du Nord, SF. Photo by Alissa Anderson
Although your new album is unmistakingly Dolly Rocker, there is definitely a different sound and tone. There is less emphasis on the violin and more on the guitar. To what do you attribute this shift?
At a certain point, I could sense that Jim was losing interest in Dolly Rocker. He had become very interested in painting and was applying to schools for an MFA, (which he just finished last year. I should mention his website www.jimgaylord.com because his work is really QUALITY). I put an ad out for a new violinist. No takers, but I did get a response from a guitarist, Kevin Franke. It was nice to hear a really good guitarist (like David, in the early days) play Dolly Rocker music. Cara Tramontano is the violinist now; she was a customer I met in the bookstore. We'd only been playing together for about six months when we went into the studio for "Funny Lullabies." If there's less emphasis on the violin, that might be a reason. But also, I think it's because I do want Dolly Rocker to have a spare sound, with room for everything. I don't want the instruments competing with the voice or with each other.
Your vocals on Funny Lullabies also took a shift from what I could call "piercing and melodic" to something more Nico-esque. Was this a conscious change and if so, why?
Kevin made me a tape for my birthday a couple years ago with some songs of Francoise Hardy. She's this French chanteuse from the Sixties. Of course, any young woman singing in French would probably sound gorgeous, but I also like her songs in English. The lyrics and melodies are so simple, and that really appeals to me. The same with Claudine Longet. If life could be so simple... that sort of thing. I've listened to Nico ever since I was in college, and what I love about her voice is its arresting quality. I actually heard myself compared to Nico quite often after the release of "Hello, Dolly Rocker!," but if my voice is less piercing on "Funny Lullabies," I think it's because I'm conscious of more influences.
Your songs have always been incredibly personal and revealing and I wonder what motivates you to write like this and if it isn't just terrifying to expose yourself like this.
My sister has always described me as "brutally honest." So that's part of it; it's just my nature. Also, there are so many times when you hear people describe some situation and they'll say "It's just like a movie." Maybe it's just the English major in me, my critical eye, but I do look for themes and motifs running in my own everyday life; the characters of the people I come to know, the significance of their personal interests like art or fashion, film or politics. Of course, there's a lot of heartache in Dolly Rocker songs, but to the extent that a song makes some sense of the pain, how or why it's so painful, that's a real consolation. A couple friends of mine listened to the new album recently and one of their comments was: "It wouldn't sound so upbeat if you hadn't heard the first record." I take that as a compliment. Yes I can write a happy song!
In your dream of dreams, where will Dolly Rocker take you (or you take Dolly Rocker?)
One of my favorite poets is Mark Strand; he won the Pulitzer a few years ago for "Blizzard of One." I heard him describe once in an interview the difference between fiction and poetry. Whereas fiction takes you outside of yourself, he said, poetry takes you inside. I just hope I can write lyrics that other people can think of as poetry, and make music they'll want to hear again. I think I'd run the risk of sounding immodest if I said more than that. Or worse, naive.
You have had the great fortune of playing some great venues. Could you say you have a favorite and if so, what makes this place special?
There's a club called the Make-Out Room that's a favorite of mine. It's such a funny name for a place; people always laugh when they first hear of it. There's a disco ball in the center of the ceiling and since the club itself isn't too large, spinning lights cover every surface. Even without having a drink, you can't help but feel lightheaded. And since the overall lighting is pretty dim, I think everyone looks beautiful as soon as they step inside. The stage has this great red-velvet curtain and there are all of these random objects decorating the walls. (I'm thinking of the bearskin, in particular, that hangs at the end of the bar). Another venue I love to play is the Rite Spot. There's no stage and it's very low-key, not the sort of place to see and be seen. I'm always fairly relaxed playing there. I've had a soft spot for the Rite Spot ever since I played a solo show a while back, and saw it reviewed not long after in the weekly "Bay Guardian." As I sang a line from my cover of Syd Barrett's "Dark Globe"-- "Won't you miss me? Wouldn't you miss me at all?"-- the reviewer said "I missed her already."
You are one of the few true natives to San Francisco. What can you say about your relationship with the city and how it has shaped you and your music?
I had a friend in high school, John Kim, who wasin a wordworld-weary. I think we were fifteen when he made one blanket statement I can still remember: "You know, for a big city, San Francisco's a pretty sleepy town." That was not the city's strong point in the eyes of my friend, a late-80s punkrocker with anarchist tendencies, but it's "sleepiness" is what I love about San Francisco. Maybe it's an effect of the hilly landscape-- you can't always be racing around everywhere-- but the pace of things is much slower than other cities like New York or Chicago (where I've spent enough time to feel I can make the comparison). The Pacific probably plays a role that way too: in the constant face of the ocean, nothing can seem too pressing or all-important. I don't think it's a stretch to say the city's slow pace has influenced the general tempo of Dolly Rocker's music. And I think the cultural diversity of San Francisco has influenced the overall sound. A bit of Spanish guitar, some western twang, a few minimal Eastern tones here and there, all contribute to the music. I don't know if they would cite the same influences, but some of my all-time favorite songwriters and bands have made a home in San Francisco: Mark Eitzel and American Music Club; Mark Kozelek and the Red House Painters; Paula Frazer and Tarnation. It means something to me to think Dolly Rocker has performed on some of the same stages, if not on the same night.
Any touring in your near future?
It may be a measure of my attachment to San Francisco when I say that I do not enjoy travelling. That said, Dolly Rocker has no immediate plans to go on tour. We are reworking the website at the moment-- (I hope it's up by presstime. If not, please check back)-- so maybe when we sell a few more copies of the CD and I get the feeling there's even a small amount of interest out there, then Dolly Rocker will hit the road. I really do think that'll happen at some point, but I'm not in any hurry.
Check out their website, www.dollyrockermusic.com.
Hear Dolly Rocker now!
"Monsieur La Fleur" from Funny Lullabies 2006
"Mars or Mercury" from Hello, Dolly Rocker! 2001
March 2006. All photos and music provided by Sara Corrigan.