Checking In with Martha Davis
The Sultry Voice of The Motels Contemplates Her Life in Music

By Lee Valentine Smith

You probably won't hear the new album from The Motels on the radio. You definitely won't hear anything from it on the Lost '80s Live tour, either. But you should definitely hear The Last Few Beautiful Days. It's a serious examination of a life dedicated to music, told from the perspective of a true survivor.

What you will hear at the show is a celebration of the band's greatest hits from the '80s. A darling of the early MTV era, Martha Davis and her band were staples of the channel with a string of sultry, melodic pop hits including "Only The Lonely," "Take The L," and "Suddenly Last Summer."

The Berkley, California native made her mark in the heart of the punk scene of Hollywood. She now lives happily alone with a menagerie of animals on a farm in Oregon. INsite checked in with Davis the day before she left the ranch for a summer tour that brings her - and original Motels keyboardist Marty Jourard - back to Atlanta in early August.

A big farm in Oregon is a million miles away from the intense Hollywood scene of the late '70s.

Yeah, it never really worked for me. I'm not that girl and I never have been. I love music, I love creating and I love performing. But the scene, that whole Hollywood thing - the fame, all that stuff, is just...

Unhealthy.

It is. People sometimes don't understand how it atrophies a soul. Even in our heyday, I thank God I actually went in the other direction because I was already not doing well. You become so insulated and detached from reality. People are taking care of you. You're not actually paying a bill and you can't really function. It's just - it's very unhealthy, yes that's a good way to say it. Very few people handle it well, especially the young ones. I always feel so bad for the child actors and stuff. It's a tough place. So I'm glad that I escaped and managed to not become famous. But I've stayed alive and I'm still doing what I want to do.

You didn't quite fit into the scene when you arrived?

When I moved to Los Angeles in '75, my band thought we were gonna make it overnight. We were very different and strange and funky. But we were 'too weird' when we first moved there because it was all the Laurel Canyon scene with Linda Ronstadt and the Eagles and all that stuff. Then punk came along and we were too melodic for that scene.

Then New Wave came along.

It came washing over the shore and it implied whatever. It's whatever it is, if we like it. I think that's ultimately the greatest thing about the '80s - no two bands ever sounded alike.

That's why it still resonates.

Yeah because you can like Talking Heads or Blondie or The Pretenders but none of those bands are the same at all. It was a veritable pu-pu platter of fabulousness. The only thing I can think of that was even similar was the hair band scene, but that wasn't as diverse. We had the whole video thing, with MTV and all. That took everyone even further in their own directions because nobody wanted to sound or look alike.

It must have been a lot of pressure on a band to not only make a good record but then to star in a series of short movies to promote the songs.

Yeah but it was so much fun. We worked with director Russell Mulcahy (Elton John, Duran Duran, Berlin) on "Only The Lonely" and "Take The L" and we did them both for something like $80,000. We shot for two days and it was like the wild west! It was just completely uncharted territory. The old man who was the bartender in "Only The Lonely," one of the production assistants found him. He had just gotten off a bus from Oklahoma. He was from L.A. but he'd been gone for 40 years. He literally stepped off the bus and they said, 'Hey, you wanna be in a video?'

But videos soon morphed into just another pain in the business.

Yeah, like everything else in life. Shortly thereafter, videos got expensive and it became a power thing. But it's like breathing, it's expansion and contraction. Things start small, then they get big and then they have to contract. I think we're in a little bit of contraction right now in the world, in many ways. Or a spasm.

Yet like in the turbulent '60s, great music and art is coming from the spasm.

It's funny, pop music is a reflection of the times. It's been vacuous for a while but there's always great music out there somewhere. But in business terms it's been very safe and cautious. That tends to be what happens to people when they get frightened, they get very conservative. They get that way with everything - it becomes very reactionary. It becomes all about 'me.'

Do you think people will be celebrating today's music three decades from now, as we're doing with '80s music and culture?

It's tough to say because there truly isn't anything new under the sun at this point. Like fashion. '60s fashion probably did everything it was going to do. But we keep going back to it, recycling it. It's the same with music. I love melodies and I play with melodies all the time, but they've all been invented before. The challenge is to make them sound different. I'm always shocked when I come up with a new song. I'm like, 'Really? There's more out there?' There might still be something new to come. You know, Radiohead came along and we were all like, 'Wow, what's that?' Grunge happened and that was weird and cool, so maybe there's more to come.

But melody may have peaked in the '80s.

That's entirely possible. It certainly took a holiday for a while. The undressed nature of hip hop was great and I loved it. It was just a message with beats. Very primal and beautiful. But there was no melody. Then, like everything else, great hip hop gets replaced by the more generic stuff, with the record company trying to make a dime from it. Then you start craving melody again. I think that's why people are looking back to the '80s for it now.

Yet in the current age of tracks, you have a full-length album out.

Yeah, you can stream a bunch of pop songs but these days, you'd better have a good concept for an album, otherwise why bother? It doesn't have to hit you over the head like a rock opera but it needs to make sense.

The Motels' latest album The Last Few Beautiful Days isn't a lighthearted pop record. You're dealing with some serious subject matter.

It took years to make. Most of the boys are down in L.A., so we'd work on it when we could. It started out with me just bemoaning the state of the world. The rule was I'd write everything first person, so I'd be responsible for all the opinions and emotions. So it'd be my story. It became the story of wanting to be in this business, up to now. It's not happy. It's about what you sacrifice as you're doing what you can't not do, you know? You go through life doing what you think you need to do - or what you think you want to do - and it comes with a price. I've been extremely lucky to do what I do, but it came with a cost. The songs became bits and pieces of this journey.

It's been an incredible journey so far.

Yeah I started playing guitar when I was eight years old in Berkley. Then I was writing songs at 15 when I was an Air Force wife in Florida. I went to Tampa from Berkley! I was a mixed-up little girl. I lost my parents and I had kids when I was very young. It was a tough task - made even moreso by wanting to do music as my job in life. So the album turned into a confessional. I'm also working on a stage show about my life that may describe it a little better.

It sounds like music is the only constant in your life.

Well, it's saved my life and allowed me to deal with a lot of tragic stuff. But my life is no different than anyone else's; it's never easy. I'm just lucky that I have music to help me deal with it. But art isn't something that you drag around, it's supposed to lead you. I'm just glad it still does.

Lost 80's Live arrives on Saturday, August 3 at the Frederick Brown, Jr. Amphitheater. Showtime is 7 p.m. For more information, pelase visit amphitheater.org.

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