Describing herself as a terribly shy, bookworm/loner-type who reads Roald Dahl and grew up digging Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston, Dorothy Martin inherited her smarts from a family of doctors and envisioned becoming a scientist one day.
Instead, the singer-songwriter mysteriously morphed into the badass frontwoman of a hard-working, kick-ass hard rock band known collectively as Dorothy.
Even as they close out the first week of a fall tour with dynamic dynamos Halestorm and Lita Ford, Team Dorothy's singular shining star (who's succeeding in a madman's world) must wonder, "How did I get here?"
"I don't know anybody in my family that's musical," the loquacious lead singer was saying over the phone from Los Angeles during the last week of September after a midday rehearsal for the tour. "So I'm probably not naturally gifted. I had to work my butt off to get in the groove of the margin of professionalism that I still have to work at it constantly."
That serious approach to her craft has paid off for Dorothy and her fellow L.A.-based bandmates, who include DJ Black (guitar), Gregg Cash (bass) and Dylan Howard (drums). After signing with Jay Z's Roc Nation label, their first full-length album, the wryly titled ROCKISDEAD, debuted at No. 1 on Billboard's Heatseekers chart following its June 24 release.
None of the members of Dorothy are probably old enough to remember the Who using the same phrase in their song "Long Live Rock" first released 42 years ago, but ROCKISDEAD was suggested for the album title by Dorothy's manager George Robertson. And everyone in Dorothy but Dorothy hated it.
"We don't take ourselves too seriously but we love what we do," said Martin, poking fun at the expression while knowing full well that offshoots of the genre continue to become an endangered species in the radio world. "And we definitely play like we mean it. So the whole point is we're very passionate onstage and in our live performances, so it's like we're very much alive up there. That's when I feel the most alive, really, is during the live show. Nobody's thinking about all their burdens and their jobs or that they're going through a divorce, whatever you might have. ... It was the perfect title for me. So I didn't care what anyone thought."
Members of Dorothy including (from left) guitarist DJ Black, drummer Dylan Howard and lead singer Dorothy Martin perform on October 8 at Pikes Peak Center in Colorado Springs.
On October 8 at Pikes Peak Center in Colorado Springs, Dorothy was alive and well as the spirited opening act that won over plenty of new fans, judging by the long line at the merch table after a fast and furious set. They waited patiently for a hug, autograph or photo with Martin during an informal meet-and-greet that lasted long after Ford's head-banging act began.
With pedal-to-the-heavy metal songs such as "Kiss It," "Dark Nights" and "Wicked Ones," Dorothy's sound is driven by rapid-fire bursts of electric shockers, "We Will Rock You" rhythmic blasts and Martin's fierce set of pipes and striking stage presence. Her brand of business acumen is just as grand.
Sync and swim
A licensing deal led to strategic placement of syncs in visual media, from commercials (Gatorade) to previews of blockbuster shows (Game of Thrones). Recently, "Raise Hell" pumped up ABC's recent premiere episode of Conviction. Even extended passages of "Missile," written with Rihanna in mind, landed in an NFL Madden 17 video game, helping them reach an audience they weren't even sure existed.
"It's like you know that song in the back of your head because you heard it on a trailer or in a movie," said Martin, sounding delighted with the concept. "It becomes familiar to you. So, in a way, it's really good because it's a very sly way of introducing the music to people that wouldn't necessarily stumble upon it."
While casting a wide net across the internet and beyond, Dorothy's appreciation of blues power and desire for emotional connectivity carry her and them above the din of one-note wonders.
"When I'm up there singing, I really love the song 'Woman' because it's so personal and it's an anthem for females," Martin said of her current favorite in the set. "It just comes from a very real place and there's a lot of dynamics of it live that we've added to make it very exciting and it gets to be hard and aggressive but it also gets to be intimate and soft in the verses. And I like those moments a lot. When you get quiet and create that tension, everyone kind of listens to what's gonna happen."
Martin is right about the impact of the band's live performance raising the intensity of an already compelling combo, but the recorded versions of all 11 songs she wrote or co-wrote for the album stand up as catchy 3-minutes-and-a-cloud-of-dust morsels by themselves.
Live and learn
There certainly are a few people responsible for her emergence as a singer-songwriter, but Martin took the time to single out two of them -- her voice teacher Coreen Sheehan ("she changed my life") and Linda Perry, a successful artist and producer who first made her mark fronting 4 Non Blondes.
Growing up in San Diego, then attending San Marcos High School, about 30 miles north, Martin's California dreams turned to singing.
According to a recent YouTube interview with Damon Campbell, she performed the national anthem for her graduation class in 2004. Music classes at a community college in San Marcos followed, along with pursuits as varied as acting and running a beauty and health club.
Opting out of a scholarship at Cal State-San Marcos, choosing music over a biotech program, she found Sheehan at Musicians Institute in Hollywood.
"I've had several teachers and nobody has really dug into the technical aspect of the voice like she has," Martin said. "I felt like I'm really learning with her. ... It's a craft and you're kind of like an athlete."
Writing's on the wall
Songwriting also turned into a play-to-win proposition for Martin, who started her career as a solo artist and recorded a self-titled EP that "didn't quite take."
Still, she managed to persevere. "The creative process is interesting," Martin said. "Right when you think you don't have anything, something might spark your inspiration. And out of nowhere it seems like a song is born. And sometimes you sit in the room beating your head against the wall (thinking), 'What the fuck do we do here?' " she said with a laugh. "And I've learned a lot."
Getting to write some with Perry in the past year proved to be enlightening. "Her and I are very similar people," she said. "We have a lot in common. And so I felt like ... if I could have any mentor, it would be her. ...
"She taught me a few things about songwriting that I'd not known before that I'm very grateful for," Martin added, politely declining to give specific examples because "I don't know if she wants me to give away her tools of the trade."
So hammering out more material with her guitarist Black for their next album while constructing a wish list of possible collaborators, she said, "When I found out that Rick Rubin did '99 Problems' for Jay Z and (produced) the (Red Hot) Chili Peppers albums, I was like, 'OK, this guy is my dude.' That would be perfect."
Another key component of her musical education was understanding the importance of a slogan she heard from an acquaintance that should be a rule for all Spinal Tap wannabes: "When everything's loud, nothing is."
Most of ROCKISDEAD's sonic blasts fit into the band's 30-minute Springs set that ended with "Whiskey Fever" and left the audience thirsty for more. But one notable absence was "Shelter," the album closer that's Martin's most moving -- and extremely personal -- number on the record.
Planning to resurrect it when their headlining tour begins in January, she sings "I'm a hurricane, I'm a freight train" with a resigned touch of melancholia. That's a sure sign this tattooed lady with a huge voice wants to leave her mark by carefully peeling off other layers of her personality to reveal a tender, vulnerable side.
Of course, the person most responsible for Dorothy's early development is her mother.
A Hungarian whose parents were both doctors, Martin's mom moved to San Diego with her daughter about three years after Dorothy was born in Budapest.
In a world of strong, empowering women that includes Hale and Ford ("I'm so blessed to be able to be in their company," Martin said), she doesn't hesitate to hide her feelings about who's No. 1.
"My mom is such a strong lady and what she went through to get me over here to the States, it's like a crazy story I can't even get into. She's very brave," said Martin, pleased to reveal that her mother is currently a globetrotter "having an adventure. I think I get my gypsy genes from her."
They do differ in some ways, though. Martin's mother, she said, "absolutely hates and avoids conflict," while "I'm an Aries. I'm a fighter. I'm kind of aggressive but I think I kind of need that to spearhead what I'm doing. But I need to know when to tame it, tone it down."
Walk on the wild side
Somewhere along the way to making music, a wild streak and rebellious nature grew simultaneously. Having problems following orders, Martin "quit every job I've ever had." She's still trying to figure out how that side emerged.
"It was probably something I should talk to a psychologist about because I don't know," Martin said. "I'm very interested in finding out why but I feel like people who are fronting a band or performing for a living are a little bit crazy and probably suffer from some sort of need for validation. And also you can't discount the fact that they like it. It's exciting.
"I just wouldn't be able to have a quote-unquote 'normal life.' I've always felt separate from everybody. And I don't know if there are other kids out there that feel this way but just know that that's how I felt. I don't know what it is because I didn't feel normal at all. I always felt like a loner. I had friends. I hung out with everybody. ... But I always felt different from everyone. And I wasn't sure why. And I'm still not sure why. But I'm obviously not living a normal life here. I've had a lot of crazy experiences, done a lot of crazy things."
In her YouTube interview, she discussed a wild birthday weekend that included singing with Seal, taking tequila shots with Fergie and hanging out with Orange is the New Black actress Ruby Rose. For most of the rest of us, that would be enough brushes with celebrity for a lifetime.
As abnormal as that seems, Martin still can enjoy some down-to-Earth experiences. But how does a fashionista who reportedly adores Disneyland, filmmaker Tim Burton and animals, not necessarily in that order, develop the confidence to be considered a hard rock hell-raiser?
"The only thing I could probably attribute it to is coming from being so shy and insecure and having low self-esteem and feeling like a complete fucking weirdo, needing the validation that I could be strong and needing the security from somewhere," Martin said, attempting to solve the mystery. "And if I'm not gonna get it from my surrounding environment, I'm gonna find a way to create it. And needing to escape and not really subscribing to the real world because I think it's bullshit and I think that there's a lot more to life like creativity and beauty that we can create and have."
Perhaps those seeds were planted from the time Martin started listening to her dad's vinyl record collection. She was attracted to the blues-drenched vocals of Janis Joplin, and cites her as probably the closest example of a performing role model from rock 'n' roll's glory years.
Martin might adopt Joplin's stage demeanor like she borrowed those classic albums, but during Dorothy's transformation, this honest-to-goodness hard rock goddess is eager to separate fact from science fiction.
"I laugh when people tell me I'm badass," she said. "I'm like, 'God, I'm really not.' I'm very sensitive."
Concert photos by Michael Bialas. See more featuring performances by Dorothy, Lita Ford and Halestorm on October 8 at the Pikes Peak Center in Colorado Springs.