Stuck In Limbo With The Donnas

Artist: The Donnas
Published: 2005-05-09

"I think people always mistake us for something that we're not."

That one sentence, uttered by guitarist Allison Robertson, sums up all it means to be The Donnas. After speaking to Robertson and lead singer Brett Anderson before one of the final gigs on their spring tour, it becomes clear that there's something askew with their public image and actual identity. Always pegged as "some girl group" and not much else, The Donnas have classic middle child syndrome.

"We don't really fit in anywhere, you know?" continues Robertson. "So it's kind of hard. Punk bands always think we're too big to play on bills with them; we're kind of shunned from the punk and garage world. Which is fine÷We've never really been a part of a scene."

Not that The Donnas are unaware of how to change that. Anderson explains that they would simply have to choose a scene, carbon copy the style of music, and just slide on in. "And the fact that we're girls would make us different enough, the fact that our music stands in the context of the other music would make us fit in."

Then comes the clincher: "But," she says, "We don't want to do that, because that's just not us. We can't make music like that."

The Donnas obviously have their artistic integrity, but they don't reside in the realm of pretentious indie snobbery that usually comes with it. The California quartet (Torry Castellano and Maya Ford cover rhythm) recently released Gold Medal, their sixth album, second for major-label Atlantic, and Anderson admits that they "wanna be big". Still, there is just no easy resting place for the middle child.

It also doesn't help that female presence in music has been on a downslide ever since the '90s waved goodbye. Chatting about the recent BBC Radio 1 documentary No Girls Allowed, The Donnas agree that there aren't too many girls rocking out these days.

"It's worse than it was in the '90s, because I think that [female music] was so trendy, and then it got made fun of," reflects Robertson. Using Lilith Fair as example, she continues: "To be part of anything that's female run, to me that's a positive, but÷it just turned into something that people make fun of, and say their moms go to. I mean even we made little jokes."

Anderson then nails it spot on: "At the time we joked about it because we could, 'cause there were other girls that were cooler. But now it's like÷" She trails off, her point obvious.

"It's more like you have to be older, and work an older crowd if you want to be a female musician now," Robertson says, noting the shift in expectations. "It's sort of depressing to think that - even if it's not our band - that there aren't any others that are really BIG and inspiring younger girls. We were surrounded by them when we were younger."

"Even if you look at the girls that are successful and respected for their music right now, it's totally adult contemporary," says Anderson. "It's like Norah Jones, Joss Stone, Charlotte Church. Those are the females that are young and respected. But they aren't respected by their peers, or our peers. It's all adults."

"And also, a lot of them aren't rock," points out Robertson. "Like, Alicia Keys has tons of talent, and she's awesome, and a lot of young people like her as well as old people. But say you want to play guitar, and you were just into rock - there are a lot of kids who just assume they can't like that, and they're going to be closed-minded to that. If they see someone with a guitar and loud rock, that would speak to them more, maybe they would want to go play guitar or drums."

The final conclusion is that there is female presence in the '00s, but it unevenly distributed across the genres. Those worked into a panic can breathe right - according to Anderson, an unlikely place may be the beacon of hope for female rock. "I was excited when we were in Edmonton. There were a lot of girls in bands that came to our show, and it was exciting that there was a lot of action."

As we keep our eyes peeled to northern Alberta, The Donnas will continue plugging away at the rock world, just as they've done for the past 12 years. Whether or not the "some girl group" tag ever leaves them, know that there is more to the four-piece than their party-girl fluff image. For example: The Donnas are actually as big of music freaks as Seth Cohen, Zach Braff, and/or that clerk at your indie record store. Maybe more so, for they're those who have moved past being concerned with what's hip, and just like music for music.

"We were pretty much geeks and into music, and we talked about music all the time," says Robertson of their school days. "We basically bonded over stuff [we liked], and then made fun of what the popular people were listening to." The "stuff" The Donnas liked as eighth-graders in the early '90s was Faith No More, Jane's Addiction, They Might Be Giants, and REM: sidestream grunge and college rock.

"It's impossible to get tired of music," says Anderson, taking her music freak status to heart. "You can never hear it all; you can never grasp it all. There's just always something new to be listening to."

Plus, like any true music geek, The Donnas have all the love in the world for Lollapalooza, as both performers and attendees. Anderson was broken up over the 2004 cancellation, and neither of the girls can understand how such an amazing line-up was crushed. Praising the artistic, worldly audiences of Lolla, and the non-sexist environment of the tour, The Donnas hold the event in high regard.

Anderson even blew all her dough on the thing: "We went [three years in a row] when we were kids. I would've gone to all of them, if I could've afforded it." Robertson rationalizes the move like any music lover is apt to do: "It's just like, when are you going to see all those bands at once, y'know?"

The Donnas recently opened for Maroon 5 - "cool" status suicide - and enjoyed it thoroughly, citing an open-minded audience as the reason. They've toured with Alice Cooper, are deeply involved with their fans, and will play a series of oddball shows, including an Alaskan state fair and Georgia naval base, this summer. They were degraded by TSOL seconds before hitting the Warped Tour 2000 stage, are failures in "industry standards", and had punk kids throw shoes at them.

It's just not easy being the middle child.

Writer: Jaclyn Arndt

Photo:Jaclyn Arndt

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