Dimestore Dolls’ Kelly Buchanan Shares The Confession And Collaboration Behind ‘Wooly Mamas’

[Cover photo: Jody Porter and Kelly Buchanan collaborate on “You Are The Fix”, photo credit to Jennifer Strader]

Lancaster, PA-based Indie band Dimestore Dolls releases their debut album, Wooly Mamas, this Friday, July 22nd, 2022, and are celebrating the occasion on July 23rd with a record launch show featuring Duct Tape in Lancaster. They have been building up their repertoire as a live band for a while now, but the downtime of the past couple years led to a new burst of digging through vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Kelly Buchanan’s songwriting files. Buchanan was a part of the New York music scene as a solo artist who gained considerable momentum recording and performing before a traumatic brain injury in 2008 put her on a very long road to recovery.

Buchanan’s path of relearning to sing and play the guitar from 2012 onwards has led to the formation of Dimestore Dolls, a high-energy musically diverse group with soulful and intricate lyrics to their original songs. Buchanan is joined by Christy Engel on drums, Scott Frenchek on bass/keyboards/vocals, Jeanette Stillman and Mollie Swartz on vocals, and Chris Whalen on rhythm guitar/vocals. You can gather from that line-up that they can build up quite an intense, layered sound, and that is brought to bear both on their album, Wooly Mamas, and in their live shows.

I spoke with Kelly Buchanan about her experiences as a confessional songwriter who shares many elements of her life through her songs, the development of sound for Dimestore Dolls, and how honest observations from life can build powerful music.

Hannah Means-Shannon: Since you’ve been a songwriter for much of your life, did you have a lot of choices to make in terms of what you recorded for the Wooly Mamas album?

Kelly Buchanan: When we began recording this Wooly Mamas record, we had a bunch of current originals to pick from, and I gave everybody all my old demos, too, and some we picked and brought forward from the original version, like “Down To Mechanics”. I wrote that one in 2012, right about when I started learning to sing and play guitar again after my traumatic brain injury. There was a whole batch of acoustic songs from a productive year for me. I was exploring music again after so long.

That song started as an acoustic one with just my voice, with twenty versions of me singing all the parts, an acoustic guitar, and just a few notes. [Laughs] But we turned it into a rip-roaring Rock ‘n Roll anthem, which was what I had in my mind at the time but didn’t have the band to achieve it.

HMS: It sounds like your demo-making was quite intricate since that song has a kind of wall of voices.

KB: It was built around voice because I didn’t have drums or instrumentation back then. I created an interesting climactic arrangement by adding more and more voices throughout the song.

HMS: This is interesting that what was a necessity to you back then is still something we can find in the songs and sets them apart from what many other musicians are doing right now.

KB: It certainly started out as a necessity, but when the band came around, we started out doing covers. We started out as an all-girl band for a Christmas party and we were all wearing sweaters, so we called ourselves The Woolly Mamas. I put the band together with bandmates who are now in Dimestore Dolls and other great female singers from around the area.

We had fun doing it, so we decided to do some shows, and we would all take turns singing lead. This evolved into me bringing in more and more of my original songs. It was a natural evolution to use that many harmonies since we had these excellent singers with us. I loved having that to take advantage of. I don’t think I’d ever had that opportunity before, even in my solo career. We now have five voices.

Like a lot of bands right now, we started recording because we couldn’t perform anymore, and we needed goals. That’s one of the reasons that I gave everyone all those old demos. Now that we’ve recorded all this, I immediately want to go record something else! But we need to perform this album for a while.

Photo credit to Mollie Swartz

HMS: I find it really refreshing when I hear that songs might have a long lifespan and development because the simple narrative is that songs come out of the blue, right away, and are perfect from that instant. Songwriting and recording are not always simple or quick and it adds to appreciation to know that.

KW: There are also songs that I never thought would see the light of day in terms of recording and a professional band arrangement. I just wrote for the joy of writing and creating and the natural therapy of it. It’s a soothing and relieving process to create music.  

HMS: Do you ever feel resistant to sharing some songs with others because they are personal?

KW: [Laughs] Oh sure! There’s tons of stuff that I’m ambivalent about sharing, but I do it anyway. That’s what art is. I’m a confessional writer. I write from my own experience, even if I extrapolate from it. It’s all based on truth. Some people can craft a song about anything, and they are great songs, and some people write emotional songs. That’s me. I was thinking specifically of Adam Schlesinger and working with him. He was just such a genius songwriter who could write songs for anyone about anything. We had a great mutual respect for each other’s work even though I recognized that they were completely different.

HMS: It’s almost a more introverted or more extroverted approach to songwriting, though I hesitate to use those words because I don’t like to categorize people. But some pull more from inside, some more from the outside. That doesn’t necessarily accord with how someone is as a live performer, though! That can be totally different.

KW: Absolutely! Some of those internal writers are the most over-the-top and dramatic performers. I’m thinking of Tori Amos, for instance, who is both totally confessional and over-the-top as a performer. I can’t even think right now of someone who is confessional who is not an over-the-top performer!

HMS: That’s a whole impression I got from this album, even though I haven’t seen you all perform live. It seems very lively and outgoing in terms of the music, but the subject matter often stems from very private thoughts and feelings. It’s an interesting combination and tension.

KW: It’s meant to be fun, as much as we can be. Also, the confessional element is something where you know that you’re going to affect the people that you write about, in a way. That actually kept me quiet for a while in my writing. You write about the people who you’re closest to if you write about inter-personal relationships, but you also don’t want to throw those people under the bus. If you process your anger about a situation by writing about it, then you actually never have to get into a fight with somebody. [Laughs]

But then later, if they hear the song, they say, “Wait a minute!” For instance, “Patty Says No”. I tried to change the name of that song a bunch of times but the band kept overruling me and saying that it wasn’t as convincing as the original. It started off as a little bit of a joke, but it really is about somebody named Patty. We did shows with it as other names, and I tried to record a version with it as Nicky. Finally, I just gave in.

HMS: I found  “Extraordinary Goodbye” to be really mysterious but also very intense. So much focus is put on the word “goodbye” that it almost takes on all kinds of meanings. We use that word both in a throwaway form and in a meaningful way in daily life but the song invests it with so much power. That song also has some cool older traditions, like Do-Wop.

KB: That “Sha-la-la” was a little bit of a throwback. It immediately reminded me of Fountains of Wayne, too, because they did so much throwback. They’d have direct quotes of Bruce Springsteen or Elton John on their records, little things that if you had listened to the other record, you’d see where they took it from. They didn’t try to hide it.

HMS: Almost like quotes?

KB: In the middle of “Crazy’s Got Its Perks” on this album, there’s a quote from the song “Misirlou”, a North African song. It got revived as a Surf Rock song that was in Pulp Fiction, which made it super famous. The old Folk song is directly what I played on the guitar there, like a sample in Rap music. But in “Extraordinary Goodbye” there are very simplistic lyrics, which does leave it open to interpretation and does make delivery a little more important, too.

HMS: I can imagine that if you are playing this stuff live, that might need to be the last one! That requires a lot of force, vocally.

KB: That’s definitely not the first one. [Laughs] The stamina is needed.

HMS: What about the song, “The River Obeys”? It reminds me almost of Folk Rock or Americana-influenced Rock. It has a lot of classic elements.

KB: It does. For me, it’s kind of a throwback to the open-tuning Led Zeppelin songs. I could hear that in it when we were building it. I pulled up a Zeppelin drumbeat when I was trying to say where I saw the sound going.

HMS: What do you think led to combining that with the river imagery?

KB: Firstly, rivers are very powerful. The chorus and verses are very simple and repetitive, with lines repeated multiple times, which is kind of a Folk tradition from much older music. It’s the kind of stuff you play around a fire pit, so the river seemed like natural imagery and the right combo for it. It’s also a kind of common knowledge concept, though I’ve never heard it put this way, that you can’t control stuff. If you want somebody to listen to what you say, then you tell them what they want to hear anyway.

I love the book The Little Prince, and this is like the King he visits on one of the planets. The King orders the Little Prince to do things, and he wants to leave, btu the King wants him to stay. He says, basically, “If you want me to obey you as a subject, I’m advising you that the conditions are right for you to command me to leave!” I’ve read that book in French a billon times. It’s the same sentiment.

It was inspired by a relationship that I had with a Rock ‘n Roll star in New York City that was uncontrollable. I was just along for the ride. I tried to curb the worse things that he would do, but I knew that I couldn’t. Someone once asked me, “How do you control him?” I just laughed. I didn’t write the song then, but later I thought about that illusion that she had that I was controlling him. That was not at all what was going on. Once when we were at a club, I noticed him getting antsy, which was when he would start to pick fights with people. I saw that and said, “Let’s blow this joint!” Because I knew that’s what he wanted to do. And we left.

HMS: So the illusion of control comes from being able to read the situation a little bit in advance and work with that as best you can. That sounds true to life.

KB: Yes, basically! You also have to listen carefully to other people. There’s a line in the song, “When he looks to do the door, I say, ‘Go!’” That’s literally what that is.

HMS: The speaker in the song sounds powerful in their position, but is that true?  

KB: It’s kind of meant to be the opposite, that they have no control in their position, but it’s like agreeing with your enemy just so that you’re on the same page. The song says the man is like a hurricane, “So I say, ‘Blow my house down!’” Of course, that’s not really how I feel, but if I want to think I’m in control, that’s what to say. The river obeys because I ask it to flow in the direction that it’s already going. And, obviously, a river cannot obey you, that’s impossible. [Laughs]

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