Interview: Donita Sparks
Donita Sparks co-founded the heavy riff-oriented band L7 in 1985. L7 released six studio albums, one live CD, and one greatest hits record. Their 1992 release Bricks Are Heavy was included in Rolling Stone’s list of “Essential Albums of the 1990s”. With their recording career beginning in 1987 and continuing through the ’90s, L7 spawned underground and mainstream hits such as: Shove, Pretend We’re Dead, Shitlist, Andres, and Fuel My Fire.
Touring the world countless times, L7 also graced the main-stage of Lollapalooza in 1994 and appeared in the John Waters movie Serial Mom as the band “Camel Lips”. In 1991 Donita and L7 formed Rock For Choice with the Feminist Majority Foundation which staged numerous concerts benefiting pro-choice organizations.
Recently, Donita along with Kristin Hersh launched CASH Music (Coalition of Artists and Stake Holders). CASH Music is a platform for artists to create a sustainable livelihood and more interaction/exchange with their fans. In addition, Donita contributed to the score of the 2007 feature film The Life of Reilly (starring the late Charles Nelson Reilly). She writes a weekly music column “The Spin I’m In” for the popular, politically progressive blog Firedoglake.com. Donita also created a mash-up of Brazilian rock sensations CSS (vs. L7) in response to the band doing a lively cover of the Sparks’ penned L7 classic Pretend We’re Dead. The mash-up, Pretend We’re Alala, can be heard on L7’s and CSS’s MySpace pages.
We had the honor of sitting down with Donita to discuss her new album, her days with L7, touring with Nirvana, and her business venture with Cash Music. Here’s what she had to say:
You’re no stranger to the music scene, how would you describe your growth musically since L7 in 1987?
I’m expressing my musical tastes more, a wider range of what I actually listen to. When L7 started, I listened to the Mills Brothers as much as I listened to Motorhead, but I expressed the Motorhead side of me. Now I can express pop and softness as well.
When you toured last fall, fans got to hear some of the songs from your upcoming album. Did you notice that they seemed to have a favorite or one that got more of a response?
A lot of them got a really great response… People are really picking up on “Curtains for Cathy”. I think it’s kind of an unexpected thing when they hear us do it. They also like “Fly Feather Fly” which is the first track on the record, and we usually close the set with that. So it’s just kind of this spiritual chant, and the audience just gets caught up in it, which is really cool. I wasn’t really expecting that they would get it like that, but they did.
Do you have a song that you feel is the most personal to you on this album?
Oh god, they’re all really personal [laughs]. Believe it or not, sometimes I mask how personal they are. “Creampuff” is very personal… “My Skin’s Too Thin”… and “Dare Dare” is really personal, and that one I mask really well [laughs].
Does the inspiration for your songs come from personal experiences?
Inspiration comes from all over the place, but initially on this album, I tried to musically not to get super heavy. I preferred to have my rock in an upbeat fashion and my pop in sort of a dark fashion. As far as inspiration, just every day things.
Now you toured with Nirvana back in 94 correct?
I don’t think it was 94, I actually heard that was a misprint. We toured Brazil with them in 93′ and then we played a bunch of shows with them earlier than that in England when we toured with them in 91′ or 90′. Somewhere around then.
What was that experience like?
In 90′ or 91′ it was really great, because they were totally exploding, and it was before they put out “Nevermind”, so it was just on the strength of “Bleach”. They were huge, and we were just getting our feet wet in England. It was our first time over there, and it was their second or third time over there. I had seen Nirvana so many times, and I was lucky enough to be on the side of the stage watching the whole phenomenon happen from when they played just small clubs to when they played Reading Festival or the festivals we played with them in Brazil. It was this weird thing of actually seeing Beatles mania happen. It was pretty cool. We kind of experienced a little of that, but we were on stage so it was hard to take it all in, but watching them from the side of the stage, I could see the whole thing going down. It was truly exciting.
Was there an album that you heard when you were younger that you heard and just knew that you belonged in music, that it was your future?
I don’t know if it inspired me to do music, but it definitely changed the course of my life, and that was Ramones – “Rocket to Russia”.
You also write a weekly column for Firedoglake. What is it that you write about there exactly?
My column is called “The Spin I’m In” and basically I just get to write about pop culture or music or my life… It’s a politically progressive blog. Most of the blogging is about politics, but I get to just be me in my column.
Jane Hampshire, the woman who started Firedoglake, was the producer of Natural Born Killers and she wanted to get more into politics, so she left Hollywood and started Firedoglake. She called me about a year into it and asked me if I wanted to do a playlist. I said,” What if I do a column? And I’ll just write about whatever, do a playlist, and pick out a weird YouTube.”
So yeah, I just kind of get to do my own thing.
I noticed one of your entries on there, you mentioned that your friend is apart of the Academy and gets to vote on the Oscars. I know you mentioned The Diving Bell and the Butterfly as one of your favorites, are there any others that you think are must-see films?
Let’s see… I’ve still got to see American Gangster and Juno, so I don’t know about those, but so far Diving Bell and the Butterfly is the only movie I’ve liked all year. I’m pretty hard to please [laughs].
What do you like to do in your down time? What are your hobbies?
Hanging out with my cats, I think [laughs]… going out to dinner with friends, and just hanging out. I don’t snowboard or anything like. I wish I did, but I don’t. I like seeing a good band, but sometimes they’re hard to find.
What’s your thoughts on today’s music industry?
I think that the majors are crumbling and the indies are struggling, and that’s why I started Cash Music with Kristen Hersh. We’ve cut about the labels completely, and that’s what we want to do now for us. That’s the new business model, connecting directly to the fans, getting support directly from the fans, giving them Creative Commons licensed music, and they can do whatever the hell they want to with it. They can copy it, they can remix it, whatever. They want the music, we want the sustainability, so we’re hoping that the fans are going to directly support us.
What’s next for you now? Any touring plans?
We’re going to Brazil at the end of February, then we have a record release party, then we’re going to South By Southwest, then we going to do a West Coast tour, then we’re going to do a East Coast tour, and then get over to Europe for a month or so. There’s a lot going on. I’m excited. There’s so much to do right now. Because when you don’t have a label, you have to do everything yourself. Getting me to coordinate something is quite the challenge, but it’s cool.
Is it easier cutting out the label and doing it yourself?
With the Internet what it is now, it’s not as difficult as it could have been a few years ago. I think I’m in the right place at the right time with this record. When things went well with the label… they were great. Their distribution was excellent, the press people were great, and everything was very organized. But I found there was a lot of narrow thinking over there; they weren’t very open to new ideas, and that is what has sunk them. There were good things about it, and a lot of not so good things about it. So there they they go, like the Titanic. C’est la vi [laughs].
Be sure to check out Donita Sparks + The Stellar Moments – Transmiticate out now!
Interview By: Emma Loggins