Pop history suggests that husband and wife singer-songwriter teams tend to have far from enviable relationships. While they were amusing to watch, there was about as much sexual chemistry between Sonny and Cher as a Saturday morning cartoon. Arcade Fire’s main vocalists, the married Win Butler and Régine Chassagne, have made extraordinary indie rock in their two-disc career, but when they sing together you imagine their social life to be as much fun as a Chekhov novel. For every romantic June Carter and Johnny Cash, there are love stories à la Ike and Tina Turner and Courtney Love and Kurt Cobain with enough issues to make musicians swear off dating one another for good.
Martina Sorbara and Dan Kurtz of the Canadian electropop group Dragonette, on the other hand, are lucky enough to have the type of passionate bond that translates well from real life to on-record. Ever since their first album, Galore, was released by Universal Music Canada in 2007, the happily married twosome has been giving fans a peek into their relationship, war wounds and all, via their music. Their debut album’s vampy first single, I Get Around, may extol the glories of a one-night stand but it was their successful second and third singles Take It Like A Man and Competition from Galore that really put a magnifying glass to Kurtz’s and Sorbara’s private life. It’s a formula that has made Björk a supporter of the band, moved Kanye West to blog about them and prompted Cyndi Lauper, who has written and recorded with the pair, to crown Dragonette “the future of pop music.”
For those who haven’t yet caught up with the group or haven’t a clue about their history, two things may come as a surprise. 1) Martina, 30, is the daughter of Greg Sorbara, former minister of finance for Ontario and a current Liberal MPP for the province, and 2) Galore was named one of the best albums of the year in 2007 by the fickle pop music website, Popjustice, which helped the band get a Juno nomination the following year.
Sitting in the rooftop bar at Toronto’s Park Hyatt hotel on an evening in June, the day after West devoted a post to them on his website, Sorbara and Kurtz attempt to explain themselves. “We’re definitely not the same group that we were when we opened up for Scissor Sisters, New Order and Duran Duran [in 2005], ” Kurtz begins, eager to explain the thinking behind their upcoming sophomore album, Fixin To Thrill (to be released Sept. 29). Before Kurtz finishes his thought, though, he is interrupted by his wife, who blurts out, “What he means is we’re a lot tougher and more aggressive.” She throws her fist into his shoulder for effect.
“I feel like Galore was the pretty album,” she continues, speaking in an endearingly high voice while locking eyes with Kurtz. “It was girly and feminine and sweet. For Fixin To Thrill, I’ve cut my hair really short, de-censored myself, stopped taking advice on how to write the quote-unquote universal pop song and now . . .” she breathes before finishing, “it sounds like a tomboy wearing high heels—it’s much more us.”
The “us” Sorbara is talking about is drummer Joel Stouffer and guitarist Chris Huggett as well as Kurtz, yet it’s easy to understand why the group is often mistaken for a duo. Watching Sorbara and Kurtz (who acts as the band’s leader and producer) flirt with each other on stage, argue passionately in interviews and then harmonize in the studio, the magnetism is powerful. Then there’s the frankness of personality-driven tracks such as True Believer (from Galore) and Stupid Grin (from Fixin To Thrill). It all explains why Dragonette sticks out in a sea of slick media-trained pop groups.
“When you listen closely to our lyrics, you find out way too much about me and Martina,” says the 37-year-old Kurtz, who is known in the Canadian music scene as one of the founding members of acclaimed live electronic band the New Deal. Before forming Dragonette with Sorbara, Kurtz produced Feist’s first album, Monarch, and co-produced Sarah Slean’s bestselling disc to date, Day One. “I may have a bias as her husband, but out of all the women I’ve worked with, I believe she has the potential to reach the same type of success as Alanis or Sarah McLachlan—she has an innate, sometimes brutal sense of honesty.”
The pair weren’t on totally honest ground when they first met, at a music festival more than seven years ago. Kurtz was already in a long-term relationship with someone when he began an affair with Sorbara—then an acoustic-guitar-wielding folkster who made what she now refers to as “tampon music.” The result of their liaison was an ugly breakup, a fast marriage (“we were so in a rush to make it official,” says Kurtz), and a campy Sorbara-penned single called Competition with the lyrics: “Your girlfriend’s got competition / goodness I like this / being your mistress.”
“Our new songs such as Pick Up The Phone and Stupid Grin are much more indicative of our [six-year] marriage,” Kurtz explains. “We like to think of our music as free couples’ therapy. It’s a time where you love and hate your partner at the same time so your feelings become more complicated. We make sure that all goes into our work.”
Sorbara says she sees a need for meaty pop songs that come from “real life rather than a team of hit producers.” In fact, when Sorbara is asked to remark on a recent comment posting on YouTube—“when I hear [Dragonette] play live, I feel like I am in a threesome with them”—she lights up. “That makes me feel good because I don’t write fiction, and I do think part of a good show is giving the crowd that kind of intensity and intimacy,” she says. “I prefer [listeners] to know about my life rather than backward, boring messages like Beyoncé’s Put A Ring On It. It’s a song I love to listen to but I hate the lyrics. I’m also really impressed by Lady Gaga, but I wish she had smarter lines than ‘I want to take a ride on your disco stick.’ ”
Comments like these can make Sorbara come off as the electro music scene’s answer to Camille Paglia. Her appearance—a cross between Joan of Arc and a young Isabella Rossellini—drives the message home loud and clear: Sorbara is fatigued by all the Pussycat Dolls-style pop on the charts and wants to do something about it. “Pop like that reminds me of movies like He’s Just Not That Into You and Sex and the City,” she says, “films where women are running around town like chickens with their heads cut off trying to get a man. I want to offer the antithesis to that.”
On Fixin To Thrill, Sorbara’s voice is anything but weak. “Thinking for myself / I’ll be the only one,” she sings in Easy, poking fun at the tired notion of the traditional pop diva. “I am a feminist and think women in pop music don’t all have to be these clean prima donna princesses or cheesy sexpots,” she offers. “I can be glamorous and still keep my armpit hair. As the art director and the stylist for Dragonette, I have to make sure our image is raw and means something, just like our music, or what’s the point?”
A perfect example of Sorbara’s progressive point of view is reflected in one of Dragonette’s B-sides from Fixin To Thrill—a track called My Things that touches on her and Kurtz’s wicked sense of humour. The chorus includes the line “get your titties off my things.” It’s a song Sorbara says was written as a lighthearted warning. “It’s about all these groupies lusting over guys with guitars. I am playfully singing to all those girls offering their [breasts] to Dan when we are on tour. Believe me, I have seen a lot of those hussies!” she laughs. “It’s hardly scandalous compared to Shakira or Rihanna’s songs. I’m just taking ownership of my relationship.”
When asked if her father has heard the song (an article in the Globe and Mail in 2007 reported he had implored Martina not to use the “T” word in interviews anymore), Sorbara shakes her head and offers up a theory. “At this point my parents have come to expect the unexpected with me. I hope he thinks the song is kind of smart because it’s so macho. I’m turning the tables here. It may not be his style of music but I think they’d both chuckle,” she says. “I mean, I grew up creating handmade guitars in a hippie community in the mountains in Winlaw, B.C., and on a farm outside of Toronto, so what do you expect?”
Sorbara’s fierce way of communicating seems to be getting attention. She’s currently working on a song for Leona Lewis’s new album, and was asked to collaborate on a track with Parisian dance DJ Martin Solveig for Jean Paul Gaultier’s newest fragrance Ma Dame. In the video for the dance track, Sorbara shares screen time with the legendary French designer, who had her styled in his latest fall/winter collection. “It made sense for us,” she says. “Gaultier’s aesthetic suits me. His view of women is very powerful and the opposite of demure.”
As for the pair’s future plans, Dragonette is “not looking for world domination,” Sorbara jokes. “I just want me and Dan to be able to continue to make pop music that’s subversive and tour the world together like we are still on a honeymoon.”