Dirty Mittens is old school. And not just because of its doo-wop-pop sound or lead singer Chelsea Morrisey's Jackson 5-esque vocals. The band has been shaking ass and taking names along the Portland, Ore., indie circuit for five years--with catchy, sax-tinged tunes and Morrisey's big-things-come-in-little-packages falsetto--all without releasing an album.
Until now. Heart of Town, the band's debut full-length, just came out on Magic Marker Records. The album's 12 tracks were recorded over two years--some parts in an abandoned Masonic temple--by Mississippi Studios founder Jim Brunberg. With luminous guests like Laura Gibson and Steve Berlin of Los Lobos, Heart of Town is poised to steal hearts both inside and out of the group's hometown.[ Video is no longer available. ]
Boise Weekly: You guys are releasing your first album ... How does that feel?
Chelsea Morrisey: It feels awesome. It's been a really long time coming. We've been recording this record for almost two years. These are some of the first songs that we ever wrote, and we've been a band for five years ... It's an archive of where we've come and where we're headed.
Tell me a little about the recording process and why it took so long.
We've always done everything ourselves, apart from Magic Marker stepping in now once the record was completed ... we've never really had any support, financially. So when the producer stepped in to do the record and was like, "Hey, I'll do this for free, but it's got to be in my spare time" ... we just made it work the best we could.
In the meantime we improvised ... we worked on our live show and we made sure people remembered us that way. Someone can have a song that they've written in their bedroom and they can be the next best thing and have never, ever played a show. Or someone can have a record that everyone loves and is all over Pitchfork and their live show just fucking blows. I think in an industry like that, we sort of did the opposite.
Since we don't have a record, every fan we've earned, we've earned through word of mouth or through our live performances. There's no blogger telling people to like us ... It's kind of back to the basics of music.
Speaking of your live show, what's your philosophy behind performing? You definitely aren't just phoning it in.
I think I've become a better performer without having any recorded material ... I have 45 minutes to make sure these people remember me because I'm not going to send them home with anything ... I think all my hard work comes down to those very short sets in every city. My idols are people like Robyn and Bjork and Sharon Jones. Those people don't miss a beat ... I think they understand exactly how valuable it is to maximize people's attention.
You guys were just looking for a new drummer. Has there been a fluctuation of members throughout the five years?
We've had a rotating cast and nothing but good blood. But we're a complete, full-time band. So it gets hard for people to commit to tours ... We're still looking for a permanent drummer. Drummers, good ones, are hard to come by. Our music is versatile enough where we can't just pull in any punk drummer. We have dance beats and floor-tom beats and punk beats. We've always been lucky to have great drummers, but we need someone who's great and can also be fully committed.
Do you guys all have full-time jobs?
We all do pretty much have full-time jobs. A couple of us work in bars so "full time" is 20 hours a week.
Has that been part of the difficulty in getting this recording out?
Completely ... I essentially have already quit my day job because I just couldn't balance everything. It's great that Dirty Mittens is taking up so much of my time that I had to quit my day job, but it's also scary. I lost my health insurance ... It was definitely a leap.
Back to the album. You guys recorded part of it in an abandoned Masonic temple?
It's just a great space ... It makes you feel like you're doing something hidden from the world that you can't wait to share ... it's a little more exciting than a conventional studio padded room.
What do you feel like that space particularly added to the sound of the album?
Just the natural reverb. We did almost all of our live tracking there ... When I was singing in that room, I sounded like a 500-pound black woman.
Speaking of the 500-pound black woman vocals, what's your singing background?
I don't really have any. I sang a bunch as a kid. In all honesty, I went to college and I smoked a ton of cigarettes and by the time I moved to Portland my voice was shot. It took me probably four years of singing to generally feel confident. When I first started, my voice was really shaky and there was no power behind it. I've [sung] straight for five years. It's still growing. I still have a long way to go. It's just like any skill or any instrument.
Do you feel like the Portland music community has been pretty supportive of you guys?
Yeah, they have. I think more so than you realize on the day-to-day. You kind of take it for granted because with so many bands, it can be a little competitive for artists ... And then there are moments where all of the Starfucker guys will be at one of our shows ... I think ultimately everyone has been really supportive.
What's on the horizon?
Just a lot of touring ... We're going to try to put out a new EP immediately, because this record did take a while. We have a bunch of new material we want to get out there.