“Our albums have always come from a true place,” says Martina Sorbara, frontwoman of the electro-pop group Dragonette. From the slinky, casual-sex crunch of their debut single “I Get Around” to the levitating flirtation of “Hello,” much of Dragonette’s allure comes from Martina’s tales of female wiles, percolating chemistry, and her ability to distill fleeting emotions into vibrant rushes of expression. All of this has culminated in Royal Blues, her fourth album with her bandmates, producer/multi-instrumentalist Dan Kurtz and drummer Joel Stouffer—arguably Dragonette’s most transcendent release to date.
On its surface, Royal Blues is a breakup album. But it’s also an autobiographical work documenting a remarkable evolution in the band. “With every album, we’ve learned new skills. That’s growth, us changing over the years.” Martina explains. “This album happens to be one of them.” Much of this can be attributed to her separation from Dan, her husband, which wholly challenged both the way they worked together and the tone of their compositions. In Royal Blues’ levitating first single, “Sweet Poison,” for instance, you can feel a meaningful shift towards wistfulness. The track, like the bulk of Royal Blues’ songs, is intriguingly nuanced, falling somewhere between heartache and hopefulness.
The ebbs and flow of life have always impacted Dragonette. The group came to life a little more than a decade ago, when Toronto natives Martina and Dan met each other at a folk festival. They formed a band, married, met Joel, and moved to London. This union was irresistible, with “I Get Around,” from their debut album Galore, charting both in the U.K. and North America. Most of their music, including their follow-ups Fixing to Thrill and Bodyparts (both landing on the Top 25 dance albums chart in the U.S.) chronicled their fertile partnership. By the time Martina and Dan collaborated with Martin Solveig on the global hit “Hello,” omnipresent on TV shows such as Gossip Girl and Vampire Diaries, they had been nominated for three Juno awards (winning one) and had collaborated with everyone from Basement Jaxx to Kaskade.
This hard-earned level of success was something they couldn’t just walk away from when they split. In truth, they needed each other artistically. Previously, the couple would wake up in the same Toronto house (they’d moved back to Canada from England in 2012) and stumble into their home studio to collaborate. However, with Royal Blues, “We had to be creative together in a new context, because the alternative was much more painful,” she says. “And I knew that writing was going to keep me sane. So fundamentally, we changed our process.” Initially, she admits, it wasn’t easy, “but being in a band with your significant other—that’s also weird.”
The first song they penned was the mid-tempo title track. “We wanted to make more dark-sounding music,” she notes. “I think the song got us out of the question of, ‘Can we do this’?” It set the album’s introspective tone, influencing other tracks such as “Sweet Poison,” produced by Toronto Electronic whiz La+ch and U.K. pop maestro Matt Schwartz. The latter was written when Martina took off to London for two months. “I was like Bambi on the ice, trying to get up,” she admits. “Then I met Matt Schwartz.” The producer-DJ (Massive Attack, Kylie Minogue), “taught me how to be vulnerable, to walk into a room and let anything happen musically.”
This began with the assertive, thumping “Darth Vader.” “We were writing, and he just started jumping up and down, chanting ‘Darth-Darth-Darth Vader!’ I was like, ‘What are you saying? That’s embarrassing, dude,’” she recalls, laughing. “Then I was like, ‘Wait a minute. That’s the best lyric idea ever!’” In spirit, the track is the sound of Martina gaining confidence. “Like, strapping on the biggest set of balls I could find, and going in and getting what I want,” she says.
Martina and Matt then handed the song to Dan, who responded in kind. “He just produced the hell out of it,” she says, admirably. This process would work for them throughout the making of Royal Blues. Martina worked between London, Toronto, and L.A, while Dan mostly worked out of London and Toronto. Collaborating from afar, they crafted weighty songs that swelled into escapist, instrumental hooks in songs such as “Love Can’t Touch Me Now,” “Save My Neck” (produced by La+ch), “Secret Stash” (produced by Mike Mago).
Despite the distance, they traveled to a very similar emotional place. “I think Dan connected with ‘Body 2 Body’ as well. It was what we were living,” Martina says of the grooved-based track she wrote with SDTRK. “I didn’t know about the ambiguity that happens after a breakup. The cycle of loving somebody, missing them, then being like, ‘Wait. This is not what we’re doing.’”
Their story arc, if you will, came full circle with Royal Blues’ opener, “Let the Night Fall.” A sunny, life-affirming cut, Dragonette actually started writing it five-plus years ago. “We’ve always loved it, but we never nailed it,” she says. “But we talked about revisiting it all the time.” This time, they had nothing to lose and were empowered by breaking down creative boundaries.
“I think the breakup is a doorway. We both saw new versions of ourselves,” Martina says. “We also saw new versions of the world that are both sad and beautiful.” This acceptance of change carries on to their live shows, too. “Whatever has happened personally in the band, Dragonette is a rock-steady family,” she continues. “Our little traveling circus is in some ways the most comforting feeling of ‘home’ we have. Once we settle into the groove of tour, it’s hard to imagine being anywhere else.”
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