For the over 20 years, Brett (Donna A) Anderson fronted the hard rock band The Donnas. From high school quad performances to tours that took them all over the world and back, Brett Anderson was on the front line for it all. She lived the dream and loved every minute of it. In 2012, The Donnas announced that they were going on an indefinite hiatus which left their fans saddened but grateful for an amazing legacy of fun, carefree, hard rock albums such as Bitchin’, Gold Medal, Turn 21, and Get Skintight.
These days, Brett Anderson is still pursuing her musical passions with her new band The Stripminers as well as attending Stanford University where she is majoring in psychology. I was absolutely ecstatic when Brett agreed to take some time out of her very busy schedule to do an interview with me. It was without a doubt one of the most fun (and funny) interviews I’ve done to date. Brett and I talked about her time in the Donnas, her latest band The Stripminers, who would play her in a movie about her life, and how she’d love to sing for AC/DC. This was such a fun interview and I can’t think of a better one to close out 2016! Enjoy this one.
Brett, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me today.
Thanks for having me, Don.
So I heard you’re in school these days. That’s quite a transition from touring rock start to student. What made you decided to go back to school?
It’s really very different. The Donnas’ last big tour was with Blondie and Pat Benatar and that was in 2009. The economy and the music industry hadn’t been doing well for a while and things were just slowing down for us. We were all just kind of looking around for other stuff to do and I just started taking classes at the community college. We always said we were going to go back to school once our tour was over. We just didn’t know it would take 14 years.
What are you studying?
I’m studying psychology. It took about four years to do my first two years [laughs]. We all went to a semester of college before we went on our first tour because we figured that the odds of it working out were pretty low. We figured, “Let’s go to school and if it doesn’t work out at least we have something to fall back on.” I went to Berkeley in ’97 for a semester and then we went on tour for 14 years and then I took about 4 years of classes at LACC, a community college in Los Angeles. I’m now in the middle of my first quarter at Stanford.
I first heard the Donnas back in 2001 when I first heard Turn 21. Does it blow your mind to think that album was released 15 years ago?
Totally. The whole thing about people worrying about getting old and people really identifying with a certain age is so ridiculous to me. Our age is constantly changing at every instant. I don’t know about you but every time I have imagined an age and what I was going to feel like at that age, when I reached that age I never felt like what I thought I was going to feel like [laughs].
When I turned 21, I was living with my folks, working a shitty fast food job, and sitting at a bar going, “Is this how it’s going to be? I’m dreading 40.” Now that I’m in my 40’s, I fucking love it and it’s been some of my best years!
[laughs] Isn’t it crazy? I’m so happy for you and I don’t doubt it. You have more autonomy over your life, and you have a much better idea of what’s going on.
Honestly, I hated being a kid and I couldn’t wait to be a grown up.
Yeah! I feel sort of both ways. Sometimes I feel like when I was younger, I was super excited to grow up and be an adult but now, as an adult, you can be a kid if you want to be and just tap into that. I’ve been doing observations for school at a nursery school so for a couple of hours I hang out with kids and its fun and awesome but then I’m out.
Has doing that changed your perspective on if you ever thought you’d be a parent?
You know, it’s complicated because growing up in America as a female you just always picture yourself with kids whether you want them or not. When people ask me “Did you ever want kids?” I just say, “I don’t know. I grew up in America. I have an idea in my head but I don’t know if that’s my idea.”
So with that being said, this is probably not where you pictured yourself being.
Oh it’s a complete parallel, not an intersection. I never would have predicted this in a million years but I’m stoked that this is what I’m doing. Of course I would’ve loved for the Donnas to have kept growing and growing. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the industry and music in general and all the reasons that may or may not have happened. I had big dreams. We all had really big dreams for The Donnas and I think we did a lot of amazing stuff. I could see us having gone a lot farther but there was just a combination of a lot of things working against us.
When we released our 2nd album on Atlantic, it shipped on a Tuesday and Tuesday around 10am they started coming back because they were defective. The last 30 seconds of the last song wasn’t there. This totally messed up our sales which also messed up our radio and it really made the record nose dive compared to what it could’ve done.
Looking back on your time in The Donnas, is there anything that you wish you would’ve done differently?
I’m happy with my role. I think well did everything that we could. One thing that I’m really happy with that I can sleep soundly over is knowing that the four of us really made it a priority. We all agreed to make this our number one and only thing. We put everything aside for this.
One of the things I remember loving so much about The Donnas was that here was this band of women, totally sexualizing men which I thought was awesome. It was like you were the female Poison!
[laughs] Oh yeah, we turned the tables a lot and that was really fun to do. Instead of writing songs about empowerment, we just sort of took on the role and made music like the bands we liked. Some were female, some were not.
When you guys put out Bitchin’ you released it on your own label and I remember thinking that The Donnas totally did it on their own terms. Do you feel the same way?
Absolutely. One thing that was really fun about making that record was that we just didn’t have any boundaries. I pretty much said that I would sing anything and just let it all fall to the wayside. We took lyrical risks and musical risks that we wouldn’t have been able to take before.
I love hearing this because even though there were aspects of Gold Medal (the album before Bitchin’) that I loved, parts of it just felt restrained to me at times where as with Bitchin’, it just felt like you all said fuck it and just went for it.
The Donnas were said to be recording a new album but then all of the sudden there was radio silence. What’s up with that?
Yeah, actually, we were pretty far into the next record and that was another batch of themes and a departure from what we had done before which was really cool. I don’t know. I think that after 20 years, the combination of factors put together, the atmosphere, and the environment that we were working in just wasn’t great. Early in our career, everything had a momentum and it just got to this point where that momentum, while it was self fueled, things just seemed to be spaced further apart.
Since the Donnas, especially in the hard rock/metal community, there’s been quite an uprising of female fronted acts breaking through. Do you ever at times think that maybe you guys were a bit early in the game?
That’s interesting. What’s funny is that I haven’t seen that from my perspective. I do feel like that when we started in 1993, there were a ton of girl bands. Babes in Toyland, L7, female bands on MTV but now I feel like they are few and far between. I think there are a lot of women in music but I think with the harder stuff it’s sort of hard to find.
How would you rate the Donnas album from your favorite to least favorite?
Oh wow. Obviously I can’t choose my least favorite because they’re all like my kids. That would be like saying I didn’t like that kid, he was kind of a dud [laughs].
Ok, so which kids gets a little less cereal in their bowl?
[laughs] Well, while I agree with you that Gold Metal was a bit restrained, I really just loved the making of that record and the way it all came together and the way it felt to play those songs on stage. At the time I was listening to a lot of PJ Harvey so the making of that record.
Actually, one of my all time favorite Donnas songs, “Revolver” came off that record.
Oh that is so cool. Thank you. I was so excited for that song because it felt like a totally different side that I was able to come from. I’d say my 2nd favorite was Bitchin because we were able to really go to the limit with that one. One thing I did on that record was in order to get down what you wanted to hear on a recording you have to kind of exaggerate a little bit. I never really did that before. In the studio I would usually sing exactly what I wanted to sing exactly how I wanted to hear it but in playback it would always be a little bit less. Then I realized, you have to go a little bit overboard. People have known this for years but I was just figuring it. We would always do a safe take and then I do progressively crazier and crazier takes until I got to the point where it was just too much and not working. It was always about finding that limit.
I’d love to hear those tracks. You should put those out!
[laughs] Yeah, those are the ones where it got hard to maintain the melody or keep all the lyrics happening [laughs]. It was just ridiculous. It was cool because I just felt a bit more confident and had so much support from the band. I was able to just go overboard with them and not worry about what they were going to think about it. We all just had a common goal and that was to find the limit.
So what about the other albums? How do those rank?
That’s so funny because all I can think about are those last two [laughs]. Let’s see. So there’s Skintight, Rock N’ Roll Machine, and the black and white one. We were such goons too on the back cover of that one by the lockers [laughs]. They all kind of converge at that point for me. That one was more Ramones like. Rock N’ Roll Machine was when we really kind of blended our two bands together, The Electrocutes and The Donnas. We were doing both bands at the same time so that album merged the two bands. It had a lot of Motley Crue influence in it so that one’s exciting for that reason. Skintight and Turn 21. That was an interesting transition because that was the Lookout Records years. Those albums became a cohesive sound.
When you guys put out Spend the Night, it just blew me away. It was so tight and it really sounded like a band that had cut their teeth on the road.
Thank you. Yeah, that’s what happened. We had toured a ton by then and kind of worked out a lot of the kinks by then. I love that record. From the album cover to the videos it was all just super fun to make. We kind of had a narrative going on with that album and that was really fun.
Do you think there will be some closure for The Donnas and their fans with maybe a farewell tour or something?
I’m sure people have considered and talked about it. I don’t know. Closure is a strange thing. Do reunion tours give people closure [laughs]?
See this is where the psychology comes in. Does it give people closure or is it the opening of a new door?
[laughs] Totally. I don’t know. If it made sense where we all wanted to do it and were able to do it then I don’t see why not. I just don’t know what it would be.
So now here we are and you have a new band called The Stripminers. This is a significantly different thing that what you did with the Donnas. Was this another side of you that you just felt like you needed to artistically do?
It was all pretty organic the way it evolved. I just ran into a friend from San Francisco at a coffee shop in LA and he told me that he needed a female voice on a recording with this band that he was working with. It turned out to be a band called The Sugar Knives with Paul Stinson. It was really fun. I sang on two songs and they were making a video so I was in the video with them. During making a video there’s a lot of downtime to sit around and talk so we were just talking more about music and things we hadn’t tried in other bands. We ended up just sending each other songs back and forth and then went into the studio for three days and cut the first Stripminers record.
Did you guys cut the first two records at the same time because you had two records come out in the same year?
No, those were different sessions.
I’ll be honest, when I listened to the first two albums, they didn’t quite click with me but this latest one really struck a nerve with me. Was this a natural progression into this dark, rootsy kind of psych country stuff?
Well, we changed the way we wrote songs for this record. Paul and I would always send ideas back and forth to each other but for this one, we actually did a lot of writing in the studio. I have a big book of lyrics that I can flip through so we would started putting parts together and then we would put them to a melody and then I would just sing on it. With us all in the same room, there was a more creative momentum. Things can sort of grow exponentially when you’re all together.
What were some of the musical influences that tugged you into this creative direction?
As a band, there is a lot of desert/country/dark in the actual environment in this band. We’ve played at Joshua Tree a lot. That’s just kind of a big part of the vibe in the first place. Even on the first record, there was a kind of folky feeling but there was a dark turn to it.
What can you tell me about the song “Meet My Maker with My Best Dress On.” This song really blew me away.
Oh wow. Thank you! Yeah, actually, I like to sift for gold with lyrics. I’ll write a bunch of stuff in a bunch of journals and then I’ll go through them all and consolidate them into a list of things I really like. I love doing that and one of the lines I came up with was “I want to meet my maker with my best dress on.” The idea is that you’re just facing the opposition and you’ve got to bring it all. I just love that image and the feeling of just squaring up and saying, “This is what I’ve got.” Also, the line, “Cold as an Ohlone August…” is a line that I came up with from that old saying, “The coldest winter I ever spent was summer in San Francisco.” The Ohlone tribe is the native people who lived in the Bay Area so instead of saying San Francisco summer, I just said Ohlone August.
How is the creative process in the Stripminers different from The Donnas?
It’s just different. In the Donnas were just such old friends so we would get together and have snacks and just write songs. There’s a lot more email involved in the Stripminers [laughs].
That’s funny because when the Donnas were coming up, email was still a pretty new thing!
[laughs] Isn’t that weird? Talk about it being a long time ago. When The Donnas first started, we had a PO Box for fan mail and I used to answer a lot of it by hand [laughs]. It’s interesting thinking about the process with the Stripminers though because we’ve had sort of two eras that just blended together. Originally it was this long distance thing and then we’d get into the studio and just put the songs down. Now, we’ve really had the chance to develop the songs together in the studio which was super fun.
Any plans to tour in 2017 at all? What are my chances of seeing a Stripminers show here?
[laughs] We did SXSW, San Francisco, and LA but aside from that I’m not sure. Everyone is so busy with other projects. It’s difficult when you get a lot of talented people together. It’s awesome because the product is amazing but it’s difficult to get everyone to be able to set aside the time to tour. Atlanta would be one of the places that I would want to go. It’s historically been one of my favorite cities to play in.
What was the defining moment when young Brett realized she wanted to be a singer?
You know what? I never had that moment [laughs]. In fact, I remember writing in my journal when I was a kid the two things I never wanted to be was a hairdresser or a singer [laughs]. Not because I had no interest in it but because it sounded so hard and if you mess up it’s so obvious. It just seemed ridiculously hard and ridiculously exposed. I do have a big mouth and a big voice with a lot to say so it turned out to be a really good job for that. I don’t know what I would’ve done if I didn’t have that outlet. I would’ve been very difficult. I honestly never felt like I was a good singer but one thing I really did begin to enjoy further down the line was doing harmonies with my own recordings. On my new project that I just did with my friend Brian Dobbs we have some really interesting chord progressions and harmonies and that’s been really fun to play with. That’s the way I feel like I can use my voice like an instrument and not think about whether it’s a good voice or a bad voice but that it’s an instrument.
Can you tell me a little more about this new project or is it super top secret?
Oh yeah. The idea behind the songs is that they’re really pretty but the lyrics are a kind of twist of the knife that you’re not really expecting. It’s a little twisted and it’s inspired by Angelo Badalamenti from the Twin Peaks soundtrack. Tragic, dark, a little bit of jazz, a little bit like a soundtrack vibe because I really love how music adds to picture. That will be coming out soon. I think I might release it one song at a time and then you can get them all together once they’re all out. I’d love to see it get into some film or TV because I feel like that’s kind of the most exciting area right now for music. I was watching Orange is the New Black and that Regina Spektor song made me jealous for a second because I wanted us to do that. I thought it was cool that she did that and it kind of sets the tone for that show.
That is so true. I can’t tell you how many times my wife and I will be watching a show and I say, “I have to find out who sings this song.”
I know right? It’s so mutually beneficial for the artist and for the show. I mean, where are people getting their music from today? There’s no central thing like MTV anymore. TV right now is like the new radio and music supervisors are going to great lengths to find things that fit really well and that are even obscure. That, to me, is a really exciting area. I also feel that Stripminers would be really good for soundtrack stuff too. That’s something I’m really hoping for these records in place of the traditional touring we would’ve done 10 or 20 years ago, I feel like that could be a really good outlet for those songs. I think they have a really good cinematic quality to them.
Speaking of TV, what’s been on your binge watching list lately?
[laughs] Black Mirror! My God that show is so crazy. I don’t like sleeping at night so I don’t have to worry about that anymore [laughs]. It’s so disturbing but it’s really good. Obviously Game of Thrones. House of Cards.
If you could sing for any band for just one night, who would it be and why?
You know, I would love to sing with Nick Cave and Warren Ellis on violin. I mean, I don’t know if I would be physically capable because he’s such a force but I think it would be amazing. The music they make together is just so amazing. Another one would have to be AC/DC.
Oh shit. You would’ve done a better job than Axl.
[laughs] That’s so funny. One of my friends that I’m recording with is obsessed with Axl Rose so he’s been going to all those shows [laughs]. I was going to go but I would’ve felt like a rubbernecker. I loved him and it’s cool what he’s doing but I worry about him. It didn’t feel like I would be going in a supportive way. It would’ve been a more voyeuristic way and I didn’t want to approach it in that way.
If Hollywood made a movie about you, who would play you?
[laughs] My first thought was Meatloaf. [laughs] Like I can picture him just playing it off completely and not acknowledging that he’s not a teenage girl [laughs].
I have been asking that question in interviews for years and that is by far the best answer anyone has ever given me.
[laughs] Yeah, it would have to be Meatloaf.
If you could describe yourself with one Donnas’ song title, what would it be?
That’s funny. “It Takes One to Know One.” I saw someone one Facebook say that that had been their election anthem and it made me so happy [laughs].
Finish this sentence: If I wasn’t a musician at all, I would be __________________.
I’d be chained to an old, gross redwood tree probably [laughs]. I just think that might have been the 2nd best use of my time and energy. Obviously that’s not true because I am pursuing another career so the true answer would be I’d be a student studying Psychology at Stanford but if the Donnas hadn’t happened and I had continued on and Berkeley I’d probably be a militant activist.
Brett, this was such a fun interview. Thank you so much for taking the time out to do this with me.
Oh, that’s awesome. Thank you so much. I really enjoyed it too.
For more on The Stripminers, head over to https://www.facebook.com/Stripminers/