For most of her life, Dorthia Cottrell has been the lone woman at the headbanger’s ball.
As the lead singer for local metal band Windhand, Cottrell’s bewitching, reverb-soaked vocals helped that group emerge from the pack with national critical acclaim and steady touring during the last few years, including to Europe and Australia.
Next week she’s releasing her self-titled solo debut, a starkly personal collection of acoustic songs that fall somewhere between languid Southern gothic folk and old-school country. Many are hardscrabble, desolate songs told from a strong woman’s perspective — sort of a mixture of Lucinda Williams’ grit and Cat Power’s ravaged, soulful blues. Instead of doom-metal riffs, her quietly fingerpicked guitar-playing anchors the heartfelt vocals, which sound more world-weary than most 29-year-olds.
“I’m a bad guitar player. Everything is in dropped D tuning, and I use my claw technique,” she says. “It’s a way I hold my hand so I can make any note major or minor by just moving a finger.”
Cottrell has an intense gaze, but her face melts easily into a smile. Today she’s come to Mojo’s from her day job taking care of John Downing, the owner of local club Strange Matter, who has spinal muscular atrophy. “A lot of local musicians work for him,” she says. “He’s funny. He told me to tell you he was my muse.”
Cottrell grew up in a musical family in King George County (“a mixture of country people and Navy brats” she says), playing clarinet in the school band. When she goes back home she still jams with her dad’s classic rock band and indulges her mother’s “obsession” with karaoke.
Cottrell explains that she was always into heavy music, but it was exclusively a boy’s club, so she began writing her own songs at 13. Early influences included Layne Staley of Alice in Chains; you can still hear some of that ’90s grunge influence in her vulnerable delivery.
She moved to Richmond to study English at Virginia Commonwealth University but didn’t get to finish her degree.
“There was this Craigslist ad for a band. My boyfriend at the time kept saying he was going to audition but he would never go,” Cottrell says, finishing her Bloody Mary. “So I sent some songs and was like, fuck it, and I went.”
The band members liked what they heard and Cottrell became the focal point of the group, swaying beneath crushing waves of stoner metal. After two albums with Windhand and some solo shows, she decided it was time to record her old songs. She says her bandmates have been supportive, as have Windhand fans across the country.
“I chose the songs chronologically by going back to some of the earliest, like ‘Gold,’ which I wrote when I was 18 for a close friend who died,” she says. Other highlights such as “Oak Grove” show her straight-shooting, somewhat dark lyrical style (“God is not my problem / and my flesh is weak / I’m the kind of girl who needs a devil in a man to satisfy me”), and the beautiful ballad, “Maybe It’s True” (“maybe I’ll just never be that take home kind of girl … maybe I’m just hard up for that sun down kind of world”).
Released by local Forcefield Records, the album was recorded within the last year at Snake Oil Recording in Manchester. Kevin Wade Inge is the only other musician, adding pedal steel and a guitar converted to sound like a sitar. Producer Daniel Deckelman says Cottrell probably is one of the most gifted singer-songwriters working in Richmond.
“The only thing that was made clear to me was that I should not be afraid of the reverb — that’s kind of her trademark,” Deckelman says. “I’m very proud of this record. It maintains good continuity by nature of her writing, voice and delivery. And there’s a definite mood and vibe.”
On the record, Cottrell was able to explore influences such as the old-school country her parents played while she was growing up. It’s a musical genre she listens to now more than the heavier stuff, she says. “Hank Williams, Waylon Jennings, Patsy Cline — I think they’re helping me with control over my voice,” she continues. “They had better control, were quieter and I like that you can hear their breaths.”
On her album she pulls off gorgeous covers of classics by Townes Van Zandt (“Rake”) and Gram Parsons (“Song for You”) — tunes she played in the van before Windhand shows to warm up and relax. “I call them my breathing songs because I can play them without thinking,” she says.
Since Cottrell began making noise with Windhand, more doom-metal bands have added female singers. It will be interesting to see whether her solo work, already being praised online at NPR and Stereogum, might help inspire other women singers in metal to explore genres, as she and others have been doing with dark Americana.
Windhand will record its third album in Seattle on March 3, with noted Nirvana producer Jack Endino. As for Cottrell’s solo career, she says she has enough written to record two more albums. “I’m ready to do more,” she says. “Next time I might record them all live.”
She’ll have to continue to juggle her own dates with heavy Windhand touring but says she likes it that way. The key is to keep moving, she says: “I don’t like to stick around one place too long. I just get depressed.” S
Dorthia Cottrell plays with Divine Circles and Lunar Creature, Gardener and Dave Watkins at Strange Matter on Sunday, March 22. The show starts at 10 p.m. and tickets cost $7.