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In the Davis Credo, Heaven Is a Hit Record

December 17, 1987|CHRIS WILLMAN

Martha Davis, formerly the front-woman of the now-disbanded L.A. rock group the Motels, has a choir-accompanied ballad on her new solo debut album that looks, sounds, smells and feels like a gospel song--except for a couple of key lines.

"I have this feeling that when people listen to the song 'Heaven Outside My Front Door,' and see my new haircut, they're gonna think I'm 'born again,' " says Davis, newly shorn and newly thin, laughing at the thought of her conversion.

"I know they will. That's why I have that all-important second line: 'Chances are God lives in heaven / Chances are I'll go to hell.' "

Davis does have a bit of feistiness left in her.

And it seems important to the singer-songwriter that those insubordinate tendencies show through as often as possible, especially when the popular image of her nowadays is of a one-time wildcat who's mellowed into a pussycat.

Fronting the ragged Motels on the L.A. club circuit in the late '70s, Davis played the part of a dangerous, emotionally desperate woman on the romantic lam for all the psychodrama it was worth. But with personnel changes and producer changes, the Motels grew notoriously slicker and less adventurous as their chart chances increased. And now "Policy," her first solo album, represents the culmination of that trend toward smoother sailing.

Davis admits it: She wants hit records.

"There is a certain amount of commercialism I want to achieve," says an earnest Davis--who makes her live debut as a solo artist at the Coach House on Friday, followed by shows at the Bacchanal in San Diego on Monday and the Roxy on Tuesday.

"I've got to make a commercial album pretty soon, or I'm gonna be out looking for windows to wash! That's cold, hard reality.

"A long time ago I decided I didn't want to be a cult artist, because I want people to hear my music. I'm not the only one. You see X getting a little more polished down the road, you know. . . .

"I've been making records for eight years now and I think I've gotten better as a musician. I demand more finesse. I demand more slickness. It seems like anything else would be backwards."

The verdict is still out on whether she'll reach the mass audience she's going for with this album; her self-proclaimed "finesse" may have alienated too many leftover Motels fans without picking up enough new ones. Thus far, "Policy" has been something of a stiff in its two months out, failing to get near the Top 100 of the album chart; the single "Don't Tell Me the Time" is slipping after making it to a lackluster No. 80.

Most of the record follows further in the less harrowing footsteps of the updated, accessible Motels sound that began with the gold album "All Four One" in 1982.

That hit record, ironically, may have spelled the beginning of the end for the Motels, Davis admits. Producer Val Garay hired studio players to replace band members on many of the sessions for that album and its follow-up.

"I don't know if the Motels ever really recovered from that," Davis muses now, adding that some group members remained "shell-shocked" around a recording studio right up to the very end.

Her current solo album, she explains, "was a Motels album all year long, until we were two weeks into the studio. I had pins made up that said 'Motels Rule '87.' I was totally into it.

"But by then, I was doing all the arrangements, doing everything," says Davis, visibly still uncomfortable when discussing the split. "It's too hard to point a finger or say specifically what happened in a situation like that. Maybe it was just time. It's so hard to talk about because, basically, I love all those guys a lot and we had the best eight years that any band could have."

On day two in the studio, Davis was singing along with the track for "Just Like You," a song about a lover who's an almost unrecognizable ghost of his former self, when she broke down. "I burst out into tears because in this context, 'Just Like You' became awfully appropriate. And I just went screaming out of the studio.

"The next day I came back and told them all one by one, as they would drift into the studio--and that was it. And Monday I went back to work."

The result is a very "up," even cheerful-sounding album, though Davis is quick to point out that all the lyrics save one are in the bleak mode her material has always tended toward.

"Happy songs are still harder to write," she says. "If it's a depressing, gloomy, (messed)-up day and you're sitting there having a terrible time and you don't feel good and the phone bill's overdue and nobody likes you and things are bad, you can go on about that forever. You can sit and write and get into it.

"When it's a beautiful day and you're in love and the sun's out and you're feeling good, do you want to talk about it? No! You just go, 'This is great!' You don't have to say anything.

"It's just when you get morose. . . . " Chuckling, she imitates her depressed self: "We're purging now, and everybody's gonna listen to it!"

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