Windhand Vocalist-Turned-Solo Artist Dorthia Cottrell Talks Scary Songs and Townes Van Zandt

"All my favorite songs, all the ones that have really moved me, have always been kind of “dark” or mournful or even kinda scary, whether that be played through full stacks or on an acoustic guitar."

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Feb 14 2015, 5:54pm

Photo by Jordan Vance

If there's one thing that heavy metal musicians seem to love more than nearly anything else, it's unplugging their battered amps, slapping a Townes Van Zandt record on the turntable, and picking up a dusty old acoustic. Turns out, steel guitar and dusky folk tunes are excellent at soothing the most savage of beasts, from Neurosis' Scott Kelly and Steve von Till to Yob's Mike Scheidt and U.S. Christmas' Nate Hall. Windhand's Dorthia Cottrell has joined their ranks, and her eponymous debut solo album for Forcefield Records is a gorgeous, mournful affair, the product of a slow-burning songwriting process that has spanned half of Dorthia's life.

The first song she shared, "Gold" is the oldest song to appear on her debut, and was written back when she was in her late teens; a decade later, it's finally about to see the light of day. Her duet with Nate Hall on last year's Songs of Townes Van Zandt Vol. II compilation gave audiences a peek at what Dorthia can do when stripped of her backing thunder, but Dorthia Cottrell is on a whole 'nother level. Listening to it straight through gave me the same kind of chill I got the first time I heard Hank Williams—really, it's that good.

Fans of Windhand already know just how powerful Dorthia's pipes can be, but this new record sees her settle deeper into her expansive range, swaying from husky whispers to bluesy, soulful wails. Noisey spoke to Dorthia about Southern roots, sadness, and stepping out on her own.

There's a dark, reflective character to a lot of these tunes—the kind of mournful vibes you hear in the best country and folk music. What kind of headspace were you in while writing these songs?
They are so spread out over time it’s hard to not be general. I started writing songs when I was pretty young, and it would always be at night in my little angsty teen bedroom while I looked out the window at the trees. I think when I am sitting around writing alone, to this day, somewhere deep down inside, I’m still just going through puberty at night in the woods.

Was writing this album a kind of escape for you—a quiet spot amidst the craziness of Windhand's schedule and the white noise of regular life?
Half of these songs were written before Windhand, but I do still write and play whenever I’m alone. It’s definitely a calming, meditative thing for me and if I didn’t do it I’m sure I wouldn’t be able to function in any kind of productive way.

You cover both Townes Van Zandt and Gram Parsons on this record, two artists who've gotten a lot of love from other metal musicians. What about them speaks to you? Townes was one sad motherfucker, who had a rough life and saw little success until he was six feet under.
I almost didn’t put the Townes song, "Rake," on the album, just because I know it’s heavily covered, and it had occurred to me that people may be getting tired of it, but I’ve just been playing it for so long and it’s one of my all time favorites. I almost felt like it would be dishonest not to include it. Both covers are songs that I’ve been playing forever—songs that I play without thinking when I’m just sitting around or that I’ll play in the van by myself before Windhand shows to relax.

So many metal musicians are also huge country fans, especially the ones who grew up Southern. As a bonafide Southern musician who's clearly appreciative of both genres, what would you say the appeal is? Is it just a matter of growing up with country and folk then discovering metal later, or do you think there's more to it—the darkness, the emotional heft, the guitarwork? These are quiet whiskey-drinking songs, not headbanging hellraising songs.
For me, a lot of it really is as simple as I listened to what my dad and grandma listened to when I was young and my tastes grew from there—which for my dad was classic rock, classic country and metal, and for my grandma was classical music. But I will say that all my favorite songs, all the ones that have really moved me, have always been kind of “dark” or mournful or even kinda scary, whether that be played through full stacks or on an acoustic guitar. That mood is still what is most appealing to me in any style, and that is what makes something “heavy” to me, too.

You grew up singing with your family—were they religious? Did you sing in church, or at home?
My family is not really into organized religion. My dad and grandma are great musicians though and they both sing as well so there was always music in the house (we all lived together). My family still throws big parties in the woods and all their friends just come over and get drunk and play music together. I still go back home and play and sing with them, and I’m sure I always will.

How do you feel now that people have been hearing some of this record? You must be used to press and fan feedback thanks to your success in Windhand, but this project feels so much more personal.
I’m a little nervous, but for the most part I’m just happy to have gotten those songs out of the way, because I already have a lot of newer stuff that I want to record.

What's coming up now that the record's nearly out? I know you mentioned that you'd like to get some touring in, and are trying to navigate the non-metal world.
I have some one-off dates booked this spring and summer and am planning on touring the Midwest and Northeast with Nate Hall in the middle of May, which we will post up very soon!

What are you reading right now?
The Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse.

'Dorthia Cottrell' is out March 3rd via Forcefield Records.

Kim Kelly has got the shivers on Twitter.