Grrrls in the Five Boroughs – Debbie Dopamine on Taking The Venom with the Sweetness

Photo by Cori Schmiko

Since moving to New York, I’ve been introduced to a ton of local artists, both organically and at the hands of friends who’ve already been living here. In this series of interviews, Grrrls in the Five Boroughs, I sit down with inspiring womxn and queer femme musicians based in New York City to discuss their personal connections to music, their communities, and their favorite local hotspots scattered across their neighborhoods in New York.

If I had to describe my favorite sounding music in a single turn of phrase, I would say that my favorite sounding music — to namedrop my favorite Huggy Bear album — is the pop music that “takes the rough with the smooth.” I love sonic juxtapositions where sweetness clashes with abrasiveness, where softness is sharpened with jagged edges like gravel tied in silk.

Whenever artists use their songwriting to work through the untidy processing of grief and trauma, they soothe listeners with reminders that their own experiences of hardship are not unique.

One of my favorite recent examples of a record like this is Pets, the debut EP from Debbie Dopamine that was released last July. Debbie Dopamine is the solo indie pop project of Katie Ortiz, with Dylan LaPointe on bass and Zach Rescignano on drums. According to Ortiz, Pets is about “digging up the bones of everything [she’s] buried,” and offering listeners a peak into how the many events in her life leading up to the record have affected the ways that she trudges through the messiness of adult life.

A Grrrl’s Two Sound Cents caught up with Debbie Dopamine to discuss how the pandemic forced her reframe her priorities as a songwriter, throwing shows in her old apartment, and what the future has in store for the vibrant music community in Brooklyn.

How long have you been writing your own music? 

Honestly, I’ve been writing and playing music for as long as I can remember. I used to make up songs and perform them for my family like a little attention magnet. I was always really drawn to music as a kid, so I started with piano and then saxophone was my first serious instrument when I was seven. I hated practicing, so I would just write what I knew I’d be able to play. So I feel like the frustration of wanting to play music without having to learn it was where it started. 

That’s interesting. Are you mostly self-taught? 

Not exactly. I came from an over-achieving family, which meant I got to take a lot of music lessons, but I definitely struggled with it because I wanted it to be something joyful. I feel like I struggled a lot with learning theory and technique as a kid because I wanted to get to the fun part, where I could feel connected to the music, and that was so much harder to do when I was hyper-focused on learning technique. 

You have a very distinct sound that’s very sweet and abrasive. What inspires you to write the way you do? 

Growing up I was more of a folk singer-songwriter. Then I eventually decided to do a 180 and be as loud as possible, which I explored in my other project, BatsBatsBats GhostGhostGhost. I was finding a lot of joy and fulfillment in being loud for a while, and then lockdown happened and I didn’t have access to that anymore. It forced me to reconnect with how I started writing music, which was just me in my bedroom with a guitar and a notebook. It felt really vulnerable to go back to writing that way, so when I wrote these new songs, I didn’t think I’d have a place for them, because they didn’t fit into any other project I was doing. Shaping Debbie Dopamine has been a really awesome experience to find room for expressing power in vulnerability, softness, and the full spectrum of sounds. I’m also really lucky to be working with two other amazing musicians who are also super sensitive and can really appreciate the hills and valleys of writing together. Our writing has only gotten more collaborative over time. 

Shaping Debbie Dopamine has been a really awesome experience to find room for expressing power in vulnerability, softness, and the full spectrum of sounds.

– Debbie Dopamine
Photo by Jeannette D. Moses
Photo by Jeanette D. Moses

What can people expect from your live shows? 

In a live setting, there’s a lot of dynamics. One of my favorite things about playing live is that there are these very powerful emotional swells right up against really stripped-down, raw moments. It’s really cool to write music that moves people and can be a wall of sound and also catch you off guard with moments of tenderness and gentleness. We also haven’t been a band for that long, so we’re still discovering new ways to play together, since the live space is changing very rapidly. 

What artists have left the biggest imprint on your work? 

There are so many. I’ve been revisiting a lot of songwriters that had an impact on me as a teenager, like Regina Spektor and Emily Haines of Metric. Metric was my first favorite band, and they’ve trended toward things that continue to resonate with me. And Emily Haines has such a devastatingly incredible solo project called Emily Haines and the Soft Skeletons, and the writing is impeccable. I was raised on a diet of pretty much everything. My dad was obsessed with opera and I feel very lucky to be pulling from all the different music that I’ve absorbed throughout my life. Modest Mouse is another big one from my teenage years. 

This throwback-to-y2k era that we’re having now is very interesting. I was just listening to the new 100 gecs album and it totally sounds like Blink-182. I’ve always been really interested in pop music and how very specific ingredients in a studio can lead to something trickling into the mainstream. 

That’s very true. I was just reading about how Kesha’s early image and sound was inspired by Uffie, the underground it-girl of bloghouse and party culture at the time.

And honestly, that is a skill. Knowing how to repackage and redistribute something in a way that is digestible and appealing to almost everybody is very hard to do. The function that music plays in culture, especially pop culture, is completely fascinating to me. 

How has Debbie Dopamine evolved since you started the project? 

It’s definitely more collaborative now, so I wouldn’t even call it a solo project. I think we’re in a place right now where the next set of things we put out has been very collaborative. I really enjoy workshopping them with people I trust and musicians that I admire. And I think we’re digging in more to these moments of powerful swells of emotion, but also exploring both ends of the spectrum, dynamic changes, and how to get from one end to the other. I’m also really excited to see how this next batch of songs connects with people in a live setting. 

If you stay in New York for more than two years — first of all, you’re a little bit of a masochist — but you also fall in love with the fact that nobody gives a shit about you and what you’re doing […] And then you’ll stumble across people who do care, but in a good way.

– Debbie Dopamine
Photo by Juliette Boulay
Photo by Juliette Boulay

What makes the art scene in Brooklyn special to you? 

Brooklyn as a whole is huge, and there are so many different scenes. One of my favorite things is to stumble across a parallel scene that’s equally thriving and concentrated with community and art, and that’s always such a cool reminder that there’s so much cool stuff going on. Being surrounded by so much can be intimidating, but also liberating. If you stay in New York for more than two years — first of all, you’re a little bit of a masochist — but you also fall in love with the fact that nobody gives a shit about you and what you’re doing. When you first move here, that can feel oppressive and hard to grapple with, but after a couple of years, it becomes the most liberating thing. And then you’ll stumble across people who do care, but in a good way. So I love the pockets of scenes, seeing them overlap, and the way people make shit happen, not because they’re expecting a huge payoff, but because they need to make art in order to live. And surrounding yourself with other people like that is so inspiring. 

You are also very active on the booking side of the business. What initially got you into that? 

A couple years ago, me and my two friends Shannon and Mo started a booking collective called Booked By Grandma, where we would throw shows out of my old apartment. It’s one of those things I look back on and think: How the hell did we manage to do that? It started because we had all these bands we wanted to see, and those bands couldn’t always get booked at venues, so we started throwing house shows. We had no idea what we were doing—we didn’t even have a PA system. I had no idea what the sound setup should be, it was such a mess. And as it evolved, we started throwing themed shows, and we’ve gotten to work with lots of different people. We eventually outgrew the apartment and started working with a variety of venues, DIY and otherwise. I think house spaces are so important, and every time I go to a house show I always make sure to find the person throwing the show so I can salute them. Because it’s a hard job having to host and then mop beer off the floor the next morning. 

What does the rest of the year have in store for Debbie Dopamine? 

We have a few more shows coming up and we’ve also been writing quite a bit. We have our next round of recording and release soon, and we’re also editing a music video, which I’m really excited to share. Thanks for having me! 






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