Perfect Sound Forever

The Return of Heather Eatman

Checking into Doll Hospital
Interview by Kurt Wildermuth
(September 2006)

When I first interviewed the New York City singer-songwriter Heather Eatman, four years ago (see, she had been and seemed destined to remain a solo artist. During a transitional period around that time, Eatman experimented with her sound: she performed her old songs and a few new ones in a torch/lounge setting, accompanied by an acoustic bassist, and she recast some of those songs with a keyboard-based rock group. She might also have thrown in a few solo shows.

Then, a little over a year ago, she formed Doll Hospital, a band without her name in front of it, with mostly permanent members, and with its own repertoire of original swing-pop tunes. From their premiere, I have been a diehard fan, checking in regularly for a dose of Nick Mancini's sparkling vibraphone on "Bluebird Ballroom," or Jim Whitney's sinister upright bass on "Surprise, Surprise," or Andrew Burns's thrilling drum fills on "Man in the Middle."

That last number still hits me the way it did the first time, catching me up in its propulsive rhythm so that I can't figure out what's going on in Eatman's lyrics. The narrative seems to be a fractured tale of music, marital infidelity, murder, and mayhem, full of Eatman's trademark wit and twisted wisdom but also full of disorienting jumpcuts worthy of David Bowie. One of these days I'll figure out the story, but the hooks and licks prove distractingly catchy.

Now Doll Hospital has released its debut CD, a self-titled, self-financed, thirty-four-minute recording available at Amazon and CD Baby and the next DH gig. A perfect document of the band's shows, and a major contender for my favorite release of the year, Doll Hospital is a new chapter in the Heather Eatman story. It also has its own little backstory, as Eatman explained in an email exchange in May-June 2006, a couple of weeks after the CD came out.

PSF: You've perfectly captured the Doll Hospital show, but this is a studio recording, right? Live in the studio?

HE: We recorded it in four hours at Joe Music on Sullivan St. It took two and a half hours to set up, then we had an hour and a half to record. We basically just played the set twice.

The guitar solo Marc Copely plays on "Paperdoll" and the backgrounds I did on "Mercy, Mercy" were the only overdubs. Everything else was sung and played in those ninety minutes.

PSF: Despite what I imagine was the pressure of getting everything right, you don't sound the slightest bit tense. In fact, you all sound loosened up and swinging, and the effect is really inviting--an invitation to have some vicarious adventures. Had you, as a solo artist, ever recorded this way? You've always seemed painstaking, maybe at the expense of having fun.

HE: This was the key: I thought I was making a demo. My intention at the outset was to get four songs out of this session that we could use as a demo to get gigs. It was my producer, Marc Copely, whom I had never worked with before, who said, "We're going to have the mics up, might as well play the set twice and see what we get. Maybe we'll get a whole record."

"Ha, ha, very funny," I thought. And I also thought, as Bugs Bunny says, "He don't know me very well." It had taken me months to make each of my previous records. I have never been a one-take performer--usually singing vocals ten to twenty times and comping lines together from the best takes. It never occurred to me that I could nail these vocals live. I thought that even hoping to get four pristine songs might be pushing it . . .

I don't know how to explain what happened. Divine intervention?

When the session was over, I dragged my guitar and amp home in the rain because I couldn't get a cab. My arms were shaking, my head was pounding, I was totally nauseated from stress. I collapsed in bed and didn't emerge until late the next morning.

Did I have fun? Yes--when the red light was on--this is incredibly fun music to play and you can't help feeling it, even if you're scared, as I was.

PSF: I'd never have guessed any of those circumstances--apart from the mics being up (and being in all the right places, because the sound, engineered by Joe Blaney, is clean and warm and balanced). Anyway, I find myself thinking you caught "the Doll Hospital experience." What does that four-word phrase mean to you? (And yes, I once whimsically suggested DH should do a Jimi Hendrix cover, but that's not what I'm getting at!)

HE: Let's see... the Doll Hospital experience consists of energy, immediacy, and real playfulness. In spite of its bouncy musicality, you have to listen closely, because there's a lot of language going by. The humor in the stories is quite dark, but the effect is somehow joyful. It dares to be different without self-consciously trying to be--so there's a kind of honesty in that.

It is rather unto itself--a strange beast that sprung to life without much calculation--that is, for some chemical reason, greater than the sum of its parts.

PSF: But in fact this "noir swing" style has long roots within your career. At shows, you sometimes recount the origin of most of these songs. Would you like to tell that tale here?

HE: Yes, I think the backstory is important. It has much to do with the circuitous path my career has taken--I think I took a wrong turn at Albuquerque! (I like quoting Bugs Bunny.)

When I was twenty-two, and realizing, much to my surprise, that I was actually going to have the guts to get up on stage and perform, I felt really inspired to write, and write and write some more. And, for the most part, these Doll Hospital tunes were the songs that were coming out. In the midst of these were a few that ended up taking more standard pop/rock arrangements, like "The Amelia Earhart Waltz" and "Greyhound" [both on Heather's debut CD, Mascara Falls], but I didn't see them at the time as being separate or different. I didn't even think in those terms. I just wrote from this very naive place, never considering what the real world (or commercial radio, for that matter) might want or expect from a young artist. I often wish I could get back to that way of thinking . . .

So here I was writing, and now performing with a band, this odd material--although I didn't know it was odd. I loved Tom Waits and wanted to sound and be like him. However, I never really succeeded. For better or for worse, I always just sounded like me, you know?

Anyway, a guy from John Prine's label, Oh Boy Records, happened to be at one of these shows to see someone else and was interested in what he heard.

Long story short: I ended up getting signed on the basis of these swingy noir songs. The legend goes that they played "Flashing Lights" for John Prine and he gave me the green light, saying, "Anyone who has a ‘fat-assed ambulance driver' in their song is all right with me."

But when the label discovered I had enough of the more commercial, less jarringly "different" songs for a whole record, they decided that's what we should put out. And being terribly ambitious and quite insecure, I nodded and said, "Okay, if this is the way to get to have a career, I'll put aside the songs you say are too weird." And so I did . . . until now.

PSF: So, are you now bringing those too-weird songs to fruition, are you reinventing them, or both? That is, how different did they sound way back when, with your band at the time? Was the instrumentation the same? What have Nick, Jim, and Andrew brought to them?

HE: Reinventing is probably too strong a word. Rearranging, maybe even reimagining in some cases, would be a more accurate description. I've never had vibes in my band, so that's certainly a completely new vista.

A couple of the feels that the band came up with pushed the songs in new directions--the James Bond treatment given to "Man in the Middle," the rhumba or whatever is the right word for the feel behind "My Ex-Wife." These excellent ideas came from Nick, Jim, and Andy while we were arranging the songs.

But one of the things I most appreciated about their approach was the attention they paid to the unconscious idiosyncracies in my guitar parts. They made great effort to keep those quirks and to incorporate them into their own parts. It's one of the elements that make the music unique--and they were sensitive enough to realize that and to make hay out of it.

Back when I originally did these songs, we were a power trio--upright bass, drums, and guitar. And it all had a rather naive quality to it, as two of us had never played in a band before. I was so naive as to think I could actually play guitar solos! Crazy four-track demos are still floating around out there, bearing testament to the hubris of the twenty-three-year-old Heather Eatman.

There was definitely some real charm to the original band, but it's almost apples and oranges comparing it to Doll Hospital.

PSF: How has the recording influenced or transformed the Doll Hospital experience?

HE: I think, psychologically, it has helped our confidence to have a finished successful recording that documents our sound. We're solidly here now. We're real.

As a band, we've gotten tighter and tighter. Now we're adding new material. Not new, new, material, because I still have a backlog of stuff I wrote in the early '90s. But I guess it's almost time to start writing!

PSF: I remember your introducing "Paperdoll" as a new song. Was I right in thinking you'd written it recently, or was it just new for Doll Hospital? Either way, it's interesting that it's the only solo song in the DH repertoire. How did that come about? Did you try it with the band?

HE: Yes, you're right. I wrote "Paperdoll" after forming Doll Hospital. I wanted to prove to myself that I could still write in this genre. Kind of silly--why wouldn't I be able to? Me and my irrational fears . . .

Initially it was solo because I just didn't have a chance to teach it to the band prior to the show. They heard it for the first time along with the audience. But I liked it solo, and I feel like having a stripped down song in the set can be a nice way to break things up a little bit, keep it interesting.

I'm sure it would sound good with the band, too. Both Nick and Andy have expressed interest in learning it, but so far we've prioritized learning other things.

PSF: It seems absolutely right solo: it's the linchpin of the CD--of that set of songs--in that it's both a Doll Hospital song and a meta-Doll Hospital song. It's about a doll, of course, but it's also the most emotionally direct DH song, the point at which you puncture the plastic wrap around this little fictional world and break our hearts. How much of that was intentional? When you wrote the song, were you thinking about a gap in the set?

HE: No--none of that was conscious or intentional as I was writing the song. In terms of its placement, yes, it's a moment of catharsis, which is something I instinctively go for--because I always appreciate it so much as a listener.

PSF: Speaking of "this little fictional world" and your conscious intentions for it--tell me about the nursery rhyme phrases ("Hey diddle diddle") and imagery ("Patty cake, patty cake / Baker's man") within the lyrics. What led to that thread?

HE: Mother Goose is timeless, classic stuff and I steal from only the best.

I think I had the idea of "nursery rhymes for adults"--I remember thinking about that as a concept. There's a lot of great imagery and language there.

I'm glad it's a little thread that pops up here and there, and not an overriding theme. I like it quite a bit in theory, but it could get old quickly if overused.

PSF: You've walked the fine line, though, and never gone over it. Just when "Charlie Takes the Cake" risks getting cutesy, for example, it comes to an abrupt, surprising, funny end. In fact, all your lyrics here are clever but never too clever: "We've been checked out / and we're way overdue," "Caught in a cold linoleum kiss," and so on. Meanwhile, a river of sadness and violence runs through these wry tales about a failed stand-up comic, a failed dinner party, a murderer, a dead man.

When you write new Doll Hospital songs--have you written new Doll Hospital songs since "Paperdoll"?--will you try to find your way into some new threads? Will you consciously choose the threads first, maybe by drawing up some rules? Will you write a Doll Hospital song here, a Heather Eatman solo song there, maybe a collaboration (such as your recent ones with Marc Copely, who's been performing them live and will be recording them) over there?

HE: I haven't written any new Doll Hospital songs since "Paperdoll," but I'm sure I will. A collaboration is certainly possible--I find writing with other people to be so much less lonely than writing by myself. It's easier for me to stay motivated and there's certainly a lot less cosmic doubt!

I doubt I'll draw up rules, formally or otherwise--it hasn't worked for me in the past. I find I just have to let the songs happen ... sneak up on them as they're grazing in the soft clover fields like innocent little bunnies.

PSF: Or like that fanged killer in Monty Python and the Holy Grail--"That rabbit is dynamite!" Beware...

If the process is that organic, how do you know if you've written a Doll Hospital song? Are the chords different? Are they jazzier? Could you recast your swingy solo songs, such as "Black Lincoln Bomb," for DH?

HE: It's not so organic that I can't sit down and say, "Hmmm, maybe let's try to write one for Doll Hospital today." What does that mean? Definitely jazzier chords ... a more classic, old-fashioned sensibility to the music. And the lyrics definitely come from a different place in my head. I can't be more specific than that, because I don't really understand it myself.

Yes, I could and I may recast a jazzy Heather Eatman song like "Black Lincoln Bomb" as a Doll Hospital number, but I think I'd prefer to do fresh material--or at least material that isn't already recorded and out there.

PSF: This past weekend Doll Hospital appeared on Vin Scelsa's "Idiot's Delight" (the show is archived at As interesting as it was to hear "Greyhound" rendered by DH, I was much more delighted by the brand-new song, "Queen of the Jungle." As you and Vin pointed out, that one bears the influence of your cowriter, Jill Sobule, but it also feels like a DH song, in part because it suggests a 1930s-'40s Hollywood movie. Starring Fay Wray?

That's a little game I play with DH songs, imagining the actor who'd play the narrator or the characters. I'm always picturing now-dead actors: Fred MacMurray, Eve Arden, a very serious Jerry Lewis. What sort of imaginative process do you go through when you're writing or performing these songs? Do you get into character or even envision a real actor? Ever become, say, Barbara Stanwyck?

HE: I don't think I've ever pictured real Hollywood actors starring in the songs as I'm writing them, but if I did, they'd definitely be dead ones!

But, seriously . . . I do often--with the Doll Hospital songs--envision a world far beyond the little details I manage to cram into the lyrics. The more alive that world is to me, the easier it is to reach in there and pull out a song.

PSF: That Doll Hospital world resembles the real one, but the images, the people, the situations are comically exaggerated as in one of your artworks--bulbous heads, bulging eyes, elongated this or that. And they take place in an urban world as imagined by someone not from that world. The movie would be set in the Manhattan of Sweet Smell of Success as reimagined by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, the Frenchman who directed or codirected A Very Long Engagement, Amelie, City of Lost Children, Delicatessen.

Were you still in Texas, dreaming about Oz, when you wrote most of these songs? How much of the outsider-looking-in perspective would you trace to your situation?

HE: Your description rings very true...

I was in New York City by the time I wrote these songs, but I was still feeling like a stranger in a strange land (I still feel that way sometimes).

Feeling like an outsider has always been a big part of my identity and has, subsequently, played a huge role in my art and in my life. With the Doll Hospital project, I've found that my very real sense of alienation has inspired and informed characters who are quite unexpected and funny. That to me, is pretty satisfying--kind of like figuring out how to make jet fuel out of bird droppings!

PSF: Let's wrap up this Q&A, as we did our previous one, by talking about the juxtaposition or interrelationship of your art and your life. On Vin's show, you discussed having taken six months off from music--given up the metaphorical bunny hunt to do some literal deep-sea fishing. Did that happen before or after the PSF interview?

HE: It was right around that time. I'm going to say that it was sometime not long afterward that I toyed with the idea of quitting. In that interview, you can see the acknowledgement of a great deal of pain, although I'm trying to be philosophical about it.

My six-month hiatus from live performance, songwriting, etc., was followed by two or three years of half-hearted, struggling, depressed attempts to find my footing again--to return to music, but with a healthier attitude that wouldn't be based on self-flagellation. It was extremely difficult, because I felt so much loss by letting go of my original narcissistic hopes and dreams for myself as an artist.

PSF: It was shocking, when I asked you about the psychological place you were in, to have you come right out and say, "Well, it sucks."

From my limited perspective, you seem to be in a much better place now: taken on its own terms--in terms of the artistry, not the marketplace (at least not yet!)--the Doll Hospital CD is a triumph. You're collaborating with other musicians. You're singing better than ever. . . .

Are you going to shock me again and say that this new place still sucks?

HE: Absolutely not... I'm arguably in a better place now than I ever have been. I know I can stay balanced and grounded whether anything more happens with my music or not. I'm back on the path, working in a much healthier way to be the level of singer, performer, and songwriter I dream of being, and am mostly enjoying that challenge, rather than feeling beaten by it.

I think I've really managed to let go of that perfect, idealized version of myself that I always hoped to wake up one day and actually be. She haunted me for so many years... I don't miss her.

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