Concert preview: Windhand singer Dorthia Cottrell takes a quieter approach on her solo debut
Dorthia Cottrell, best known as the voice of Richmond, Virginia doom-metal crew Windhand, walks a much quieter path in her solo guise, crafting hazy tracks awash in delicate acoustic strumming, sighing pedal steel and her gently sung, eclipse-black words.
“Everything dies, but what then?” she sings on the typically bleak “Orphan Bird.” “Everything dies; is that the end?”
“I'm kind of morbid, and I tend to think about death a lot,” said Cottrell, 29, who co-headlines a Spacebar show with Nate Hall (Neurot) on Thursday, May 14. “It's something that keeps me awake a lot at night. My mom said the first song she ever heard me write was when I was like 4 or 5 years old, and I was making up a song about everybody in my family dying [laughs]. It's therapeutic for me to sing about it.”
Throughout Cottrell’s self-titled debut, the musician wrestles with the tolls time exacts on the body (“Soften the bones ’til I cannot stand”), frets about the finite nature of existence (“Most of my candle has burned out”) and wonders what becomes of us after the casket is finally sealed (“Maybe all our skin will turn to dust”). Despite the bleak nature of the singer’s words, however, the music itself sounds somehow at peace, and songs like “Maybe It’s True” and “Rake” move with the hushed grace of bedtime lullabies.
In that regard, it makes sense Cottrell described the songwriting process as her way of making peace with both death and the various mysteries surrounding the afterlife, saying, “I think more or less it just makes me comfortable with not knowing.”
For Cottrell, music has long served as a means of dealing with complex ideas and emotions. The singer, who was born in King George, Virginia to a special education teacher mother and a father who worked as a correctional officer, said she first picked up a guitar at 13 years old due to the onset of puberty and the various hormonal changes ushered in by its arrival (“I started feeling feelings,” she said bluntly). In the years since, music has only become more engrained in her being, and it’s little surprise that at various points in our late April phone conversation she described her guitar as “another limb” and said covering songs by the likes of Gram Parsons and Townes Van Zandt came as naturally to her as breathing. “I don’t even have to think about it; it’s very Zen,” she said.
“[Music] is all I ever wanted to do. I never really had any friends in high school, and never really went to any parties. Well, I went to no parties and I had no friends, more specifically,” Cottrell said. “I would sit in my room … and I would record myself playing all these weird songs I wrote about ‘Wuthering Heights’ and ‘Crime and Punishment’ and things I was reading in my English class. I don't know if I was good at the time, but it always felt like I could be good at it. It consumed me. It was all I ever thought about it.”
With Windhand, Cottrell frequently battles a ferocious torrent — “Come on, Satan, surround me,” she howled on the band’s 2013 full-length Soma, a sludgy, doom-and-stoner-rock-inflected album where her vocals were whipped about like saplings in an F3 tornado — but the singer said she still feels most at home amid the quieter, acoustic-driven songs populating her debut, some of which date back more than a decade.
“I'm actually more comfortable playing my own stuff than singing in Windhand,” she said, pointing to a rural upbringing where it wasn’t unusual for her to take the lead on a cover of Willie Nelson’s “Seven Spanish Angels” during musical gatherings led by her music-loving father. “We lived pretty deep in the woods. You needed to take three different levels of dirt roads in order to get to our house: it was gravel, dirt, mud, and then our house.”
Even so, Cottrell always gravitated toward heavier music — “The first time I heard Black Sabbath … was the tingling moment for me,” she said — and the singer initially pursued the solo acoustic route due to an inability to puncture the boys-club mentality that dominated her hometown scene.
“I come from a country little town and the boys were really chauvinistic, so they would never let me sing,” said Cottrell, who played bass with one high school cover band and briefly fronted a “horrible” emo group, as she described it. “Windhand was the first thing I liked where I was able to join in.”
Following this brief solo excursion, Cottrell is set to reunite with her Windhand mates. In March, the crew completed work on its third album, and an extensive tour is in the works to coincide with a planned September release.
“It's different from most of our records; it's a little more opened up, I guess you could say,” Cottrell said. “It sounds a little more produced, but [recording engineer] Jack [Endino] did a really good job trying to keep it thick and sludgy, which is just the way we like it.”
9 p.m. Thursday, May 14
2590 N. High St., Campus
ALSO PLAYING: Nate Hall, Cosmic Moon