When Martha Davis moved from Berkeley to Los Angeles in the mid-’70s it was a time of great change for rock ‘n’ roll. This provided her and her band mates both an opportunity – suddenly a whole lot of new music was getting played in the bars and clubs of the city – but also a challenge in that the record company guys didn’t know what to make of this band that called itself the Motels.
“I remember I was asked to be a model for this Warner Bros. in-house thing for their punk rock,” Davis says by phone from outside of Portland, Oregon, where she’s working on fencing for the four alpacas she’s adding to her 72-acre farm. “But we were too melodic for punk so they didn’t want to sign us.
“We were too punky for the California sound, Linda Rondstadt and that which came before,” she says. “It wasn’t until the New Wave thing came along that we fit in and got signed.”
Labels for the kind of edgy and melodic music she wrote never meant much to Davis, who with the current incarnation of the Motels has four Southern California shows over the next week. Once the record company figured out what it had with her and the band, MTV put the band’s well-produced music videos into heavy rotation, their career took off in the ’80s with singeles such as “Only The Lonely,” “Take The L”, and “Suddenly Last Summer.”
And then, right as it seemed the band could continue cranking out big melodramatic singles and slick videos for years to come, Davis walked away.
“I take full responsibility for this, but I had just let myself get further and further away from my original intent,” she says. “It’s easy to do in the business. Like I said, I think ‘Only The Lonely’ was very MOR, very middle of the road.
“It’s a beautiful-sounding record but it didn’t challenge me like I want to be challenged. But it was a hit. So you’re stuck with that double-edged sword: It’s a hit, but it was very safe.”
Add to that the usual singer-songwriter woes – a difficult time with her producer for the breakout album “All Four One,” a band that was drifting apart – and by the mid-’80s Davis wanted out.
“You get the kick in the teeth and pretty soon you get tired of that,” she says.
She didn’t write a song for a full year – “Which is unheard of for me,” Davis says – and spent her time nesting and resting after the hurly-burly of the preceding five years.
“I upholstered couches, I collected stoves, I spent a lot of time at the Goodwill,” she says, a nod to the Goodwill Gala she’ll play for Goodwill of Orange County on Friday, Oct. 27. “That’s where I found the couches.”
And then? “Because I’m crazy I actually started all over again,” Davis says. “I had my year vacation and the couches got done, and somebody came up and offered me a gig for 20 grand I went, ‘Shoot, maybe I should have a band.’”
That show never happened, but the spark took hold of her imagination and the old passion for music rose up again.
“When it first happened in the ’70s it took eight years for me to get signed, and when you do get signed everything is happening really quickly,” Davis says. “It goes kind of crazy. So this time I literally started over.
“I started with this garage band of young players, even though I’d already gone past that level,” she says. “I did the whole thing over again, and each level i was there for – before it’s like you’re kind of shell-shocked.
“It kept morphing and growing and getting more confident – I had no confidence the first time. This time it was, ‘Yeah, this is what I like.’ I went through all the different incarnations where it was more folky, it was more this, more that.
“Now I realize that I’m just a person that loves to write and it really doesn’t matter what kind of music, from jazz to country to rock,” Davis says. “I just love the creative process.”
Her 2008 solo album “Beautiful Life” was a concept album about the life and death of her mother. Since then she’s released a children’s album, a collection of outtakes and rarities, and has finished and will soon release “Last Few Beautiful Days,” another album of songs connected by a common theme.
“I’m 66 – it took me a while – but I’ve always been a slow learner,” Davis says. “So now there’s a ton to do — and alpacas! I don’t think I’ll be bored.”
Martha Davis and the Motels
Friday, Oct. 20: 9 p.m. at The Rose, 254 E. Green St., Pasadena. Tickets are $20-$34.
Saturday, Oct. 21: 8 p.m. at The Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. Tickets are $20.
Sunday, Oct. 22: 9 p.m. at the Canyon Club, 28912 Roadside Dr, Agoura Hills. Tickets are $24-$34.
Friday, Oct. 27: 6 p.m. at the Monarch Beach Resort, Dana Point. Individual tickets are $550, while sponsorship packages run $5,500-$100,000. For details call Amy at 714-480-3355 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.