Sitting alone in her bedroom one day in 2008, musical instruments strewn about, Kristin Welchez decided to reinvent herself. Her alter ego will have her middle name, though some will interpret it as a punk-rock homage to the Ramones. On that day, Dee Dee Penny was born, destined to lead the all-female indie punk-pop group Dum Dum Girls.
Emerging from the dressing room of Metro in Chicago on a cool fall day in 2014, during a stop on her band’s nationwide tour, Penny oozes a cool sophistication. Her elongated cat-eye sunglasses add an air of the mystic and draw a sharp contrast to her bright red lips and pale skin.
The cross around her neck dangles against her black sheer top revealing a lace black bra underneath. Madonna, Anais Nin, and Rimbaud serve as inspirations for Penny to express herself with a unique artistic style, both onstage and off.
When the Dum Dum Girls take the stage later that evening, they’ll hypnotize the crowd with their brand of sultry defiance — and perform the entirety of their latest album, Too True. But now, Dee Dee Penny wants to tell us some secrets.
I can see in your style that Madonna was an influence on you.
Yes, in all sorts of ways. I was a dancer as a child, from a pretty young age of four until about 20. For me, she was just such an iconic, identifiable pop star at a young age. I’m a child of the ‘80s, I was born in ’82, and she had the quintessential ’80s look. I wasn’t heavily exposed to ’80s pop culture, because my Mom was very protective, but there was no way not to know about Madonna. I had her records, I used to dress like her, and she embodied everything I understood of pop. When I was younger, I didn’t understand the songs like I do now.
There were a lot of sexual overtones in her music…
Exactly. But you start to feel empowered by things that, maybe, you didn’t catch when you were younger. There is something as a musician I respect too, because she’s willing to rebrand, regroup and change to move forward like David Bowie or Primal Scream. They are willing to move on into something new as time passes and I respect that.
She’s also a provocateur. Do you find that appealing as an artist?
Definitely. I’ve always been drawn to larger-than-life female archetypes. My friends tend to be big personalities and it works out as a yin-yang kind of [relationship]. As far what I’m putting out there creatively, I’m a different vibe.
At Coachella this year, your nearly topless outfit caused quite a stir during your performance — tell me about your decision to wear such a revealing ensemble?
I’ve never felt so self confident or so comfortable with myself before. So I just exercised all of my exhibitionism that I’ve been stashing away for years and years and years. But I kind of got it out of my system. My Dad was at Coachella. It was really funny that I was dressed like that having a conversation with him backstage. He was really cool with it. The esthetic I’ve established with [that outfit], well, it just felt right at the time. As long as you feel empowered, I don’t see any problem.
Do you feel like as an artist, it’s your job to provoke?
Yes, definitely. I think as an artist, it’s a missed opportunity if you don’t. I felt all I have to say is in my music, and then you realize you are in a position — I mean, we aren’t big where we can make a huge impact, but for our fans, I try to stick my neck out there when it’s appropriate. I would never want people to misunderstand us at our face value. I try to make the basic values of what we stand for obvious so that we can weed out anybody that is that far off.
I read another artistic hero of yours is Anais Nin?
I find a lot of solace in her writing. I wouldn’t say reading her directly contributed to me arriving at a place where I developed more self-awareness and self-acceptance than I previously had, but reading her reinforced it.
There is a freedom in her work for women in general…
I think it’s very unapologetic. I think that’s something that I’ve always struggled with, like there is a very defined right and wrong. Understanding that it can be more about knowing yourself, figuring out what works, and hopefully not leaving a trail of chaos and destruction behind you, but also not beating yourself up for learning the experience.
So how did you decide to take Rimbaud’s poem and turn it into a song?
I had the idea to make a chorus coining a phrase that someone has “Rimbaud Eyes.” To me, it was a very personal comment of a portrait I had seen of him very regularly for the last few years on my husband’s t-shirt. His eyes were so piercing, so knowledgeable. Maybe it’s just me reading into it. I’ve always been obsessed with eyes. I try to read people a lot. I thought about if I should write it as a narrative or biographical, and unless you were an English student or a big reader, it just wouldn’t make sense. So I thought I’d go through my favorite poems and find an appropriate one. “The Drunken Boat” jumped out at me. So I took a couple of the stanzas and re-arranged them. It was cool. I never had done it before.
Would you consider it a love song?
Yes. The way I interpreted it, very much like that. I tend to write about love all the time. I write about life experience. I think [Too True] kind of landed where I felt free of a lot of baggage I had the last few years. I was open and receptive to writing about different things. I think I grew up a bit.
Michele McManmon is a freelance writer/photographer who works with LA Weekly, Palm Springs Life Magazine, Paste, Amazon Music Blog and now Playboy. View more at www.dominoartz.com.