A Dream Of A Fantasy: Looking For Lori Watt
Hello. I’m Lori. Welcome to Soundwave.
And this is my new TV show.
I’m from Paraparaumu and I’m a local musician.
And this is Soundwave. So sit back.
And relax. And enjoy.
This is “Unwanted Goth Dolly”.
In a thick accent that could have only emerged somewhere in the heart of provincial New Zealand, a twenty-something woman speaks from her perch in a swivel chair in front of a black panel, legs casually crossed, her black-clad arms (casually) clasped over her right knee. A transition graphic pulls her back into the screen, flips the canvas, blue and purple streamers fall across the screen, and we are transported to a beach sparkling with low-res lens-flare, a lone female figure silhouetted against the horizon as she walks. A synth heavy beat kicks in. A figure stands right in front of the camera, clad in headphones and holding a microphone. She stares intensely at the lens, her eyes charged with mad emotion, and begins to lip-synch to the words. ‘You told me to be someone / certain things come undone.’ (Cut to a close up shot of the figure unbuttoning her lime green singlet top.)
I don’t know much about Lori Watt. She lived in Auckland until she was fifteen, then moved to Wellington. By Wellington, she means the Kapiti Coast. Her favourite perfume is Avril Lavigne’s Black Star.
She suffered from depression from the age of ten. Her mother (a some-time opera singer) was 45 when she gave birth to Lori, leaving her the youngest in a flukishly large set of siblings. Four of them refuse to have any contact with her. One of them committed suicide when she was ten. He was a guitar player, and on her official Facebook page, she recently reported another brother’s sudden death. It's absolutely the stuff of tragedy – but it’s also hard not to admire the way she feels at home sharing the awful news with a small and dedicated set of fans and followers. Sympathetic comments unfold beneath her cover photo, but the online world of Lori Watt provides reprieve from struggle.
‘I’ve always dreamt about performing and writing me own music...’, she says on a video interview with Beach FM. The announcer mentions some ‘fetching photos’ featured in last week’s Kapiti News. Her accent is thick, her red bangs fall spiky onto a pale forehead, pointing starkly at large wide-set eyes.
We’re several miles down the YouTube rabbit hole. Welcome to the world of Lori Watt, aka “gothdolly84”. ‘I love Gwen Stefani... and Celine Dion... my music is experimental and pop... it’s very alter-naytive... naturally for me I’m pretty quick for popping something out.’ She laughs.
It’s true – a cursory look through her videos if enough to tell you she’s prolific. Working for years with husband and wife production duo Sassy Impact (Suzi and Charles ‘Chaz’ Cramp), Lori churns out a series of could-have-been-hit productions, each featuring similarly lo-fi keyboard beats and synth chords in radically shifting styles and time signatures (eerily reminiscent of the demo pre-sets on a monolithic Kawai keyboard I owned as a child). Then she sings. Lori Watt's voice is something to behold. She rambles; she warbles through verses and choruses, in and out of tune, belting, whispering, oozing bravado and a total lack of inhibition. There are dreams, fantuhsees, I-don’t-give-a-damns and breathy one-two-threes. “A Dream of a Fantasy” concludes with a distorting banshee wail as Lori mimes at the piano, long black gloves cutting the circulation at her elbows. I have no idea what she’s singing about. I’m not sure if it matters.
The following note captions the video: ‘This video was on MVVTV and Soundwave TV, Dream of a fantasy is Lori's personal favorite, she felt like a princess in this music video. Lori was expressing her thoughts about what she thinks of her dream and fantasties [sic].’
Her intense gaze, shabby lip-synching, and girl-next-door goes bad-prom-queen aesthetic work a strange gothic magic within the provincial setting of her self-made videos. She carouses past takeaway store fronts, Early Settler catalogue furniture showrooms, Sylvania Waters designer gardens with little trellises and pony bridges. I’m obsessed. Subscribing to the gothdolly84 Youtube channel isn’t a chance to watch some music videos; it’s an invitation into a world of fitness blogs, style, modelling and budgeting tips - all directed, filmed and performed by Lori in a variety of domestic and local environments. We’re in her kitchen as she moans her way druggily through “Chill In My Vein”. Incongrouously, a huge palm tree image covers one wall, bordered by crusty seashells and sea horse ornaments. We follow her, clad in a gothic princess outfit (complete with plastic tiara) as she waltzes about a piano shop in ‘A Dream of a Fantasy’. She’s on the beach. She’s emerging from Ram’s Otaki superette, while a gaggle of small children zip about on scooters. She’s crouching in a dimly lit room (a cupboard, perhaps?) mouthing sexily about being ‘in the dark’.
The musical path she treads is a slippery one, and figuring out her movement or her influences just by a cursory listen proves treacherous. Lo-fi beats, warped melodies, obscured lyrical delivery and low-budget, self-made videos are also the hallmark production values of lauded artists like Ariel Pink. He inflates deranged guitar pop with a similar ‘trash’ sensibility that serves to highlight and invert our understanding of the popular music we’ve experienced by employing nostalgic echoes – wireless radio sounds, jingle-worthy hooks that could be as old as my aunt – that distort and call into question both our memories of pop music along and even a concrete concept of an ideal guitar-pop product.
Lori's music and video work functions in a similar way, utilising the nostalgic tropes of popular music a generation removed – VHS quality imagery, particular synth sounds, flashing coloured lights, a figure walking on a beach. The nostalgia warps when our ears recognise that the synth sounds are dissonant; we realise the flashing lights are bouncing around the lounge of Lori's house; the figure on the beach pixellates as it wanders towards the water, jandals in hand.
Where the similarities end is in the intent, and its respective results. Ultimately, Ariel Pink isn’t some ‘outsider’ – he functions within a polished and heavily mediated world of indie music and is 'successful' by alt-music industry standards (though he would likely deny it; another part of his performance). Meanwhile, Lori lives at the bottom of the world and processes her experiences through an amalgam of obscure, nonsensical metaphors, shitty graphics and confessional daytime TV-informed selfies, developing a slowly burgeoning cult audience in the face of a market who otherwise rejects her. Lori's sincerity is important, because the nature of what she does runs completely counter to conservative production values of 'good' pop music. Ariel Pink's trash is purposeful and posed, while Lori’s flows as naturally as a rushing river – a muddy suburban one, carrying empty chip packets and stubby plastic bottles of Homebrand fizzy drink to an uncertain fate.
That's not to say she's devoid of ambition. Alongside making all of her own music and blog videos, Lori offers to make music videos for other for a remarkably slim sum of $100. Back in 2011, she created a music video for Secrets, the latest recording name of reputed NZ indie-electronic musician Fraser Austin (latterly of Frase & Bri). Austin is a long-time Lori fan, and stumbled across her work 'late-night YouTube trawling' with friend Luke Rowell (of Disasteradio). Though the final product is unmistakably Lori’s, Fraser recalls that videomaker Simon Ward may have been involved in offering guidance and introductions (Ward's absurd visual collisions of reality and virtual worlds make this seem like a ‘probably’ – see also his latest video for Auckland artist Princess Chelsea, "Caution Repetitive" - a kind of tribute to the bedroom-styled diva in a YouTube present). Austin even made a Bandcamp to help promote Lori's album Soundwave. 'The Paypal links to Lori's email', he says, 'though I’m not sure she ever signed up'.
Fraser immediately recognised the vitality of Lori's work as a kind of outsider artist. 'The deliberate camp of the videos - dress-up themes and savagely-small-town kiwi backdrops, I found it profoundly earnest, and I think anyone who talks to Lori will see that it comes from this very genuine place of wanting to be an on-a-budget pop star.' He acknowledges Lori's attempts to embrace a sense of “New Zealand-ness” (simply through living in and unabashedly filming small-town New Zealand localities), but believes she ultimately transcends it via the insane virtual ruptures she has punched into the web. 'She created this personality that in some ways is brutally New Zealand, but lofty in its ambition like few Kiwis dare.'
In a country that often pays heed to artists only as soon as they make dents in markets elsewhere (resulting in a pop music scene attempting to follow international trends more than foster local initiatives), Lori is a brave and strong voice. What's funny is that Lori's self-made, economic approach to being a pop star (who says I can't film myself in my lounge dancing sluttily in a corset?) echoes the number-eight-wire/she'll-be-right ethos our forebears and fathers love to lord upon us, even if the end product is doomed to fail to meet their taste. Fraser revels in the absurdity of this tension. 'I saw a keen DIY energy in Lori's music and her videos, this super strong voice and determination, despite being a musician and that being so utterly futile (especially in blue-top-milk New Zealand).'
He’s right. Her relentless drive and resilience is admirable. ‘People say I should be on a higher income, but I don’t mind being on a low income,’ she reveals to her followers. ‘I find ways around it.’ She confesses that while she has a gym membership, she works out at home because she can’t afford the drive to the gym and is simply waiting for her contract to expire.
Lori has wanted a flat stomach ‘for years’... and challenges the camera to ‘come and join me’.... ‘I will help you through all the fitness things you want to do.’ One particular video shows a sweaty Lori post-workout talking briefly about what she did. Lori likes to talk. She loves whoever is watching. She wants to help. The end of the clip blasts a brief few seconds of dance music, and I jump out of my skin because the volume is treble that of Lori’s voice in the video clip and I’d raised the volume just to hear her. Accompanying the music is a bold orange graphic with a fluffy drop shadow, booming: ‘that’s it for now so go and get motavated!’ [sic]
Other videos show the camera set up in a static position while Lori goes through her workout. Meanwhile, she offers insight from her modelling experience (‘it feels amazing to sit there, and hold a guitar in my hands and pose with it’) and a personal perfume guide (‘it’s all about your personality. You want the confidence to smell great. And clean too’). The presence, the connection, and the market integration isn't that different from what we want from our chart-topping popstars.
On December 1, 2012, Lori posted a fuzzy photo on her Facebook page of a compact disc sitting on a wood veneer table, with some kind of appliance protruding in the foreground. The disc is appears to have been printed out with designs, but the poor-quality image renders the image indiscernible. The post bears the accompanying text: ‘PLz buy this cd has chill in my vein etc the whole album’. Below, someone named Christopher has promptly asked ‘How do we buy plz?’. Lori replies three minutes later: ‘you buy it through me personally’. A few hours have elapsed before Lori next posts on the same thread: ‘hurry only a few cds left!’ Kolfinna Nikulásdóttir has asked, ‘can you send me one to iceland?’ ‘where’s iceland?’, Lori has replied. Kolfinna explains herself, amidst other contributions of ‘ICELAND ROCKS LONG LIVE THE ICELANDIC REVOLUTION’ and ‘there’s no cover?’ and Lori comes back to say, ‘oh k you can buy the album on bandcomp.com’. In response to the no cover quip, she writes ‘no there is no cover no one got the cover made which was a pain’.
She's always enterprising; she isn’t just selling music, realising something more successful artists are only getting now. She posted another offer on 8 December 2012: ‘Any one keen to buy this green neon belt brand new never been used selling for $7’. Fans delighted. One has commented that she’d prefer to buy it it had in fact been worn.
According to her the credits on the gothdolly84 channel, Soundwave apparently aired on Triangle TV in 2008. I’m dubious of this, and a reasonable Google search seems to support my scepticism, and my preferred notion that Soundwave does not exist beyond its service as a framing device for her own songs. Every song is introduced and often concluded by Lori, the black-clad swivel-chair station host of Soundwave TV. gothdolly84 has created her own world, a space in which she is both host and star, producer and performer; in complete control.
Some people love to laugh at her, but she is far from loathed. A commenter on a video compared her voice to ‘a dying whale’. The word ‘hilarious’ crops up repeatedly, as does a more to-the-point ‘WTF!!!’. However, the odd hater aside, Lori’s feedback is overwhelmingly supportive, adoring, and occasionally bordering on obsessive. Within the space of a week online video blogger and poet Raymond Arcangel posted on almost every gothdolly84 upload. On ‘My Make-up Mirror’, ‘You are almost too amazing. You have enchanted me.’ On ‘Chill In My Vein’; ‘I wish my name was in that heart you drew on the beach. ::Sigh::’. Meanwhile, a gentleman named Ryan Clark is suspicious. ‘is there anything else in your veins, you absolute legend’.
A comment on ‘Unwanted Goth Dolly’ by droftarts1968 attempts to cut to the chase. ‘How do you do those amazing time and key changes. And more importantly, why?’ Lori’s response sums up her approach. ‘Because I’m sick of being the same as everyone else, I’m different that’s another reason as I got to be myself.’
Her persona is magnetic. It is difficult to pinpoint what makes following her so addictive, but part of it is how remarkably self-possessed she is, performing as a variety of characters that each serve as a kind of tributary to one central figure – Lori Watt, superstar. Lori in the club, Lori on the beach, Lori at home, Lori the gothdolly, Lori the fitness guru, Lori the model.
Lori's total lack of inhibition and the earnest investment in what she does is both refreshing and confusing, for the simple fact that she does it badly. Abysmally. Her cover of Bette Midler’s ‘The Rose’ is distressing and traumatic, all the more so for being dedicated to her deceased brother. Lori doesn’t care, doesn’t back down, makes no apologies or explanations, struggles on with a self-belief born of earnest ambition and delusion. I love her. Adore her. I soak up her videos, her KoRn hoodie, her every word with cringing relish.
On 21 December 2012, Lori stated on her Facebook page that while she is indeed working on new material, she will no longer be collaborating with Suzi Cramp as ‘we no longer got respect for each other.’ It is not made explicit what caused the rift between Lori and her co-writer, but the caption written by Lori accompanying ‘Chill In My Vein’ on YouTube now states the following: ‘Lori wrote this song originally before Suzi Cramp tried to steel this song.’ Lori clearly doesn’t shy from conflict, openly calling comedian Liz Shaw (another divisive but unmistakably New Zealand figure) a ‘retard’.
There is a sense of uncertainty in her seeming lack of restraint. She does not at all conform to what is generally considered to be ‘professional’ (not mutually inclusive with 'good') popular music taste, and because of that I’m always a little uncomfortable as I take it all in. I don’t know whether it’s all an elaborate, long-running joke or if she is completely deranged. Either way, she is successful – because I can't look away.
Neither can anyone else, it seems. Many of the videos rack up tens of thousands of views; comments sprawl down the page. I mention Lori’s work and send links off to a couple of people. Prior to viewing, they are curious; intrigued. During; amazed, appalled, slightly disturbed. Without fail; addicted. One friend I waxed ravingly on to about Lori in a bus stop for a solid fifteen minutes, went home to look her up. 'It's like peering into another dimension,’ he wrote, ‘and I am terrified it is peering back.’
And now these different dimensions are paying tribute to each other. In 2011, ‘Chill In My Vein’ provoked an online tribute from an unknown male figure (YouTube account: “tcmaxxx”). His face is filmed in close-up from a static viewpoint, mouthing the song while donning headphones, a black ski mask with reflective silver lenses, and a Hawaiian shirt. The production echoes David Lynch's solo material in its spectral guitar-pop airs and postured intensity. While it’s a more conventional production, it’s also a suitably creepy spin-off that exposes ‘Chill In My Vein’ for what it is: a cult classic and a very accessible pop song.
Eventually, I send Lori a message via Facebook, to which I receive no response for weeks. I am curious - just to see how she writes, how she feels about the future of her music, but primarily, I’m a fan. I want to receive my personalised message, in her own words. I receive a harsh warning from a friend: 'I feel like she may come through the Internet tubes and kill you'. This is both plausible and dangerously appealing.
I wait. Our personal exchange perhaps never to occur, I satiate my appetite by bingeing voraciously on as much Lori content as I can lay my eyes on. I start to feel as though I've just sent a confession of love to an illicit and embarrassing crush, and her lack of communication is belittling. Isn't this what she wants? To be made a fuss of? For the broader public to become involved, invested in her work?
The day comes when she responds, offering a brief but loaded paragraph that reveals two primary drivers. One is struggle in a fundamental physical and neurological sense. Lori has suffered severely from epilepsy most of her life in addition to the aforementioned depression. The second is her ongoing family situation – her brother's death, estrangement from siblings and a stroke her father suffered are all mentioned.
My appetite piqued, I fire back more questions – but Lori’s responses are short and vague. I ask Lori whether her efforts to localise her music in New Zealand are intentional, to which she responds: 'Um... not really .' I’m deflated. Maybe I ask the wrong questions. Maybe Lori's busy tonight. Or maybe the Lori that’s confronted with articulating her approach to her work cannot compete with the work itself – a gargantuan Internet presence made monument and meme for years to come, casting a long shadow in which the real-time Lori is hidden. Why search for a 'real' Lori when the Lori we already have offers so very much?
The thought dawns on me that Lori is more at home in her own world, where she is the host, where she introduces and concludes and leaves not even the slightest pocket of air in which to take a breath, let alone ask a question. I am disturbed, confused and more impressed than ever.