Sticking to nearly the same sound that got them booed during their debut performance as kids at a Palo Alto middle school, The Donnas have paved a nine-year path from obscurity to success.
“We were just dorks in high school with weird clothes,” Head Donna and lead vocalist Brett Anderson deadpans between bites of breakfast at Mel’s Diner during a tour stop in San Francisco.
Now, the female foursome’s powerful punk and tales of romantic angst are the stuff of hot-selling CDs and live performances on MTV.
Anderson, bassist Maya Ford, whiz guitarist Allison Robertson and frenetic drummer Torry Castellano are steadily becoming bigger than they ever imagined, especially since the October release of their first major-label album, “Spend the Night.”
Their video “Take It Off” is in heavy rotation on MTV, and “The Donnas” T-shirts are on the backs of kids across the country.
Their monikers – Donna A. (Brett), Donna C. (Torry), Donna F. (Maya), and Donna R. (Allison) – certainly ring of the Ramones, as does some of their early music.
But in an industry that often markets young female artists mainly on their looks, The Donnas, all 23 now, have evolved nicely without the sheen of Britney Spears or the pelvic pyrotechnics of Christina Aguilera.
They grew up a stone’s throw from Stanford University in Palo Alto, a cozy breeding ground for the suburban punk aesthetic. Teens there often gravitate towards rebellious music – rap or punk – to downplay their bucolic, perfect-climate-in-the-perfect-town existence.
The girls who would become The Donnas were all punk sneers and bubblegum when they launched their careers as 13- and 14-year-olds at Jordan Middle School nine years ago under the name Screen. Their efforts were met by a cacophony of boos from boys.
The girls had just learned their first lesson in show business – you’re terrible until proven otherwise. The boys hadn’t come to listen as much as to witness certain disaster.
“It was like a train wreck,” recalls Castellano.
But the band persevered and grew better. Gigs at teen centers grew to headlining nights at beer halls and regional houses of rock repute. The Donnas snared a small label deal with the help of a disc jockey from Stanford’s radio station.
And their music gradually blossomed into full-tempo songs full of attitude, brass and a no-frills approach to matters of the heart.
Even critics who had panned The Donnas’ admittedly simplistic music in the past – they use relatively few chords and sing mostly about beer and boys – are reassessing.
“They started out as this very contrived, gimmicky indie-rock thing…. They all played these really repetitive Ramones-type punk songs,” says Cleveland-based music critic Rob Harvilla.
That was before The Donnas took charge of their careers. Local star-maker Darrin Raffaelli had penned their early recorded songs; now they began to write their own.
“Now that they’re running the show they’re a a good band. They’re a real good band,” Harvilla says.
The Donnas, not surprisingly, agree.
“We’re good people. We’re going to have fun,” says Robertson of the band’s hard-rocking attitude. “It’s kind of a celebration.”
Castellano describes the songs more bluntly.
“We’re a gang,” she says. “We wanted to have songs where the man is the sex object.”
The band members had heard enough music in which men discuss their sexual prowess. Their songs nearly all involve turning the tables – picking among suitors and discarding the rejects at breakneck speed.
Each Donna has a distinct stage personality, which together cohere into a wonderful mess. Anderson oozes sultriness in fronting the band. Ford shows brooding indifference as she twangs her bass guitar. Robertson’s spotlight guitar work and Castellano’s blur of hair and drumsticks provide The Donnas’ musical energy.
“Spend the Night,” their fourth album, contains songs such as “Take Me To the Backseat” and “Please Don’t Tease,” as well as “Take It Off,” and there’s not a double entendre in sight. The songs are minimalist odes to the female power of choice and discretion, if not restraint.
“They’re not political. They’re not feminist in any overly lyrical way,” Harvilla says. “It’s not something they discuss – it’s something they embody.”
The Donnas pal around with other tough-as-nails girl bands like Bratmobile. And they stick up for each other.
“Last night a guy tried to get up on stage and kiss me, and Brett, like, pushed him offstage,” recounts Robertson.
Anderson grins as she recalls seeing the stage crasher out of the corner of her eye and giving him a stiff arm, sending him sprawling. You could do a lot worse than having a Donna on your side in a dark alley fight.
And lest adoring fans think The Donnas might grow into listless 20-something rockers, too jaded to feel the pangs of youth, just look at their tour rider. At each stop, the menu includes bottled Bud and pizza.
“And Nerds Rope!” Castellano gushes about her favorite candy.