“You Are the Fix,” the mesmerizing debut single from Dimestore Dolls, immediately sets them apart from other indie acts – not just because of the song’s infectious groove, but also because frontwoman Kelly Buchanan wrote it with her longtime friend, Fountains of Wayne member Adam Schlesinger. In something of a tribute to Schlesinger, who passed away in 2020 of COVID-19, the song features performances from all surviving Fountains of Wayne members.
That collaboration is impressive, but Dimestore Dolls are more than capable of creating gorgeous harmonies and upbeat melodies on their own, as well. The Lancaster, Pennsylvania-based band prove this on the rest of the tracks on their debut album, Wooly Mamas, which is set for release in July 2022.
Dimestore Dolls marks Buchanan’s exuberant return to music after facing unimaginable obstacles. A riot grrrl singer-songwriter, her 2005 solo album, Bastard Daughter, earned much critical praise, national distribution, and an opening slot touring with Mike Doughty. But in 2008, as she was about to release her self-titled follow up album, tragedy struck when she joined an impromptu game of street hockey in her then-hometown of New York City – and suffered a traumatic brain injury when she took a slapshot to the head. The damage was so severe that she had to re-learn how to walk, and overcome difficulty with speaking. It took years more for her to rebuild all her other skills, including singing and playing instruments. In 2016, after a decade of recovery, she formed Dimestore Dolls.
Recovering from that trauma wasn’t the first time Buchanan has had to show remarkable strength and tenacity. After graduating from high school, she studied abroad in South America – but a relative of her host family had criminal ties, which led to her being held captive and on the brink of being sold into a sex trafficking ring. Using quick wits, and her fluency in Spanish, she escaped her captors and eventually make her way back to the U.S.
While Buchanan admits that this experience has had a profound influence on the music she has subsequently written, she makes an effort not to dwell on it too much. Instead, she prefers to focus on how this situation helped her discover what she should actually be doing with her life. “That whole thing made me reconsider my priorities,” she says. “I realized I didn’t really want to travel around the world and work in foreign embassies in third world countries. When I got back to America, I said, ‘You know what? I’d rather do music – there is more than one way to make a positive impact in the world.’”
Buchanan enrolled at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston. Majoring in Professional Music, she intensively studied music business practices and performance skills, as well as taking extensive coursework in voice and guitar.
Making this switch came easily for Buchanan because she had always been immersed in music. Growing up in a musical family in Hershey, Pennsylvania. Her father was a serious pianist, and she followed suit, starting piano lessons when she was three years old. She got her first guitar from her grandparents, who were performing musicians, and she soon formed a group with her cousins. Next, she become inspired by an eclectic mix of rock music ranging from The Pixies to Led Zeppelin and the Indigo Girls. This laid the foundation for the diverse music that she now writes herself. While studying abroad in France in high school, she fronted a rock band for the first time (French is Buchanan’s second language).
Buchanan’s father passed away when she was eleven years old, prompting her to write her first songs as a way to cope with her grief. “I write in emotional times. A lot of songs that I write are pretty intense,” she says. After her subsequent life challenges, Buchanan was again reminded of the importance of pouring her emotions into songs as a healthy outlet. “Music that soothes me when I’m not feeling my best, and uplifts me when I need that, is what I like the most. I like music that’s fun and intense at the same time.”
That approach is certainly evident with Dimestore Dolls. The band first formed to perform at a Christmas party, where the all-female lineup wore holiday sweaters (hence their Wooly Mamas album title). The band now includes men as well as women: Buchanan (lead vocals/lead and rhythm guitar), Christy Engel (drums), Scott Frenchek (bass/keyboards/vocals), Jeanette Stillman (vocals), Mollie Swartz (vocals), and Chris Whalen (rhythm guitar/vocals).
As the band’s main songwriter, Buchanan brings material to the other members, which they then turn into their distinctive, highly varied sound. Their widely differing backgrounds add to this originality. While Buchanan has been heavily involved in playing music her whole life, Engel didn’t start playing drums until she reached adulthood. Whalen played in bands years ago but had gone on hiatus, only to rediscover his love for playing and performing again after joining this group. Stillman also fronts her own self-titled band, while Swartz also has another band, Apes of the State. Frenchek has been performing in various bands for years, but has found immense inspiration in being allowed to experiment with a vast array of different sounds in Dimestore Dolls, which is a sentiment the other bandmates echo.
“I feel like I’ve hit the jackpot,” Engel says of being in Dimestore Dolls. “Kelly is talented, organized, driven, and motivated. She’s the glue that holds the band together, and she’s created an environment that makes me want to work hard and succeed. It’s easy to be in a band with her. It’s an honor.” Whalen concurs: “It seems like Kelly crafted the band the way she crafts one of her songs – carefully and with complexity, adding notes that are fun and interesting and not at all expected or obvious. That’s why I like playing with her: it’s always surprising.”
As she continues to refine her craft, Buchanan is grateful to get another chance to do what she loves best, and determined to make the most of it with this band. “It feels like I’ve made a full recovery,” she says. “There was a moment when I couldn’t walk or talk, and it felt like it was the end of my life, but it wasn’t. I kept pushing through it because there is no other choice. It was either get up every day and do physical therapy and work really hard – or just give up. I choose to survive.”
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Your show was killing. And holy s&*t, your voice!!! Vocals were RIDICULOUS. You and your band are really kick-ass! Great songs (with) harmonies sung with that combination of command and abandon!
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