Mannequin Pussy Are Trying To Break Your Heart
Mannequin Pussy’s Marisa Dabice has the kind of voice you can’t ignore—a punk yowl with a soul singer’s flair for raw passion. Her Philadelphia foursome raise a ferociously emotional racket on their new breakthrough album Patience, one of the year’s most cathartic rock statements. “Drunk II” is Dabice’s witty ballad of partying her way through misery, with the punch line, “I forgot we were broken up/I still love you, you stupid fuck.” “I felt like it was almost a Lady Antebellum song after I wrote it,” she says. “Or even the Dixie Chicks.”
As you might guess from her excellent band name, Dabice has a confrontational side to her personality. Mannequin Pussy made their bones as a crowd-crushingly intense live band, raging about lust and heartbreak on their 2014 debut Gypsy Pervert and the even noisier 2016 follow-up Romantic. (Sample lyric: “I was miles away when you needed someone to sit on your face screaming ‘Keep me!’”) But on Patience, these punk kids crash into previously taboo territory: melodies, hooks, choruses. “Screaming is you’re just putting something out there,” Dabice says. “No one can tell you that you sound bad, because you’re just screaming. But with singing, you’re more exposed and vulnerable, you know? I think I’m still learning how to use my voice.”
As a little girl, she took guitar lessons from a neighbor, a Philly session musician who worked with Hall and Oates. “One day I was taking a guitar lesson and one of them came in. I gave him an angry look—‘Hey, this is MY guitar time!’” Was it Hall or Oates? “I have no idea. The blonde.” (That means Hall.) But she was already on a mission. “I didn’t want to learn skills. I didn’t want to learn notes. I was writing songs, and I wanted my teacher to help me find the voice to play them. I wanted to be in a band so bad.”
From the start, Dabice turned to music for catharsis. “I had a very intense teenage experience—I was diagnosed with cancer when I was 15. Any free will I was supposed to have was suddenly taken away—nothing was in my control. I was going through experiences none of my peers could relate to. I used to be very goofy and strange and it really sobered me up. Growing up in the Connecticut suburbs, it’s an environment where there is a set way to live your life. Then once that happened I just felt like, ‘Just just burn down all this shit. Clearly I’m not on the same path as everyone else.’ So it allowed to me to rip up that script.”
Her idols were Amy Winehouse, the Strokes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. “When you’re a young woman, you’re not really seeing yourself reflected in the music world—it’s a little harder when you have to be your own role model. I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t have Karen O to look up to.”
But Mannequin Pussy came together when she started playing with childhood friend Thanasi Paul. “He was in high-school bands—I’d go out to the teen center and see his band play. None of the girls played music—you know, we were the supporters.” She didn’t venture onstage until she was 23. “My mom had a stroke, so I moved back to the east coast to take care of her. All of a sudden I was at the hospital every day. So I just called him and said, ‘I feel really lost. Would you play with me?’ That became my cathartic outlet—just screaming onstage.” The duo eventually expanded with Bear Regisford on drums and Kaleen Reading on drums.
Dabice has never been shy about getting in the audience’s face. She’s been known to play DIY punk spaces in a t-shirt that says “Black Flag Fucking Sucked.” “What could be more of a Black Flag fan tribute?” she asks plausibly. “But it really pissed people off.” (And by “people,” she means…men? “Glad you noticed.”) Mannequin Pussy’s live perversion of the Contours’ Motown oldie “Do You Love Me?” turns it into an exorcism of pure desperation and self-loathing—the words “watch me work” have never felt so disturbing.
Patience, their first album since signing to Epitaph, gets downright charming in songs like “Drunk II,” “Cream” and “High Horse,” with producer Will Yip beefing up the guitar tones. It reflects her love of tunecraft—she’s also doing straight-up pop in her side project Rosie Thorne. “I never wanted to stay in the same place, so if I can finally learn how to write a chorus, maybe on the next one I’ll learn to write a bridge. I don’t really like bridges, unless it’s Taylor Swift doing it—I think she’s the only one who knows how to write a proper bridge.”
But emotionally, the new songs get more cathartic than ever. “On this record, I’m writing about a few different relationships,” Dabice says. “Some songs, I was just in love with somebody who did not love me like that. But some songs are about getting involved an abusive relationship. I didn’t want to write about abuse, but I was looking through poems and lyrics I had written and thought, ‘I see it coming up all the time. I should probably just get this out so it’s gone.’ I never really wanted to write about those things, but I see a song as an opportunity to work through the experience and then say goodbye to it. You sing it every night, and those memories come back—I just feel like, ‘Oh my God. Everything around me is on fire, and I’m on fire.’ And then I start to slip out of that, into feeling hope again, feeling peace again. How do you find peace with all your memories? I think that’s all I’m trying to do on every song.”
A condensed version of this piece ran in Rolling Stone’s annual Hot Issue, on newsstands now.