Nicole Dollanganger is a 23-year-old songwriter from Stouffville, Ontario whose art and music circles around recurring themes—her lyrics are filled with images of sexual violence, illness, and death. Her music and art create an idiosyncratic, sometimes unsettling world of trailers and motels, violence, and sex. All of this is delivered by a light, airy voice, that’s reminiscent of a doll, ironic considering the antique dolls that dotted her childhood home with two doll collectors for parents. The disconnect between Nicole’s childlike voice and her brutally dark lyrics are at the heart of her music’s appeal. This vulnerability that she allows to come through gives more depth to the anguish that many of her songs seem to embody.
Though she hasn’t yet put out an album on a label, Nicole’s Bandcamp lists more than half a dozen releases ranging from a collection of Marilyn Manson covers entitled Columbine EP to Ode To Dawn Weiner: Embarrassing Love Songs, an album of sexually explicit folk songs named for the adolescent protagonist of Todd Solondz’ 1995 film Welcome To The Dollhouse. All of these releases were recorded using Garageband in her bedroom and bathroom, but she’s told me that her newest material was recorded in a studio with a full band.
She first started making music in 2012, when an extended bed stay restricted her ability to go outside. She had made a handful of songs before, with titles like “Coma Baby” and “Valley Of The Dead,” but with the surplus of time she found herself with, and the relative isolation, she made the decision to write and record her first full release, later putting it out herself on Bandcamp. It’s amazing, then, to see how far those Bandcamp releases have taken her—for only her second live show ever, Claire Boucher of Grimes had asked her to perform alongside her and fellow indie performer Hana at The Molson Theatre, helping her open for Lana Del Rey at the Toronto show of their joint tour.
Despite her fascination with the frailty of antiques, Nicole is unmistakably a child of the internet. She fits in well on Tumblr, one of the places where the disparate visual elements of her world can easily mesh together. Her page is a blend of bondage images, stills from horror movies, excerpts from her hand drawn zines (in her own words: “A group of perverted girls at a carnival who lure people into the ocean like modern day sirens”), and replies to heartfelt anonymous notes from her fans. Though her aesthetic is dark, in her social media presence she comes across as accessible and genuine. She often posts pictures with her pug, Frederick.
Her accessibility may be one of the elements that makes her so appealing to younger girls who are equally plugged in online. When I ask her if she’s seen a video a young female fan of hers made dressed as a Gothic Lolita, covering one of her songs, she laughs and tells me, “Yes, I’ve actually talked to that girl on Tumblr a few times.” (I ask her if she’s interested in Lolita culture, with its connection to dolls, and she replies, “I think Gothic Lolita is cool, but it’s not really my thing.”) With her enthusiastic following of young fans on Tumblr and Twitter, her connection to Grimes, and new, more polished music on the way, she seems poised to explode online.
Noisey: You did a show with Grimes last night opening for Lana Del Rey, right?
Nicole Dollanganger: It was really sweet, she brought me on stage to do backup vocals at the Molson Theatre. I was terrified, I had only played one show before at a small bar in Toronto. The show with Claire was for 13,000 people, so it was a lot bigger.
Did Lana Del Rey influence your music? Listening to your older songs, I hear a lot in common with her music.
I love her, I think she’s fantastic, but I actually didn’t know that much of her stuff until more recently. I had heard some stuff before, like “Video Games,” and so when I was making a lot of that music I didn’t really know about her at all.
Can you tell me about your background growing up?
I’ve always lived in the same small town in Toronto, but I’ve also gone back and forth living in southwest Florida. My parents are both doll collectors, their house is full of them. My mom collects mainly carnival dolls from the 1920s, and my dad mainly collects ventriloquist dolls.
Did that inspire the recurring theme of dolls in your art and music?
I like dolls a lot, and growing up around that has always influenced me. When you have a doll from the 1920s, and for something so fragile to still be around, you know that they’ve been well cared for.
What’s the town you grew up like? Is there a big music scene there?
The hardcore music scene in Toronto is really big, so those are the kind of shows that I’m used to going to. I like Exalt, they’re probably my favorite local hardcore band.
You were bedridden when you first started making music, right?
I was on bedrest for a year. I didn’t have much contact with the outside world, so I was just living in my own little world for that period of time. I had never taken lessons in any instruments, so I was just playing around with stuff and that was when I decided to make and finish an album. Then I put that album on Bandcamp in 2012. Do your songs mostly come from events in your own life, or do you write from the perspective of characters? In one of your songs, “Rampage,” you sample Eric Harris, one of the Columbine shooters.
I would say 90% of the time it’s from things that I’ve experienced. I write better from my personal perspective than an outside perspective. I sampled Eric Harris because there’s this big fandom of teenage girls on Tumblr who idolize him and Dylan Klebold because they think that the two of them were just lonely and that their love could have helped prevent the shootings. I felt like that was how I often felt in relationships – you want to believe that a violent person won’t hurt you because they love you. My personal opinion though is that these boys were violent and that nothing was going to stop them from committing the shooting.
A lot of your lyrics are really sexually frank. Do you find it freeing to write about sex openly in your music?
I think in a lot of ways female sexuality is this really taboo topic, so it can be fun to write about it and be honest and normalize it.
What are your biggest influences, in terms of music or films? Type O Negative is probably my biggest influence, musically. I like a lot of black metal, Daniel Johnston is a big influence too. I love campy horror movies, Nightmare on Elm Street, Jeepers Creepers, all of those low budget films.
What are you into right now?
Mad Max. I loved the original and the remakes, I’ve already seen the new one three times in theatres.
Tell me about the new music you’re working on. How is it different from your older songs?
It’s the first music I’ve recorded outside of my bedroom, it was recorded in my friend’s basement studio. There’s a lot of technique that I couldn’t do on Garageband in my bedroom. And now I have a full backing band.
Michael Doherty is a writer - @Dohertz