If you listen to Megan Dooley’s latest album, Made in Kalamazoo, chances are you won’t be able to guess what’s coming next. The music is a mix of original songs by Dooley and a few covers, including a plucky, deft version of Tom Waits’ “Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis.” The album surprises with each song, and that’s a good thing.
Dooley is a torch singer. Her voice is a train dressed in satin. It lilts, flirts and storms, and all this musical drama is a performance she’s worked more than half her life to develop. But despite all the flare, Dooley says she wants to be one of the “most reliable musicians” in Kalamazoo.
Wearing a T-shirt and guitar-shaped earrings that swing when she moves her head, the 30-year-old Kalamazoo native explains that by “reliable” she means “ethical and approachable as well as affordable” and that her desire to be this way may be the reason she makes a living as a musician at all.
“I don’t charge very much (to perform) because I want to be accessible,” she says. “I don’t want my work to be this out-of-reach thing. I also think I should be able to make a living, so I try to find a middle ground. If you’re going to work in a small town, a good reputation is the most important thing. People want to depend on you. If they can, they’re going to tell their friends.”
Dooley, who started playing guitar at 14, also plays banjolele. She performs with the Kalamazoo bands Dooley Noted, Moxieville and Top Heavy, but also as a solo artist, in venues like O’Duffy’s Pub, Old Dog Tavern, Bell’s Eccentric Café and Saugatuck Brewing Co. as well as at fundraisers and private house shows.
But don’t be fooled: Dooley is a businesswoman trapped in a musician’s body, and she has the college credits in grant writing to prove it.
Those credits paid off: Dooley was awarded a $4,500 Kalamazoo Artistic Development Initiative grant by the Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo in April 2015 to record Made in Kalamazoo at La Luna Recording & Sound. Dooley says the grant-writing process was a lengthy one that included having her application edited “18 billion times” by everyone she knew in the arts community. Dooley also learned to use the Excel software program and met with accountants to make a budget spreadsheet.
“I started the process really early because I’m a procrastinator. I know my habits really well, so I tried to do the opposite of everything I usually do.”
If these words sound like those of a very wise person, consider the fact that Dooley has been chasing music in one way or another since she was 16 and dropped out of Vicksburg High School during her sophomore year. She moved in with an older friend in Kalamazoo while working at her twin passions of cooking and music. She worked at a number of area restaurants, including Food Dance, Fandango, Crow’s Nest and Rustica, and for the Millenium Restaurant Group.
“I love cooking as much as I love making music,” she says. “It’s something I’ve always been very passionate about. I put it on the back burner because it’s always something I could do when I’m 60 or 70 or 80 years old. I can cook my whole life, but I’ve got a limited window when I can really focus on putting music out there. I had to save my hands. I was cutting fingertips off. I still have scars all over my arms.”
After earning a GED, Dooley went on to Kalamazoo Valley Community College, majoring in both English and illustration. She also had the forethought to take a grant-writing class there, “just because I knew it was probably going to help me in the long run.”
Dooley, however, says she’s still kicking herself for not taking business courses. She teaches herself with help from her network, including her mom, Margaret Dooley, who is a retired accountant.
Dooley’s goal is to support herself as an artist, and she does so by performing a variety of shows, from solo shows at bars to performances with six-piece bands at big events.
“Diversification!” she jokes. “I’ve been through everything so many times, I’m done not setting myself up for success. I used to self-sabotage because I didn’t know any better. I was young.”
While Dooley admits that she believes she’s had some angels looking after her, especially career-wise, she says that bearing witness to her own failures again and again is what she needs to see the next step clearly.
“Mostly, I have a voice in the back of my head that’s like, ‘Hey, girl. That didn’t work out so well. Why don’t you sit down and analyze what went wrong and see if we can avoid that in the future?’”
The strategy seems to be working. In December, Dooley opened for Detroit-based folk legend Rodriguez at Kalamazoo’s State Theatre. Rodriguez, who was wildly popular in South Africa years before he knew about his fame there, gained wider attention and a boost for his music career with the 2012 Oscar-winning documentary about him, Searching for Sugar Man. Opening for Rodriguez was a surreal experience, says Dooley, but she treated it like every other show she plays. Otherwise her nerves would have sunk her, she says.
“I warm up for hours. I make really weird sounds. You have to make sure you’re loose, especially for a show like that.”
Dooley credits her father, Tom Dooley, who died in 2014 after a six-month battle with Stage IV lung cancer, as the reason she plays music. Tom Dooley was a “preservationist of sorts” who specialized in Old English cursive writing and handmade quill-and-ink drawings while working odd jobs as a car salesman and mechanic. Megan says one of her father’s favorite things to do was sing Christmas carols at the top of his lungs.
“He had this beautiful, big, booming baritone voice that spread far and wide,” she says. “It would simultaneously weird people out and make them extremely happy.
“It embarrassed the hell out of me when I was a kid. I was trying not to get noticed, which is how a lot of people feel when they get on stage. At this point, I don’t hold back anymore. I can get very loud, but I know how to control it, so I can stand back and use it when I want.”
For more information or to listen to Megan Dooley, visit megandooleyFB.