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Interview with Singer/Songwriter Justine Dorsey

Q: When did you start performing?

Dorsey: Well, at seven, I started performing – acting, singing, musical theater. When I was 13, I started writing my own music. The more I performed my original work, the more I realized it was my passion, so now I am a singer/songwriter, and all the music that I play is my own.

Q: So, you recorded your first demo at seven years old?

Dorsey: Yeah, I did. Every once in a while, a recording of it resurfaces, and I’m like, “Oh my god, I sound like a chipmunk.”

Q: Did your parents encourage you to perform?

Dorsey: It’s definitely something I figured out on my own. My parents are not musical at all. My dad had done a bit of acting, but they never planned on having their kids be in the industry. It just came about organically. When I was little, I asked my mom how people got inside the TV. She thought that I was showing an interest in acting, so she put me in musical theater.

Q: You and your sister both acted in the Brother and Sisters show. How was it working with her?

Dorsey: We actually never taped a scene together. We played step-cousins, but we only appeared together in one wedding scene.

Q: Are you competitive with your sister?

Dorsey: What’s really cool is that we both act and do music, but acting is more of her focus and music is more of my focus. Although we are in each other’s world, ultimately, we are separate entities. Even if she does go out and pursue music more heavily, our parents taught us that, “When one Dorsey wins, every Dorsey wins!” So, I always remember that.

Q: Speaking of working with family–how is it working with your dad as your manager?

Dorsey: My dad is really important, and he believes in me, 100%. My dad is an entrepreneur and owns his own business, and I feel like I am an entrepreneur with my music business. I don’t think I would be progressing at this rate if my dad wasn’t by my side. My mom is also important because she pushes my sister and me in a great way, not in a negative way. When I would get lazy and not practice guitar, she would say, “One day, something is going to click, and you’re going to want to practice. Your fingers are going to be itching for that guitar.” And now, they are. If my mom hadn’t pushed, I probably would have quit guitar. So, both of my parents are the greatest gift.

Q: How has your career, and all of the different things you’re pursuing, impacted your life as a teenager?

Dorsey: I actually get this question from people a lot, but I don’t feel like I missed out on anything, really. If I ever do feel a little bit wistful for that world, I just remember how many teenagers probably want to be doing what I’m doing. I’ve had so many wonderful opportunities to do really great things already, and I didn’t have to wait until I was out of school to experience them. So, I have no problem missing out on the high school experience. Every once in a while, I will watch a high school movie or something and think, “I would really love to do that,” but the parts that they’re depicting are most often not even the school part; it’s just the having friends and the fun part.

Q: Do you go to a normal school or are you home-schooled?

Dorsey: I started off in a regular school, then I transitioned into homeschooling, and now I’ve tested out of high school and am taking college classes.

Q: Have you chosen a major in your online courses?

Dorsey: Right now I’m just focusing on getting an AA (associate’s degree), but I don’t think I want to go into music theory in college. You can make it in that world without a degree. People only care that you are a true artist. I love reading, and I’m obsessed with grammar. I correct my mom all the time, and she just hates me for it. So, I’d probably want to study English. I might want to be a book editor or something like that.

Q: How do you balance your hectic performing schedule and time with your friends and family?

Dorsey: Well, I’m lucky enough right now that it’s not super crazy. I get to spend plenty of time with my friends and family. Also, technology is incredibly helpful – Skype, text, video chat and all that stuff. My friends are really cool about what I do; it’s a non-issue.

Q: How do you meet new friends?

Dorsey: I meet people around my music. When I do shows and play at coffeehouses, I meet other musicians. I went to a Rookie Mag road trip event and became friends with some of the girls I met there. I feel like the best way to make friends is when I try new things outside of my comfort zone.

Q: Are there parts of the industry that you’re not crazy about?

Dorsey: That is a tough question. There is so much competition in Los Angeles, and bigger labels are less willing to take risks on artists with a different sound. The labels say, “This song is a hit, so you need to write a song like this.” I think they are missing an opportunity. The most successful and respected artists did something different; The Beatles did not become ‘The Beatles’ by doing what others did. On the flip-side, things are changing. Consumers are willing to take chances on people they find through the Internet: ordinary people with a guitar in front of a webcam. So, it’s really crazy and a little confusing, but ultimately, it’s the world I want to be in, so there must be something good about it.

Q: How do you avoid the pitfalls of teen celebrity?

Dorsey: I think one thing that has helped me a lot is that I haven’t grown up with that kind of fame that people attain. For example, Lindsay Lohan had incredible fame at such a young age and didn’t know anything outside of that world. But, I’ve had all this time to be a normal kid and do normal things and not have paparazzi surrounding me and chasing me down the streets. But then there are other kids, like Elle Fanning, who have grown up in that environment and are perfect and lovely.

I’ve had a couple family members who passed away because of unhealthy excess, so I try to stay away from that stuff. I love my family and my friends too much to do that to them. As long as I have my family and friends, I’m not going to be going down any bad roads any time soon.

Q: What would you say to teens who want your life and what you have?

Dorsey: You absolutely do need to dream, but the dreams don’t put things in motion. When you start learning an instrument, making YouTube videos and playing in coffee shops, it actually puts your dreams in motion. This industry takes work. It’s not just performing; there are meetings and many other things that aren’t “fun.”

Samantha Zabell

Samantha Zabell just graduated from Northwestern University with a degree in journalism.