“In life,” Kathleen Long said, “you either choose to sing a rainbow, or you don’t. Keep singing.”
This week’s portrait is someone who can sing a rainbow and a whole lot more. Dot Levine is the owner/operator of Dottie’s Serenade Service, a singing telegram style service that has been doing a booming business during the pandemic. According to Dot, “The genesis of this is that people want to connect with one another. A song feels like one of the most intimate gifts you can give to someone. We can’t touch each other right now, but I can sing a song that makes someone feel good.” A “Best of Philly” winner, Dot’s repertoire ranges from Willy Wonka to the Cure to Ella Fitzgerald and traditional Yiddish ditties. I took a moment to talk to Levine about music making and the art of joy.
Tell me a little about Dot.
I’ve been in Philly for 10 years. Is that good or do you need to know that I’m from North Jersey?
Hey, don’t short change North Jersey, I’m originally from Passaic.
Ah, I’m from outside of Newark. But I never liked it much. I moved away from the NY/NJ area as soon as I finished high school. I was living in New England when someone invited me to a wedding in Philly, and I came and fell in love with West Philly.
Tell me a little about the family? Big? Small?
I have two siblings, my mom has 3 siblings but one is called a half brother, [laughing] I mean he’s not half a person, he’s a whole human. They all played music so I grew up making music with the extended family on holidays and stuff like that.
What instruments did or do you play?
Gosh, I went through a lot of phases; I played piano, banjo, ukulele and upright bass before landing on guitar and vocals.
You said you left home after high school, did you go to college or did you just hit the road?
I went to Temple briefly, but I moved to New England after one semester and never went back to school. [Laughing] I was not built for it. I’m a better teacher than a student. Well, for clarity, I’ve always been a good learner, I just don’t work well in an academic setting. I’m a proud and ambitious autodidact.
Why New England?
I don’t know how deep you get but I was mostly there to get treated for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I was there for a few years before coming back here for that wedding. I hated Philly when I was here suffering through scholastics, I fell in love with it once I discovered West Philly. I moved here straight away.
We can get however deep you are comfortable with.
I’m fine talking about it as long as it’s done in a way that’s respectful not just to me but to all people who suffer with mental illness. Are you familiar with OCD?
Not more than a surface knowledge.
One of the tropes that bothers me, as someone who has had these issues since before I can remember and has suffered a lot from symptoms of what we call OCD, is the colloquial use of the term OCD. Like when you hear people saying, “Oh, I’m so OCD” about this or that. It makes me want to say, “Oh really? Were you hospitalized for 5 years? Because I was. Do you derive an unreal amount of anxiety from the minutiae of that process?” There’s a reason for the D in OCD, it’s a disorder, a mental illness, not a feature.
How has it affected you and how does it manifest for you?
Do you know the Yiddish term tsuris? It’s variously defined as troubles, worries, aggravation, woes, suffering, grief or heartache. The way in which the OCD causes me grief are varied. I struggled with something called Intrusive Thoughts, which is basically what it sounds like. You’re just doing your thing and making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and suddenly you remember something or have this very disturbing or unpleasant thought that seems to have come from elsewhere, of course it doesn’t come from anywhere else, but that’s what it feels like. They can derail whatever I’m doing and I get them many times a day, especially when I’m anxious. OCD is an anxiety disorder by its taxonomy. I also have a tick disorder which comes hand in hand with OCD. I get facial tics and hand tics and sometimes vocal tics, but they don’t often manifest substantially when I’m around other people. Another manifestation is that I’ll blurt out a syllable or word. Usually it’s just nonsense, like the other day when I had a funny one. I was just sitting there and I suddenly cried out, “Peo-ple!” Not the word, because I don’t usually make words, it was just the two syllables. [Laughing] I startled myself!
Has the journey with mental health contributed to the work that you do? It seems that a lot of artists have been able to channel their challenges into their artistic practice.
I get a little sensitive around the idea that mental illness benefits anyone. My experience with mental health has shaped my perspective in some ways, not all, but… I’ll put it this way, something you probably understand, being a journalist for a marginalized people, is that there can be joy in community. Thank goodness the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) from the American Psychiatric Association no longer categorizes queer as a mentally ill. Mental illness itself, the things that are not an identity but are patterns that result in poor mental health, they are an illness and as such it’s hard to look on the “bright” side of mental illness. Especially when so many people lose their lives to it due to systemic dysfunction. So I don’t like to indulge the thought that I may have benefitted from the way mental illness may have influenced my perspective. I’m privileged in that I’ve been able to receive the amount of treatment that I’ve gotten, and that I’ve had access to medication. It’s not something that most people have access to and without it I wouldn’t have been able to live in this world, so I’m privileged just to be alive.
[Laughing] Sorry if I got a little intense, you touched on something that’s a big part of my life! I’m grateful for your interest in my experience.
Of course, and thanks for the candid conversation.
Yes, I think it’s important to talk about.
What does your music mean for you?
Music gives me a purpose and lets me feel useful. It makes me feel that I have a reason for being. I’m a good teacher and I’m able to give a lot of people joy and satisfaction through teaching. Teaching is all about giving, and emotional support which I love. If I wasn’t such a big diva, that would be enough, but unfortunately I also have a deep persisting need for attention as many entertainers do. [Laughing] We need attention and validation and I need heaps of that or I’m not getting through the week! I truly feel like I’m built to make people happy through music and entertaining and whatever high jinx and drama and silliness I get into.
Which brings us to Dottie’s Serenade Service.
Yes! Next month will be my one year anniversary. I started it a week after the Covid shutdown, a lot of my usual music gigs and in-person teaching gigs had suddenly gone away. I needed to think of something else and this seemed like a perfect way to reach out to people during a pandemic. People want to give a personalized gift that makes somebody feel really special, and I’m here for it. Not only do I learn the songs, but I try to put together a carefully curated performance. I kind of feel like this is what I’m put on earth for. It’s a skill set that I happen to have and I’m very lucky that I get to do this.
That’s great. What’s the reaction you get?
I’ve done about 300 at this point, and about half the time my recipients, no matter if they’re old, young, or whatever gender, they all cry tears of joy.
Let’s get into your coming out song.
When I came here for that first visit to West Philly, I was in my early 20’s and I didn’t know anything about queer identity. I’d never heard the term nonbinary and didn’t know what it meant to be trans, but I saw and met all these genderqueer people and thought, that’s cool as f***, I want to be near that. But I didn’t know why. It’s funny how the unconscious mind can open doors for us. I moved here and my housemate explained things to me, though at the time I identified as a cis straight person. [Laughing] At the time I was just like, “Wow, that’s so interesting…” and then slowly I began to distance myself from and tease apart the unhealthy and toxic masculinity that we’ve been socialized with. I asked my friends not to use masculine language to describe me, which didn’t really take, so I changed my pronouns to they/them in the hope that it would remind people and that still wasn’t enough, so I changed my name to Dot, and started presenting as feminine which helps a lot. There’s a part of me that wishes I didn’t have to put on a show just to have my wishes respected. I don’t enjoy shaving, but it’s what I need to do to keep people from misgendering me so I can feel happy when I’m out and about. A way to get people to think twice before they address me in any particular way. And of course, I also have great joy in my life because of it, I like looking and feeling pretty. I feel freed by being Dot, it’s a lot easier to breathe.
Has the family embraced Dot?
As much as any liberal family can manage. [Laughing] A lot of thoughts and prayers! The older ones are not great with names and pronouns but overall they are supportive.
That’s good to hear. Switching gears, what song makes you sad or melancholy?
For me, I’m more saddened by the context of a song rather than the content of a song, if that makes sense. For instance, a white guy singing about some ‘tragic thing’ and you’re like, no, you might have thought this was cute or tragic, but it’s not. Sad. Or like last night on a zoom board game night with my friends, we were talking about the Carol King album “Tapestry.” I hate the title track. The reason I can’t stand it is that Carol King is a force, she’s a superhuman, and it kills me that the title track is about some mystical dude! She’s an incredible, powerful woman and the title track is about some hippy dippy white guy. What a waste of a track, it makes me sad.
Awww, for me I heard Sara Bareilles singing, “What the World Needs Now is Love” the other night and that got me all choked up.
[Applauds] I love Burt Bacharach so much! Wow, I didn’t know she covered that.
The interview is paused as we fawn over Dionne Warwick and break into a rendition of “Do you know the way to San Jose”
What’s your superpower?
Making people happy! I’m good at knowing what an audience needs, and adjusting my performances to fit the audience whether it’s one person at their doorstep or a club full of people.
Did/do you sing with a band too?
Yes, I have a few bands that I lead, like “Dot Levine and Their Singular Band” and we do everything from clubs to private events, weddings, etc. I also play on the side for other bands in Philly and NY. They usually hire me to play guitar or banjo or ukulele, but then they get tired of me wanting to sing all the time!
Did you have a favorite stuffed animal or blankie as a kid?
I have a favorite blanket now! Does that count? I got a weighted blanket and it’s amazing. They’re especially good for people with anxiety disorders, but I recommend them for everyone.
And what’s happening now for you?
I’m doing a tour across the nation, serenading everywhere I go. Right now I’m in Florida and soon I’ll be traveling across the country to California, up to the Pacific Northwest and then back to Philly. I have serenades booked all throughout the South, I have them booked in LA, in Portland, in Seattle, and now people are calling to book serenades on my trip back! I get to make people happy from coast to coast!
Favorite mantra you like to keep in your heart?
There are two different ones that I’ve had to really lean into while I’ve been traveling and they both kind of mean the same thing. I’ve been camping throughout this trip, and I reached out on social media to find out where I could camp in Gainesville. A friend tagged someone else and that person lent me their empty house for a month! For free! Before that I was in tents and a camper that I’ve been building along the way and it’s been a comedy of errors. I tend to be a perfectionist, so the mantra that I’ve been trying to live by is, “I can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good enough.” The other way of thinking about it is, “Anything worth doing, is worth doing poorly,” and the final incidental that keeps falling out of my mouth is, “I’m so lucky…” I don’t even mean to say it but it just pops out because it’s true. I mean even this interview, I’m so lucky that you called and that people care about what I’m doing. And now I have this opportunity to spread happiness all over the country. Woo! It blows my noggin!