Every weekend, for 11 months out of the year, Colette Marino—who’s known simply as DJ Colette on the club circuit—zigzags across the U.S. with crates of albums. She entertains throbbing crowds of 2,000 with early house music. Then she zips back to Los Angeles to see her husband, the actor Thomas Ian Nicholas.
But Marino, who met her first DJ in eighth grade at Pritzker Elementary in Wicker Park, isn’t content, like most, to stay penned up in a booth. For more than a decade, she has been singing over dance tracks—a move that’s unusual enough on the club scene. But this year, she stepped outside the glass and started performing songs with a live band and, in doing so, began staking territory closer to pop. Her new record, called Push (Om Records), comes stocked with hard beats, glossy effects, savvy hooks, and her silky voice—which sounds like Debbie Harry in her prime.The transition to budding pop diva means a relatively new role for Marino, who, as a teen, burned up dance floors at all-ages clubs and sought out underground phenoms like Derrick Carter at Wicker Park loft parties. “I just lived for this music. I always wanted to be involved with [it] but hadn’t figured out how,” she says. After graduating from the University of Illinois at Chicago, where she studied painting, she enrolled in “[her] version of graduate school": juggling jobs at local record labels, working the register at Gramaphone Records, promoting shows at night while testing her own turntable skills. “I kept chipping away and never gave up,” she says. “I was really patient.”
Eventually word got out and she was handed a monthly residency at Smart Bar, which she maintains to this day, despite moving to Los Angeles seven years ago (catch her at Smart Bar Dec. 8th). The involved transporting 40 crates of albums. “I was just really ready to live in a warm climate,” she says. “I’m a big baby.” Home time is doled out in 12-hour shifts, meaning time for just three things: “laundry, pay my bills, have dinner with my husband.” Nicholas, her husband, who played the title role in the 1993 baseball tearjerker Rookie of the Year, is equally busy: He’s on the road promoting a rock album of his own.
Marino often finds herself back in Chicago, her professional launching pad. “[Metro/Smart Bar owner] Joe Shanahan has always been really supportive of dance music through the decades,” says Marino. And then there’s the space, down in the basement. “It reminds me of being a teenager in Chicago and doing basement parties.”
Catch her Dec. 8th at Smart Bar, 3730 N. Clark St.; 773-549-0203, smartbarchicago.com.
Photograph: Katrina Wittkamp