My mom was a drummer in a 90s girl band, which played everywhere from my hometown of Baltimore to CBGB to Woodstock ‘94 (I was five; I stayed with my grandparents and got the chicken pox. It was almost exactly like seeing Trent Reznor covered in mud). At one gig, two roadie dudes waited eagerly to meet the band’s drummer. “Where is he?” they asked. Instead of correcting them right away, my skinny blonde mother, set up the drum set as dudes looked on confused. They had just had it when she asked them to scamper down to Rite Aid to grab her a box of maxi pads. When she finally went on stage, their jaws dropped as they realized they’d been helping the drummer the whole time. (Also, pro Brokelyn tip from mom: maxi pads make great low-budget drum mufflers).
So this was back in the 90s; you may think women’s visibility in music has improved, but, no — even here in New York City, one of the most progressive cities in the world, women have to wade through the daily muck of harassment, especially as they’re first getting their start on stage. Hell, even Bjork and Solange have to wade through the bullshit, often not getting credit for their work the way a guy would. We rounded up a sampling of the best local (and people who play locally a lot) lady musicians to collect musings on trying, and failing, to be taken seriously as a musician and a woman.
Here’s some shit people have said to lady musicians, and what they had to say back.
THE VOICE DOCTOR
“I often get ‘you’re destroying your voice,’ but I’ve been singing like this for years, and it hasn’t given out yet. I’ve also heard, ‘You were great, but you sure do lean on that E-major.’ How are my chords your business? You worry about your voice and your chords, I’ll worry about mine. I’ll admit that I proceeded to play all my E-major heavy songs whenever that guy was around, because I have the microphone and I do what I want.”
–Freya Wilcox, Freya Wilcox & The Howl ” Originally from Australia, Freya Wilcox has been taking over New York City for the past few years with the “road rash howl” of her blues-punk vocals. Her band is rad, their album is rad, and they also have really cool T-shirts.
THE GENRE POLICE
“The most irritating thing someone said to me is that I should be singing more soul or R&B, and what’s up with this ‘folk’ stuff. Like a Black girl can’t sing folk music. I think I said, ‘Thanks, but I can play anything. I play whatever’s in my heart.’ ”
–Teena May, a singer/songwriter/composer who is recording her full length rock album in Brooklyn this autumn.
“‘Firecrotch!’ To that guy’s credit, he did apologize after the show.”
–Alex White, White Mystery, which is the brother-sister rock-n-roll duo Alex White and Francis Scott Key White. They’re from Chicago, but they have played all over our fair city: you may have even caught on the stage at Brooklyn’s Gigawatts Festival on July 26th.
THE BACKHANDED COMPLIMENT
“I thought you were going to be terrible. I didn’t expect you’d be that good, you can rap better than most guys I know.’
Rap is still considered masculine: women are supposed to be subordinate and responsible, not get rowdy and have fun with the boys. Some people equate a woman rapping to a dog doing the merengue on YouTube. Why is it such a novelty? Has no one heard of Lauryn Hill?”
-Char “BONES,” the bluesy, folky, minimalist solo project of one half of Brooklyn punk/rap duo ZebraBaby. Char has been sneaking in and out of various projects since 2006; her smoky, soulful voice can be heard on numerous multi-genre collaborations like Attaque’s ‘Nightmares.’
THE GENDER FENDER MINDER
“Right before I played in front of an audience for the first time ever, a guy shouted out, ‘Girls can’t play guitar!’ I ignored him, played my set anyway, and he apologized.”
-Dani Mari, a Brooklyn based singer-songwriter who co-founded Female Frequency, a coalition of (and resource for) women in music.
THE “PERFORMANCE” REVIEWER
“Here’s a review from a gig at Rockwood Music Hall. It’s a bullshit sandwich: an irrelevant comment about the book dude was reading nestled between two comments about how cute I am. In the middle is where he finally talks about my music:
‘How cute is this girl, honestly? I went over to Kalen & The Sky Thieves‘ NYC album release show at Rockwood a week or so ago. After an hour of reading Orwell, I stopped on by, immediately shocked at how strong her sound is. Sultry and confident, this girl Kalen is as sexy as she is soulful, bless her heart.’
Now, I’m not trying to hate on the fact that he found me attractive. Cool. Thanks, man. I’m aware that the visual experience is part of the show. But, you’re there to review the music. Start there!! PLEASE.”
-Kalen Lister, Kalen & The Sky Thieves. She’s a singer, songwriter, lyricist and keyboard player based in NYC, known for her dynamic live performance. Kalen performs with the moody Sky Thieves and solo.
But hey! It’s not all awkward misogyny! Here are some of the reasons women musicians keep playing.
“A friend of mine once brought a date to my gig, and he (the date) began to cry during my set. He came up to me afterwards and told me he was really touched by my songs. That’s what I live for.”
“I will say that I’ve played about 2000 shows since 1998 and rarely experience sexism. Step up to the plate, play well, and stand your ground — that applies to all genders.”
-Alex, White Mystery
“Someone said I reminded him of one of the PowerPuff girls, specifically Buttercup. I took this as a compliment since she’s a bit of a tomboy, the toughest fighter. Maybe he thought I exhibited some of those traits in shredding my Casios and glock.”
–Glockabelle, aka NYC’s Annabelle Cazes, plays two Casio VL-Tones and a lyre-shaped glockenspiel and sings in both French and English. Most recently, Glockabelle was a featured soloist on the Go! Team’s “Catch Me on the Rebound,” and just completed a European Tour opening for them in June.
“The moments I live for are when other women come up to me after a show and tell me I’ve inspired them. One woman said she’s been thinking about picking up the bass, and seeing me play convinced her to try it. I also have to say it’s a major ego boost when the male bassist of the next band tells you, ‘Man, I wish I didn’t have to go after you!'”
–Julie Rozansky, a Brooklyn-based bassist, formerly of The Art Of Shooting, who now plays in post-punk-glam band Libel.
WANT SOMEONE WHO’S GOT YOUR BACK?
So life as a lady musician can be weird, but it can also be great. And if you’re a female artist, you’re not alone — especially not in New York City. Looking for support, camaraderie, and music from other musical New York ladies? Check out Female Frequency, co-founded by aforementioned Dani Mari. It’s as a musical collaboration created entirely by women — meaning that every aspect of the creative process will be executed by women. In keeping with the efforts of outspoken feminist artists like Bjork and Robyn, Female Frequency aims to raise awareness of women’s skills and capabilities in the areas of electronic music and production, as well as support and encourage young women artists (and potential artists) to explore their interests in creative and electronic technologies.
Also check out Women In Music, a similar group that strives to create awareness and support for, well, women in music. And whether or not you’re a lady musician, the best way to show YOUR support (and score some sweet ear candy) is to go out in New York and listen!
…And maybe try not to say anything stupid.
Follow Lilly on Twitter for more tips on how not to be “that guy” at the show: @LillyVanek.