As vogue goes, the current rising trajectory of female artists budding in the Scottish music scene will likely rotate into something else but during the course of the last twelve months, a welcome spate of talented, exciting, and tumultuous women has muscled their way to the front of ones to watch – and importantly, listen to. Somehow, it doesn’t seem so coincidental that a new ‘Wonder Woman’ film is earmarked for release in 2017.
Poet Stephen Watt investigates.
For the past thirty years, Scotland has had two female pop stars – Annie Lennox of The Eurythmics and Sharleen Spiteri of Texas. Everyone knows that. No others. Not one. Well, except Shirley Manson – the firecracker frontwoman of Garbage. And Clare Grogan, leading lady of Altered Images and Gregory’s Girl actress. And Eddie Reader, and KT Tunstall, and Amy MacDonald, and Elizabeth Fraser (Cocteau Twins), and Isobel Campbell (Belle and Sebastian), and Emma Pollock (The Delgados), and Helen Marnie (Ladytron), and Lauren Mayberry (Chvrches), and Emeli Sande, and Dot Allison (One Dove/Massive Attack), and Rose McDowall (Strawberry Switchblade), and… I think the point has been made. Scotland has a wealth of cherished female artists who have been delivering sweet strains and punk perspectives for decades and it isn’t until one really examines their record collection that it becomes so alarmingly obvious that their songs are what consoled you during that bitter break-up, reassured you before that significant job interview, or stimulated you to make those changes in your life which had become habitual.
There’s never been a lack of talented women in Scottish music, but there has been a lack of female musicians who have broken through Josephine Sillars
A pending viewpoint would be whether or not a strong female presence in the Scottish music scene has always been prevalent – if somewhat unappreciated – or if the evolvement of an intoxicating female presence across the country heralds the beginning of an innovative progression in readdressing the gender disparity. Fife punk outfit The Twistettes consist of sisters Jo and Nicky D’Arc, a two-piece force of nature, who moved to Glasgow to create their own fuss. “There weren’t many local examples of women in the music scene in Fife”, states frontwoman Jo – I suppose the cities may have been more accessible but I think a lot has changed over the years. Living in Glasgow means I know a lot of female musicians so it’s easy to think that there’s a strong female presence – but there still aren’t enough women being encouraged to pick up an instrument on the whole”. Likewise, central belt outsider, songstress Josephine Sillars sings in her newly-released single, ‘everybody’s got their problems with power’, but she detects a move away from the conventional billings: “When I first started playing Glasgow (Josephine hails from the Scottish Highlands), it was dominated by bills of male musicians. That has definitely changed, and I think a lot has to do with confidence – not in the musicians, but in the bookers and promoters. Bands such as Honeyblood, and more recently with Kathryn Joseph, have inspired a confidence in booking female musicians. There’s never been a lack of talented women in Scottish music, but there has been a lack of female musicians who have broken through”.
Initiatives such as Girls Rock Glasgow and Girls Rock Edinburgh help provide free instruments and lessons for young girls to pick up and explore in safe spaces
Carla Easton, TeenCanteen/Ette
Herein lies the crux. There remains a need for women to be booked, written about, featuring at regular events for reasons other than achieving an agreeable male-female ratio which questionably addresses any imbalance. TeenCanteen and Ette keyboardist/singer Carla J Easton has appeared as one of the hardest-working and promising talents in the country over the past handful of years. “There are more females making music in Scotland than when TC started in 2012”, she offers – “Certainly more all-female or predominantly female groups, but I’d argue there’s always been a strong presence of women making music in Scotland since the early eighties when mass unemployment and social politics levelled the gender divide and everyone picked up an instrument and formed a band in a glorious burst of DIY subculture. Sophisticated Boom Boom, Twinset, The Shop Assistants, Sunset Gun, The Vaselines, The Fizzbombs, Rote Kapelle – that’s just a handful of bands that were all active when the Scottish pop scene exploded and all feature amazing female musicians. I see it happening again now and it’s truly amazing! Initiatives such as Girls Rock Glasgow and Girls Rock Edinburgh certainly help cultivate this environment – providing free instruments and lessons for young girls to pick up and explore in safe spaces”.
Referring to the genesis of TeenCanteen, Easton heeds that there was no blueprint for a women-only line-up: “When any band forms, you form it with friends. Under the name Zuzu’s Petals was myself, Sita (former band-mate in Futuristic Retro Champions) and had studied at college with, Debs – best friend since aged 11 – and her cousin Ross Dickson, who then moved to London for work. I asked my friend Emma to join because she could play guitar and sing, and similarly when Chloe joined, she was a friend who could sing and play bass, and learned to play guitar to join the band. Because she was one of my best friends, I knew she would and that was the missing piece”. Easton continues, “I noticed having three girls up front and singing could generate harmonies descending from the girl-group records from 58-63 that I love obsessively. There’s something quite powerful when you stack three female voices together that just gets me every time. I call it my own ‘utopia’ when we sing together and bend and shift”. The Twistettes incarnation shows similarities, having blended female only gender and mixed bands before finding the formula which worked for them. D’Arc explains: “There was no real reason other than practicality. We’re sisters and have played in bands together for years. I wouldn’t say there was much difference between all-female bands and mixed bands – it all depends on personalities and we’ve been lucky that pretty much everyone we’ve played with have been cool”.
Patriotism can often be so imperceptible that it coils itself into the mindset and become perceived as the accustomed way of things. This is apparent where men rub themselves against women at live gigs, or online trolling/domineering male attitudes comes to the fore such was the case of Chvrches frontwoman Lauren Mayberry in 2015. As a high-energy, unmanaged punk band, it may come as no surprise that The Twistettes have been on the end of unsavoury behaviour by male punters in the crowd: “At one gig, a drunk, boisterous guy kept shouting to me while I was singing, saying ‘You’re lovely…. look at your legs…. etc.’. I don’t know what he was expecting me to do but after continually ignoring his advances, he lifted a monitor speaker in front of me and banged it down. I felt quite freaked out, and then he began swinging himself up on stage. I saw red and stopped playing to kick him square in the back out of our space and shouted something about ‘wrapping my bass round his head if he didn’t fuck off’. Nicky was 6 months pregnant and I kept thinking he was going to fall on her and bring the drums down. I was so angry and embarrassed to have been pushed to that. We still finished the set though. Mental”.
Not that every gig is as savage as the one which D’Arc conveys, but a picture is painted in terms of what women can occasionally expect when confronted by drunken revellers, and the rapid transposition, or deterioration, from admiration to irritation. Even subtle misogyny has crept into the foreground. Sillars recognises this: “It can come down to simple things like when a promoter will shake my (male) drummer’s hand and not mine or direct all his questions to him and not me – even when the band name is literally just my name. It happens a lot actually”. Such incidents cry out for men to speak up and against chauvinistic prejudices but also paints a sad picture that men are needed in the first place to speak publicly on behalf of women at all. Not that this behaviour is solely reserved for the backcloths of gigs either, as Sillars adds “I’ve been catcalled by people in the audience and it is usually best to laugh it off or reply with something light so the rest of the audience do not feel uncomfortable”.
It is a commendable approach which Sillars adopts, albeit a sad issue to grasp in 2017 – some forty years after the red-blooded male stranglehold of the seventies music scene. Easton is keen to add that her bands have been “lucky to have never encountered any sexism when playing live but it shouldn’t be about being ‘lucky’ – the question shouldn’t be being asked in the first place because it shouldn’t be an issue”. If it isn’t the fans who women in Scotland need to be wary of, then what about those in charge of booking/promoting acts for gigs and festivals, and why do these billings frequently appear to be predominantly male-led? Glastonbury Festival has announced this year’s headliners as Radiohead, Foo Fighters, and Ed Sheeran whilst from the ashes of T in the Park, new Scottish festival TSNMT have also confirmed Radiohead, alongside Kasabian and Biffy Clyro. That is a top-heavy, male-orientated selection by any stretch, and the underrepresentation of women in music appears to be as prevalent now as it has ever been. Easton offers “I would never want TeenCanteen to be booked for a slot or appearance in order to ‘tick’ a diversity box for gender equality. I’d want us to be booked for a show because we were considered to be the best for that slot. I sometimes struggle with labelling myself as a ‘female singer songwriter’ because I often just think of myself as a ‘singer songwriter’ – but I want to encourage more girls to pick up and play and write and sing and perform in bands so if identifying my gender in what I do helps then I’ll do it”.
I saw red and stopped playing to kick him square in the back out of our space and shouted something about ‘wrapping my bass round his head if he didn’t fuck off
Jo D’Arc, The Twistettes
Yet the struggle often comes down to one issue and one issue alone: sex. Regardless of someone’s talent, women continue to be assessed by looks, shape, and appeal. D’arc untangles this theory: “It’s both society’s view of women and women’s view of themselves which create this struggle. Women’s power within the music industry is primarily rooted in how we look and selling sex, therefore we are viewed less able than men in many aspects of the music industry (aspects which don’t require this). It means women often need to fight to be recognised as being as valid as a man with a guitar or a synth. This becomes especially heightened the more ‘techy’ your musical job is. Synth players and producers get a harder time. Big respect to female sound engineers as it must be pretty tough sometimes”.
It’s an intriguing observation, and one which many will have missed. What about the women working off-stage? Is it something which is quite obviously absent in Scotland? I certainly struggle to think of many I’ve noticed over the past twenty years around the city’s music scene. D’arc continues, “On the flip side, women will be commended and receive additional attention for being involved in music where her male counterparts do not experience, so it can go both ways. While attention is often rooted in surprise and, as much as it can be flattering to be viewed as ‘exceptional’ or ‘out of the norm’ I don’t think that this is particularly helpful in encouraging more women to pick up instruments. Hopefully one day we’ll get to the point where a woman can walk on stage and do a set of crazy tech heavy live music and folks won’t bat an eye lid…or mutter that famed positive/negative – ‘she’s amazing for a girl’. The other aspect of this is women’s confidence in their abilities. The masculine tone of the music industry can create doubt and worry that stops women putting themselves forward. The amount of house parties I’ve went to and lassies are absolutely rocking the decks when they think nobody is looking is unreal but when asked if they gig they’re like ‘oh not…I couldn’t do that!’”
Signs do show some societal changes emerging in arts circles with more women now choosing careers in music production, favouring instruments such as trumpets or horns, traditionally played by men but in comparison, the Musicians Union (MU) has almost 2,500 members based in Scotland with a 30-70% female-male gender split among its members. It is an area which continues to show a significant disparity. Furthermore, female musicians are more likely to be judged by an industry focussed on youth and beauty, coupled with caring responsibilities hindering career progression, which ultimately results in male performers significantly more apparent on the music circuit across the country. Kudos then to companies like Vodafone who recently launched a programme to assist women returning to work, including “unconscious bias training”.
“For me, gender isn’t an issue when it comes to performing and playing”, Easton indicates – “but it does the beg the question why some bands are not asked “What reasons led you to forming a male-only band?” as much as they are when it is solely females in the band. I’ve been involved in Futuristic Retro Champions consisting of three girls and two boys, my solo album ‘Homemade Lemonade’ was made with Joe Kane and when performed live is four boys and three girls, and then I was the only female in the band I recorded and performed with during my recent residency at the Banff Centre for Arts in Canada”.
In which case, does it then beg the question is there too much scrutiny being put upon female involvement within the Scottish music industry? Whether the individual involved is working class, black, survived sexual assault, or queer should not be an issue just as much as that the music is all-important and if the output is unsatisfactory, then the record-buying public simply are not going to buy into it. In terms of music output, Scotland is enjoying its richest spell for quite some time. Easton provides “I’m really excited about Tongue Trap, Bratakus and Fallope, and The Tubes. Emme Woods is one of the most exciting singer-songwriters I’ve encountered live in years – Rose McDowall is performing live again, and everyone should see Chrissy Barnacle perform – delighted to have her band Joyce Delaney support TeenCanteen at our Sirens launch in Nice n’ Sleazys on 22nd April – people should get a ticket for them alone”, Easton proffers. Sillars agrees with this sentiment; “Emme Woods and Chrissy Barnacle, not forgetting Laurence Made Me Cry, always excite me”. The admiration for Tongue Trap and Chrissy Barnacle is also replicated by D’Arc, keen to support this prolific period for Scottish women in music: “There are so many great talents around just now – Misc Meat, Fisty Muffs, singers/musicians like Ella Maby, Becci Wallace; producers like Audrey Tait, Jess Aslan, Sev Dudzinska. The female MC Empress has blown me away recently with her new EP ‘Turning Tables’. Hip hop and rapping is so male dominated that it’s really refreshing to see some lassies getting involved, and Empress is one of the best… love her”.
And it isn’t just Scottish women who are currently producing some of the most enthralling music around right now. English/Icelandic punksters Dream Wife, LA grunge outfit Girlpool, and Glasgow-based, Slovenian DJ and producer Nightwave aka Maya Medvesek are a small sample of acts in the world who are currently subscribed to promoting sounds which get under the skin, and bruises. In times when the United States of America is led by a misogynistic, bloated He-Man in a suit, there is a swift riposte of female acts currently mapping the lay of the land and chronicling the rise of women to the forefront of music – in spite of powerful adversities. Perhaps Scotland is proving itself to be leaders of the pack once more, and by addressing dated attitudes head-on, will inspire the next wave of young female Scots to show to the world that they have so much more to offer, if only promoters open their doors – and their minds.
Josephine Sillars will perform at The Bongo Club in Edinburgh as part of Flint and Pitch on 21st April.
TeenCanteen ‘Sirens EP’ launch party is at Nice n Sleazys on 22nd April with support from Joyce Delaney and Agony Aunt.
The Twistettes host a ‘Twistettes Twisted Tea Party” at La Belle Angele on 24th June with a female-heavy line-up including artists, poets and more.
Rich thanks to Josephine Sillars, Carla Easton (TeenCanteen/Ette) and Jo D’Arc (The Twistettes) for their input during this piece.
Stephen Watt is the Dumbarton FC Poet-in-Residence, a crime poet, one half of gothic spoken word experimental act Neon Poltergeist, and author of the poetry collections “Spit” and “Optograms”. You can follow more of his writing on his Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/StephenWattSpit/ or his Twitter handle @StephenWattSpit.