Grrl Friday

Local girl-rock showcase puts a tangible face on the music industry's "Women in Rock" hysteria

Late last year, the American music press declared 1997 to be the Year of the Woman. Rolling Stone founder/editor Jann Wenner stated in RS' "Women in Rock" issue, "It became obvious to us that the major music story of 1997 was the rise of women artists," while Spin's "Girl Issue" proclaimed, "Pop music is dominated by young women artists, and the male artists who do reach the top are there in large part due to their adoring female fan base."

Female musicians flooded the airwaves, MTV and record stores. From overseas the Spice Girls took their processed, reconstituted dance music to all corners of the world, preaching and selling their plastic, Barbie-esque brand of "girl power." Ani DiFranco continued practicing her own self-styled girl-power philosophy and was deified by critics and fans as the "Ani Lama." Luscious Jackson brought its white-girl Brooklyn funk to the masses via its WNBA theme song ("We Got Next"). Meredith Brooks proved that a middle-aged "bitch" can sell a lot of albums. Sleater-Kinney brought new maturity to the formerly volatile and reactionary riot-grrl scene.

From the lesbian battle cries of the Michigan Womyn's Festival to the somewhat more subdued crooning of the Lilith Fair, it was clear that women had broken through into the traditionally male-dominated world of rock 'n' roll. But what does this all mean to the average Phoenician girl learning guitar in her bedroom? Does millions of people (myself included) enjoying watching Fiona Apple writhing half-naked while singing about criminals make it any easier for her to pursue her rock 'n' roll dream?

These mainstream female artists aren't tangible role models, just polished images on TV and blurbs in magazines. Who do local girls have to inspire them to go from their bedrooms and garages to the stage, to give them the courage to break down the doors of the Valley's rock 'n' roll boys club?

Enter "Girls' Night Out," a girl-rock showcase/show of force the night of Friday, January 16, at Nita's Hideaway in Tempe. Four bands (all containing at least 50 percent girls) from around the state are coming together to grab the Valley's boy-dominated rock scene by its collective nuts and twist until they hear the magic words, "Hey, those chicks know how to rock!"

New Times assembled girls from three of the four bands playing the "Girls' Night Out" show (Lake Havasu City's Post Toasties couldn't make it) to get to know their bands and discuss girl rock in Arizona.

They offered a variety of perspectives on the difficulty of starting bands, winning over audiences and inspiring other female musicians, and they shared the blueprints for their own successes.

The three bands cover a broad spectrum of styles--Tucson's Shoebomb plays catchy guitar-pop reminiscent of the Breeders; Tempe's Mad At 'Em plays angry but humorous pop-punk; and Phoenix's Jerome plays complex, melodic, often grating emo-core. There were no uniform answers to our questions, but their insight and enthusiasm offer inspiration to all of the Valley's aspiring girl rockers.

New Times: Are you girl musicians or just musicians? And are you feminists?
Jency Rogers (drummer--Jerome): I guess I'm a girl musician 'cause I'm a girl. I don't know, it's so weird right now, there's this huge thing about girl musicians. I'd like to think I'm just a musician but I happen to be a girl.

Natalie Espinoza (guitarist--Jerome): Any way you look at it, I think everyone who sees us is gonna see girl musicians. We're always gonna be compared to what guys can do and what guys are doing in bands, regardless of whether we think of ourselves as musicians.

Kim Smith (guitarist--Mad At 'Em): I would definitely say I'm a feminist.
Melissa Manas (guitarist/vocalist--Shoebomb): Yeah, to a certain degree.
Espinoza: People are scared of that word; nobody understands what it really means. It's just empowering women to do things that we should be doing. I think most women are feminists.

Smith: We're just basically into empowering women who want to rock. Because most likely the guys aren't going to give them a chance, we want to do that. When I wanted to play guitar and I asked the guys I knew that played, they just never took me seriously and wouldn't take the time to teach me.

NT: Was your gender a hindrance to your musical goals?
Espinoza: Sure, for a while I thought that being in a band was something that I could not do. That it was something I wasn't supposed to do. And it took a little time for me to get used to how a band works, 'cause it takes work. You've got to go through a lot of bullshit with everybody else in your band, but if you can kinda just get through that, then you're okay.

Smith: I think it took a long time for us to be accepted--we kinda had to prove ourselves, and it's just starting to come around. Now we get a lot of compliments from guys, and we're like, wow.

Manas: I think the initial response is kind of a novelty thing, that there's so many girls in a band, but then they stay and they buy our CD because we're good. All the questions we get, on our Web site and stuff, are about music and questions about lyrics. To date we've really only had one psycho, like, "I'm whacking off looking at your picture right now" kind of guy. I think that's a pretty good ratio.

NT: Who, or what, inspires you to write songs and continue pursuing musical careers?

Manas: Are we supposed to say Maya Angelou?
Espinoza: Friends, definitely. And guys--relationships, heartache, emotional things--we're a pretty emotional band as far as our writing goes. We write about really personal things--in fact, one of the songs on the seven-inch will be about my guitarist's new baby, who arrives in March. A lot of my songs stem from just personal failures and heartaches and mistakes and good times with friends.

Smith: I think my songs are really inspired by listening to other music. I get inspired by the bands I listen to, by listening to their albums.

Joanne Piccioli (vocalist--Mad At 'Em): Lyrically, it's stuff like heartache, y'know, everyday things like that.

Espinoza: I think that's where the best writing comes from, when you're angry or sad.

Manas: For me it's more like, when I'm sad or angry or depressed, that's not my most productive time in general, 'cause I'm in my pajamas on the couch. The happier, more productive stages in my life are when the songs come. And then some are reflections of those emotional times, but I never really do the writing when I'm in the deep, dark ick.

Piccioli: You know what, I don't either. Even if it's a year after, when you can put some humor into it, 'cause when you're right in it, you can't do anything.

Espinoza: My best writing comes from being in the middle of that period. It's the best release for me. If I can't get it out myself, then putting it in a song is my only vehicle for getting it out, for letting it go. I don't write good songs when I'm happy.

NT: Is it part of your agenda to encourage other female musicians?
Manas: I wouldn't say it's my agenda, but it's an opportunity to do that. When you're playing live and you see a bunch of young girls watching you, you do feel a responsibility. It's like, wow, these girls are looking up to me, and here I am swilling beer. There's a certain kind of cool role-model thing that goes along with it.

Espinoza: It's nice if you can be able to do that. It's nice to hear someone say, "Hey, I started playing the guitar 'cause I saw you playing the guitar." I think that's a really incredible thing to hear, that you can influence someone to pick up an instrument. Regardless of if it's a girl or a guy, anything like that is really wonderful.

Rogers: I don't think I've ever really thought about it. I enjoy watching girls play, and I think they set more of an example for me. But as far as me being an example, I don't know. I set an example for my sister. She plays now, plays drums, and now she's learning guitar. A lot of girls come up after shows and say, "Hey, that's really cool you play drums, we thought you'd be the singer." I guess it's kind of stereotypes--when you see a girl, you don't think she's gonna be the drummer.

Kim Bradford (manager--Mad At 'Em): One thing I've noticed when I'm doing merchandise at the Mad At 'Em shows is that at all-ages shows, there'll be girls up front and girls talking to us, but at 21-and-over shows, it's mostly guys; they just assume you're girlfriends of one of the bands. I think there's more of a focus on inspiring younger girls, because you have more access to them.

NT: Are you thinking about that while you're playing?
Smith: Yeah, definitely. I have a friend whose 13-year-old daughter plays guitar and is gonna do a song with us at one of our shows, so she can see what it's like, and hopefully that will inspire her. We want anyone who hears us, any female, to know she could be in a band, she could be doing the same thing. And any female musicians who are in bands, we always want to get involved with them somehow.

Bradford: That's why we're doing this show; we were just like, "Fuck it, we need to do something for ourselves and other girl bands." We get tired of playing with all the four-average-guys bands.

Espinoza: I feel a bit responsible because our band is different from all the other girl bands. We're doing the emo indie-rock thing, which is very complex guitar, complex song structure. It's hard for people to listen to, I think, just 'cause it's not something most people can bounce around to or dance or whatever. So there's pressure to make sure you're hitting the right notes and things like that, that's what I feel responsible for. I'm not out to recruit girl musicians, but I'm responsible for showing them that I can do it well.

NT: What advice would you offer aspiring young female musicians?
Manas: Be patient. And wear your seat belt. If there's a boy in the band, don't have sex with him, unless you really want to, but it's probably not a good idea. Don't do smack, and it's better not to play with people who do smack because then you're always worrying about your equipment disappearing.

Espinoza: Just make sure you're doing it to have fun, and forget all the other bullshit--don't let it drag you down.

Smith: Our advice is: Practice, stay focused, have fun, find your own style that expresses who you are and the influential musicians that motivate you, and go for it. With anything you do, if you're determined and want it bad enough, it'll happen.

Shoebomb, Mad At 'Em, Taffy, and Jerome are scheduled to perform on Friday, January 16, at Nita's Hideaway in Tempe. Call for showtime.

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