Meet the Musicians – Band on The Wall, Manchester, 06.03.2016
©2016 Francesca Nottola
It’s a Sunday night and I’ve just come back from this event organised by Brighter Sound at Band on The Wall. I missed last year’s residency curated by Beth Orton, so this year I am determined to go and see what all these ladies are up to. It is almost an all-women event. I feel extremely ambivalent about an all-female-musicians event. Since my days as a teenage political activist, I have always felt uneasy about those that misogynistic Italy (where I come from) calls ‘pink quotas’ (quote rosa): compulsory 50% quotas that left -wing parties choose to instate internally to guarantee access of women to politics. I was strongly against that. I felt perfectly comfortable as an ungendered human being, and I thought that a person, if talented, did not need any positive discrimination. Then, reality hit me in the face with a massive slap. My then partner and party co-activist lent
me their copy of A Room of One’s Own, and I understood. Virginia Woolf helped me understand why we needed ‘pink quotas’ and why we – sadly – still do. For those of you who have not read this masterpiece, this is the bible every young woman should have in her bag, all the time. Woolf, around 1928, is invited to give a series of talks about ‘Women and Fiction’ to a college full of young women. The author, while preparing her talks, goes to the library to investigate the subject. To her major disappointment and surprise, she discovers that most books about women and women’s activities are written by angry (white, heterosexual) men whose main intent, Woolf argues, is to downplay and ridicule women’s contribution to history and, specifically, the arts, while, at the same time, feeding the traditional self-aggrandising narrative of male contribution. “Women have served all these centuries as looking glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size”, she writes. She also writes that in order to have a great author, society needs to enable thousands of average female authors to write and, sooner or later, the female genius arrives (in a nutshell).
Now, fast forward to 2016 and, as incredible as it sounds, we still need a festival specifically dedicated to female talent. Why? Kate Lowes, Head of Programmes at Brighter Sound, explains it to me in a very plain and brutal way. ‘In the early years of the festival, participation was open to everyone, regardless of gender. It was mixed, and we were receiving very few applications from female performers. One year we only got one. Then we understood that the problem was that many of those emerging female performers felt intimidated by competing with their male counterparts. When we decided to specifically devote the festival to female talent, we were flooded with applications.’ How depressing is it that so many young women, in 2016, are still paralised by such fear? In 2015, Canadian President Justin Trudeau was unbelievably asked (by a female journalist) why it was important for him to have a gendered-balanced government. We’ve had Billie Holiday, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Joni Mitchell, Patti Smith, Nico, Jennifer Batten, Emily Remler, Nina Simone, Laura Nyro, PJ Harvey, Kim Gordon, Björk, Fiona Apple, The Breeders, Sleater-Kinney, Amanda Palmer, Beth Ditto, St Vincent, Anna Calvi, Warpaint, Savages (forgive me for the random and not particularly multicultural selection) and still some young female musicians do not feel comfortable and confident enough to play on stage next to male musicians. Needless to say, the world is, in fact, very ready to enjoy the music created and performed by female artists. The Albert Hall, Manchester, was overflowing with humans of all genders for St Vincent, Warpaint and Savages, for example. And yet, I understand these young ladies. I understand the fear that there will always be a little frustrated angry heterosexual man of some colour ready to deny their greatness and who will advise them to focus on their physical appearance and go knitting or make them a sandwich. Or, even worse, it could be some woman advising them so: there’s nothing more vicious than feminine anti-feminism.
Nevertheless, despite the fact that tonight I can occasionally perceive this fear, it is a great night. Some musicians apologise for taking too long in tuning their instrument or for not having rehearsed. I’ve never heard a male musician say anything like this (and why should they?) Ladies, please stop apologising. You are on stage, we are here to see you perform, take all the time you need and feel free to make the mistakes that we will never notice. But I recognise myself too in those insecurities, in that apologetic attitude spoken with a whisper: ‘excuse me world, I’d like to say/do something, if you don’t mind’. When you grow up in a world that expects you to worry exclusively about how you look and how smiley and acquiescent you are, so that you can be loved and accepted, get married by a certain age, have children and have a meaningless office job, it comes to no surprise that if you are a girl who wants to set fire to a guitar on stage you might feel unsure whether the crowd will appreciate it. Now we know people like it, so ladies, just do it if guitar burning is your thing.
Last year I went to one of the largest guitar shops in Manchester, Dawsons. I had decided I wanted to spend £400 on a Les Paul. I did not want shoes, bags, nail art, breast implants nor hairdressing treats. I wanted an Epiphone Les Paul Standard Plus Top Pro – Translucent Blue because to me it’s one of the most beautiful objects I’ve ever seen. I had already chosen it online, so I go to the shop just to buy it. After the male shop assistant gives me the guitar for me to try and performs the usual boring metal solos, I spend 20 minutes trying my guitar in the dedicated room, with my headphones, and then I go to the till to say: ok, I’ll take it. The same shop assistant asks me: ‘Is it for you?’ No need to comment there, right? It was so instinctive, so spontaneous, that the poor thing did not even realise the implications of what he was saying. I am a bad guitarist and singer, but no worse than many I’ve seen perform regularly on stage, so I assert my right to buy an awesome guitar.
Anyway, back to Band on The Wall. So, what’s happening tonight in this venue? In 2015, Brighter Sound, which is a Manchester-based charity that produces creative music projects and events, invited acclaimed musician Beth Orton to lead an intensive 5-day residency targeting female musicians to collaborate with each other under her guidance to devise new material and re-work on existing one, improve skills and strengthen their professional network. A fantastic opportunity. This event is a follow up of that experience. The doors open at around 8pm and one can perceive a sense of curious excitement in the heterogeneous crowd. Proposing this initiative as a free event on a Sunday night perhaps defeats the purpose, involuntarily relegating such an interesting event to a ghetto-ed performance for feminist-enthusiasts. Hopefully next time this will be proposed as a weekend event well worth of a substantial ticket fee.
I love music and I go to a lot of gigs, this is my third this week. Before the start of the gig, the shy-ish way some of these amazing ladies approach the stage makes me think they are still beginners. I will have to turn my ill-judged thinking upside-down after watching the performance and checking their profiles. Despite their deceiving humbleness, these ladies are music professionals, and impressive performers. The
evening starts with Natalie McCool on voice and a beautiful white archtop electric guitar, accompanied by Becca Williams on percussion and Jote Osahn on amplified violin. Banal to say, but McCool is very cool on stage. She has a great warm voice and a strong confident presence. The singer-songwriter from Liverpool is already recording an album and touring in the UK and abroad. Her first song is ‘Pins’, followed by ‘Fortress’, where she is joined by Gina Tratt aka Painted Lady, Vanessa Forero, Avital Raz and Janileigh Cohen. The big absentee tonight is the drums. Suprisingly, no drummers in the supergroup, which mostly relies on electronic drums provided by laptops. I’m not sure exactly why, but the atmosphere of McCool’s set makes me think of a classic, very reassuring Jackson Browne concert that I saw at the Bridgewater Hall some time ago. McCool’s coolness is completely overthrown by the cheekiness of Becca Williams, who
immediately makes us laugh with her impression of a Northern accent. Williams, Welsh, is also a touring and recording musician (Debt Records), and tonight performs her folk song ‘Maria’, with Jote Oshan and Natalie McCool, and gives us a fantastic solo performance on voice and guitar of her ‘Devil On My Shoulder’, ‘a loud one’ she says, ‘an angry song about living in Manchester’. What strikes me most is that they all smile at each other, they are having fun and they infect us too with their musical sisterhood. It’s a truly great atmosphere tonight. Unlike me, they like their heels, glitter, long nails, satin, crystals and animal print boots. Sexy ladies who are also very careful managers of their image, each in their own way.
Next is the turn of Elizabeth Vince, who proposes a delicate electronic/ambient set supported by extraordinary vocalist IONE and electric guitarist Gina Tratt, here on vocals. The first song is ‘Keep Your Strength’, followed by ‘Never Forget You’, which highlights Vince’s beautiful voice in its fullness and her mastery of synthesisers and keyboards. The themes of love, broken relationships and solitary suffering dominate the evening. Vince, who wears peculiar furry tops, dances sensually behind her keyboards, and gradually gains a growing dominance of the stage. Her set is a sophisticated one, enriched, for the last track ‘Wake’, by Avital Raz’s sitar-looking instrument (is it a sitar?). Vince has an EP coming out this month and has worked with deveral DJs and contributed to a compilation celebrating the work of female artists. The audience is still a bit stiff, the very cold night makes this Sunday night gig an act of bravery; most people lazily sit at the sides and in the top seats and observe, delighted. Despite the numerous guitars on stage, I am a bit
surprised by the lack of rock’n’roll tonight. No flying hair, no sweat, no screaming, no rolling on the floor, no ego clashes. A very unusual gig. Everything is composed and to the point. Cosy yet a bit detached, up to now. Not the usual type of gig I go to, but I am enjoying it. It’s time for Gina Tratt aka Painted Lady now, hailing from Bristol. A bearded figure appears on stage and I genuinely wonder if it’s a bearded lady. Disappointingly, it’s not. It’s only a man called Beau – who is a great bassist though – and about whom we have absolutely no information. He is not given the right to speak, unlike every other performer, which makes me chuckle a bit. I suppose tonight he represents the symbolic silencing of a few thousand years of patriarchy. Gina Tratt also exhibits a wonderful black archtop electric guitar: unlike metal guitarists who like those hideous spiky guitars, we all seem to prefer curves. Painted Lady informs us that her pedal was covered in beer, therefore became useless just before the performance. She also uses a recorded rhythmic base and eventually manages to wake up the audience with her funky-soul-electro song ‘Seams’ that makes me think of the mellow tunes and vocals of Turin Brakes, Morcheeba, Fugees and Oi Va Voi with an occasional bit of Stevie Wonder. For her second track ‘Orange Flowers’, she is joined by Natalie McCool and moves to the keyboards. The final track ‘Right Before My Eyes’ features a super bass by our potential bearded lady Beau. ‘I just realised I am facing the wrong way’, says Tratt, as the keyboard is slightly directed towards the wall rather than the centre of the venue. The crowd is still a bit reserved up to now.
Time for a change of scenery with the Anglo-Colombian Vanessa Forero, who quickly shakes the room with her lively introduction, in which she says that, contrary to popular belief, she can’t multitask, so she stops talking while tuning her tiny chirpy guitar decorated with birds. She claims that she has not practised and that the gig will be improvised. Again, unheard of that a performer says they have not practised, but it gives the feeling of the evening, familiar and relaxed, entirely deprived of the performance anxiety that characterises many male musicians. Forero has a wonderful voice and tells us that belonging to two cultures often causes her a sense of not belonging and that ‘home’ is often created by people, rather than places. Forero says she only recently started singing and playing guitar and was mainly a composer before. Luckily she did, I say, because she’s a brilliant singer and rules the stage as her own kingdom. Forero really manages to warm up the evening with her two folk-ish songs ‘Heaven Knows‘ (free download!) and ‘Old Mayan Hill’. This attitude that these ladies have tonight of not taking themselves seriously is simultaneously refreshing and worrying, especially because I am used to indie musicians who take themselves extremely seriously even if they can hardly play three chords. I am amused and perplexed. I am sure it’s only an attitude to stay relaxed in the end, and that they are all actually very serious about their projects. During my chat with Kate Lowes, we discuss Kim Gordon’s recent book presentation at the Martin Harris Centre. We both share the same disappointment about Gordon’s detached talk, in which she almost distanced herself completely from the Sonic Youth experience. She did say something very interesting, though: that it was much more fun to play with other women because the expectations were lower than with Sonic Youth.
And Now for Something Completely Different with the performance of Cally Youdell and violinist Joy Becker. Youdell, soprano, enchants with her Baroque song ‘Rossignols Amoreux’, the traditional ‘The Last Rose of Summer’ and ‘Evening Hymn’, by Purcell. She has recently debuted in opera as Nunzia in La Liberazione di Ruggiero, by Francesca Caccini, the first female opera composer (1625). An extremely professional duo, Youdell and Becker leave me ecstatic and I expect to see them soon perform in some important opera house. I find the contrast between Youdell’s intense performance and her tongue-in-cheek introduction delightful, as it blows the dust off the world of classical music and opera, which does not do much to reach out to a wider audience other than its traditional white, middle-aged, middle class attendees. I also love that they both wear wonderful elegant long black dresses, but we can spot glittering silver socks and no shoes under Becker’s gown.
I am sure we are in front of a future stadium filler when vocalist-songwriter IONE starts singing, supported by Elizabeth Vince on keyboards. She has already released an EP a few years ago, Fighting Fear, and tonight she performs the title track and the latest single ‘Back In The Day’. Her voice is absolutely amazing and very intense.
Goosebumps accompany me for the whole performance, despite her soul-pop not being my favourite genre. Her lyrics too are introspective: fear, freedom, heartbreak and the wish to be loved. The intensity and power of her voice make me think of Whitney Houston and Nina Simone, however unlikely this pair sounds. IONE eventually got the crowd dancing. The next act is a very interesting performance by Kayla Painter. She is a multi-instrumentalist and producer composing mainly by sampling instruments and normally performing with visual artists. Her electronic set is deeply enjoyable and, again, I cannot stop thinking of Björk and what an amazing DJ duo they’d be at Sonar. Painter says that, despite being the only one playing a midi controller, she is delighted to be part of such an eclectic line-up. Her tracks are called ‘Avallaunius’, ‘Efa’ and ‘Hard To Let That Woman Go’, and
she is joined on stage by Gina Tratt, Vanessa Forero, Becca Williams and violinist and mandolin player Jote Osahn, who is perhaps the artist with the most acclaimed collaborations in her CV: Nick Cave, Elbow, Gorillaz, Courteneers, Cinematic Orchestra and Matt Halsall, among others. Her production ranges from folk and classical music to electronica. She warns that if some strange sounds come from her mandolin they won’t be mistakes, it’ll be ‘jazz’. She plays a beautiful mandolin very similar to the one played by John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin.
The next act is Janileigh Cohen, a busking singer songwriter from Bolton. She sounds incredibly happy (‘proper buzzin’) about her leap from Market Street to the Band On The Wall stage, although she still invites us to drop a pound in her hat. With her acoustic guitar, blond long hair and folk songs it’s impossible for me not to think of Joni Mitchell, although she quotes Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen as her inspiration. Cohen is going to release an EP, As A Child, and has recently left her job to focus solely on music. She says that the Brighter Sound residency was crucial in giving her the confidence to take this step. Her spontaneity and lask of self-importance is, again, striking, despite being a marvellous performer. Amanda Palmer too was a busker before starting the Dresden Dolls. Cohen is joined on stage by a friend, who accompanies her acoustic guitar with an electric one. He also shall remain unnamed. The last performance is by Avital Raz, from Jerusalem. She defines her work as influenced by various traditions (folk and classical, both Western and Indian). Hers is quite a distinct show, infused with humour. For her songs, (‘Shame’, ‘Sorry About The Pills’ and Mail Ordered Bride’) she plays guitar and sings, and is joined on stage by the entire group at the end. Raz has a fantastic bluesy voice and makes me think of Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane. It is a triumph.
It has been a beautiful night of live music by impressive performers, despite a mild, shy beginning. The variety of tonight’s performances confirms the obvious: that there is no such thing as gendered talent. Woolf, again, in the same text, referring to Coleridge, also argues that the ideal condition to create a masterpiece, as in the case of Shakespeare, is an androgynous, incandescent mind that transcends gender. My hope is that very soon a festival to celebrate female artists will be completely redundant. I hope we will soon cease celebrating ‘Women in Film’, but only great directors, and that Film Studies handbooks will be updated accordingly. I hope that soon there won’t be any more African-American directors and actors protesting the whiteness of Hollywood and that the labels of ‘first openly gay ‘ or ‘transgender’ actor/musician will not be necessary any more. One day there will be only great artists.
Happy International Women’s Day! It’s 2016.