Locally, the atmosphere for female musicians appears promising, particularly compared to other cities, according to Strange Relations frontwoman Casey Sowa, originally from Philadelphia.
“It’s been mostly a positive experience, since I’ve found this scene to be really supportive of female musicians in general; more so than other cities,” Sowa said.
Strange Relations bassist Marisa Hegelson, also from Philadelphia, agreed, adding that local male musicians have been largely supportive.
“Our male peers are more willing to take us seriously than I remember in Philadelphia,” Hegelson said.
Erica Krumm, of the Minneapolis band Oaks, concurred.
“There’s a lot of positivity and power in the scene…a lot of creative freedom,” Krumm said.
Members of The Chalice, a Minneapolis-based all-female hip hop group, expressed a similar optimism, remarking on the encouraging level of equality amongst Twin Cities bands.
“The music community could not have been more supportive of us,” said Chalice emcee Claire de Lune.
Sophia Eris, also of The Chalice, correlated this success with the many strong and talented women performing locally, including Dessa and Desdamona.
“There’s definitely women that I’ve looked up to that have inspired me in this city,” Eris said. “There’s a lot of very talented women in this scene, and they represent themselves very well.”
Despite this success for some female musicians and a female-friendly Twin Cities community, Sowa and other musicians said that women continue to face challenges in the music industry.
“People come up to me at the end of the night and want to talk about how hot Marisa is…that‘s painful,” Sowa said.
Hegelson added that it’s especially difficult when audiences fail to acknowledge their music in favor of obsessing over their appearance.
“If that’s the only thing that I hear all night, that’s a little discouraging,” Hegelson said.
Guitarist and singer Alisha Thunem of Yasen Marie related similar experiences.
“You always get some guys [who are]…only commenting on our looks and not at all on the music, and that’s kind of frustrating,” Thunem said.
Bandmate and bassist Emily Olson explained that sexism shows up even when audiences do comment on, or even compliment, their music.
“The most common response after people see us is ‘you’re actually good!’” Olson said. “As sad as it is, I don’t think people expect that much from us.”
Sexism often appears in subtle ways, as when club owners assume Strange Relations (male) guitarist is in charge of the band instead of Sowa.
“I think a lot of people funnel towards him for networking and administrative stuff, and that’s not really his role in our project,” Hegelson said.
Even something as simple as identifying as an all-female band can be difficult, as gender expectations often stigmatize groups of women who work together; the term feminist in particular often has negative connotation for female groups.
Thunem expressed mixed feelings about representing Yasen Marie as an all-female band, explaining that such a label can cause audience members, especially men, to feel defensive.
“When you say ‘I’m a feminist’ it automatically turns people off,” Thunem said. “None of us describe ourselves as feminists, but I would say that we’re all for equal rights.”
On the other hand, she also described positive aspects of being a female-only group, including bonding with other women on tour.
“A lot of people think that it’s really empowering and really cool to have all females [onstage],” Thunem said.
Krumm, who does identify as a feminist, attributed women’s avoidance of the term to assumptions that feminism is an outdated concept.
“I think a lot of people think that there’s no need for feminism. That’s ridiculous,” Krumm said.
Instead, she argued, today’s women have an even stronger need for the sense of unity that feminism can provide.
“Now more than ever we need to support each other, and we need to create communities,” Krumm said.
Sowa and Hegelson expressed a similar interest in creating a sense of female solidarity, and both strongly identify themselves as feminists.
“I don’t think that female musicians should have to reject their womanhood to be taken seriously or treated as equals,” Sowa said.
Hegelson agreed, explaining that women often feel the need to identify as “just musicians” rather than female musicians.
“Is it that my identity is supposed to be sexless as a musician?” Hegelson asked.
Sowa added that this rejection of a specifically female identity is a symptom of sexism and can be discouraging to other aspiring young women musicians.
“Female artists…have kind of fallen inadvertently into this trap of continuing sexism instead of breaking out of it like they intend to,” Sowa said.
Members of The Chalice reported both embracing a positive identity as women and trying to avoid the stigmas that such a label can evoke.
“I love being a woman, I love being talented, I love being sassy,” said Lizzo, another member of The Chalice.
She added, however, that being a woman comes with certain expectations and social pressures.
De Lune said that The Chalice tries to celebrate women without reducing them solely to their gender identity.
“We’re not ashamed of being female, but it’s not about being female. It’s just about being strong,” de Lune said. “We want the music to speak for itself.”
For local pop music maven Mayda, the challenges of gender are equaled, if not surpassed, by cultural stereotyping.
“Obstacles that I face are more cultural obstacles,” Mayda said. “You don’t see Asian women who are under five feet screaming [onstage].”
The result, she explained, is that it often requires more effort to make yourself heard, which comes with its own challenges.
“You have to be a little louder and a little more vocal,” Mayda said.
Of the band members interviewed, most agreed that these challenges weren’t due to a lack of strong women in local and national culture, but by overwhelmingly poor representation of those and other women by the media.
“It’s just unfortunate the way the media, and men, portray and belittle women,” Lizzo said.
In terms of women that are strong role models, Lizzo cited a long and varied list.
“We’re influenced by them, from our moms, to Beyonce, to Lil Kim, Michelle Obama and Barb Abney,” Lizzo said.
Mayda also identified Beyonce and Michelle Obama as sources of inspiration and said that there’s hope for better representation of women in the future.
“I think it’s changing, especially with this recent halftime show with Beyonce,” Mayda said. “For me, I saw that as a very strong performance. She hit so many levels of strength and power. A lot of people can do that now because of her and other people.”
Krumm added that women she looked up to when she was younger, like Madonna and Janet Jackson, continue to be an influence and that there is increased visibility of other talented women onstage as well.
“There are more and more examples of strong women musicians that I hope will stick around,” Krumm said.
All of the women interviewed agreed that promoting this positive social change means trying to be a model of the strength and success of women in the music industry, albeit in different ways.
For the members of The Chalice, empowering women means giving back to the community in a variety of ways. Eris, who has attended community organizer training, emphasized the importance of positive change in everyday life.
“Just being a good person is enough in itself sometimes,” Eris said. “You affect people in little ways with everything that you do.”
Lizzo, a member of the NAACP, said that The Chalice is working toward better representations of women just by being themselves.
“We’re trying to represent for ourselves, thereby representing for a broad scale of people. We just do ourselves and try to be the best we can be,” Lizzo said.
Mayda echoed this sentiment.
“I feel like I represent many different groups, minorities and majorities,” Mayda said.
At the same time, she described trying to relate to as many people as possible to reach a wide audience.
“I like to make my music as accessible and understandable [as possible],” Mayda said. “But I’m not there to offend anybody. I’m just out there to make people think.”
Hegelson also expressed a desire to reach out to people and have a positive influence.
“It would be our hopes and dreams come true to have someone see us as role models,” Hegelson said.
Hegelson herself is a testament to the influence that strong role models and positive representation can have; her musical career began after attending a girl’s rock camp and watching girls between 9 and 16 perform publicly after only a few days of practice.
“Seeing all of these young girls get up onstage and own that sort of made them my role models,” Hegelson said. “I started playing the bass because I saw that.”
With any luck, these local bands will also inspire other people of all ages, genders and walks of life to pursue their dreams.
Listed below is information on local bands, their shows, and their websites:
Alisha Thunem: Lead Vocals, Acoustic Guitar
Emily Olson: Bass
Amera Abdelrehem: Drums, Backup Vocals
Liz Davis: Keyboard
Jenny Case: Lead Guitar
Band Name Origin: Yasen, Abdelrehem’s middle name, is traditionally Muslim while Marie, Thunem’s middle name, is a common Christian name. Together, the names symbolize a juxtaposition of cultures.
Artistic Influences/Inspirations: Sylvia Plath, whose novel The Bell Jar is Thunem’s favorite and became the title of one of their songs
On Being Role Models: “We are more than happy to help […] It’s one of my favorite things”
Advice for young women and girls: “Don’t let others bring you down!”
March 9: Mayslack’s Music Lounge, Minneapolis, MN
March 29: Floyd’s Bar, Victoria, MN
May 26: Bella Music Festival, Harmony Park, MN
Website: www.yasenmarie.com (currently under construction)
Claire de Lune
Band Name Origin: A reference to the Holy Grail and a symbol of female empowerment; the feminine counterpart to the phallus.
Artistic Influences/Inspirations: Their mothers, Beyonce, Destiny’s Child, Michelle Obama, as well as local sheroes like Dessa and Desdemona.
On Being Role Models: “[It’s] an incredible gift and opportunity we’ve been given and we take that very seriously”
Advice for young women and girls: “Don’t think that something’s definite. There’s just this infinite future that you have control of and that you can manipulate using all of these tools that you’ve been given, that are being given to you right now.”
Upcoming Shows: Stay tuned
Casey Sowa: Drums
Marisa Helgeson: Synth
Andrew Shaw: Guitar
Band Name Origin: Reflects the physical incongruity between band members; also genderless and gives the band creative freedom, according to Sowa
Artistic Influences: All-female super groups like War Paint, Emily Haines of Metric and lyricist Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie
On Being a Role Model: “People should feel an obligation to be aware of their potential influence and pay attention to how they’re representing themselves”
Advice: “Stay true to your expression” and “Don’t set yourself up against other people’s expectations or standards”
March 8: The Belmore/New Skyway Lounge, Minneapolis, MN
March 23: EP Release Party, Kitty Kat Club, Minneapolis, MN
Artistic Influences/Inspirations: Beyonce, Michelle Obama
Advice: “Life changes, everything changes, and you can’t be prepared for everything so just be open minded … everything is not going to turn out the way you expect, so be flexible”
Erica Krumm: Guiter and Vocals
Jim Kolles: Bass
Band Name Origin: A metaphor that reflections the members’ mutual love of nature as well as their relationship
Artistic Influences/Inspirations: Madonna, Janet Jackson
Advice: “Love yourselves! Try not to be hard on yourself, be forgiving and love your body the way that it is”
March 7: Kitty Kat Club, Minneapolis, MN