Say Lady, Say: Natalie Prass, Lilly Lomein, Sarah Carter, and Odessa Jorgensen on Femininity, Music and Monistat.
You get a lot of listening and a lot of taking when you sit down with awesome women and ask them about music. I did just that the other night with some of the finest in town. (Full disclosure: all close friends, one lover, and I’ve played – currently or in the past – for all of them.)
The impetus for the conversation stemmed from a desire to hear what ladies I knew had to say about music. The in/equality, the un/fairness, and the sweet, fun aspects of it. I wanted to have a more robust understanding of it all, to get some knowledge dropped on me, which is precisely what happened. The content ranged from the wildly unpredictable to what you would expect. But it’s all fantastic. These are sharp ladies with surfeit knowledge about a razor thin subject and they do it all gracefully. In addition to what’s below, we also hit on Laurie Anderson, Janet Weiss/Sleater-Kinney, Carol Kaye, Lower Dens/Dirty Projectors, Tina Weymouth, and Madonna (they were all torn as to the opinion on her). It was a great chat, one that caused genuflection, and I’d like to share with it with you all.
These ladies are all at different points as to how they engage with music, thus the interesting fodder. You can download/listen to a track by each of them and their bands – as well as links/additional info – after the jump (click the German below).
Richard: Do you feel different playing music as a woman?
Lilly: You definitely have to have some phallus to your personality.
Odessa: You can’t be timid. girly. girly doesn’t work.
R: But why doesn’t girly work?
Sarah: Because it’s not arresting.
O: It doesn’t hold people’s attention. If you just get up and <prance noise>.…I don’t know, it doesn’t have soul or something.
L: Girly doesn’t work if you don’t own it because when you go up on stage there’s already this distinction of, “oh it’s a girl band.” People already identify it as a girl band.
O: So true. You already feel like, “OK, I’m a woman.” I mean, I haven’t done much solo playing, but they already perceive me as a blonde girl getting up there and playing guitar and aren’t going to take it seriously or take me seriously. And I don’t even know why I have that thought.
Natalie: Because it’s true!
R: Because it totally exists.
L: It’s a cultural thing.
S: Well, it’s like a free pass. When we started the women’s choir we were like, “this is what we don’t want: we don’t want to be sloppy, we don’t want to be unrehearsed and we don’t want to all be wearing the same color pink dress.” Even though pink dresses are fine. Because whenever you have a group of woman up onstage people are like, ‘Oh, it’s just woman.’
L: Because there is something to prove. There’s this thing that’s separate.
O: And you wouldn’t think that if a dude was walking up. And there’s also a visual aspect as to how guys see women and women see women.
L: There’s a lot of neutral music that men and women write, that’s just background sound. but when i see a girl playing, i kind of expect it’s going to be background sound. Especially in Nashville.
O: There’s also just a lot less women playing music then men.
R: Ok, let’s move past the preconceived notions. Where do you four all come from individually? Like you said earlier that playing the electric guitar made you feel like a man; what’s the exact opposite of that?
O: In the role of a woman, they are more sensitive. a woman comes at life in a more sensitive way. Which is beautiful.
L: Listening instead of talking. But when you’re preforming you have a microphone in your face, and you’re supposed to do something about it.
S: My idea of what me playing music is for might be a little different, whether it’s playing with Annie (Williams) sometimes or singing with those girls it’s more about community. And I never felt like I needed one. and I love Appalachian ballads, but it’s the same thing; I brush my teeth, I do the dishes and I sing about it. Because it helps me feel like I’m not wasting my time. So it’s important to understand the diversity that music has for me as a woman. And teaching songs to my nieces that are really old songs and having that be a part of the fabric of how they grow up is really important. But I also like singing Tanya Tucker because I feel big when I sing those songs.
L: And every time you do that key change…it gets me.
S: Which one, the 2nd or the 3rd one?
N: I feel like I struggle every day, being a woman and playing music, not every day, but there’s just a lot of things that go with it. for instance, I have guys that play with me and they’re all great guys – real sensitive, more so than other guys – but when I’m directing them I think, “oh, am I being a bitch right now? Or are they taking me seriously? Are my ideas better than their ideas?” Because I feel like when a guy says an idea, everyone is like, ‘Oh ya, cool, let’s do it.’ And then if I say an idea everyone’s like ‘…’ But then my idea is the one that ends up being the keeper.
R: Regardless, it’s the one you want.
N: Right, and I’m the boss and it’s what I want and it’s my music but because I’m more sensitive or I’m a woman or something, it just seems like sometimes that’s not taken seriously. But the dudes I play with are awesome!
L: And that could have more to do with your personality, not just your gender.
N: Right. I’m not assertive, but when it comes to my music I’m getting more confidant and not giving a shit what other people think, especially about me being a woman, because I used to struggle with that really bad, but now I think I’m just as good as these people, as good a songwriter, producer. I’m 26 years old, I’ve been doing this for a long time. I feel like women now, the younger generation, are getting more confidant. Like when Sarah and I were growing up in Virginia Beach it was a freaking boys club.
S: Yeah, when I saw you at shows I knew you were there to listen to the music, and there was only 3 people who were actually there to listen to the music, girls or boys. That’s been consistent in your individual pursuit to always get better and I think that’s really inspiring. Because I think it’s a seasonal thing for a lot of girls. maybe.
N: It’s defiantly a personal journey for me. I try not to get too upset about being a woman because it…i don’t know, it’s like a sexual thing being on stage because people are judging how pretty you are, how skinny you are, looking at your legs butt arms, what your boob looks like hanging over your guitar, and even my frizzy hair!
L: I over-compensate the opposite way. when I play, I like to put on make up, a fancy dress, take clippers to my legs, you know: make it an event. Like, if so and so’s getting married you wanna dress up, you wanna make it an event.
O: And there’s nothing wrong with that.
L: Right, so when i feel like gussying up for a show – and it’s not always – I’m singing and sometimes i think am i trying to prove something? it’s something i still sometimes question. but at that point it’s playing pretend, not in case some record guy is there. it’s not a marketable thing. but that’s one of the reasons why i get weird about it and tend to over think it. Which is foolishness, honestly.
O: It’s just important to feel like you’re being honest. to feel like yourself. like if i feel like dressing to the nines then hell ya I’m gonna do that. and if not I’m going to wear a hoody and jeans.
L: But then you look like you’re on a Monistat commercial.
R: Why does a lot of current female music either actually suck or is perceived as lesser?
L: I know that when there’s an all-girl show it’s perceived as gimmicky. which is a shame, but that’s more of a ratio thing than anything.
O: I also think that girls don’t focus as much on music as dudes do. Because there are very few girls where that’s all they do. But maybe girls – I don’t know if this is right or wrong – but it seems that girls can get away with less and they can keep floating because of how they look. So maybe if they relied less on looks and dug in and was really fucking passionate about it, studied it, and knew what they were doing, maybe it wouldn’t be perceived as that. That’s not to say that’s the only way of answering that question, because there obviously are girls that do that, but that’s something I’ve seen here in this town. Like I’ve seen girls who are like…
R: I’ve got 4 chords down and i look good, that’s enough for now.
O: Right, it’s not as good as a dude who sits in the living room all day, playing guitar, shredding.
R: But you have to question is shredding a good thing though.
O: That’s so true.
R: We don’t have to go that far, I’m just picking on you.
L: It’s hard to generalize, but the initial thing that came to my mind is that I withdraw from over exaggeration of very emotive lyrics, like when you just talk about how you feel and being inarticulate about that. Like when I went to a lady songwriter night at a friend’s house and there were 4 lady’s singing in a round robin style. 2 songs, switch. But 3 in a row all started their first song with “I feel…” Pick some better words!
S: Little girls don’t listen like little boys listen to music. It’s weird if they do.
R: I’ve never thought about that. Is that everyone’s experience here?
S: Not mine. when we would go to shows growing up the girls would be there because there were boys there and I thought everyone was just excited about punk rock! And i felt enriched by that, empowered. because even though it was a tiny little scene the message being told to me was that I could do whatever i wanted to. And i wish more girls felt like that, regardless of if they’re playing music.
N: When I listened to music as a kid it was all men. Historically it’s usually men. Men playing everything. Bass, singing, drums, strings, everything. So when I hear a girl singer or an all girl band I feel like I can connect with it more. like these are my people, I wanna hear what they’re doing. And I love men, but being a female and playing, I like hearing what other girls are doing, and growing up with mostly men playing music, maybe that’s why I didn’t listen to less of it.
L: I agree. But i think that the people that resonate with me the most are the toughest, not gender. and that’s my personality. Like when Fionna Apple yell-sings and it’s raw as shit, or when R. Kelly or Dolly Patron sings…hmm, Dolly less so because she’s a bird…but when someone just brings it and you can tell that everything they have is right there and you get to hear that, you’ve got me and I’m in tears by the end of it. My favorite singers are Dolly Patron, R. Kelly, Tom Waits and Nina Simone.
N: Because you’re connecting with that emotion.
R: And R. Kelly might be one of the most disingenuous people, but he’s that genuine of a singer that you can look past that if that’s what you think of him.
S: One of the easiest ways of seeing that rawness is when people play rock and roll but not all women are playing rock and roll. See, I love Joel’s music (By Lightening and Phantom Pharmer) but I don’t get “amped” watching him play, because his music is kinda calm. There’s a lot of great women songwriters out there, but you aren’t going to get stoked to the same level.
N: It’s a lot for a woman to put herself out there; to be the center of attention, shaking her ass and playing. “I demand all your attention on me!” I don’t know, women aren’t really brought up to be that way.
O: Not in my house though! My dad was always, “Own your shit. You’re cool and do whatever you wanna do,” and that’s how I feel now. People can take it or leave it.
N: But it seems like most girls in America aren’t like that…
L: I think women are usually taught to be passive aggressive and manipulative, honestly. Because it’s beneficial, you can take care of yourself that way.
S: A better way to say it might be that we’re taught to be agreeable.
L: I feel like there’s this whole span, but the general term for this is, “Get By.”
R: You three – from what I can remember – had a traditional, Southern upbringing, and you, Odessa, had…
O: Hippie, wild parents. Yeah, my dad taught me to never rely on a guy to feel anything. Feel good about yourself and what you do. Don’t be afraid. I think fear – whether you’re a man or a woman – basing your decisions on other people’s standards, other people’s ideals, we all struggle with that, male or female. I think about that a lot, and you just gotta do what drives you, perhaps what you were put on this earth to do.
R: “Follow your bliss,” in that sense.
O: Yeah, follow your most intuitive sense of self.
R: Which, arguably, women are more intensely geared to understand that, but that comes from someone cultivating of the inner life.
O: It’s a strange thing: women seem like they’re supposed to follow something. Especially having moved to this part of the country I feel like women are supposed to follow a certain time line, a certain path….
L: There are customs! Women customs.
O: Yeah, married, children, stay home. I was with a dude for 2 years and he was terrified that I even wrote music. He was very unsupportive and it was weird to him that i was going to do my own thing. It’s so strange. So I literally wrote when he wasn’t around. I guess it’s a cultural thing, but I had never experienced that before. “Women don’t go out on the road and pursue their own thing, aren’t you just gonna chill here and I’ll provide?”
N: I was raised with that but I had a sense very early on that that wasn’t for me. I respect where I come from and I was never really rebellious toward that, I just knew it wasn’t for me.
S: I think sometimes I try to put rules on me playing like I would if I was hosting something at my house. As in, I don’t want to waste anyone’s time and I don’t want anyone to be uncomfortable. There’s a total awareness of the fact that these people are tired and went to work today: don’t waste anyone’s time. I don’t know if that’s my insecurity or what…
R: The whole reason I thought of getting everyone together and talking about this was because the other night I was listening to Bikini Kill and I realized that I didn’t know if I was stoked that girls were taking on the more “manly” thing of Rock and Roll or not. So what do you all think of Rock and Roll I guess?
L: I feel like I have to compete constantly with our friends. With…ok, sorry, with Blacktooth specifically it’s a group of friends that I’m very actively engaged with and there are shows that 8 bands are playing and we’re not asked to play.
R: No girls are.
L: Right, but on top of that I feel like I have to compete to be good enough to play with our own friends. With Rock and Roll, with being tougher in music, I’ll have an idea and then think about beefing it up so it can be comparable, tough enough, because most of my friends play stronger, more driving music. And that’s bad ass as hell, but it’s not something that comes natural to me, so I have to reach for it and push for it. And that’s why it’s like a competition. I don’t know, it’s not a competition, but it’s natural for you boys to push and so it’s more like trying to move this mashed potato wall out of the way and reaching for something that doesn’t come naturally for the sake of making it better.
R: Are you saying that’s good or bad?
L: I’m saying great, but it’s just this competition with my friends. Which again, I know it’s not a competition…it’s almost like there’s 2 parts to what I’m talking about. One is that I want to play shows with my friends, two I want to be stronger and tougher, by that i mean just to keep pushing and evolving.
S: At home everyone played punk. I didn’t play punk and so I made my own space and didn’t get offended when I didn’t get included. I play funky country, which is weird, but I’m not as good as people who do that for a living, so I’m not offended. I mean, it is cool to be included, but I don’t play rock and roll, so I’m not too worried about that.
N: I feel better than ever and more confidant now. More than ever. What I’m doing is something I really believe in, and I think I have good ideas and I’m less concerned about if people will like me or not. I don’t give a shit anymore. If I’m going to do this, I’m going to do this right now. But what’s interesting now is that if you’re going to do music now, you gotta do everything. You gotta be producer, engineer, writer, player…
L: …A manger, a promoter…
N: …a marketer. You gotta do everything and do it right until anyone wants to give you some help. So that’s where I’m at. And guys have been doing this for a while, but think about it, there aren’t that many girl engineers, producers.
R: Can anyone think of a girl engineer or producer? I’ve never thought of that before.
N: I know, it’s sad.
O: Do you know Gail Davies? I met her the first week I moved here. I worked at a grocery store for like three weeks and she came down my aisle complaining about needing a fiddle player. I told her I played the violin and she asked me to her house. She was the first woman producer here in Nashville. Talk about a fighting woman. She was in California in the 70s and did a lot of songwriting and her brother Ronny was writing for a lot of great rock bands, just a great songwriter, but they were from here…anyway, her journey in the world of men in the 60s and 70s…
O: Yeah, in country! She would have these stories where, straight up, she would walk in, having written the song, having done the whole ground work for it, brought it into the studio, and they’d literally say, “Gail, can you get these gentlemen some coffee?” Do your job. And she’d say fuck you guys and it got her into trouble! But she’ll still deal with that kind of stuff today because there aren’t a lot of women who have risen to the top. She’s produced many albums of people’s music but she’s not famous. She’s a little bitter about it.
L: How is her coffee though?
N: Side question: why are women good at violin or piano, but not good at guitar, bass, drums?
R: That was going to be the final question: why do women usually suck at drums?
O: I don’t know…I think it’s literally got to be a physical thing.
JOSH: No, think about it. Those are the instruments you teach kids, especially girls. And then if you move into some other scene that’s still the instrument you know best.
O: Yeah, my parents started me in violin when I was 4 years old.
L: I tried out for drums in marching band and the teacher wouldn’t let us. When the boys tried out they got practice pads to warm up on and the screening test was doing para-diddles and hitting the middle of the pad. Easy stuff. And we got fold out chairs. and were tried separately. And only 2.5 minuted or try out time. And he said we weren’t write for the drums. Sexist fuck. But as a kid I just thought I wasn’t that good but we never had a shot.
S: I’m glad I got forced to play the piano because now I can read music.
O: Yeah, me too, with violin. And it’s funny, you don’t see dudes playing violin because they grew up playing baseball.
L: Yeah, and it’s a small, more feminine instrument. And boys don’t ever want to have small instruments.
JOSH: And yet all the best violinists in the world are predominately Male.
R: But we could also go back to the original point that there are just more men playing music than women.
O: Right, but luckily we’re at a point in history where all of us can do whatever we want. Which is good for everyone.
L: We get to choose NOT to vote.
S: Now they have those Rock and Roll girl camps…
N: I spoke and played at the one here in town (The Southern Girls Rock and Roll Camp) and I thought, “Holy shit, if I was a kid and had this I would die! It would be the coolest thing ever!” You know my girl band I had for a while, MOM? The youngest girl, Lizzy, she was 17 when she first started playing with us and that girl can shred on the guitar. she’s fearless. She came to a jam session one time at Mitch’s place with a bunch of people who are way older than her and Lizzy just jumped up and started playing drums – which she doesn’t really play – and then stated singing and making up words and I thought that I would never have had the balls to do that. Which I guess shows a generational gap already…And maybe that’s just her; maybe she’s a freak of nature. But she also had the rock and roll camp and now she teaches there.
L: I still get shy and nervous and I’m 27 years old, but I’m new to it also.
O: Which is fine.
N: Another interesting thing: how many old men musicians do you see “reuniting” and going on TV and stuff and when a woman does that…even Diana Ross or someone…I don’t know, you don’t see as many older women performing or going on tour.
O: Except for people like Emmy Lou Harris, who kills it still.
S: Yeah, but that’s because a lot of people would judge an older woman, like, “She really let herself go.”
O: But there also aren’t as many women, now or then!
L: But men will also fuck anything into the ground, whereas a women will accept chapters in her life. I mean, your body: you are young, you get your period, then you are this, and then you go through menopause. Very literal stages. Your life is sectioned into thirds.
O: Yeah, and men might not…
L: I don’t know, I should probably think about that.
R: No, it’s good. We’re all speaking in very intense generalities, which everyone’s being real nice about. There was just a lot less women back then, even less than now, and so hopefully, when we’re all older…
N: I was talking with Johnny Fritz the other day, and I asked him how his tour with Wanda Jackson went, and he said it was different than you would expect. He said there was like 20 people at each show. Are you kidding me? And I couldn’t help it, but I thought, ‘is that because she’s an older woman?’
R: Right, but she was never a SUPER star back in her day. We may all worship her…
S: Right, I guarantee you could go up to most people and they wouldn’t know who she is.
N: That’s true. Johnny also said that people would yell, “You slept with Elvis!” Like that was all they cared about.
L: Who would yell that to a 70 year old lady?
R: No, she talks about it from stage, still. It’s like her shtick. She’s a bad ass.
BEN: Grace gets heckled every night.
O: But that’s because she works it on stage. She’s a beautiful women, we all are, why not? We can do that.
N: But most successful women in music are like models, showing off their skin in designer clothes. And I don’t know about that…
O: I meant more like owning what you’re doing. That’s hot.
R: And it’s almost like something happened, because it wasn’t necessarily all about looks back in the day. I mean, it OBVIOUSLY was…
S: Television, dude.
R: Yeah, probably. But take for instance Nina Simone. She’s not a stereotypically attractive woman – even though she looks like a goddess to me – and Patti Smith is the same. That women is awesome.
S: That book, Just Kids, by her is great.
L: It used to be that you didn’t have to be pretty. You just had to sing.
N: Who’s that model that is older now and hula-hoops? She’s a gay icon?
N: No, she’s black, wore a hood back in the day? she’s a singer, but she’s a horrible singer. Studio 54, from somewhere in Africa, moved to New York…anyway…she (Grace Jones) was just dancing and this record executive decided he wanted to make her a star, even though she couldn’t sing, and she became huge – and still is huge. It’s awesome that she’s a gay icon but it’s interesting because a guy decided to make her a singer because she was beautiful.
L: I used to work at Trim and this girl came in to get made over, like the works: hair extended, eyelashes extended, hair colored. She had a bunch of people working on her and they asked her if she was a singer. She said yes and they asked what kind of music, and she said, “I don’t know yet.”
R: I know guys and girls that have had photo shoots, video ideas, etc., all lined up and done before they even played together or wrote one song.
R: Tell me older and current day females that you respect musically.
N: Can we not say Nina Simone? We all agree on that.
N: Current is more interesting to me. I like Grimes a lot. I respect her. She’s a producer, engineer, used to play solely by herself onstage – she’s got dancers now – writes her on music. Totally all her own thing. Brittany from the Alabama Shakes, a lot of respect. Sharon Jones, but she doesn’t really write her own music though. For me personally, I respect people who write their own music.
O: Laura Marling. Have you heard of her before? Karen Dalton, she never got recognized at all.
S: She’s sweet.
O: She was in the Dylan crowd. I think she OD’d or something but she wrote heartfelt, beautiful music. Great voice. I also like Nico of Velvet Underground fame.
N: Bjork, for sure.
S: Nico’s voice is like eating a tort. Super dense and rich.
O: And she just sat there when she performed. No ass shaking, nothing. Which I love. I love moody things.
S: I really like Myria. I’ve listened to her since I was in the 10th grade and I still think she’s making cool music.
L: MIA and Fionna Apple. I respect them a lot. Great performers, great singers. Sony wouldn’t put out one of Fionna’s records for years.
S: Mavis Staples. The old civil rights singer. She’s awesome.
N: Do you all consider yourself feminists?
N: Well what do you think is feminist?
L: I think feminism is natural to our generation, so I don’t have to consider myself a feminist.
O: I don’t really feel the need to say that.
R: Do you, Natalie?
N: Yeah. I think I am. But it’s different for me. I’m proud to be a woman and I respect women and I support women.
R: I think if that’s your definition of feminism then I think we all would fall under that.
N: Right, it’s not like I hate men. I’m just more aware and proud of what women do. It means more to me.
L: Let me look at your armpits, prove it.
N: They had that annual Women In Music award ceremony not that long ago, and Katy Perry won woman of the year…
O: I love her tits.
N: And the first thing Katy Perry says is, “I am not a feminist.” To a whole room of women that have struggled from all different decades. And I thought that was a very interesting to say when you’re accepting Woman of the Year that you just got voted by a bunch of women…I just think it was interesting. You all should watch it. It’s almost going too far in the opposite way, I think.
L: What’s some 90′s women you all like?
O: Suzanne Vega.
S: That song is tight.
L: Roller Skating will forever be that song for me.
N: Missy Elliot.
S: Lauryn Hill.
R: Can I talk about some women I like?
R: Erykah Badu.
L: Erykah Badu and Joss Stone are Richard’s feminist heroes.
Sarah Carter /// Sarah Carter – Pretty Fair Miss (song)
Odessa Jorgensen /// Odessa Jorgensen – Hummed Low (song)