LOUD WOMEN FEST 5: Preview/ Interview
18 Sept 2021
229, 229 Great Portland St, London W1W 5PN
Music festivals are coming back after a long pandemic hiatus, and it’s a most excellent reality. Yet many organisers still exclude women-fronted bands as gender biases creep into the minds and practices of those planning live gigs. Recent references to the largely male-centered acts at festivals like TRNSMT in Glasgow or Lollapalooza in Chicago note the “annual flashpoint” of “gender parity at festivals,” but underscore that the lineups simply don’t reflect an egalitarian trend. Beyond representation, women and non-binary showgoers say they don’t always feel safe in the crowds, citing rampant sexual harassment at festivals in the UK and US. Well, reader, I can’t promise you that the situation will change without significantly more effort all around, but in the meantime, I offer you an antidote: LOUD WOMEN Fest.
This year’s LOUD WOMEN Fest 5 will be held on 18 September 2021 in Central London. Featuring nearly two dozen bands and artists, the line-up celebrates women and non-binary musicians making really fucking good music while also resisting the gender-based exclusions that remain commonplace at festivals on both sides of the Atlantic. I had a chance to chat with some of the performers who will take the stage at LOUD WOMEN Fest to learn about their musical origins, the political and aesthetic aims of their songs, and the brilliant work they’re doing to promote others who have been historically diminished. Shannon Delores O’Neill of Sister Ghost, Karen Amsden of Hagar the Womb, MIRI, and the members of Breakup Haircut are teaching listeners to shift their perceptions of who writes and plays music and, ultimately, what it means to make a powerful sonic impact. “We have to take risks, and there can’t be any excuses,” MIRI declares.
When it comes to safety and the threat of sexual harassment at music festivals and beyond, the LOUD WOMEN collective knows a little something about how to push back and make their voices heard. During lockdown, LOUD WOMEN’s Cassie Fox organised the Women’s Aid single Reclaim These Streets. Featuring 64 contributors, the song is the work of a female and non-binary supergroup featuring artists like Brix Smith, Siobhan Fahey, Helen McCookerybook, and many others. Cassie and the contributors crafted the song in response to the pervasive gender-based violence that resulted in the killings of Blessing Olusegun and Sarah Everard. Karen of Hagar the Womb and MIRI both contributed, and they’ll be part of a live performance at this year’s LOUD WOMEN Fest. “Projects like this one are just amazing — the way it galvanized all those amazing people to take part,” Karen says. MIRI remembers how recording the song made her realise “how stressed women and gender non-conforming people are just day-to-day, feeling like you’re fighting for every second, for every moment. To be able to actually do something about that while raising money for Women’s Aid is quite cathartic. We can take action while sharing our stories.” Karen is thinking about how the experience of performing Reclaim These Streets again will be highly emotional for her and others. “All the people who contributed have been invited to come and take part, so it’s quite exciting, and I think it will be a powerful way to end the festival. Being on stage and performing that song . . . . I think I’ll probably cry! It’ll be very moving to be in a space with lots of fellow bandmates and other LOUD WOMEN.”
While Reclaim These Streets will be the festival’s thunderous capstone, there’s also much more to learn about the bands and artists performing. Not only are these musicians creating some incredible sounds, but they’re also doing critical work to change the shape of the music industry. If you don’t already know about Sister Ghost, let me happily introduce you to Shannon Delores O’Neill’s incredible work. Sister Ghost will be performing at this year’s LOUD WOMEN Fest, but the band’s work extends beyond this particular stage. In September 2019, Sister Ghost co-organised Rock for Choice, a benefit concert that built on previous work in the US and Canada in the 1990s to support women’s rights to have abortions. (For anyone following the news in the US, this issue is very much on the minds of advocates working to protect the rights established through Roe v. Wade in 1973. I’m thinking particularly of Noise for Now.) In homage to those earlier Rock for Choice benefits, Sister Ghost performed a version of Nirvana’s Love Buzz in addition to their own blistering track Fake Friends Run This Country.
“It was a really important moment in Northern Ireland” Shannon tells me, “because we had no legislation to make same-sex marriage legal or to decriminalise abortion. It has been a contentious subject for such a long time, and it still is . . . But in 2019 the Rally for Choice was coming up — it happens every year — and it was closest to the time that Westminster was talking about stepping in. Flash back for a moment to my teenage years when I was listening to Nirvana and hearing about Rock for Choice. I went to a staunchly Catholic high school, but the music I was listening to taught me about a different pro-choice position. Flash forward to 2019 when I got in touch with the local Alliance for Choice and bands of a similar feminist ilk. I mentioned a Rock for Choice benefit in Belfast and they were like, yeah, let’s fucking do it! The money we raised went right back into the Alliance for Choice and the essential work they’re doing for women.”
Beyond Rock for Choice, Shannon also created a Girls Rock School Northern Ireland, where women and girls of all ages are learning to demolish the patriarchy when it comes to the music industry. Shannon got involved after hearing about the Girls Rock! movement and immediately recognising how Northern Ireland was in need of its own branch. “We need it in Belfast, we need it in Derry, we need it in the rural areas because there aren’t a lot of women, non-binary, and queer artists on the scene. So I drew up a zine about launching Girls Rock! through a workshop in Northern Ireland. It was clear there was an appetite for it, and we created an initial women’s camp where we taught the participants to learn the instruments from scratch, and eventually to write their own songs and to play shows.” Although everything needed to shift online during the pandemic, Shannon has already seen the incredible effects of the work. “It has helped to change the scene!” Shannon exclaims. “There have been a lot of female and non-binary artists performing in Northern Ireland since we got started, and many of them would say that’s thanks to Girls Rock.” Did I mention that you can see Sister Ghost perform at LOUD WOMEN Fest? Get your tickets, reader.
Karen’s band is also pushing the industry and the ways records get made. Hagar the Womb’s most recent album was released on their guitarist’s label, Grow Your Own Records, which she formed with her partner from Anthrax UK. “One of the really lovely things about a second time around,” Karen says, referring to Hagar the Womb’s reunion after a decades-long hiatus, “is how the band inspired the creation of this record label. The first time around, we were on other people’s labels, and I don’t think we felt a lot of control. Sometimes we had very negative experiences, but our last record came out on Grow Your Own! They’ve also done amazing things like the Grow Your Own festival. And I think that’s one of the things I really love this time around — we have a much greater feeling of control, and we also know this label has supported other bands that might not have been recognised.”
Hagar the Womb will take the stage at this year’s LOUD WOMEN Fest, and Karen emphasises how the lineup reflects a necessary shift in the circuit. “It’s a lovely and important change that’s taking place in punk rock. It’s so much more diverse, particularly in terms of women and LGBTQ artists where it used to be a very white, very male musical force — apart, of course, from obviously amazing performers like The Slits and Poly Styrene.” For Karen, advocacy work is happening through music and festival lineups featuring “female-fronted and non-binary bands.” Hagar the Womb is “just one of those groups that wanted to harness that energy to support female-fronted bands, or groups with a female or non-binary presence, and really promote them.”
MIRI speaks about the need to continue addressing those salient exclusions on festival line ups and on record labels, and she convinces me that the power lies with all of us. “You have to put in the work, and if you genuinely care and you’re committed to change, then you can do it. I think that there are just so many people, still, who aren’t willing to do that work, so we put in the work and we keep moving forward.” We might all take up MIRI’s mantra of “Live Like Patti Smith,” which for her means “following creativity and freedom no matter the costs.” MIRI honed those skills by doing promotion work in the UK. “For eight and a half years,” MIRI recalls, “my friend and I used to run a monthly live music night called Blue Monday, which was created for LBTQ artists, women, and allies. At the time, I think there were probably only four female promoters in London, or at least main female promoters, so it’s quite a small world. We’d all support one another at those small gigs, and as time has gone on, we continue to support one another.”
You might not immediately realise it from the whimsical songs and lyrics that Breakup Haircut performs, but this band, like the others I’ve mentioned, is also engaged in critical political work. But that impact comes through sonic humour and play. When I talked with the band, Ishani emphasised how “the personal is very political, and creating music about things that are sort of personal to me gives people the opportunity to relate to them. I think of writing a song as kind of an “in joke,” and if you can establish that connective moment with someone, it’s always worth doing.” For Ripley, “humour makes things more relatable, as long as it is done in a fun and sensitive way that isn’t reductive to the topics being covered. I think it’s also much harder for people to dismiss political messages that are put across with good humour, as they will often come across as being humourless themselves.” Delphine also underscores how there’s a practical utility in crafting playful lyrics. “Sometimes people disconnect from your message if they feel they are told what to do and how to think. In a world where representation is progress, connecting people with everyday human feelings, and powerful but kind messages, helps with not feeling alone. It also shows we shouldn’t be ashamed of who we are contrary to what mainstream media wants us to believe. To add to that, fun and laughing through music is the best kind of medicine when hardly any of us can afford therapy.” Jordan follows up and says, “the fun is what gets you to listen.”
LOUD WOMEN Fest features performers across genres, with some being delightfully uncategorizable. For example, the sounds of MIRI’s music are a bit different from some of the other LOUD WOMEN performers, with an audience member once reflecting on how “I perform like I’ve got an orchestra in my head,” MIRI tells me. Hagar the Womb’s sounds hearken back to the earlier days of punk, while Sister Ghost’s music reflects the sonic delight of ‘90s grunge at an enveloping West Coast venue. Yet all of the artists are equally thrilled to get back on stage for this brilliant festival. Like MIRI says, “there’s this idea that women don’t draw crowds, but that’s just not true.” The bands are eager to play, and they’re also inspired to support one another from the audience. “I didn’t realize until lockdown how much I needed to go see live music,” Karen says. We all feel it. If you’re around London, don’t miss your chance to see a lineup of incredible bands at this year’s LOUD WOMEN Fest.