Category Archives: Music Herstory

Fierce and Fearless: M.I.A. and the modern protest song

Molly Tie continues her Music Herstory series

The poster child for the fusion of outspoken political views and incredible musical talent is British rapper Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam, known by her stage name M.I.A.

She raps. She sings. She is an advocate for refugees, and her songs and aesthetics document the experiences of those who have been displaced throughout the world. Drawing on her own formative experiences as well as those of her family and community, M.I.A’s career has seemingly been equal parts acclaim and controversy. Her musical talent is undeniable, her political positions unequivocal. Whichever camp you fall into regarding this artist (friend or foe) her creativity and influence is beyond doubt.

M.I.A was born in 1975 in Hounslow, London to Sri Lankan parents and was exposed to the politics of her family’s homeland from an early age – her father was a political activist and founding member of the Eelam Revolutionary Organisation of Students (EROS), a political Tamil group in Sri Lanka. After being born in London, the family returned to Sri Lanka before her first birthday and she remained there until she was 11. The Sri Lankan Civil War uprooted the family numerous times and eventually, they returned to the UK as refugees. M.I.A’s empathy for those who have fled hardship and strife were cemented in these early experiences.

Her music is eclectic and experimental in sound and as such it is difficult to fit a lot of her material neatly into one specific genre as she has dabbled in alternative, dance, hip hop and various world music styles including bhangra. She began her recording career in 2002 and by 2004, she was gaining success with tracks such as ‘Galang’ (co-written with her mate Justin Frischmann of Elastica) and Sunshowers.

Her debut album Arular (2005) was named after her father’s political code name he used during his activism days- an early statement of intent from M.I.A that despite now being over 5000 miles away, her sense of both injustice and pride was palpable and would become a major theme of her work. Arular was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize in 2005 and topped many publication’s lists of best albums of the year.

Her most well-known song remains her single Paper Planes, from her second album Kala in 2007. Sampling the riff from The Clash’s 1982 song Straight To Hell, Paper Planes was inspired by M.I.A’s issues obtaining a visa to the United States and the lyrics are a sarcastic litany of immigrant stereotypes that may be held by American authorities and citizens.

Since her debut, M.I.A. has released a further four studio albums, her latest one being AIM in 2016. She has had to field feedback that her political views have overshadowed her music but for an artist such as M.I.A, these two things are intrinsically linked. She has drawn both praise and criticism for her commentary on the oppression of Sri Lankan Tamils and was a regular on political discussion shows talking on the subject as well as challenging the oppression of other peoples such as the Palestinians. M.I.A has been forthright in her view that her music has given her an opportunity to express her political ideas and that this is a revolutionary act that the authorities fear:

“Sometimes I repeat my story again and again because it’s interesting to see how many times it gets edited, and how much the right to tell your story doesn’t exist. People reckon that I need a political degree in order to go, ‘My school got bombed and I remember it cos I was 10-years-old’. I think if there is an issue of people who, having had first hand experiences, are not being able to recount that – because there is laws or government restrictions or censorship or the removal of an individual story in a political situation – then that’s what I’ll keep saying and sticking up for, cos I think that’s the most dangerous thing. I think removing individual voices and not letting people just go ‘This happened to me’ is really dangerous. That’s what was happening … nobody handed them the microphone to say, ‘This is happening, and I don’t like it’.

Her second album Kala showcased the brevity of M.I.A’s musical influences from African folk to Brazilian Street Funk (funk carioca) and electronica and it will come as no surprise that the album was recorded across a variety of locations including India, Liberia and Jamaica. The album is named after M.I.A’s mother and the singer stated that her mother’s life experiences were the main source of inspiration for the album. The songs are about political themes related to the developing world, including illegal immigration, poverty and capitalism.

Throughout her career, M.I.A. has never been shy about expressing her views on everything from police brutality to Jeremy Corbyn to global conflicts. For her detractors, she is overly reactionary and political from the relative comfort of artistic success however, her early years were shaped by an exposure to brutality and the realities of war that the vast majority of her contemporaries would have no commensurate experience of. She has tirelessly advocated for justice for the Tamil people of Sri Lanka (she often uses tiger motifs in her work as a nod to the Tamil Tigers group); she is a critic of international borders which create divisions amongst people and exclude some from necessary resources and safety; she is a supporter of Edward Snowden and Julian Assange and she is an opponent of Tory policies on austerity.

Many may not agree with 100% of her views however as some journalists have observed, M.I.A may be judged much more harshly than her male counterparts as audiences are more used to seeing men being politically agitating and provocative.

 Despite being quite a controversial figure in many circles, this has not stopped her from collecting accolades like a philatelist collects stamps. She has won two MTV Video Music Awards; she was nominated for a Grammy Award and Academy Award in the same year (and was the first South Asian person to do so). Rolling Stone named her one of the defining artists of the 2000s and Time Magazine cited her as one of the most influential people of 2009. Even the stuffy British state couldn’t help but recognise her achievements and she was awarded an MBE in 2019 for her services to music. 

HAPPY 5th BIRTHDAY LOUD WOMEN!

This is Cassie Fox here at LOUD WOMEN HQ. We can’t get together this year to hold the kind of big loud party I would absolutely love to be throwing tonight. But there’s lots to celebrate, so that’s what this video* is here for!

It’s been 5 years since the very first LOUD WOMEN gig–  it was 3rd October 2015 at the Silver Bullet in Finsbury Park. It was such a fun event, we did it again, and again, and again …

at venues all over London, at least once a month! Around those gigs there sprung up a fantastic online community, offering support, solidarity and connections for women in the DIY music scene.

In 2016 we held our first full-day festival at T-Chances in Tottenham, with bands like Vodun, The Franklys, Fight Rosa Fight, Grace Petrie … 2017 we held LOUD WOMEN Fest at DIY Space for London, with Hands Off Gretel, LIINES, Sink Ya Teeth … that one was so busy we had to turn people away on the day, so in 2018 we moved to the bigger venue, The Dome in Tufnell Park, and we hosted Petrol Girls, Dream Nails, The Menstrual Cramps and more …

We’ve also hosted some child-friendly punk matinee gigs at the Lexington and the Half Moon, which have been some of my very favourite gigs ever.   

2019’s festival shifted up another gear, with the feel of an international showcase – with The Txlips and Pleasure Venom from USA, Hello Delaware from Canada, Secondhand Underpants from Turkey, and the amazing Belgians Vaginas, What Else?

Pleasure Venom at LOUD WOMEN Fest 4 – photo (c) Keira Anee

Then we were given a rare opportunity to co-host an event at the Royal Albert Hall’s Elgar room in March 2019 – featuring Ill, and Lilith Ai.

LOUD WOMEN also graced the radiowaves for a stint, hosting a show on the Women’s Radio Station, with guests like Ms Mohammed and Stephanie Phillips.

We’ve also now put out two compilation albums featuring some of the bands who’ve played for us.

2019 was also the year we saw the launch of new LOUD WOMEN chapters around the world. In February 2019 I maxed out my credit card, travelled to New York with my band I, Doris, and our awesome friends T-Bitch to play the first LOUD WOMEN NYC gig at Brooklyn’s The Well – along with Basic Bitches, and Slut Magic. Since then, more LOUD WOMEN chapters have sprung up, in LA, Canada, Australia, and Ireland.

Meanwhile in London, our regular nights have found a home at the Hope & Anchor in Islington – a venue rich in punk history, having famously seen early gigs by bands like The Clash, Dr Feelgood and the Sex Pistols. I just love how we’ve been able to add some music Herstory to the venue too.

Last year we also launched a lovely new acoustic night at the Queens Head, which introduced us to fantastic artists like Delila Black, I Am HER and Naz & Ella.

And early in 2020, just before the pandemic ruined everyone’s party, we started doing some really brilliant open mic nights at the Apple Tree in Clerkenwell.

Not that we knew it at the time, the last gig we were to run in 2020 was in our second home of Newport, Wales, at Le Pub – with Hurtling, Hot Sauce Pony and my I, Doris.

Since then, the world’s become a very different place. In the last six months we’ve kept our spirits up as much as possible. We’ve put new music on our blog every day. We’ve run online gigs with new friends like Rhiannon Scutt, Pity Party, Foundlings. And we’ve had more online gigs too in partnership with the Balcony Fest series run by the Joyzine blog.

In I, Doris, we’ve been keeping our peckers up with a Dorising podcast, shooting the breeze with some of the brilliant people we’ve met on the LOUD WOMEN scene – rapper Miss Eaves, Lorna Tieflholz, Debbie Smith, Joyce Raskin, and Audrey Campbell.

The Dorising Podcast – episode 7 with Dunstan Bruce, Chris Fox, John Szymanski and Jon Langford The Dorising Podcast

Doris, Doris and Doris from the band I, Doris host the seventh episode of The Dorising Podcast, celebrating International Men's Day on 19 November 2020 – with guests: Dunstan Bruce (glamorous man-songstess of Chumbawamba and Interrobang‽)Chris Fox (HAB and male bassist of man-fronted band The Charlemagnes)Jon Langford (wonderman of Mekons and more); and a bonusJohn Szymanski (male guitarist and Chris Fox lookeelikee). Dorising about the manly topics of hairstyling, parenting, and the difficulty of playing guitar with stubby man-hands. With music from Chumbawamba, The Hysterics, The Men of Gwent, The Mekons, The Charlemagnes, Interrobang, plus live performance by Jon Langford and John Szymanski.
  1. The Dorising Podcast – episode 7 with Dunstan Bruce, Chris Fox, John Szymanski and Jon Langford
  2. The Dorising Podcast – episode 6. With Julie Riley of I Am HER/Rosa Mota, MIRI and Lilith Ai
  3. The Dorising Podcast – episode 5. With Charley Stone, Delila Black, and Stephanie Phillips of Big Joanie
  4. The Dorising Podcast – episode 4. With Joyce Raskin, Seana Carmody, Audrey Campbell & Sarah Lay
  5. The Dorising Podcast – episode 3. With Debbie Smith, Karen Amsden of Hagar the Womb, and Janine Booth

The 5th annual LOUD WOMEN festival was planned for last month, but we’ve moved it ahead now to March 2021, at the new-to-us venue 229 in Central London. With funding in place from the Arts Council, it’ll be bigger than ever. We’ve already announced 13 of the 20 bands that will be playing – including Bang Bang Romeo, ARXX, Hagar the Womb, MIRI … and we’ll be making our next announcement next month.

Ooo! Forgot about the Hercury Prize! This has become an annual alternative award – won so far by The Menstrual Cramps, Ill, Dream Nails, and this year by the brilliant Nova Twins.

So lots and lots to celebrate over the past 5 years, and lots of brilliant people to thank. Team LOUD WOMEN help me run all of the fun things that we do. We are a team of around 70 volunteers from around the world – musicians, journalists, photographers, and music lovers who write for our ever-growing website, advise on new bands, and help out at events. I’m massively grateful to each and every one of them for helping keep the LOUD WOMEN community thriving and growing.

Petrol Girls at LOUD WOMEN Fest 2016 - (c) Keira Anee
Petrol Girls at LOUD WOMEN Fest 2016 – (c) Keira Anee

Since starting out with that one gig back in 2015, we’ve hosted around 100 events, featuring around 300 acts. We’ve helped DIY bands get played on national radio, and get signed by record labels. And we’ve provided some bright ideas for other promoters and festivals looking to make their lineups more diverse. Most importantly, we’ve had lots and lots of fun.

And there’s lots more to come. The LOUD WOMEN community is unstoppable, even in a pandemic, and we’re finding lots of way to keep in touch, keep the music playing, and keep women’s voices getting heard. Like this video! We’ve been sent some awesome contributions and messages from bands and friends on the LOUD WOMEN scene, including some excusive new music. So please enjoy this video and join us in wishing everyone involved with LOUD WOMEN – the bands, the venues, the DJs, the writers, and the music lovers, and you! –  a very happy birthday.


*PS here’s a lil index of the birthday video:

00:00 – Message from Cassie Fox
01:42 – Delila Black – ‘You’re So Common’
05:33 – Message from the Fox Bros
06:07 – Message from Kat Five of Feral Five
06:14 – Footage of Rabies Babies performing ‘Girl Band’ at the LW 4th Birthday party at the Hope & Anchor, October 2019
08:02 – Message from Tony Rounce of Team LOUD WOMEN
09:05 – Exclusive premiere of Charley Stone performing ‘Does She Mention Me?’
13:35 – Message from MIRI
13:52 – Footage of The Noise and the Naive performing at LOUD WOMEN at the Hope & Anchor, 24 April 2019
16:39 – Message from Jemma Freese
17:11 – Jelly Cleaver and her band performing ‘The Mirrors’
19:23 – Footage of Ill performing at LOUD WOMEN at the Hope & Anchor, 9 Feb 2019
20:36 – Exclusive preview of Lips Choir performing ‘Dancing on My Own’
25:37 – Message from GENN
25:53 – Rhiannon Scutt performing ‘My Farewell’
30:30 – Footage of Slut Magic performing at LOUD WOMEN NYC at the Well, Brooklyn, 1 Feb 2019
31:14 – Footage of Lilith Ai performing at LOUD WOMEN at the Royal Albert Hall, 17 Mar 2019
32:58 – Message from Shannon from Sister Ghost
33:13 – Footage of I, Doris performing at LOUD WOMEN at the Royal Albert Hall, 17 Mar 2019
36:46 – Maddy Carty performing ‘Future Daughter’
40:41 – Message from Donald Strachan on the radio
41:11 – Exclusive premiere of The Twistettes performing ‘Tory Cunts’

Feminists, Y’all are Sleeping on Country Music!

by Jamie Canavan of LOUD WOMEN Ireland

The Love Junkies, The Highwomen, the Pistol Annies: women in country music are challenging the radio play status quo and have learned that they are stronger in groups – super groups.

I have been a country music fan since I heard Martina McBride’s ‘Independence Day’ covered by a local band at my hometown’s Strawberry Fair. I was just a kid but I was struck by the fact that a song with a chorus seemingly about 4th of July Patriotism was actually about fleeing domestic violence and small-town judgments. At a young age, I delved deeper into a love of country music for that reason – the lyrics said so much so simply. They spoke about daily life problems in a way that I never heard before in other genres.

I stumbled upon an album by Lori McKenna and I thought to myself, ‘wow this is an entire album of covers of some of my favourite songs.’ Eventually I figured out that those were in fact not covers but the original songs, sang by the prolific song writer herself. McKenna is the pen behind many of country music’s top hits such as Tim McGraw’s Humble & Kind and Little Big Town’s Sober. Lori McKenna, Liz Rose, and Hillary Lindsey make up the Love Junkies songwriting team and going down the rabbit hole of all songs written by these women is a journey worth taking. By forming a song writing team, these powerful song writers leverage more industry prowess. Check out this playlist.

Source: @JenniferNettles on Instagram

At the Country Music Association Awards in 2019, Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles donned a dress with a cape that stated, ‘play our f***ing records.’ Women artists were being played at an all-time low by country music radio across the United States in 2019 despite their popularity on streaming platforms. This is not the first time that country radio did not reflect country popularity. Little Big Town’s ‘Girl Crush’ (written by the Love Junkies) was refused by many country stations in 2014 for its LGBTQA+ connotations but ended up topping the Billboard charts in spite of this. The Chicks’ single ‘Not Ready to Make Nice’ and album Taking the Long Way were extremely successful after the group was effectively blacklisted on country radio for their criticism of George Bush.

Women in country music realise they are stronger together and it is beautiful to see. The Pistol Annies is a super group made up of Angaleena Presley, Ashley Monroe, and Miranda Lambert. Each artist brings a different flavour and each of their three albums will speak to anyone with a bit of family dysfunction, financial struggles, love of partying, or who is trying to reclaim themselves after a break-up. Their voices blend so gorgeously together reminiscent of old hymns while singing about taking a man’s money and running.

The Highwomen, named in honour of the Highwaymen (Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson) is made up of Maren Morris, Brandi Carlisle, Amanda Shires, and Natalie Hemby with appearances from Yola and Sheryl Crowe. Their first single ‘Redesigning Women’ gives a nod to the 1980s sitcom Designing Women. It’s a fun feminist bop that will make you want to get shit done that day. One of the next songs they released from their first album was ‘Highwomen’ written and modelled after the Highwaymen’s single ‘Highwayman.’ This song is SO important for country music history. It opens with a pro-immigrant lyric about a woman who dies crossing into the United States but whose family survived the journey. It moves on to a verse about a woman who was hung in the Salem Witch Trials. Then comes in Yola’s verse, this verse will send chills down your spine as she sings about being shot and killed as a Freedom Rider during the US Civil Rights Movement – something very pertinent to today’s climate. Brandi Carlisle is married to a woman and they have two children. She has sang about the struggles of becoming a parent in an LGBTQA+ marriage in her song ‘the Mother.’ On the Highwomen’s album, she highlights the lack of discussion and awareness about LGBTQA+ relationships in her song ‘If She Ever Leaves Me’ – I’ve loved her in secret, I’ve loved her out loud…if she ever leaves me, it won’t be for you. This may seem insignificant in any other genre but in the country scene, songs such as this are very important to stigma break.

My love of women in country is all about the relatability. Angaleena Presley, Ashley McBryde, the Pistol Annies, Sunny Sweeney, Nicolette Hayford, and Lori McKenna have all sang about small-town drug epidemics, addiction, and hypocrisy– the minister’s wife told a bold face lie to protect her daughter’s name, when half of the congregation was hooked on the very same thing (Pain Pills – Angaleena Presley). There are countless songs about the shame and stigma relating to unplanned pregnancies. I would LOVE to see a song about abortion care, and while it’s definitely alluded to, I think it will be a little while before I finally get that wish. Domestic violence is another topic highlighted significantly in the genre and this is very important for women, especially those in rural areas who need access to messages of support – it ain’t love if it’s mean, Evangeline (Little Big Town). Maybe you drank a bit too much last night and you’re coming down with a case of the fear, throw on ‘Ugly Lights or Dark Bars’ by Miranda Lambert – I really hate to say I’m turning into a cliché, I’m hopin’ that nobody brings it up. I have been seeing so much love for Taylor Swift’s new album Folklore, if you’re loving that do yourself a favour and deep dive into this world. It mixes well with Bikini Kill or Pillow Queens as well.

Living and Learning: Alanis Morissette and carving out a space for women’s rage in the mainstream

Molly Tie continues her Music Herstory series

When we think of all the ways that women are pigeonholed and silenced in society, one of the cunning ways in which women’s voices get diluted is by disapproving of our anger and rage. Think about how women’s anger is often portrayed: it is rebranded as hysteria, psycho behaviour, shrill or unfeminine. The insidious impact of this is to create a society where women feel unable or unwilling to express their true feelings; because rage will sooner or later be one of the feelings we want to express.

There have been many artists across different genres who have sought to challenge this status quo: from the aggressive heroines of the punk movement, through to the slightly quieter but still as biting political activism of folk stars. But there is one particular cohort of artists – and one particular artist from this group – who mainstreamed and validated women’s anger. That group of artists is the female singer-songwriters of the 1990s and the artist we are going to look at now is Alanis Morissette.

The 1990s was an incredible decade for music and for female artists in particular. There were girl bands: TLC, Spice Girls, En Vogue. There were divas: Mariah, Kylie, Whitney. And then there was the ‘Lilith Fair network’: solo singer-songwriters who penned and performed emotional, angsty ballads and pop songs, many of whom achieved incredible success. We all remember the names: Tori Amos, Jewel, Sarah McLachlan, Fiona Apple… the charts were dominated by songs such as Cornflake Girl, Building a Mystery and Criminal. The female experience was thrust into the face of every MTV viewer. But Alanis Morissette was the one who was catapulted to the top of that pile thanks to the phenomenal success of her 1995 album Jagged Little Pill and its most notorious single You Oughta Know. But who is Alanis?

Where did she come from, where did she go?

And why did she write, You Oughta Know? (Sing this to the tune of Cotton Eye Joe please).

Morissette was born in Canada in 1974 and played piano as a child. Her first album Alanis was released in 1991 although it was only released domestically in Canada. Her first two albums – 1992’s Now Is the Time being her second album – are both more pop/dance inspired than her later offerings. It wasn’t until her third album and international debut Jagged Little Pill was released in 1995, that the transition to rock chick was complete.

Jagged Little Pill is an incredible work of art, riding the full range of emotions from the obvious hurt and anger of You Oughta Know to the rather sweet love song Head Over Feet, to the affirming and triumphant Hand In My Pocket. There is a palpable sense of shame and dread in Forgiven, this track showcasing Morissette’s incredible voice more than any other track on the album. It also gave her one of her biggest hits- Ironic. And yes, she did get the definition of the word ironic wrong- is that ironic in itself? Was the whole track more meta than we thought? I personally think it is another fabulous example of Morissette articulating rage because I tell you now, if I had 10,000 spoons but not one knife, I would be confused and livid in equal measures. The album was a phenomenal success; it sold 16 million copies in the US and 33 million worldwide which made it the second biggest-selling album by a female artist (Shania Twain takes the top spot).

The lead single from the album, You Oughta Know, is a feminist anthem. Filled with righteous indignation, recrimination, and raw vulnerability, it is not the sugar coated I’ll-do-better-without-you break up song, nor is it the ‘please-take-me-back’ sort either. It captures the messy, unsettling, and obsessive nature of a bad break up and the complicated impact of not having any closure and nowhere to channel your latent anger. It makes me angry just thinking about it.

Since the success of Jagged Little Pill, Alanis has continued to enjoy commercial and critical success. In 1998 she released Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie– an album that didn’t quite have the same commercial success as JLP but its even more personal and confessional style won over critics.

Morissette has released 8 studio albums and her latest offering in 2020 – Such Pretty Forks in the Road (released in July) – will be number 9. Her confessional style continues; she has teased some details about songs on the new album with topics ranging from her experience with post-partum depression to more wider meditations on the current state of the patriarchy.

Alanis has other ventures as well as her music. She had a podcast entitled Conversation with Alanis Morissette in which she discusses various topics such as psychology, spirituality, music, and art. There is also a Jagged Little Pill musical, based on the album of the same name. The show does not shy away from difficult subjects: it runs the gamut of issues from drug addiction to sexual assault.

Alanis has been very forthcoming about her battles with issues such as depression and eating disorders. She has recovered from these issues and is very outspoken in raising awareness and funds for them; in 2009 she ran a marathon promoting awareness of the charity the National Eating Disorders Association.

Part of Morissette’s appeal to her generations of fans is her personal-confession style of song writing. She has documented her struggles with mental health and relationship breakdowns in a way that doesn’t shy away from the very real impacts of these issues on those experiencing them, making her a somewhat reluctant role model and feminist icon for nearly 30 years.

You don’t have to say you love her…. but Dusty Springfield is one of the most successful British artists of all time

Molly Tie continues her Music Herstory series

Known for her soulful, unique voice; her flawless sense of graceful style and her taboo-challenging personal life, Dusty Springfield is considered one of the doyennes of British recording artists and vocalists, frequently named by music journalists, publications and pop culture commentators as one of the greatest vocalists of all time.

It came as a great disappointment to me to find out that ‘Dusty’ was not the name on Springfield’s birth certificate. Instead, she was raised Mary Isobel O’Brien in April 1939 in Hampstead, London. Her family were all music enthusiasts and Mary developed a love of singing from a young age. She joined her first band The Lana Sisters aged 19 in 1958 and then a more folk-inspired outfit with her brother Tom called The Springfields. She took the stage name ‘Dusty’ from her childhood nickname which she earned by playing about in the dust with the boys as a child.

After cutting her musical chops in these bands, she began her solo career in 1963 with her first single (and one that remained one of her greatest hits) I Only Want to be With You. Once the hit seal was broken, they kept coming- Wishin’ and Hopin’ (1964); I Just Don’t Know What to do With Myself (1964), You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me (1966) and Son of a Preacher Man (1968). Her debut album A Girl Called Dusty was released in 1964. In 5 short years, Dusty Springfield has released several of the most popular and recognisable pop hits of the 1960s.  

Dusty Springfield’s career spanned 40 years and over that time she won most accolades available and was one of the most successful singers in the world. She had 6 top 20 singles on the US Billboard Hot 100 and 16 on the UK Singles Chart. Not many British, female artists (particularly from the 1960s) have ever matched that feat.

Springfield was distinctive in both voice and style. In terms of her look, she was rarely seen without a towering blonde bouffant and quintessentially 60s make up and evening gowns. Vocally, her mezzo-soprano had a unique tone that made all of her tracks instantly recognisable as a Dusty hit. Her trademark was striking a balance between powerful, strong vocal holds that simultaneously communicate vulnerability and yearning. Her voice was considered sexy too- a breathless quality that is both feminine and resolute.

Springfield was an avid fan of American music- mainly R&B, Motown girl bands and artists with the Phil Spector signature sound. Dusty and her cohorts were labelled ‘Blue Eyed Soul’- a term used to describe white artists that sang in the R&B tradition. Some R&B radio stations would refuse to play songs by white artists but as time went on, those rules were relaxed for artists that were considered to have the right attitude or ‘soul’. The term was applied to artists such as Sonny and Cher, Tom Jones and The Righteous Brothers.

Springfield wanted to be taken seriously as a soul artist and demonstrate her love for the genre. To that end, she went to Memphis, Tennessee and recorded Dusty in Memphis with a production team from Atlantic Records- the record label for US R&B and soul artists such as Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and Otis Redding. The album was released in 1969 and was an incredible hit and to this day has been voted as one of the greatest albums of all time by the likes of Rolling Stone, VH1, NME and Channel 4.

Dusty tried to emulate the Phil Spector ‘Wall of Sound’ production principles in many of her recording sessions with the inclusion of horn sections, backing singers, double-tracked vocals- all facets that are common in girl band recordings of the time.

By the 1970s, Dusty Springfield was a bona fide superstar. She continued to record and perform and was still going strong in the 1980s. In the latter part of that decade, she struck up a friendship with The Pet Shop Boys which led to numerous collaborations. In 1987, she duetted with Neil Tennant on the song What Have I Done to Deserve This? Tennant, who was at the height of PSB fame, was thrilled to duet with Springfield, citing her Dusty in Memphis album as one of his all-time favourites. She recorded the song Nothing Has Been Proved for the 1989 film Scandal which was a to 20 hit. She rode this momentum by recording the album Reputation- this was her third top 20 studio album.

Springfield’s personal life and beliefs also kept her in the spotlight over the years. Speculation abounded that Dusty was gay and she did have several well-known relationships with women. She was also a much-loved figure in the gay community due to her dramatic style and emotional performances. Based on Dusty’s own comments on the subject, she was attracted to both men and women. She had documented relationships with singer Norma Tanega; US photojournalist Faye Harris; singer Carole Pope and actress Teda Bracci.

She was politically progressive and once had to cut a tour of South Africa short due to being deported for playing in front on an integrated audience which was forbidden under the apartheid regime. She was a supporter of animal rights charities, mainly due to her love of cats.

Unfortunately, substance misuse and mental health issues did impact Springfield throughout her life. She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and hospitalised several times due to self-harm.

Dusty Springfield passed away in 1999 aged 59 after a battle with breast cancer. She leaves behind a consistently successful career and remains one of the most iconic vocalists of all time and the poster child of the Swinging 60s.

The Chicks are alright: The Dixie Chicks flying a flag for liberal values in a hostile environment

Molly Tie continues her Music Herstory series

Country music is associated with a lot of things- the Southern states of America; men in cowboy hats plucking away at banjos; worship of the red-white-and-blue and entrenched patriotism.

Some things that Country music is NOT associated with are- left wing, progressive politics, criticism of US government foreign policy and political protest.

But this is to fundamentally misunderstand country music and its radical roots. Country music comes from a tradition of protest, challenge and controversy and although this may have been lost in contemporary Country, some artists still demonstrate these early values.

One thing that country music has been quite good at, is having a fair share of female representation in its repertoire of commercially successful artists. Dolly Parton, Reba McEntire, Leann Rimes and of course Taylor Swift are some of the best-selling and most successful female artists of all time, and that includes from any genre. Dolly Parton has her own theme park for goodness sake! Country has produced some absolute megastars and there is a lot of money to be made and records to be sold.

One of the most successful Country music groups to come out of the last 30 years is The Dixie Chicks- three musicians from Dallas, Texas who have sold over 30 million albums worldwide, won 13 Grammys and have become part of the enduring legacy of American Country music, part of the fabric of the musical history of the USA.

The Dixie Chicks formed in 1989 in their home-state of Texas and comprise of siblings Emily Robison and Martie Maguire with Natalie Maines on vocals. In true Country music tradition, the members of the band can play an impressive array of traditional bluegrass instruments between them including fiddle; mandolin; viola; banjo and dobro (no me neither but apparently dobro is a type of guitar). They followed in the tradition of Country artists before them in honing their musical prowess by playing live; writing songs that tell stories of love and life in small town America and looking to fund their own recording as quickly as possible. In 1990 they spent $5000 to record their first album- Thank Heavens for Dale Evans– and a glittering and influential career was born.

The Dixie Chicks have released an impressive 8 studio albums from 1990. The band did have an extended recording hiatus between 2006 and 2019 however, although they did not record an album as a band in that time, they continued to perform shows together and work on their solo projects. They are accomplished musicians in their own, individual right with Maguire competing in National Fiddling Championships and the members regularly playing multiple instruments on stage and in the studio.

The Dixie Chicks are no strangers to tackling difficult and challenging topics in their songs which makes them closer to the true roots of Country music than a lot of other contemporary country artists. Their most famous single was 2000s Goodbye Earl, a song that documents the lives of two high school friends- Wanda and Mary Ann. Wanda experiences domestic abuse at the hands of the eponymous Earl and after attempting unsuccessfully to get protection through the courts, she enlists the help of Mary Ann to poison Earl by lacing his Black Eyed Peas with a toxic substance. The song was considered controversial and many radio stations refused to play it.

The Dixie Chicks have never been afraid to express their political opinions and there have been instances where they have experienced an inevitable backlash from the more conservative corners of Country music artists and fans. The most notable being their denouncing of President Bush whilst they were performing in the UK in 2003. They criticised the decision to go to war in Iraq and stated they were ashamed of the then-President. The Chicks had violated an unwritten rule of American Patriotism for public figures- you do not criticise the President whilst on foreign soil. A swift backlash ensued with the Dixie Chicks being blacklisted from many radio stations; their sponsors being pressured to drop them and receiving the cold shoulder of many of their musical peers.

However, they were not perturbed. Natalie Maines put her head above the parapet again by criticising the chart-topping country hit Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue by star Toby Keith. The song is a macho love letter to the Armed Forces and revels in the sheer brute force that American troops can flex on their overseas enemies. Maines stated:

I hate it. It’s ignorant, and it makes country music sound ignorant. It targets an entire culture—and not just the bad people who did bad things. You’ve got to have some tact.

Maines has also been an active critic of the conviction in 1994 of the West Memphis Three- three teenagers who were accused of murdering three children in West Memphis, Arkansas in 1993. Many felt the conviction was the result of Police bungling the initial investigation and wanting scapegoats which they found in the form of three awkward, goth teenagers who were marginalised and misunderstood by the small town they grew up in. This criticism of the judgement of the US Justice System has cemented the Dixie Chicks frontwoman as a progressive and challenging voice in a genre of music that has come to be synonymous with conservatism.

Musically, The Dixie Chicks are a delight to listen to. Maine’s Texas accent makes her storytelling feel authentic as well as being capable of beautiful harmonies with her bandmates that make songs such as When You Were Mine and Travellin’ Soldier bring a tear to your eye. The lyrical skill in telling so many stories of love, loss and redemption is palpable across their back catalogue which is varied and numerous.

Politically, The Dixie Chicks have weathered many controversies and PR nightmares and those who criticise them for being too politically challenging obviously don’t know much about the origins of Country and Bluegrass music. Country music was pioneering in telling the stories of those who had no voice and was never a friend to the elites in government. On that basis, and in the context of modern America and where Country music sits in that landscape, The Dixie Chicks are more radical and rebellious than most rock and punk musicians around now.

The Ice(landic) Queen: Bjork and the method behind the madness

Molly Tie continues her Music Herstory series

Björk is one of those artists – no, in fact, one of those humans – who defies all previously existing knowledge and sense. She still looks 18 years old but she’s actually 54. On paper, her music doesn’t seem like the sort of sound that would get worldwide, mainstream success but she’s one of the most recognisable and successful female artists of all time. Her switch to acting should have gone the way in often does when singers turn to film – a bit shaky. But instead, she won the 2000 Cannes Film Festival award for Best Actress for her role in Dancer in the Dark. She’s a creative powerhouse; a style icon and considered a little bit on the kooky side. Is there anything she can’t do?

First a bit of background. Björk Guðmundsdóttir was born in Iceland in 1965 to two very politically active parents – her mother was a prominent political activist and her father was a local union leader. She has always had a flare for music and has trained classically on instruments such as the flute and piano. Her talent for vocals was spotted at an early age – she had her first recording contract at 11 and released her first album at the same age (self-titled Björk in 1977).

Björk has been experimenting with different genres from the beginning- in the 1980s she dabbled in punk (in all-girl band Snot) and jazz (Exodus) as well as performing more avant garde style experimental spoken-word scores with Icelandic poets.

Björk’s career has been one of collaboration. She has been in numerous bands (other than those mentioned above, she was notably in a band called The Sugarcubes in the late 1980s) and spent her early career working with various Icelandic producers and musicians on a variety of projects.

However, in the early 1990s, Björk left the Sugarcubes, moved to London and pursued a solo career. Her debut solo album Debut was released in 1993 and was widely well-received. So much so, that in 1994 Björk won two Brit Awards – one for Best International Female and one for Best Newcomer.

Björk has been prolifically producing music since then. She has made 10 solo studio albums as well as countless other collaborations, guest appearances, bespoke experimental projects and writing credits. Some music has charted, other releases perhaps only known to those who follow her particularly closely. Either way, she continues to record, release and perform and 99% of the time, to much critical acclaim.

Björk is an artist who is perhaps better known by most people for her visuals and aesthetics than for her musical nuance. Her videos are surrealist and trippy; her outfits are bold and expressive (of course we all remember the Swan dress at the 2001 Academy Awards – the Lady Gaga meat dress of its time) and her image and sound changes with the wind. I have always considered her to be a more futuristic, abstract Kate Bush with the musical range of a PJ Harvey and a slightly cuddlier weirdness than Grace Jones.

Her private life has been, for the most part, just that- private. She’s not one for giving heartfelt tell-all interviews to OK! Magazine whilst sprawled on her sofa clutching her children but we do know some basics. She is politically active and supports a variety of left-wing, progressive causes such as environmental protections, self-determination for various nations fighting independence struggles such as Kosovo and Tibet. She has used her platform to raise money for several disaster relief appeals following natural disasters such as the Southeast Asian tsunami in 2004.

Björk’s career has had a major impact on European music and her eclecticism runs through both her musical output and visual style. Björk broke ground in the electronic scene by pushing the boundaries and interweaving other musical styles as well as her impressive soprano vocal range. Unapologetically weird, Björk encouraged and celebrated all forms of creativity through all mediums, acting as a mentor to several musical acts including Iranian producer Leila Arab and Inuit throat-singer Tanya Tagaq. Björk champions diversity via the projects she pursues and her fearless striving for effortless individuality has made the musical world a little bit more magical.

Slick by name, Slick by nature

by Mollie Tie

Grace Slick has been everything at some point in her career: Sixties hippy chick icon; Seventies rock goddess; visual artist and general musical icon. With one of the most powerful and pure voices in popular music, Slick has earned her place on the list of most influential vocalists in modern music.

Grace Barnett Wing was born October 30, 1939 and spent most of her childhood moving around various parts of the state of California. This early exposure to the Golden State goes some way to explain how Slick came to typify that psychedelic 60s sound that was quintessentially West Coast. Along with The Doors; Big Brother and the Holding Company and the Grateful Dead, Grace Slick pioneered an entirely new genre of music which defines a whole decade.

Grace started her music career as the singer in the band The Great Society.  The band generated quite the following in their native California, and it was whilst singing for the band that Slick composed the song White Rabbit – THE seminal psychedelic rock song that is one of their biggest hits to this day.

In 1966, Slick left Great Society for Jefferson Airplane, attracted by the more professional way the band was run. They re-recorded and released some of their more famous songs including White Rabbit and Somebody to Love both of which became top 10 singles. Jefferson Airplane became one of the most popular bands in the country and earned Slick a position as one of the most prominent female rock musicians of her time. Although they were not a particularly political band, it was not unheard of for Slick to make a political statement-the most well known of which took place in 1968 when she ended a performance on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour by making a Black Power fist.

A personnel change in Jefferson Airplane led to Slick forming a breakaway group called Jefferson Starship whilst also releasing several solo albums. Her solo album Dreams was inspired by her experience going through a substance misuse programme and as her most personal album, was nominated for a Grammy.

Jefferson Starship had several hits – We Built This City; Sara and Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now. These songs are instantly recognisable and still incredibly popular however Slick was not happy with the musical direction and left the band in 1988.

Slick has been pretty much ensconced in retirement since the mid 1990s and mainly spends her time as a visual artist. She has been outspoken about the fact that she feels too old to maintain her position as rock goddess- in a 2007 interview, she repeated her belief that, “You can do jazz, classical, blues, opera, country until you’re 150, but rap and rock and roll are really a way for young people to get that anger out”, and, “It’s silly to perform a song that has no relevance to the present or expresses feelings you no longer have.”

Slick has been no stranger to controversy throughout her career. Her widely documented struggles with alcoholism were a cause for concern and led to some unfortunate incidents of being too inebriated to perform and being dragged off a game show after abusing the contestants.

Despite the occasional controversies, Slick’s legacy is one of an incredibly gifted singer and super cool rock chick. She was one of the earliest female rock stars with an electrifying stage presence that influenced the likes of Stevie Nicks and Joan Jett.

She was ranked number 20 on VH1’s 100 Greatest Women of Rock N Roll in 1999 and inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996.

Her vocal performance on the track Somebody to Love is one of the finest examples of rock vocals in modern music and the early Jefferson Airplane tracks that were composed by Slick provided a gold standard that rock chicks would follow for generations.

Skin and the legacy of a rock goddess

by Molly Tie

I’ve been seeing a fair bit of Deborah Dyer in the papers recently and it got me to thinking about her incredibly powerful persona and exciting career. Still relevant; still badass and still not suffering fools, Dyer (A.K.A Skin of Skunk Anansie fame) still deserves kudos for her enduring legacy and unapologetic brand of ‘clit-rock’.

We have Skunk Anansie’s Summer tour to thank for the influx of articles and interviews in which the impact and influence of the band’s musical output is re-celebrated and poured over, and in true bandwagon style I have decided to add to it. Prepare to be influxed.

Skin was born in 1967 and brought up in Brixton, South London. Her childhood was spent surrounded by music. Her grandfather ran his own drinking establishment and Skin witnessed the revelry and camaraderie that people enjoy when drinking rum and having a dance to Prince Buster. With childhood dreams of becoming a pianist, Skin was keen to pursue a career in music.

The vehicle that would propel her to worldwide fame was the band she is most famous for fronting- Skunk Anansie. Formed in 1994, Skunk Anansie were often lumped into the generic Britrock label as this was the time that ‘Cool Britannia’ was the benchmark for quality culture and British-ness was all the rage- British films; fashion and most significantly, music. Nestled in amongst the likes of Oasis, Blur and Supergrass there was a cohort of harder bands like the Prodigy who made for slightly more hardcore listening.

Skunk Anansie were widely considered to be a political band (they once declared that ‘everything is political’), a label given out due to the nature of their lyrics and Skin’s aggressive vocals. They were Britain’s answer to Rage Against the Machine. Skin has been outspoken in her belief that more musicians need to address issue of racism, sexism and homophobia and actively take a stand against it, rather than sitting on the fence. Many aspects of Skin’s image are political without even trying- she is black, she is gay and she is female. Her shaved head and flamboyant fashion was an antidote the mainstream male Brit rockers of the 1990s who intentionally cultivated a more basic, scruffy image. A strong, powerful and intelligent frontwoman was an instant inspiration for a generation of young women.

Skin was also the first black British artist to headline Glastonbury, something we all had to be reminded of when Stormzy was given the title this year.

Skunk Anansie achieved widespread critical acclaim and released a slew of successful singles including Charity; Hedonism, Weak and Charlie Big Potato. The band’s split in 2001 was not the last we saw of Skin. She went on to release two solo studio albums: Fleshwounds (2003) and Fake Chemical State (2006). As a solo artist she has supported Robbie Williams and Placebo on tour; duetted with Pavarotti in front of the Dalai Lama and was even a judge on the Italian version of the X Factor for one season.  

Skunk Anansie reformed in 2008 and have continued to be recognised for their contribution to the British rock scene. You can pick up a copy of their celebratory album 25Live@25 which was released in January this year, as well as a new single What You Do for Love – their first new single in three years.

Continuing the 25th anniversary celebrations Skunk Anansie will be touring Europe throughout the summer of 2019, headlining festivals and their own shows, finishing with a string of UK shows. For a band that have been widely regarded as one of the most exciting live bands you will ever see, it is worth trying to catch them on one of their forthcoming dates. And if you can’t get tickets to see them in person, there is still an extensive back catalogue of absolute bangers to fire you up and tear you apart.

Dream a little dream … of Mama Cass

by Mollie Tie

Next stop on our epic journey of re-visiting some of popular music’s underrated women, we must go back to the 1941 when Ellen Naomi Cohen was born in Maryland, USA. From birth to her untimely death in 1974, Cohen’s life had it’s harrowing difficulties along with some ground-breaking triumphs. The product of this amazing, and ultimately too short life was a body of work that includes soul, heart and sass.

Cohen is better known to the music world as Mama Cass- one quarter of the musically brilliant yet personally troubled Mamas and the Papas, as well as a successful and critically acclaimed solo artist. She was one of the figureheads of a body positivity movement before anyone even knew what that was, and was the life and soul of the trendy music scene of the 60s- partying hard and singing softly.

Cass started her pursuit of an entertainment career in New York City, trying out for musicals whilst working in cloak rooms and scraping by. She moved to Washington D.C to go to University and her arrival coincided with an American Folk renaissance which led to her joining her first band- The Big 3. The Big 3 only lasted for a couple of years (62-64) and Cass’s next venture- The Mugwumps- lasted a matter of months.

In 1965, Cass finally joined the group that would make her a worldwide star- The Mamas and the Papas. The group enjoyed worldwide success with hits such as California Dreamin’; Monday, Monday and Dedicated to the One I Love and carved out a niche in popular folk music that had mainstream appeal. Their harmonies were sophisticated, and Cass was certainly the most well-known figurehead of the group with many lead vocal roles.

The Mamas and The Papas released their final album in 1971 and Cass went on to enjoy acclaim as a solo artist as well as well-loved media personality. She was a regular on variety shows and talk shows and was booked for a 3-week residency at Las Vegas Caesars Palace. She was well regarded as having a vivacious disposition and a great sense of humour.

However, behind her sunny persona and musical success Cass experienced several turbulent events following her joining the Mamas and Papas. It is generally understood that she was in love with her band mate Denny Doherty and had even proposed marriage to him. Alas, Doherty was ensconced in an affair with Michelle Phillips (another member of the band) and a complicated love triangle ensued.  She also had her struggles with substance misuse, a situation not helped by her intense recording and performing schedules.

Despite the rollercoaster ride that was Cass’s life; her talent was always on strong ground. Vocal academics highlighted her immense vocal range and enviable control and her rendition of the 1931 song Dream a Little Dream of Me is one of the most popular versions of the classic song which has also been recorded by  Louis Armstrong; Nat King Cole; Doris Day and Michael Bublé to name a few.

Mama Cass experienced a lot of comment and speculation regarding her weight. Since her death, her daughter has spoken in interviews about the impact of fat-shaming in the press had on her mother and how this spurred her on to not only achieve her own dreams but encourage other women as well. Her Mamas and Papas bandmate Michelle Phillips remembers that Cass was always encouraging her to push herself vocally and not to let men in the music industry push her around.

She decided at 25 that she wanted to raise a child and as she was unmarried at the time, it was a bold choice to make even in the swinging 60s. She kept her pregnancy secret and by all accounts was a dedicated and loving mother to her daughter, even dedicating her song Lady Love to her:

“I have my little someone to hold onto …  a little girl to set me free. … She came along just in time / in time to ease my worried mind / and now I’ve got a little someone to hold on to.”

Tragically, Mama Cass passed away from heart failure in a London hotel room, age just 32. It was a life and musical career cut heartbreakingly short.

Her legacy lives on- not just in terms of her solo career and the example this set to subsequent female vocalists; but also the body of work the Mamas and The Papas leave behind. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998, the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2000, and the Hit Parade Hall of Fame in 2009. Cass Elliot and Michelle Phillips, as “the Mamas”, were ranked No. 21 on the VH1 network’s list of the 100 Greatest Women of Rock- but Mama Cass will always be in my top 10. Dream a little dream…… of Mama CassHer legacy lives on- not just in terms of her solo career and the example this set to subsequent female vocalists; but also the body of work the Mamas and The Papas leave behind. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998, the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2000, and the Hit Parade Hall of Fame in 2009. Cass Elliot and Michelle Phillips, as “the Mamas”, were ranked No. 21 on the VH1 network’s list of the 100 Greatest Women of Rock- but Mama Cass will always be in my top 10.