I Swear This Isn't About Female Indie Musicians

Making Music in the Margins

Deer Vibes' Courtney Sanchez keeping time.
Deer Vibes' Courtney Sanchez keeping time. Photo by Jaime Monzon

“Hey Melanie, thanks for thinking of me, but I'm going to pass. I make a point not to do ‘female musician’ stories as much as I can. I'll do ‘musician stories,’ though :)

In my experience so far, putting the female lens over the story doesn't do much more than further silo us.”

- An email from a ‘female musician’ in response to an interview request for this story.


Before her passing in 2012, famed essayist, screenwriter and director Nora Ephron itemized what she would not miss when she died. The list included bras, bad dinners, email and panels on “Women In Film.”

Creator of HBO’s Girls and Ephron’s mentee, Lena Dunham, recently reflected on a conversation with Ephron about gender inequality in “Female Films.” Ephron told Dunham, "We don't want to talk about it, but it's our job to talk about it until there's nothing left to say."

There lies the dichotomy at hand, folks — to discuss the additional X chromosome or not to discuss the X chromosomes?

Is the qualifier “female” inherently segmenting? Is the annoying rhetoric surrounding its use justified? Is there anything left to say?

I have written about some dumb, insignificant shit in my day. I’ve enthusiastically reported on mundane goings-on. I’ve made pageants of tedious interviews, but I have never received anything near the unprecedented amount of questioning and doubt in regards to the necessity, angle and treatment of this “female musician” piece … to the point of physical exhaustion approaching surrender. Naturally, I wrote the story anyway.

Out of the kindness of my heart and for the sake of brevity, I will spare you the prejudicial history of women in rock and indie music in exchange that you, dearest reader, not consider this work whiny. I will not elaborate about the interlocking systems of dominance that define our reality; what bell hooks calls “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.” I trust that you understand and support the equal treatment of women, considering you are reading this and not a Donald Trump leaflet.

I will, however, give voice to the dames of the Alamo City (the chicks driving major change in our city's musical landscape), and touch on some points I found interesting … and do some bitching at the end.

All right. Let’s beat the dead horse, shall we?

Leading Ladies

The Countdown City has a history of producing some bomb ass female music advocates, from musicians (most notably, Girl in a Coma) to promoters and hardworking belles of media and marketing.

Jeannette Muniz and DJ Mighty Iris are on the forefront of the alternative radio station game at 91.7 KRTU and 103.3 The App, respectively. Muniz is the DJ/Host of Live and Local on KRTU, Cultural Ambassador for SXSW Choose SA and a member of the Artistic Advisory Committee for Lumanaria. Iris DJs regularly at the female-owned Bang Bang Bar and has pushed 103.3 to include more San Anto-centric indie coverage, and spearheaded the station’s Alamo Lounge Sessions.

Kim Johnson and Libby Day currently hold down Do210, arguably the city’s largest event-discovery and marketing platform. They have been killing promotion and booking since their days at SATX music and have consistently pushed to make things happen in a city that’s struggled to stay musically competitive.

“We have been seeing more and more female bands pop up in the last few years,” said former Girl in a Coma (GIAC) bassist, current FEA bassist and Bang Bang Bar owner, Jenn Alva. “I can't really say if it had anything to do with GIAC / FEA completely, but I am sure it didn't hurt either.”

Whether GIAC can be credited with the ripple effect, SA’s levels of estrogen on stage may, indeed, be rising. FEA, Octahedron, Sugar Skulls, Deer Vibes, Verisimilitude, Femina-X, Dirty Genez and The Foreign Arm are just a few examples of Alamo City bands navigating the politics of gender.

My Femme Faves

As the lead singer, keyboardist, ukulele lady and the founding member of Octahedron, Elena Lopez has more confidence at age 19 than I can muster up on a good day at 26. On stage she is calm and collected, with a voice best described as dulce de legato. Off stage, Lopez is simply a rainbow-haired teen running around with a UFO tattoo.

“Everyone has been supportive of my music, because they know I can do it. They know I’m good. ‘Oh no,’” Lopez laughs, then elaborates. “That sounded cocky … You have to be able to evaluate what you’re creating and be hard on yourself. Good enough really isn’t good enough.”

Speaking of pipes, Alyson Alonzo holds honey in her throat like Amy Winehouse till the time signature gives way. Girl belts ballads effortlessly and silences rooms like a seasoned vet. Finding that voice, however, was arduous — to say the least.

“The only person I sang for was my grandfather. One time he recorded me singing ‘America The Beautiful’ and played it for some of my cousins. I was mortified,” Alonzo said. “I remember hiding in a cardboard box and being terrified of the sound of my own voice coming from loud speakers.”

Feliza Salazar is almost too cool and laidback to approach out of fear seeming like a spaz in comparison. As one-third of the instrumental powerhouse Verisimilitude, Salazar tried her hand at a few instruments, but nothing resonated quite like beating on the sidewalk with some broken sticks before she was old enough to speak.

I had the pleasure of playing alongside Courtney Sanchez in Deer Vibes, and I want the world to know she can beat box like a champ. On top of possessing the vocals of an angel, chick is down to earth, humble and has an ear for harmonies despite all of the subpar sound guys making her life difficult.

Stages Are Pedestals With Better Lighting

“I don't expect anyone to listen to my music because I'm female. I would like them to listen because they connect with what I'm saying and how I'm saying it,” noted local vocalist and guitarist, Bekah Kelso. “Music transcends gender.”

Ah, but does it, though?

Indie music is a place up high and out loud — you are affected by appealing aesthetics and higher octaves. Marketing efforts bank on audiences wanting to see approachably talented hipster ingénues with delicate voices and gently attractive features. Strip away the melodic nuances, and music is a product that is bought, promoted and sold.

“We sell music with sexy thin singers that we Auto-Tune and overproduce the crap out of,” lamented SA’s crooner-in-residence, Alonzo. “It’s like junk food for your ears — all these sounds and no substance. Yeah, I love cotton candy but I’m not going to eat that shit everyday.”

GIAC’s Alva echoed a similar sentiment, “FEA (ugly girl) was a name we thought of to say, ‘Yes, we are fea, but so what?’ We use the word with pride, and in doing so it becomes less of a put down … If fans are judging you by your looks alone and not your music, who the fuck wants them anyway? In that case FEA also means, ‘Fuck Em' All.’”

The Windish Agency, one of the foremost alternative music booking agencies, boasts about 650 artists on its roster. Only 25 percent of those are female. The majority of those are solo singing acts or Sylvan Esso-esque pairings of whispering female vocals with a male electronic beat-maker. Slim, dark hair, floppy hat and cut-off tank … with characters this stock I could draft an ironic Portlandia skit in minutes.

There was a bit of hubbub around this time last year concerning the lack of a female presence on the bill for major festivals. Almost naked images of festival posters sans male artists made their rounds across the Internet to the shock of some and the rolled eyes of others. Coachella’s 2015 lineup was reported 13.5 percent female. Bonnaroo was at 23 percent and Lollapalooza, a whopping (sarcasm) 25 percent.

Paralleling local disparity: Do Something Good Fest, September 2015 was 13 percent female; a 3.5-month sample of Paper Tiger shows ended up at 23 percent female; and at the Aztec Theatre, also considering a 3.5-month sample, the acts were just 4 percent female.

While she wasn’t involved with Maverick Music Festival booking decisions this year, Do210’s Johnson has participated in the past. “Our booking decisions are made based on finding the best fit for each bill. I'd love to see a stronger female presence on all local lineups, but the majority of bands do tend to be male.”

Where are the mademoiselles making music? Is it really that difficult to find them? What about those pesky “All Grrrl” shows? Is that really an encouraging form of participation? At what point does the novelty dissipate?

click to enlarge Octahedron's Elena Lopez leading the lads.
Octahedron's Elena Lopez leading the lads.

It’s Hard Out Here for A Belladonna

Oh, if I had a dollar for every time I was told that I was too loud or too outspoken or too bossy, I would be halfway to a legit Christian Louboutin collection by now.

While knee-deep in this story, I was again encouraged to be quiet by some notable local male musicians. A handful of long-winded, inconclusive conversations at Rosella Coffee and some email exchanges later, I was exhausted and questioning the piece’s relevance in modern society.

Women are discouraged in hundreds of subtle ways — strong qualities are not attractive or appropriate. We are too red lipstick stained, too sassy, too emotional. We are complex hallelujahs, dammit, consistently fighting doubt and dismissal. Not to be the girl who cried misogyny, but the resistance to this article alone has been evidence enough that the playing field isn’t as level as we like to claim.

“I’ve been through it all. [I’ve] had the promoter switch the venue on me 20 minutes before a gig and tell me that he was afraid people were going to ‘boo,’” Alonzo says. “I’ve had people that book shows talk to my male counterparts first instead of me. I’ve been paid significantly less than all-male bands I’ve shared the bill with even when I was headlining. I’ve been knocked off the bill because there were already too many females on it. Do I put up with a lot of shit? Yes. Is it worth it? Fuck yes it is.”

The guitarist of Femina-X and frontman of Pop Pistol, Alex Scheel, is a feminist who acknowledged the tussle for our truth, “I would say female artists are more captivating and expressive, but does that translates to success in this male-dominated industry? I think often times there is a real tendency by men to discredit the work that women put into their craft,” Scheel said. “That often times creates a friction and pushback that male songwriters do not have to encounter as pervasively.”

KRTU’s Muniz has had stalkers; DJ Mighty Iris has been told to dress sexier to get paid more; everyone has had issues with sound guys, heard passive aggressive comments from audience members and absolutely everyone has been told that it isn’t a big deal.

And On

Contextually speaking, I’ve never been one to rock a yonic tee, and I didn’t really listen to angry girl music of the indie rock persuasion as a wee lass. I did mistakenly learn Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” upside down on my left-handed brother’s baby blue Fender (my parents didn’t want their baby girl to shred). I am in an all-female band now, and I do love Warpaint and Courtney Barnett. Being a woman has affected my frame of reference and my music in inescapable way, even when I didn’t want it to.

The road to success for a broad is paved with rubble and big ass boulders and everything has claw marks on it. Feigning that women don’t have to fight significantly harder than a bro to be successful in a society founded on hegemonic masculinity is dishearteningly ridiculous.

To all the marginalized people echoing a similar stutter-stepping sentiment about your perspective, I leave you with some words of wisdom from Bjork. In a 2015 interview with the legendary rock critic Jessica Hopper, Bjork spoke of the difficulties in being respected and credited in the industry. “Yeah, I didn’t want to talk about that kind of thing for 10 years, but then I thought, ‘You’re a coward if you don’t stand up’ … I want to support young girls who are in their 20s now and tell them: You’re not just imagining things. It’s tough.”

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