Rookes: Why no band?

By Rookes

There have been many occasions when people come up to me to ask why I don’t have a band. This can come with a variety of emphases, and it is noteworthy that this query is always posed by men after my show and that women never, ever ask me about it. Ever.

There’s the faux concern; masking the heavy hint that I’m not doing a good job solo and I need other musicians to help me (rare, but it happens.) There’s the comment that I might be a better vocalist if I wasn’t also focusing on my instrumentation (to which further probing usually instigates back-peddling.) There’s the accusation that I’m only using tech because it’s a fad that has been inspired by the success of the looping antics of other artists (and..?) There’s also the suggestion that I clearly work with tech because I can’t afford a band; I couldn’t possibly like working with tech (the inference there is ‘especially being a girl’.)

Hand on heart, these things have all been ‘shared’ with me – in person – after a show. I hope it gives you at least a twinge of a cringe, because, regardless of the angle, the overall point of the ‘no-band’ query is to imply that I should be doing less on stage than I do.

For the record, my live setup is a combination of instruments and tech – mostly playing more than one item simultaneously, creating complex arrangements onstage. I sing, I write, I produce: a one-woman song factory and I bloody enjoy what I do. It’s challenging. It’s varied. It’s ace.

And yes, it does often feel like spinning many plates in the air at once. This thrills me as a performer – and if I occasionally ‘drop a plate’ (inevitable when working with tech) then I laugh and crack on. Every great performer I have ever seen who works with tech has had those moments. I’ve personally witnessed Kimbra, Sylvan Esso and Christine & The Queens all drop technical clangers.

So, as a cis-female, I have concluded that there’s something that those who identify as men need to understand about musicians that identify as not-men. It is this: we need more of us, not less, playing instruments and tech onstage for ourselves rather than handing it off to someone else.

Here’s why:

When I was coming up through my teens in the early noughties I could count on one hand the female artists I knew of in the music industry who were playing their own instruments onstage, fronting their own material and absolutely killing it. And so, all my song-writing idols were men, because the women just weren’t there.

Consequently, I absorbed a message that the only thing women in music were valued for was to provide vocals or eye candy, because that was mostly what I was seeing. It’s true that there were exceptions, real female pioneers (of my teen era –  Alanis Morrisette, Tori Amos and Bjork spring to mind), but they have been so rare and frequently hamstrung by the rampant sexism present in the industry. They have had to work twice as hard to survive the double quantities of scrutiny they endure in comparison to their male contemporaries.

This scrutiny trickles down to fledgling musicians. As a younger woman who was trying to expand my instrumental and production skills – I was often mocked, ignored and belittled by the male musicians around me. For a long time, I internalised this treatment and allowed it to bruise my confidence. There were no female muso elders around to ask about how to handle this which made me feel more isolated. In the end it was a sprinkling of precious encouragement from a few friends and Caitlin Moran’s How To Be A Woman which finally lit a fire of ambition under my ass. Within a year I went from playing two instruments to five and had started my first band. I still ran into the same old BS commentary from my male peers, which stung, but I was finally doing what I passionately wanted so I cared a hell of a lot less.

Fast forward five years and here I am touring the country as a female solo musician with my arsenal of musical objects, and something powerful is starting to dawn on me. After my shows a new pattern is emerging. The men are still coming up to ask their version of the ‘why-no-band’ question, obvs, but it is young female and non-binary musicians who are approaching me to ask about my live set up – and they’re not approaching the men I share billing with to ask the same questions. They ask me about my samplers and peddles. They want to know which software I’m using. They love seeing me rocking all my gear, joyfully and proficiently, because it gives them an idea of what they might be able to achieve.

I look at them and I see myself as a younger musician – curious, hungry, still trying to figure out what I’m doing. They are me back then, and I am now the more experienced female musician I desperately needed, but couldn’t find.

So, I look them in the eye and say the things I know I needed to hear, back when I was exactly where they are:
‘Yes you can.’
‘Good idea.’
‘Give it a spin.’
And where necessary:
‘Okay, you should check this out. You can find it here…’

Then I send them off into the night, and know it’s helped because I did not mock, ignore or belittle them. I didn’t imply that they should just stick to vocals or change their image. I told them that they can do what I do, if they want to, because it’s true. They will probably be better than me – which would be fantastic, because that in turn will inspire other younger musicians further down the line to maybe pick up tech or a guitar, or production, or ALL OF THEM.

Photo: Tony Birch

Seeing is believing. If the music industry is going to make significant moves towards true equality and boot sexism out for good, young female and non-binary musicians need to see people like them slaying and shredding and smashing it onstage to believe it’s possible.

So, men – if you see my set, or the set of any female or non-binary identifying performer and you feel the urge to ask them the ‘why-no-band’ question, I would ask you to please do the following: firstly, ask yourself whether you would put this question to a male performer (the answer will most likely be no). Secondly, squash your urge to ask the question. Lastly, enjoy the show. Let that performer blow your mind, it’s their job. And if for whatever reason they don’t blow your mind, then accept that they are learning their craft, so graciously – and quietly – let them get on with that instead.

Rookes (aka Jenny Bulcraig) is a producer-performer, releasing on Seahorse Music. She is also a blogger, podcaster and writer. You can find other pieces by Rookes at OutNews Global.

Feature image: Geoffry Head

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