This Autumn, I caught up with Jessie Maryon Davies, music director for trans-inclusive women’s choir Lips.
She is also co-founder of Girls Rock London (GRL), part of a movement of rock camps that take place internationally. Their aim is to empower girls and women to write and perform music regardless of previous experience. After a successful third annual summer camp this year (over half of their participants received a subsidised place), they have just rolled out their post-camp programme for young people every other Saturday. GRL was one of the 50 organisations in The Observer New Radicals 2018 list acknowledged for making a real difference to society.
With many strings to her bow, Jessie is pianist in four-part group Troupe, who aim to engage young audiences with classical music through interactive storytelling shows, alongside two other musicians and a writer. She has also worked with Woven Gold, a choir for refugees and asylum seekers run by a group of volunteer musicians, started by the Helen Bamber Foundation.
Can you tell me a bit about Lips Choir and how it all started?
The choir has been going since 2009 and it was set up by a group of female friends, none of whom were professional musicians. They wanted to create a safe, empowering and inclusive space to enjoy pop music, and they started singing together. 11 people attended one of the first sessions. I came in about six weeks into that process alongside Kat Stark who was also Music Director. Now nearly 10 years on we’ve got 80 people in the choir and 400 on our waiting list!
You must have seen the choir grow and develop a lot over the last 10 years…
Big time! We’ve had a chance to perform gigs that we never thought we would. We played with Goldfrapp in the Royal Albert Hall to 5000 people, we’ve performed at the Royal Festival Hall, and we did a television gig with Leona Lewis.
We felt like something exciting was happening right from the start – there weren’t that many other women-only pop choirs. Now there are more and more empowering spaces and choirs like Deep Throat Choir, SHE Choir, and Gaggle. They are all very different, and I think it’s really exciting to see these spaces in the face of still quite a binary, male dominated industry.
What are you most proud of so far?
It’s impossible to choose just one moment! When I see how the choir support each other and how much of a community it is – it’s like a family – that’s a hugely proud moment.
We get together a band for all of our gigs and we always have an all woman band and female sound and lighting person. It feels really wicked to have all those roles filled by women and be championing and representing women across all areas of the music industry.
We performed in Church of St John-at-Hackney in 2015 and raised a lot of money for Women Asylum Seekers Together. We call ourselves a feminist choir and we acknowledge that we are a real broad church of feminisms. One of the ways we show our feminism is to support Women Asylum Seekers Together – looking out for women who are facing really extreme challenges.
In that gig we sang Rhianna’s Stay arranged by my ex-colleague Kat Stark, who stepped down as a music director at Lips in March. We performed it sitting down on the stage which was a really powerful moment. We also invited some women from Women Asylum Seekers Together to speak. Some of them shared their experiences of being detained and seeking asylum and it was really powerful. We went on a demo to Yarl’s Wood where they detain women asylum seekers. The women came to the windows and they were singing that song through the bars and we were singing it back – it was a really amazing moment – and we decided to sing it in our show. I felt really proud that we were putting our musical platform to that use.
For someone reading this who might not know what a musical director is, what are your key roles and responsibilities?
I get a song, have a listen to it and arrange it for the choir. (We do covers of all styles of pop – a big range – and we do gigs for different age groups and intergenerational audiences.) I then teach the arrangement of the song to the choir in our weekly sessions. On stage my job is to help rehearse the band and conduct them and really be with the choir on the night so that they feel supported.
We survey our choir every year so they feed in song choices. Lips sound good when they feel good so we want to sing the stuff they want.
Lips are really passionate about the fact that singing in a group can allow you to feel awesome. Sometimes in today’s culture people hold on to power and make others think that they can’t do stuff. I’m really lucky that I had musical training but there are so many ways of doing choirs. If you want to arrange a song for a choir – have a go! It can be in unison – you don’t have to harmonise – you can find your way through it and it doesn’t have to be written down in notation on a musical stave.
Lips ran Try-a-choir Weekender in partnership with SHE Choir. We got a group of people together who were interested in maybe one day setting up a choir themselves and showed different ways of doing that. It was really rad.
It must be quite a big job to get up there in front of 80 people – it takes a certain character to be able to lead a choir in that way.
I’m a massive extrovert so I quite enjoy that… I love leading the choir. It feels amazing because you’re hype woman as well – sometimes I’m just dancing to them singing. I don’t know if they’re even signed up for that but I get to have a great time! I guess ’cause I trained as a pianist I’ve always really enjoyed the challenge of a few different musical strands happening at once. I didn’t train to be a conductor – I sort of fell into it – and I think that’s why this world of pop conducting isn’t too choral. We created our own way of doing a choir. I love that. It is challenging but it’s really fun.
When did you first realise that leading a choir was something you wanted to do?
I was a music student in 2007 and because I was a pianist I would get lots of gigs accompanying choirs. During that time, I realised how voices together are such a powerful thing. As well as the sense of community you get from those humans in the room, musically there’s such scope for storytelling with words… I think the power of a collective of voices getting louder and louder and the breadth and the physicality of it is really inspiring. There was an opportunity when someone else couldn’t lead a choir session so I decided to have a go. I loved bringing everyone together and the rhythm and pulse behind everything.
I love community choirs… I think there is something really powerful about vocals being accessible to people who maybe haven’t had loads of music lessons or trained or had a chance to take up space on a musical stage before. It feels really exciting to get groups together to sing. Using the voice and music to bring people together – that’s my bag.
What’s been your biggest challenge as a music director?
One challenge is being a music director in a situation where you have to deal with some men that can be patronising to women in leadership positions. I think I’ve now learnt how to talk to difficult sound men or people in that situation.
As a music director it’s an interesting job because I love performing. For me Lips choir is like a band, it’s not just a choir, I’m not interested in pious 8-part choral harmony. I love the fact that I get to be closest, closer than the audience, to this incredible wall of sound that the Lips can power out. When Lips are feeling good it sounds amazing. I love the fact that it’s not auditioned and it’s not perfect – they sound wicked when they’re feeling it and they’re strong together. For me it’s such an amazing feeling performing with Lips and supporting them at the same time.
What do you feel are the benefits of working with or being part of an all female trans-inclusive group?
They can create a safe space where some of the pressures that women face in today’s world can be removed or lessened. In those spaces, I hope women can be themselves. They can find their own way of taking up their space without scrutiny of how they look or any judgement. It’s a space where debates, chats and politics can be talked about freely in a trusting space. Trust and friendship I think. Working together as a choir is not really like anything else. To get on stage with your crew, you’ve got each other’s back.
It’s really important that society knows that women only spaces are supportive rather than toxic. There’s a load of crap peddled about girls together being catty and stuff. I think it’s really important that this is a space where women support women, look out for and help each other out.
What further steps do you think could be taken to work towards a more equal and diverse music industry?
I think providing more spaces where young people feel like they can get involved with music making is really crucial. That also goes for people of colour, trans and disabled people. I think we have a lot of work to do to make sure that everyone who has a voice is being heard musically.
When people say, ‘I’ve been having a look for female acts but there just aren’t so many out there,’ that’s absolute crap. They are out there and we need to do more work to support them. I think the days should be dwindling now where we see festival line ups with a bunch of men in bands running the show – that needs to change.
The phrase that we use at GRL is ‘you can’t be what you can’t see.’ It’s important to show young people that it should be just as likely for a woman to be a sound technician, a roadie moving gear or the guitarist in the band. Often people still assume that the woman is just a singer, but that’s so limited and it’s disappointing that we still live with that. Creating spaces where women can be seen taking up space across the board to get away from this mono-culture we might find ourselves in is important. People taking up space and showing the world that it doesn’t just have to be white men doing these jobs.
Lips choir has a waiting list of 400 women but Jessie explained that it’s still worth signing up as they still run events open to everyone. You can do this by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also keep an eye on upcoming performances on their website. If you are interested in setting up your own project do get in touch and they will do their best to point you in the right direction. Visit lipschoir.co.uk for more information.
Girls Rock London are often looking for people to get involved and volunteer with them: girlsrocklondon.com