Equal play for women

Published in The Independent on 6 April 2007
View the published article here

With a male-centric mainstream and so-called ‘alternative’ culture giving limited space to female creativity, worldwide DIY festival, Ladyfest – where all bands are totally female or female fronted – parties on underground. Rachel Bell talks to some of the hugely talented women who will create, network and rock at upcoming Ladyfest Leeds.

After seeing off all-comers to top the NME’s “Cool List” in November last year, you might have expected Beth Ditto of The Gossip to be the cover star of that week’s issue. Instead, the planned shoot of the awesomely talented Ditto with Lily Allen (who featured at No 3 in the list) and Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs (at No 5) was dropped by the music paper, in favour of a photo of the male nu prog-rockers Muse. A disgusted Ditto said at the time: “They totally copped out. I think it’s disappointing because I actually thought that things were getting somewhere, and they were just too chicken… Had they all been men, I’m sure it would have made it on the cover.”

 It’s in such a climate that Ladyfest exists, celebrating female creativity in the arts since its inception, at Olympia, Washington, DC, in 2000. The Gossip were there at the beginning. “I played the very first Ladyfest and saw The Gossip,” says Gina Birch, founder member of seminal – and all female – 1970s punk band The Raincoats, who are this year’s headline act at Ladyfest Leeds. “That was very early on for them. [There was] Bratmobile, Cat Power, Quix*o*tic, Sleater-Kinney, loads and loads of stuff. I hung out with Slumber Party and Tobi Vale from Kill Rock Stars. I went to all sorts of crazy workshops and saw lots of art, and spoken word and performers.

“It was amazing, a fantastic thing,” recalls Birch, now 51. “The whole of this small town was taken over by women of all shapes and sizes, colours and creeds, and there was art, poetry, music, performance, film and it centred round this lovely old little theatre, the Capitol. There were workshops on hip parenting, knitting, you name it, there was something going on with it. It was just brilliant.

“Just walking around the town and seeing all the different women, meeting people and feeling empowered by it. It was lovely, fantastic, like a kind of Edinburgh Festival on a small scale just for women. I mean, there were lots of men there but the performers were 95 per cent female. It was incredibly special because it’s so nice occasionally to feel in the dominant situation.’

Ladyfest – the name came from Allison Wolfe, of the band Bratmobile – and its DIY ethos grew out of the Riot Grrrl movement, as a reaction to the marginalisation of female talent in the punk rock scene in Washington, DC, in the 1990s. “The point about Riot Grrrl,” says Helen, 26, the keyboard player and vocalist of Brighton group Shrag, who have supported The Cribs, “is women being culturally active is an ongoing and increasing thing. To a certain extent, I think this idea is threatening to a still male-dominated industry, hence the need to contain this kind of activism under labels.”

Julia Downes, 24, one of the organisers of Ladyfest Leeds, says: “Mainstream festivals will have maybe one or two acts with women in – this is a really culturally creative opportunity to blow that all away. The music industry has grown up within very masculine parameters, so the criteria they use to judge something as good is obviously very gendered. Existing music histories are largely written by male music journalists so it perpetuates this cycle of validating and celebrating a plethora of white male rock acts. Along with The Slits, The Raincoats were really amazing for their time, and not really celebrated enough. I don’t think they realise how influential they are. It was a really important for me to get them on the bill, to celebrate the legacy of women’s talent in the UK.”

Skylarkin are one of the 25 acts on the bill at Ladyfest Leeds. Fronted by 20-year-old student Katie, their harder-edged pop is tipped for big things in 2007 by XFM. Other acts include Lianne Hall, described by John Peel as “one of the great English voices” and the New York singer Phoebe Kreutz, who won an Emmy for her involvement in Sesame Street and is a puppeteer on the musical Avenue Q. Then there’s the experimental noise of the Polly Shang Kuan band, who, in the words of Wire magazine, play “mindbendingly intense live shows” and according to Downes “really push the boundaries of what people expect women’s music to sound like”.

Then there’s The Duloks, guaranteeing quirkiness. Mira from The Duloks says, “We don’t care about people clapping so much as making people smile and laugh. There’s too many bands that come on and play their songs like they’re doing you a favour. We want to make it a wonderful, fun experience when you come and see us!”

“The very first Ladyfest had a committee of 40 women or so,” says Birch, “and they put in so much work for so long and they said, you know, we’ve done this one, go and make it happen in other cities – they didn’t say we’ll make it happen in other cities, they told people to pick up the baton and go and do it themselves. The DIY ethic is really important, to give people the feeling that they can do it themselves.”

To date, more than a 100 Ladyfests have taken place around the world since 2000: this year sees Oslo, Copenhagen, Michigan, Ohio, Chicago, Bucharest, Vancouver, Vienna, Turku (Finland), Torun (Poland), Monterrey (Mexico), Hawaii and South Africa all hosting them. As well as the upcoming Leeds event, Ladyfest Cambridge took place in March, and Leicester, Bristol and Nottingham follow later in the year, with Ladyfest London in 2008.

What does Birch think of female artists’ presence in the mainstream, with the likes of Lily Allen, Amy Winehouse, Cat Power, The Long Blondes, Lady Sovereign and The Pipettes doing well? “I think we’re in quite a positive [place] at the moment in terms of women playing and performing,” she says. “I mean, it’s great that Beth [Ditto] has got this award, as she says herself, it’s brilliant that she got that cool award and terrible that NME didn’t have the guts to put her on the cover.”

Ana da Silva of The Raincoats, says: “Things have progressed. There are more openings for women to do things. Chicks on Speed recently released a three-CD compilation, Girl Monster, with more than 60 tracks by women. But women musicians are still marginalised. Riot Grrrl and events like Ladyfest create spaces for women to represent themselves in their diversity and richness, and bands like The Gossip and Le Tigre are giving young women really positive and alternative role models.”

“It’s not just a six-day party,” says festival organiser Amy Brachi. “It’s going to have a lasting effect.”

Ladyfest Leeds (0113-224 3801; www.ladyfestleeds.co.uk), 10 to 15 April

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