What do you get when you bring together five of the Reno rock scene’s most talented, outspoken women for a night of shop talk?
The Reno News & Review joined Les Bien of Shockbox, solo artist Kate Cotter, Chelsea Keen of Keen, Sophie Ralston of Kung Fu Sophie and the Slow Dying Death, and Jen Scaffidi of the Wax Models over coffee at the Record Street Café to find out. In the early evening of a weeknight, the café is quiet; a lone student hunches over her books, and an older couple talks at a corner table. A few pieces of artwork hang on the walls, half hidden by the dim lighting.
Squeezed in around a small wooden table, the musicians greet each other and introduce themselves. Most of them know some, though not all, of the others, but their common bond quickly breaks the ice, and soon animated talk and laughter fills the room. With the exception of Bien, who exudes rock star style from her studded choker to her glittery makeup, the women look like ordinary coffeehouse patrons. From her cropped auburn hair to her quiet, serious demeanor, Cotter has an air of no-nonsense authority; when she speaks, the others fall silent to listen. Keen is a soft-spoken brunette who seems more like a teacher—which she is—than the singer of a rock band. Ralston’s braided pigtails and flowing, feminine skirt give an impression of willowy daintiness that’s quickly dispelled by her assertive and sometimes scathing comments. And Scaffidi, who’s literally just driven back to Reno from playing some out-of-town shows, is heroically overcoming post-tour fatigue to be at the roundtable, which is nothing if not pure rock star glamour.
Over black coffee and ice water—sadly, no booze or drugs, and a total absence of smashing guitars on the hardwood floors—the women chat, commiserate and joke about what it’s like to be part of the local music scene. From funny anecdotes to cringe-inducing horror stories, with plenty of brutal honesty thrown in, here’s what these female musicians had to say about the very best and very worst of being women in the Reno rock scene.
All the women are talented musicians who play a wide range of instruments. Most have been performing since childhood and have the embarrassing tales to prove it.
“My parents would have me up on the bar singing ‘The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow,’” confesses Bien, who blames her curly blond Shirley Temple locks. “It was torture.” Her formal music instruction began by eavesdropping on her older sister’s piano lessons. “After I heard her play a few times, every night I would be playing them by ear,” she says. “Once my parents discovered it was me, they took her out of the lessons and got me started.”
“My dad was a musician, too,” says Keen. “He had a studio in the house, and he would let me sing and record me. It was really embarrassing. I think there’s still a tape around somewhere.”
“I got a keyboard when I was like 9, and it had all these cool buttons, and it was like ‘Oh, you can do so much cool stuff with it,’ and it turned out you could only play one key [at a time],” Ralston recalls. “There were no lessons that came along with the keyboard—it was like, ‘Here you go.’”
The inevitable musical-influences question triggers a volley of diverse names, not all of them female.
“Cyndi Lauper was my first big, huge idol,” says Ralston, a sentiment that gets heads nodding around the table. Keen mentions Bjork, Tori Amos and Radiohead; Cotter wants to add Toad the Wet Sprocket. Bien gives shout-outs to the Violent Femmes, the Sex Pistols and Faith No More.
“I’d like to put Sleater Kinney on my list,” adds Scaffidi. The light catches the crimson highlights in her dark hair as she talks. “They don’t have a bass player and [the singer’s] voice sounds kind of weird, and they just do their own thing anyway.”
“My family and friends have been nothing but overwhelmingly supportive,” says Cotter. “I haven’t had any battles to fight.”
Bien also enjoyed her family’s support, though she credits part of their acceptance to her keeping a regular job. (She’s an engineer at IGT.) “My mom flew out from New York to see. She was like, ‘You’re going to be in the Warped tour?’” says Bien. “She had her Shockbox tank top on. … I have a lot of explicit lyrics, so at first I was like, ‘My parents can’t hear that!’ But they kept bugging me, so I sent them some demo tapes, and they loved it; they loved it! I couldn’t believe it.”
Keen says her family was cautiously supportive. “My family’s been willing to do whatever to support me, but they just wanted me to be smart about it,” she explains. “They said [to] always have something to fall back on.”
Ralston has this newspaper to thank for her family learning about her band. “My grandmother called me because she saw me in the RN&R … and I was like, ‘Fuck!’ I thought they would be critical.” Despite her fears, Ralston’s family gave more encouragement than she’d expected. “My grandma wanted me to make a recording, so I did, and she listened to it and started crying and was like, ‘Is that you? It’s so beautiful!’” Ralston remembers. “Then my dad came to a show and said, ‘You have a prettier voice than Joni Mitchell.’ I wasn’t expecting that.” Still, Ralston doesn’t feel that they completely accept her career. “I’ve kind of stopped seeking that support because I don’t get it from them,” she says. “It’s always, no, you’ve got to get a real job, so I try to keep it to myself.”
“A few years ago, everyone would say, ‘You’re just like No Doubt,’ and we were like, ‘No!’” Keen laughs. “I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve heard that.”
Cotter adds, “I get Joni Mitchell a lot, but I don’t think I even sound like her. When I hear that, I just don’t [understand] it.”
“I constantly get the Ani DiFranco comparison,” says Scaffidi, “but I’m not political, I don’t sound like her at all. It’s like, girl with a guitar equals Ani DiFranco.”
Not all of the comparisons are unwelcome. “After a show, someone told me I sound like a female Jello Biafra,” Bien enthuses, pointing at her bright yellow Dead Kennedys halter top. “If I never get another compliment again, it’ll be OK.”
Scaffidi agrees. “People [have told me], ‘You sound like Nick Drake,’ and I was like, ‘Thank yoooou! You don’t ever have to come and see me again!’” Then there’s the other kind of dubious compliment: male fans who approach female musicians after shows with ambiguous intentions.
“What happens when after the show, a male fan wants to buy you a drink, and you’re not necessarily single, and maybe your boyfriend is at the show?” asks Scaffidi.
Bien doesn’t hesitate. “Take the drink! I always take the drink,” she says. “The guy just has to be cool with the fact that you’re a rock star, and you flirt with everybody … take the drink, have some conversation for a little bit, and then say thanks.”
“Say, ‘I’m going to hang out with my boyfriend now,’” suggests Ralston.
For Bien, enjoying fan flirtation is part of a healthy, trusting relationship with her spouse. “I’ve got to be with someone who lets me do my own thing,” she says, “and I wouldn’t want to be with someone who would care if I spent five minutes having a drink with someone.”
Juggling a career and a relationship is always challenging, but especially when your significant other is also in your band.
“Eric and I broke up our [last] band because all we ever did was band stuff,” says Scaffidi. “We have a deal: Don’t make me choose between you and my guitar.”
Bien, whose husband isn’t in her band, thinks relationships within a band spell trouble. “Advice to young musicians: Do not date your bandmates,” she says firmly.
Keen and her husband play together, and she says it works for them. For them, the challenge is balancing their band and their baby. “We totally trust each other, and we’ve never had any conflict at all,” she says. “Having a baby has made it a lot more challenging because he can’t watch her while I go off and play. … It’s also harder for me to go out and support other bands because my baby is the priority.”
“I find that I get a lot of backhanded compliments, especially because I’m in a punk band,” says Bien. “The fans expect an aggressive sound, and then they see that there’s a girl singer. … It’s like when you’re playing basketball, and guys say, ‘You play good for a girl.’ If anyone said, ‘You play good for a girl’ about my music, I would slap them.”
The others agree: Audiences judge a band by its singer’s gender.
“I’ve been in the bathroom, and I’ve overheard people talking before the show,” says Keen, “and they’re like, ‘Oh, the first band has a girl in it.’ Like, damn.”
Ironically, Bien says, she actually makes her band rock harder. “I feel like I’m one of the most aggressive parts of the band, like I make it tougher than it would be without me, and I think people are surprised by that.”
“Road trips—times with the band, playing shows on the road—are some of the best memories I have,” Keen recalls. Her band doesn’t tour as much now that Keen is a mom, but she still enjoys hitting the road when possible; recently, they traveled to San Francisco for a show.
“I’ve done a lot of touring this year, all by myself,” says Scaffidi. “Nobody tells you how lonely it is. Parts of it are awesome because it’s just you, so you leave when you want, shower when you want, you don’t have to worry about anyone else’s emotions or getting sick. … I did a couple of days in California, and my goal is every time I leave to be gone for longer than the last time. But I was really struck with, ‘Wow, I’m really lonely!’ … I can totally see why people go crazy.”
Perhaps the most universally despised part of being a woman musician is getting condescending treatment from men. Music stores are an especially dreaded hotbed of machismo.
“They won’t even look at me if I go in with a guy!” Keen laments. “I’m still intimidated to play anything in a guitar store. … I don’t like it.” Her black T-shirt reads “Play nice”—some advice for those music store employees, maybe.
“That’s why I only go to Maytan now,” says Scaffidi. “It used to be that if I was going to a music store on Saturday afternoon, I would stay in on Saturday morning practicing the riffs I was going to play in the store!” She’s come a long way since then, though. “I don’t feel the need to be a gearhead and rub elbows with the guys anymore.”
On the other hand, there are occasional benefits to being a girl.
“I used to hate when guys would try and help me carry the equipment, and now I let them!” Keen laughs. “I used to get so mad about it, and now I don’t care. It is heavy!”
Although they have fun dressing to accentuate their femininity and sexuality, the women agreed that there’s a danger of being objectified when you’re a chick rocker.
“We’re seen as visual, sexual objects before we’re seen as people,” Ralston explains. “It’s not until you start talking that it’s like, ‘Oh, you’re a person.’” “I’ve had a couple of labels tell me they liked our music, but I had to wear skimpier clothes,” says Keen. “I wear skimpy clothes if I feel like it, but I don’t feel like it all the time.” The band refused to exploit Keen’s body for a recording contract—a decision she says they don’t regret one bit.
“I’m a skimpy dresser, so my first instinct is, ‘I’m going to be onstage, I’m going to wear a skimpy, fancy costume!’” adds Bien. “But when it first became apparent that people were going to pay more attention to that than my songs, I thought, ‘Should I wear baggy pants onstage?’ But then I thought, ‘No, that’s just as bad, changing your appearance because someone wants you to.’ It’s feminist empowerment! I should wear whatever I want to.”
“The early bands I was in were all punk bands,” Scaffidi remembers, “so that was all about being as ‘real’ as possible … don’t let anybody see you change your shirt for the show! But now, whatever I wear during the day is what I wear to the show.”
Sometimes, the outfit depends on the venue, says Bien. “I scope out the place beforehand, and I’m like, ‘Is it tutu-worthy?’ That’s our in-joke. Because not every place is tutu-worthy. … Venue goes into my costume choice, and my song set as well.”
It’s official: One of the very best parts about being a female musician is inspiring young women to take up music.
“I’ve found as a girl that I had to make it happen,” says Keen. “Nobody came to my door saying, ‘I want you to be in my band.’” As a teacher, Keen knows all about inspiring the next generation. “One of my former students came up to me and told me that she started singing because of me, and that’s just the best feeling.”
“You can do so much at any level, if you’re writing songs and singing, or writing songs, and someone else is singing,” says Cotter. “If you have courage to put it out there, that’s the biggest part, and I think more people are receptive than you anticipate.”
And, of course, practice makes perfect. “Open mics are a great way to start out!” adds Scaffidi, a veteran open-mic-night hostess. “You have absolutely nothing to lose. I’ve seen people go from being totally scared to having really popular bands, and that is so cool to see.”
Although they support their fellow female rockers—especially those just starting out—not all of the women describe themselves as feminists or feel that women’s issues are a central part of their message. “Only in one song that I’ve ever written have I been venting about being a woman,” explains Keen. “I write about things like following your dreams.”
According to Cotter, the issues she addresses in her songs are universal. “I often find myself writing about themes pertaining to intimacy, vulnerability … and elements of our humanity,” she says. “Of the people who relate to the songs, there are just as many men as there are women.”
Ralston says experiences like workplace discrimination, boyfriends who were jealous of her talent, and female jealousy have all cropped up in her work. “We are living in such a transitional time,” she says. “Some men are doing things that are traditionally female; many women are doing things that are traditionally male. That makes for some complicated relationship dynamics.”
“I have my own unique perspective that affects my music,” says Bien. “Being a woman has shaped that to a degree, but it is certainly not my most distinctive influence.”
Even if their brand of rock isn’t always about being a woman, it can’t be denied that these women rock. From feminism and the effect of gender on their songwriting to the best makeup to bring along on tour, they had plenty to say on every aspect of the music scene. In fact, after hours of lively discussion, the only question that truly stumped our women of rock was narrowing down just one “best” about being a woman musician. Bien summed it up concisely: “Being a rock star is the coolest thing ever in every way.” In other words, it’s totally tutu-worthy.