“I think it’s very important for us to shine a spotlight on these women and create role models for the next generation of women. In order to do that, we HAVE to put them to the forefront. It’s the only way.”
~ Laura B. Whitmore
A publicist emailed me about a month back describing this really incredible project. It was a compilation album, She Rocks, Vol. 1, scheduled to release January 20th, 2017 at the She Rocks Awards during the annual NAMM event. It’s a compilation made up of some of the most badass female guitar players in the world. You wonder who some of these women are? Well, to name just a few Lita Ford, Jennifer Batten, Orianthi, Nita Strauss, Gretchen Menn, Nili Brosh and so many others! Yeah, no big deal, right?
Nita, Nili, Gretchen, and the founder of the She Rocks Awards and the Women’s International Music Network, Laura Whitmore, sat down with me to talk not only about this album, but also the celebration of who they are as women and women in the industry, the power of sisterhood, and also the reality of changing gender perceptions is an evolving process. Their stories are inspiring and passionate, and always come back to three things: their love of music, their love of guitar, and the coming together of women in this industry.
How did the She Rocks Compilation, Volume 1 come together?
Laura: Steve Vai was looking to do some new projects with his label, Favored Nations, with producer, Brad Tolinski, formerly the Editor of Guitar World Magazine for many years. Brad said to Steve, “You know, I think the future of guitar is female guitar players, and you should put out out a compilation of kick ass female guitar players.” Steve thought it was a great idea. So, Brad and I worked together to identify players we knew and who we thought would be a really great fit for the album. We wanted to showcase a nice perspective with all sorts of different styles on guitar.
For you ladies, why was this album important for you individually?
Gretchen: For me it was just a total thrill, because every person who is on it, I totally admire. It was just this total celebration of sisterhood. I couldn’t think higher of these people as musicians, and I feel like any woman who is out there just killing it their own way on guitar, helps all of us. For the people who are out there who think there is still some chromosomal link between guitar and gender, I love being able to smack them up against the head with these people who I love as players and I adore as humans.
Nili: When the offer from Brad came in, I was very excited about it. To be honest, I knew it was just a matter of time before somebody put together a compilation like this, and with so many amazing female guitar players now, just be a part of the group and included in this inaugural thing, was what I was hoping for.
Nita: It truly is an amazing feeling to be on the forefront with this surge of talented female guitar players. When I was growing up, I didn’t know of any female guitar players. Later on, as I got older, I learned about Jennifer Batten, Lita Ford, and Michelle Meldrum, but they were sort of few and far between. And now, it’s so cool to be a part of this movement of incredible female guitar players and just really, really amazing to be a part of it.
Interestingly, I started playing guitar because of Steve Vai and only because of Steve Vai. I got to meet Steve for the first time earlier this year, and he is the one who actually told me about the project. For me, to meet my hero for the first time and have one of the first words out of his mouth be “Do you want to be part of this album?”, was really life changing for me. I think you could call it a bucket list item.
Was there any sort of stigma in the back of your mind around this compilation being very directly a female driven album of female guitar players?
Gretchen: Sure, I look forward to the day when we don’t need to qualify the gender of a musician, but this compilation speaks to where we happen to be right now. There are still so many people who consider female musicians a novelty. The way I see it is, I’m totally down with that and so honored to be a part of something that celebrates a group I am a part of. The only qualm I could ever imagine having would be if the musicianship was anything short of fantastic. Everybody on this record is so good, regardless of gender, regardless of anything. I feel like an album like this can help us say “Are separate categories still necessary, or can we be done with this conversation now?”
Nili: I would love nothing more than for the day to see that gender doesn’t matter, and we are all just mixed in with everybody else. But, as much as I would like that, it just isn’t where we are right now. Females who complain about it not being there yet, are just not being realistic. I think this compilation is a step in the right direction. It might take more than our generation to get where we want to go, but if we can be a part of this now, I think it’s a good way to keep forging the path towards it.
Laura: Well said.
Nita: I totally, totally agree. I think all of us as female musicians, never question that we are female musicians, anymore than we question what color of hair we have. It’s easy to get up in arms about a lot of things lately and the animosity about these kinds of labels, particularly in the climate of the way we see the world today. But, I think everyone on this call knows, it’s a lot more important to just play the guitar. This compilation is a celebration of who we are.
Laura: For years and years, I have been writing about female guitar players, women in music, and giving awards to female musicians. In a perfect world, we would not have to give an award to a female musician or to have an album of female guitar players, but the world isn’t perfect. Nita said this earlier, that growing up she didn’t know any female guitar players. I think it’s very important for us to shine a spotlight on these women and create role models for the next generation of women. In order to do that, we HAVE to put them to the forefront. It’s the only way.
Nita: Can I share a funny story about this? I went in, for the first time in in a long time, to an actual music store and had the “chick in the music store experience”. The store employee asked me a lot of questions as to whether I was in a band, if I actually played any shows or toured. Of course I responded that I did. As we went to look at my guitar of choice, Ibanez guitars, one of the other guitar techs noticed me which prompted the store employee to realize that I might be familiar to him too. This lead to my “Pretty Woman” moment. He says, “You do look familiar. Have I seen you somewhere?” I said, “Yeah, I am on the cover of your catalog this month.” (lots of laughs from all)
What is the outcome you are hoping to achieve, or goal, with releasing this album?
Laura: We spent a lot of time thinking about how we wanted the album to sound, which we ultimately decided to make it 100% electric. The conclusion was that we wanted it to be just really kick ass, with hopes there would be more albums to come. There will be no question for people that these women rock. I loved the idea of bringing this to the She Rocks Awards. It will give us a bigger voice to what we are doing with the album, and it’s a nice way to tell the entire story. This isn’t just an album of really great music; it’s so much more than that.
Nita: It has been a long time coming. I think I can speak for everyone and say, it has been very cool for all of us to see your hard work, Laura, and your championing of women in music. I cite players like, Nita, Gretchen and the other artists on this album, anytime I get to talk about females in music. It’s going to be great to finally have a place where we are all showcased together. If anyone asks me who are some up and coming guitar players are, I can say, check out this compilation. I hope there will be more albums like this because there are a lot of amazing talents who could be showcased for what they can do.
Laura: I would agree with that too. I recently had a conversation with an editor of a magazine who said, there are really only a couple of female guitar players who are worth putting into the magazine. And I was like, “Really?? C’mon, c’mon.” That is still out there and why these kinds of projects are so meaningful.
What advice can you share with young artists on taking advantage of diversifying who you play with and the types of projects you actually decide to take on? Has playing in tribute bands been an advantage for you and your career, as you think about these sorts of projects?
Gretchen: I do have pretty strong feelings on the stigma of people playing other people’s music. All of us have played or continue to play in a tribute band. I would actually really wonder how stigmatized any members of a symphony orchestra are by playing Beethoven and Mozart. I mean great music is great music and it’s worth paying tribute to. I really wish we could do away with that stigma. And I think what most people really object to is what they think a tribute band is. Anybody who thinks they have an opinion on a tribute band, needs to see a good one. I am celebrating someone who is doing a fantastic job playing great music. And, it’s fodder for greater creativity. I learn a new Led Zeppelin song or a Django Reinhardt song, and suddenly I a have bunch more musical ideas. In the meantime, I am getting experience onstage that you absolutely need in any project, playing your own music or someone else’s.
Nili: I definitely experienced that sort of stereotype at Berklee College of Music, where I went to school. We played a lot of other people’s music in school, but for some reason, a tribute band was quote “not a real gig.” For me, I have always done a good job balancing playing my music and somebody else’s music. Each thing comes with it’s own responsibility. If you are playing in a tribute band, you have the responsibility of doing justice to the music for audiences who know exactly what they are looking for. That can be a really hard job to do, especially when you are the one sitting at home with your ear to the monitor trying to get just the right guitar part. Those people know. In contrast, playing your own music, where you can do whatever you want with it is an entirely different art form, and being able to do both, helps give me multiple skill sets as a musician.
Nita: Totally agree. As a young guitar player, I did what I call the “machine gun approach.” I would just play in anyone’s band that would have me. I didn’t care if I liked the music or didn’t like the music. I mean, I went from being on a death metal tour to the Jermaine Jackson tour and I didn’t really think anything of it. I just wanted to play guitar. I can safely say if I hadn’t just jumped right into new experiences, I wouldn’t be the guitar player I am today. There is so much to learn by playing other people’s music and jumping into other people’s bands, tribute band or not. It just adds more weapons in your arsenal to use for whatever kind of music you want to play.
What were some of the surprises you weren’t really prepared for when you got into the industry and is there any advice you would offer to artists who think music is the journey they want to take?
Laura: I have been in this industry for over thirty years and for me, I learned the hard way to not let other people define me. I went through a lot of heartache trying to please other people and trying to live up to what I thought success should look like. Once I let that go and just said, I am happy doing what I am doing, I was able to realize I didn’t need to care who thinks I am successful or cool. This opened up a lot of doors for me, and all the cool things I am doing now are a result of that. If you are happy, why do you care what other people think about what you should be doing. That’s just my two cents though. (laugh)
Gretchen: I won’t soliloquize on this too much, because there are so many things to say, but the things I am glad to have learned and would pass along to other people are, to do music, you need to be clear on why you are doing music and try to stay grounded and true to yourself. If you know you want to be doing a certain kind of music, do that. If you just want to rock out on your guitar, do that. The other thing I think a lot people forget is, be a decent and good person, and be true to your word. Don’t compete with other people, compete with yourself. Don’t worry about what other people are doing. Make sure you doing what you are supposed to be doing.
Nili: Especially with social media and everything out there, that there are so many motives in doing something. I think a lot of people might learn they want to play guitar because they want to be cool or be a rock star, and one of the most important things in this industry, is making sure you are doing things for the right reasons. It’s already hard enough to be a musician, if you are doing it for any other reason than the love of music, it’s going to be that much harder. You really want to hold on to why you got into it in the first place.
Nita: I think the most important thing I would just stress is don’t compare yourself to anyone but yourself, or feel you have to stick yourself in any sort of box. Don’t let anything define you but what you make of yourself, and always hold yourself to the highest possible standard. Don’t depend on the “chick thing.” Get a good metronome, practice hard, show up on time, be professional, and don’t lose your morals and integrity along the way. It’s easy for anyone, guys or gals, to get caught up in the lifestyle of being a professional musician, and the way you stay a professional musician, is by being who you are that brought you there in the first place.
How have you been able to maintain all of this without compromising who you are and the integrity of your music?
Gretchen: Staying true to myself means, I rarely drink and never to excess, and I pay attention to what keeps me moving in the direction I authentically feel I want to be moving in. I’m not saying this is the way to be, this is just how I am.
Nili: I am also not really a partier, but honestly, it’s hard. I sometimes feel influenced by the many different ways there are to do certain things in my career, and I am the kind of person who has to learn the hard way before I know for sure, I am not going to try something again. I have to listen to my gut. It needs to feel like me.
Nita: I actually had sort of the opposite experience. I started touring really young and I got really into the drinking and partying part. I had the reputation of being that hard drinking, loud playing, metal chick, and it took a lot of years for the self realization to kick in, that if I wanted to move forward, be productive, be a positive role model in life, I had to make a change. I am sixteen months sober now and I can honestly say it’s been the most productive year and a half of my entire life. I’ve never had a year like 2016. I look at my year and see how much of a change I have made in myself mentally, physically, and business-wise, and I think, “why didn’t I do this a long time ago?” It makes so much more sense to take care of yourself. You are all you have. It’s easy to use having a few beers or a few shots before a show as a crutch, but I think it takes a lot to really step back and realize why you did it in the first place.
What’s next for each of you individually as you look into 2017?
Laura: It’s the 5th anniversary of the She Rocks Awards, which I am hot and heavy into working on now, and of course, we will be celebrating the album. And, you heard it here first, I am working on an album of my own. I have been a songwriter forever and this will be my first album ever! The album will be targeted at girls and encouraging girls, a sort of She Rocks for Girls kind of album. We will be doing a world premier of one of the songs at the She Rocks Awards in 2017.
One really exciting thing that happened also, just the other day, is I received confirmation that Parade Magazine is going to be live streaming the She Rock Awards in January. They are also going to be printing an article about it in their magazine, which goes out to 22 million people! I am super excited to be able to share what we are doing with this very big audience.
See, you can be an old lady and still kick ass! (laugh)
Gretchen: For me, I just released an album last week! It started with Michael Molenda from Guitar Player Magazine approaching me about four years ago with an idea he had for a collaboration. I didn’t know Mike very well at the time, and assumed he was probably going to pitch this idea of me singing or playing pop music. I went into the meeting a little bit guarded but I wanted to hear what he had to say. Michael said, “What if you do a concept album based on Dante’s Inferno?” I was like, “Oh my god! I was this close to being a literature major in college, and now my first album is titled after a Shakespeare play?! I knew that in order to see this through the way I wanted it to, I was going to have to take it to a different level. I buckled down, found a private teacher, and began taking composition and orchestration lessons. This has been the last four years of my life. The fact that this album is done as of last week is crazy!
Nili: We are all starting the year with NAMM and the She Rocks Awards, which will be really cool. I will also be doing a few things with my solo band at NAMM. We are doing to do a full band demo at the Korg Booth at 5:00 PM on Thursday, as well as signing with Lita Ford and Orianthi at the Korg Booth. I am also doing a bill with Angel Rivaldi, and other amazing guitar players that Saturday night. It will be really cool. I will also be working on my third album and doing stuff with my solo band. I am also going to be doing a fusion gig with Alphonso Johnson, who is the bass player in Weather Report. Chester Thompson will be playing drums. People might know him as the drummer for Frank Zappa and Genesis. I have to get practicing my standards now. (laugh)
Nita: I don’t know how 2017 is going to top my 2016, but I am really excited for the She Rocks Awards and the release of this compilation. I have also put together a band, a group of amazing women, all based in the LA area, writing music and getting ready to start recording. We hope to release this album in early 2017. After that, come April, I am heading back out on the road with Alice Cooper.
Is there any pinnacle moment that you have already or that you are still striving for in your career?
Nili: I think for me, the pivotal moment people don’t realize is or really see is, is the moment when you are sitting in front of your computer, or you are on your phone, and it’s about an opportunity and it’s one that really scares you. You don’t know if it is one you are going to say yes or no to. You are sitting there by yourself thinking, how do I respond to this? Do I take the opportunity? This takes a lot of courage. The pivotal moment is the act of actually going for it. The easy part is sitting down and learning the songs or practicing for a gig, but taking that call or responding to that email is what sets those moments in motion. They lead to all of the things that people see.
Laura: Good answer. I love that you said that because that happens to me often. There are a lot things I do that are terrifying, and people don’t know that most of us have to deal with that.
Nili: Sure! It happens to everyone. You have to risk going after your dreams. These moments will happen and if they don’t, your dreams aren’t big enough.
Laura: It is taking that leap of faith even if you fail and knowing you will be okay.
Gretchen, I read an article where you describe surrounding yourself with awesome people and not really dealing with some of the challenges women face in the industry. Finding awesome people can sometimes be difficult but is so important. I am curious how you have been able to carve out your tribe of women, and/ or men, to keep you centered, focused and not distracted by some of the crazy that just naturally exists in this industry?
Gretchen: That is a great question. I totally forgot I had said that, but it sounds like something I would totally say. Well, I have certainly dealt with a lot of crazies. I think what I just do is when I find good people I try to hold them close and make them want to continue to work with me. I feel like, regardless of stylistic or personal differences, if I encounter someone who I fundamentally believe is a good person, with good intentions, I just try to keep them in my orbit and try to make them want to stay in my orbit by being a good person.
Laura, I have followed a lot of what you have been doing with the Women’s International Music Network (WiMN), and have been so inspired by your work and your passion. Thank you for leading the charge with these efforts! With your many years of experience in the industry, what ultimately motivated you to start WiMN and to bring the She Rock Awards to fruition?
Laura: It’s an interesting story because it sort of naturally evolved. I was doing some marketing work for Guitar World Magazine and they were relaunching their website. They asked me to come up with some blog ideas and some writers who could write them for us. At the end of the conversation I said, “Hey, what about a blog about female guitar players? You guys don’t really feature women.” So I started writing this blog called Guitar Girl’d which is how I met a lot of these women. I realized that there was this huge hole in the ability for these women to have a voice, for people to know about them, to hear them, and to be inspired by them. I realized for me, that there were so many other women in this industry who I didn’t know either. I had this idea of doing an event at NAMM, that would at least bring us together so we could meet each other.
This sort of evolved in an odd way into the She Rocks Awards. The first year we did it, it was a breakfast. It grew very rapidly from there and so did these other ideas of doing workshops, writing about women in business and just putting it out there. In our third year, NAMM came to me and said, “Hey, we love this idea of the She Rock Awards. What do you think about having them in our ballroom instead of the breakfast?” And, is has just grown from there. I knew if I didn’t say yes to this opportunity, I might never get the chance to do this again.
It is definitely something people in the music industry have embraced, not everyone, but a lot more than I expected. This was one of those things that I just tried, and it actually worked! So the fact that Women’s International Music Network, the She Rocks Awards, and all these things we are doing for women, have been so embraced makes me feel so grateful and so good about it all. I am really happy that I can help create awareness for the things that women face.
Learn more about the Women’s International Network, the She Rock Awards, and where to purchase the She Rocks, Vol. 1 in January of 2017. Also, take the time to visit all of the links incorporated into the blog. New music just released and forthcoming from all of these incredible ladies! Let’s show our support!