Venus Grrrls: Women and Non-Binary Folk in Live Music
Updated: Feb 28, 2021
This series is an extension from our Instagram, with full Q&A's instead of the shorter Instagram bios. Here you can read the full in-depth interviews with Alt-Rock band Venus Grrrls, & go direct to their provided donation link to show your support:
GK: We are an alt-rock band who met in Leeds in 2017. We’re very much about encouraging the participation and inclusion of women in all music, but more specifically in our case, rock music. We’re aiming to level the field for women and non-binary people, channelling the voices of those speaking out about issues in the industry. We’re 70 years on from the birth of rock and roll and it still feels imbalanced in many respects. We want to change that.
Grace: It’s the idea of normalising these individuals as instrumentalists, not just viewing people as singers. I do production on the side and, in the studio, people make you feel like you don’t know what you’re doing, questioning what you’re doing. You sometimes don’t see that with male counterparts. Even when we’re setting up on stage, you're questioned like, “oh you’ve plugged your synth into DI”...well yeah, I do it every gig?
Gabby: Growing up, I never really thought of instruments or music as ‘gendered’, I just thought people wanna do music, let’s play music. I remember telling people at school that I wanted to play drums, and that’s when I started thinking, was I playing a boys instrument? I stopped telling people after that. My family was always encouraging, it was more the other people. College I was the only girl drumming in my year. Uni I was one of two or three. I found it more pressure to perform, it shouldn't be like that but that sort of pushed me more.
Jess: I was one of two in my year at uni as well. We feel so much responsibility to prove to everyone that women can play our instruments.
Gabby: We shouldn’t feel like we have to prove anything?
Jess: I was lucky to have a very musical family. I was encouraged to do music if I wanted to do it, there were no barriers holding me back from that. Now that I look back on it, all these ‘guitar gods’ who I looked up to were all men, but I was never made to think I couldn’t achieve that.
Grace: I played piano when I was young, but it wasn’t until I was a teenager I clicked on that I was always learning pieces all made by guys. I wanted to do something exciting as I wasn’t passionate about that. Coming across Grimes’ music made me realise, ‘I need a synthesiser, that’s so cool’. Piano was so nerve-racking, but performing in a rock band really built my confidence, it doesn’t matter if you mess up. Sometimes that’s the art in itself.
Jess: We’re so lucky that this was an option to pursue this as a career. So many parents would be like, are you joking? We really are lucky in that respect.
GK: I always sang. My parents must have absolutely despised me! I used to try and copy big powerful female vocalists, but there was something in the style of music that didn’t really resonate with me, it was more the technical aspects that I was inspired by. I didn’t hear many vocals with that style in rock music, it was something I really wanted to do with my own projects. I started getting into riot grrl bands, and had a somewhat very gradual but also sudden realisation that, ‘oh my god, this whole thing is completely unfair towards women!’ It’s just unreal that female pioneers aren’t spoken about in the same way as male ones, they just weren’t given the right platform. I felt sad about that.
Grace: I saw extremely sexist things and was treated differently when performing on stage. People shouting rude things at us. If we were guys, sexist shouts wouldn’t happen.
Jess: One of the first experiences we had were people saying we were only getting gigs because of our looks. You would never ever get that for a male band. People were seeing 5 women doing better than them, so decided - hm must be for their looks.
Grace: That still happens today! Trolls online telling us we’re only getting where we are cos of how we look. It’s something we’ve heard a lot.
GK: If you’re that concerned about how good we are, come to one of our gigs and see for yourself. We can play our instruments, we can perform. I still feel like I’m being up myself by saying that, but it’s not, it’s an objective thing. We all work really hard individually to get as good as we are, and it’s ok to say that. A lot of male bands profit off that rock and roll arrogance, yet female bands are pigeonholed to make men feel better.
Grace: It’s the micro-aggressions as well. Using the word actually, like ‘oh you’re actually good’, as if before they came to see us they thought we’d be sh*t basically. It’s something so small but common in the creative arts.
Jess: I didn’t study music for 3 years and get a first class degree just to be sh*t!
GK: That’s the thing. We’ve all been to uni, studied hard, all did really well in our individual professions, and we’re still met with that attitude. We’re ‘qualified musicians’! People still expect us to be really sh*t. Someone said to us once, ‘I saw your name on the lineup and thought I knew exactly what you were gonna be like, but you’re actually really good.’ Just tell us we played great?
Grace: Also backhanding other women in the industry, like saying ‘oh there’s not really any other good proper all girl rock bands’. I know so many! It’s an issue with classism too, especially in punk. You don’t need to give yourself a title as ‘musician or artist to make music or art.
Jess: People also think girl-band is a genre. Then you get people comparing us with really 'punky' stuff. Why are you lining them up? You wouldn’t compare a female jazz quartet with us, they’re so different? Female-fronted is not a genre.
GK: It's those social narratives that are so deeply engraved that hit home more too. Someone who is overt and forward you can put in a category, but something deeply engraved is harder to undo than those who are just bad people. I’m just sick of being met with that tone of surprise.
Jess: That tone of surprise carries to when I’m away from the band too. ‘Omg you sing’, I’m like … no. In the industry if you’re a woman musician you’re expected to be a singer. Being an instrumentalist is unexpected and often over-sexualised. Why is it ‘hot’ to be a bass player? It’s super weird.
Grace: I was at a mini festival in Leeds by myself. I was sitting with someone I know who I quickly figured was super sexist. I remember him saying “I’m gonna go see the next band cos they’re hot to look at. They’re not good musicians, I just like looking at them”. I was so mad. But even then, people treated me like I was overreacting. It hit home.
GK: The pandemic has been awful for so many people, but speaking as a band, it’s definitely blown our plans out of the water. We’ve tried to make the best out of a bad situation. We’ve had an opportunity to not have to be on the ball all the time. There’s always a pressure to remain relevant. We’ve been able to step back and really think about what we want to do, which has had a really good affect overall. The lost opportunities of 2020 are tough to think about though.
Grace: Especially on the live front, it was gonna be a big year for us. You do feel sad. But then, the whole industry is in the same position, it’s not running off without us. It’s just wait and see really. There’s such a strong online community too, because we’re on social media more as we’re not gigging, we’ve been able to interact with people in different ways.
Jess: The impact that bands of our size and career position have faced as well, like there is no money coming in. Then you’ve got big major label bands and nothing’s changed for them! The gap in the industry between DIY bands and major label bands has just got bigger.
GK: I am kind of waiting for these bigger artists to address that to be honest. I’m not saying they shouldn’t be making music, but we’ve had plans to go into the studio that were blown out of the water, then you go on instagram and all those big artists are posting in the studio. How is that allowed to happen? It’s a hard pill to swallow.
Jess: We have had some really nice experiences with band members though, especially the DIY scene. We do have positive experiences with men in the industry as well. When we supported All Time Low, they were so supportive. They filmed us!
Gabby: The drummer came from behind, he was just standing filming and I was like ‘don’t look, don’t look’ haha! They didn’t have to do that. It was cool.
Jess: It’s not all doom and gloom!
Riot grrrl was the inspiration behind doing what we wanna do, but now it’s about moving forward and tackling the issues in the industry. It’s not just about gender balance, it’s about equality throughout. You’ve gotta acknowledge the ableism, the classism, the racism. Now we’re set on contributing to equality in general, and speaking out about it.
GK: We’ll always stay true to riot grrl for the most part, but of course within these movements there's always issues. Riot grrl was incredibly white, there weren’t many black voices. We need to use our privilege to talk about stuff. It was a huge movement for women and LGBTQ+ in music. It revolutionised and changed the pathway of punk, but of course there's issues within that. We need to remember the things we’ve learnt but modernising them and building on it where we can. Even Kathleen Hunna herself says do something different.
Interview conducted by Bea Bennister