The Sound of Gender
Hannah Lew of Grass Widow played at Bottom of the Hill in San Francisco on Thursday, December 6.
Words: Ruby Perez
Photos: Andy Sweet
A thick layer of cigarette smoke hangs above the outdoor area of San Francisco’s Bottom of the Hill as concertgoers cluster tightly next to one another and drunkenly converse. Here and there beer is spilled, as someone snakes their way through the crowd to get to this friend or that friend. Everyone seems more than content to be spending this chilly Thursday night catching tonight’s performance.
Inside the venue, the same air of excitement and anticipation as outside persists, with the jittery chatter growing louder as the fans wait patiently for the band to take the stage.
Tonight’s performers, known as Grass Widow and composed of Lillian Maring, Raven Mahon, and Hannah Lew, are a San Franciscan trio who generate hooking and often haunting layered melodies that are reminiscent to the genre post-punk.
Forming in 2007, the group are staples in the San Francisco music scene.
However, despite the obvious success of Grass Widow, the band still faces troubles of gender that come with being a woman in a successful band.
Raven Mahon of Grass Widow played at Bottom of the Hill in San Francisco on Thursday, December 6.
It has been over 30 years since punk rock was born, and around 20 years since the movement called Riot Grrl drastically shaped the way this subculture views gender, yet a dark and looming figure still clouds the music.
Unfortunately, not even the Do-It-Yourself roots of punk have gone without the influence of sexism that continues to prevail in its own subtle ways.
Victoria Guzman, a bassist who attends SF State University, shares the implications of sexism in rock music.
“It’s kind of like when people ask me when I play instruments, and I say that I’m learning to play the bass, it feels like aw that’s cute,” says Guzman. “Rather than cool, let’s collaborate, let’s make music, it feels more patronizing you know?”
This is most prevalent in the clumping of the work of female musicians as though “female” were a genre in itself. The idea is that every female drummer is the next Meg White of The White Stripes, and that all bassists are a Kim Gordan of Sonic Youth or a Kim Deal of the Pixies. Yet the reality is that there is no “female” sound, rather the ignorant categorization of female musicians as being all but the same.
Women are either the radical riot girls of the ‘90s spouting politics in their songs, or they are the syrupy summer sound of Best Coast — there is no middle ground.
“People have the need to identify something that is new with something that is old; a lot of people have influences but it doesn’t necessarily mean that their music is going to sound like that because everyones music is unique,” says Guzman. “Just because it’s a similar genre doesn’t mean its the same, and that’s especially true with girls because they either get placed into one category or the other and if they don’t fit, then it’s no good, they don’t understand it.”
As Grass Widow sits on a couch in the back room of the venue, it doesn’t take long for the conversation to turn to the one that Guzman just shared. Topics of gender, the idea of feminism, and the clumping and generalization of female musicians become the center of conversation.
Lew recalls a past conversation she had about feminism with a girl who claims she is not a feminist and that feminism is no longer necessary in modern days.
“Maybe in San Francisco it isn’t as male dominated as other places, you know like the middle of the country, where it really is prevalent… but it’s obvious that when you begin talking to people everyone has this experience, and it’s real,” says Mahon. “I do think that some people here you know, may live in a bubble and may not acknowledge all these nuances. But you can just look at statistics of what women are making and the income disparity or any other factual evidence to show that women are still unequal.”
Maring continues this ideology by adding, “maybe if you have that job where everyone respects you, and you have a car so you never walk alone down the street, and you have friends who also pretend it’s not happening you can pretty much avoid it all the time and allow it to continue.”
Lillian Maring (left) and Hannah Lew of Grass Widow played at Bottom of the Hill in San Francisco on Thursday, December 6.
The equality they strive for, and the unprecedented sound they have created is something they have worked for in order to create a positive space for everyone. Grass Widow is challenging the current status of sexism.
“If you don’t put yourself out there you’re never going to have to challenge that dynamic,” says Lew. “But we put ourselves out there. We’re in a position where we are trying to make space for ourselves, and the audience, and make space for everybody and that’s why we deal with it. And I think it’s working, just very slowly.”
As they take on these topics, they speak with the kind of confidence and comfort of friends who have known one another for a very long time, and interject with jokes and picking up comfortably where the other left off without missing a step.
Gender and feminism isn’t something they shy away from, and have no problem addressing the inequalities of being a girl in the music industry.
Maring explains that when the group first began, they often received comparisons from music reviewers about the sound of their music — with the only similar defining characteristics of these said bands being that they all share the same sex.
“There used to be a lot more comparisons before with other women musicians, like it used to be like, it sounds like the Vivian Girls, it sounds like the Dum Dum girls, or it sounds like the Raincoats and the Shangri-Las,” says Maring. “Just stuff that doesn’t make sense at all.”
The group is disheartened by these comparisons but break into a laugh as Lew interjects that their band must simply “sounds like boobs.”
Although the humor behind their statement is obvious, the message it hold is anything but. Grass Widow is more influenced by the Velvet Underground, The Kinks, or The Urinals, than say, the Raincoats, although reviewers are quick to compare the two. They firmly believe that gender is not a sound, so to give it one is to devalue a musicians work.
“Gender is just not a sound, it’s just not,” says Lew. “The vocals I think is why people do that comparison, but I think that when women are doing anything then it’s like people are going to measure you on your sexual worth and hopefully that’s going to stop happening soon.”
Mahon continues with this belief, explaining that what Grass Widow has created is an individual and independent voice — not one that can be easily categorized with any female musician.
“We really have made an effort to describe what the music is and what it means to us,” says Mahon. “We wanna make music for ourselves, and the music that we make comes from us so that it’s the dynamic that we have, and that we have is not modeled after anything else.”
Grass Widow began at an early age, although the formation of the band was a long time coming.
“I just came out singing,” jokes Maring. “No but really, as long as I can remember I’ve wanted to play music and sing and dance and be a little show off.”
The band began performing while the women were in their early twenties, however they’ve always held a love of music.
“I was obsessed with the Beatles and just really into music, but I didn’t think I could play music until a lot later which was a whole other thing for me at least, in my early twenties I started playing instruments for real,” says Lew.
Mahon and Lew first began playing music seriously in 2003 with one another, in which they used to have a band with a third party. However soon they joined with Maring and created Grass Widow, and now the trio now participating in national tours and carry multiple releases under their belt.
Grass Widow, loosely involved with the Bay Area Girls Rock Camp, became involved with the camp when used to share a room with the founding member Carey Fay-Horowitz.
The Bay Area Girls Rock Camp, a program that is meant to empower young girls and women through the participation of music, encourages girls to pick an instrument and start a band. Grass Widow explains it’s about what it means to be a woman on stage collaborating with other women, as well as the relationship between a girl and her instrument, and the different genres of music that are available.
“This was our chance to be empowering to young girls that I know I never had,” says Lew. “When I was a kid, I had to really go against the grain to be like, I can play an instrument even though you wouldn’t think that. It was harder that it needs to be a lot of the time so to think that there’s a girl rock camp, that’s amazing.”
Grass Widow supports the movement behind the Girls Rock Camp, often recalling their own personal experiences with music as young girls was not as easy and motivating as it could have been.
“You know I didn’t have that kind of nurturing with music, I didn’t feel like I can do this as a kid, but I’m also glad that I had the experiences that I had because I wouldn’t have it any other way. I made my own tools for what kind of women I was going to be and I was too stubborn to take bass lessons, so I made my own way to play bass, I think that one of the things about our band is that the values of all three of us are very different and we’re like a microcosm of just three different people.”
The difficulties of being a musician are something that follow girls past young age, and even into professionalism. Lew is happy for the girl who believes feminism is no longer needed, but says that sexism is something that is still prevalent.
“I’ve actually had a sound guy come up to me and actually turn the knobs on my bass. Those are the inputs for my bass, you don’t turn my knobs,” says Lew. “You would never do that to a guy and walk up to him and touch him. It was just so inappropriate and just one of the many things that happen all the time.”
Although much of this may seem overwhelming, Grass Widow filters these experiences out and stays positive for sanity’s sake.
“It just happens all the time, but I think to survive and not be totally angry all the time you gotta just filter it out,” says Maring
As far as role models for girls, Grass Widow is hoping that a new generation of role models can be paved that doesn’t include such an emphasis on femininity.
“That’s the thing about when we toured with the Raincoats, they didn’t make us want to be like them, they made us want to be more like ourselves,” says Lew. “So in that way they were really inspiration and that’s what I hope we could be for other women.”
Grass Widow continues with this idea of new feminism, in which women can draw inspiration from others that encourages themselves to be, well, themselves.
“There’s a lot of female icons in pop culture and, at any given point, girls are usually trying to fit their body and their face into like the clothes and the look of what is the ‘It girl’ is at the moment, and that’s been a thing for awhile,” says Lew. “I hope that we’re changing that and that femininity isn’t the defining characteristic of anything a woman does.”