[su_box title=”CORRECTION”]Editor’s Note: This is one part corrections and one part mea culpa. Weighing in at nearly 2,500 words, what follows is the full, uncut version of the profile Maria Varonis wrote for us about an eclectic group of female musicians she met with in advance of our “State of the Scene” issue. However, in my haste, I made some mistakes that altered the way the product came out in print. #1) I did not make sure to credit the marvelous headshots in the story to Chelsae Ketchum who had graciously volunteered to take the photos at this meeting of the minds. #2) I didn’t correct a formatting error that caused some of the direct quotes from the musicians to run, indistinguishable from anything else, into the introductory text Maria had written. #3) I misread a line Maria wrote and then shortened it so as to be factually incorrect. (No, Gretchen Pleuss did not learn how to play guitar as a little girl sitting at Willy Porter’s knee.) So, I’ve learned my lesson. Going forward, every issue will get much closer scrutiny before it goes to print than Issue #2 received. Thank you for your patience and understanding! – Chris Horne, publisher/borderline idiot.[/su_box]
WOMEN WHO ROCK
Female musicians offer more than chords in Akron
story and photos by Maria E. Varonis
As a (relatively) young female trying to navigate her way through life in Akron’s Highland Square—looking for a home in the creative community as a writer and yoga instructor; for love anywhere but Annabelle’s, and half-priced wine sales at Walgreen’s—I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my place here, and if I have one. I’ve gone and received a degree from that university downtown, like so many of us have, but now what? The Clash keep ringing in the back of my brain: should I stay or should I go?
I read somewhere (more specifically: The Hard Way on Purpose by David Giffels, Scribner Publishing, you can find it on Amazon) that a decade or so ago everyone was leaving Akron for Phoenix. These days it seems our friends have left for Portland, or New Orleans. So how does a creative person make it work in the Rubber City, and still pay rent, cheap as it is here?
The godmother of punk, and perhaps of prose and poetry too, Patti Smith said once in an interview: “creative impulse is what an artist gives you.” In my need for inspiration, I decided to talk to some women in Akron—creatives in music, whose voices might lend hand to my existential, late-twenties, slightly irrational placement issues. What I discovered far surpassed their favorite chord-progressions or musical influences. What these ladies had to offer was more than I could have asked for.
Tracey Nguma took what she loves and, seeing there was nowhere else to find it around Akron, decided to do it herself—she created a voice for female reggae musicians in a city that had yet to claim one. Bassist and front woman of her band Umojah Nation (“unity” in Swahili), Tracey has been performing publicly for nearly ten years. Umojah Nation is one of the only reggae acts in the area since Carlos Jones came on the Northeast Ohio scene in the late seventies.
“I never really had any plans to get out of the basement, that’s just how it happened. You don’t find too many female reggae artists, either. I thought, well, it would be great to put a female band together because men are always doing things, you know?”
“The reception we’ve received—it’s love. There’s a sense of community; people get to know each other, they become friends, they bring friends, we see a lot of great energy in the crowds. I think the female musicians in the Akron area are very supportive and loving of each other. And I think that’s encouraging. There is a huge artist community here—it’s sort of: if you know about it, you know about it, you know what I mean? But it is here, and I think there’s a lot of opportunity here for you.”
“I was born and raised in Akron. I’ve got roots here. I’m a mother, I’m a yoga instructor; I’m a wine-tender, a musician. That’s who I am.”
For Sarah Benn, bassist and front woman of Akron’s own Shivering Timbers—the band that came to life as she and her husband (and guitarist) Jayson Benn began crafting songs for their daughter, and has since seen major, national success—it’s all about balance.
“Motherhood, music, work…trying to find time for creativity to thrive. Continuing to grow as a creative individual can be tough when pulled in so many different directions—however, I feel it has enhanced my overall experience.”
Anne Lillis discovered Akron at a young age and made it a point to get here. Specifically she wanted to play the Lime Spider—what was a music venue, is now the Lockview—by senior prom. (She did, by the way.) Anne has since played drums all over the U.S. and Europe, and with some of the best. She currently drums and writes for Akron-based, surf-rock Beyonderers, and with Oklahoma-based singer/songwriter Samantha Crain, and sees no intrinsic difference between males and females, as far as creating is concerned.
“When my girlfriends and I were in middle school, we started off playing music together and writing intentionally goofy songs. I think we were too self-conscious at that point to attempt writing anything serious. But when we got to high school, we started hanging around with some older guys who played at high school talent shows and stuff, and there was this feeling like, ‘we can totally do what they’re doing, and probably better.’ So we started a band called either/origami and made it our goal to play at the Lime Spider.”
“Being a female musician is exactly the same as being a male musician, I would imagine, except for some subtle differences. One time, AS IF played a show in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and the place had a strict rule that no one but members of the band could be near the stage during load-in. The employees at the venue tried to kick us out of the club when we were loading in our gear, because they assumed we were the girlfriends of the band. Another time, I got asked if I was shopping for my boyfriend when I went to buy drumsticks at a music shop. It’s nothing super aggressive usually, but it can definitely be irritating.”
“But on a side note, many of the best musicians I’ve played with in my life are women. Anyone who tells you that there is some intrinsic difference between men and women, as far as the capacity to learn music, or tour, or write songs goes, is straight up lying or sexist.”
Folk singer/songwriter Gretchen Pleuss, who started writing songs based on the instruction long-time guitarist Willy Porter gave her at age 12, has a broad perspective about the whole thing. At 24, and with two full-length albums to her name, Gretchen’s insight and drive far surpass her age.
“I love the Midwest. I feel like Akron is just the typical Midwestern city—there are successful parts . . . and there are parts that are still reminiscent of the past, and I really like that. Akron is right in the middle.”
“In Akron, you’re well rounded to accept that things aren’t always given; you have to work harder when you live in a place like this—stamina and motivation. I could move to New York City and possibly have more opportunities, but there’s something about working from the ground up, where you know people and where people support you. I know a lot of humble artists and musicians that come out of Akron.”
“There have been times where it’s been more of a competition than it needs to be. I’ve come to know myself and I know what I’m trying to do. All of us [female musicians] are going in the same direction but have different avenues of getting there. We all wanna be able to do this full time and make enough money to survive. But in order to get there, there has to be a shift in thought, which is: to help each other rather than competing to get to the finish line. It doesn’t mean that only one of us can get there, just because we’re from the same area.”
Jeri Sapronetti, who plays guitar and writes songs and sings in her band Time Cat, didn’t wait for an invitation; she forged ahead like Washington did across the Delaware. Jeri has been putting on house shows in Akron since she was 18.
“I used to have these jam nights at my house off of Crosby on a weird, little, dead-end street that had nobody really living on it. I could make all the noise I wanted all night long and it didn’t matter. This whole scene kind of came together pretty quickly, actually. There was a real DIY, punk rock mentality. This awesome group of people from different sides of Akron and it was this air of: everyone is very supportive of each other and when it was time for a new band to play, everyone is quiet and attentive—they’re not screwing around and talking and just being assholes. A band would play, everyone would watch and be quiet, and then someone was like ‘let’s go smoke a cig outside’ and then they would go, and come back, and it was a really awesome atmosphere getting to watch people over time become better musicians playing together. [House shows] support a community thing where people who maybe aren’t big enough or confident enough to play in venues, they’re comfortable with playing house shows because people are generally supportive.”
“For me it’s never been, ‘oh, I’m a girl.’ I mean sometimes it gets in my head where you see all these female bands on Facebook and they’re pretty and 21 and maybe they’re not even that good but they have 3,000 “likes.” That’s something I hate about Facebook—you’re monetizing your worth based on the amount of “likes” you have on a photograph. I’m not like that kind of person. I don’t wear dresses and makeup and shit. Do dresses and makeup make a good musician?”
Are you able to use your music to support you, financially?
“No. I’m a cook. Sometimes it gets kind of depressing actually. That’s the life of an artist. It’s like, you signed up, you knew.”
“It’s not just about Akron or even just about being a girl or about music, it’s about: how can you sustain this? People must keep creating; you have to regardless of the fact that you aren’t making shit from it. And that’s hard to do sometimes.”
Sandra Emmeline and Lizz Hough don’t feel any need to conform to expectation. (And they aren’t lumped together here for any reason other than they play in the same band.) Sandra founded, sings for, and plays the keys and keytar for her band Sancat, where Lizz is the bassist. Both girls also participate in alternative genres—Sandra sings with the Cleveland Chinese Music Ensemble and Lizz can be found in Guzzetta Hall at the University of Akron where she plays a very large bass in the orchestra. She does the same with the Akron-based band The Help.
Sandra: “It’s hard growing up where your family’s culture and values are different from those of everyone else around you. Anyone who is a child of immigrants can relate. My parents are Chinese but were born in Taiwan and came from a very conservative, traditional, workaholic culture. Fortunately for me, they wanted me to be well rounded, and put me through music, dance, and sports early on in life. I think now my parents have mostly broken that traditional Asian mindset because they come to all my shows, even the metal shows my band plays in. I think having a daughter that was as wild and passionate as I was sort of helped them realize what the more important values are: being happy and doing what you love.”
“For someone that’s young and trying to break through with [my] kind of background, it’s hard to say ‘do what you love’ because you can’t break from your family—they’re your family. That’s hard to juggle but you really need to think about what you want to do. I ended up being a nurse because I wanted to be a nurse. I’m a nurse and I’m a musician, and that’s what I love. I’m doing two things that I wanted to do. And eventually your parents will see that.”
“That’s what I love about being a musician in Akron. There’s a variety of open-mindedness here. People appreciate you for your originality and creativity. I don’t have to sell myself and be something I’m not.”
Lizz: “For me, it’s sharing thoughts and ideas with others; the collaboration and the learning process. I’m really grateful for what I have here. I want to continue to learn and grow, and I won’t let anything get in my way.”
Sandra: “Lizz is awesome.”
Kyndra Heischman brings the blues to Akron to honor women like Elizabeth ‘Libba’ Cotten, who in the late 18th century*** coined her own unique, finger picking (‘Cotten-pickin’) style of blues guitar. A self-taught, left-handed, African American songwriter, Libba wrote the timeless “Freight Train.” She received recognition for her contribution to blues perhaps far past due; Libba was declared a National Heritage Fellow at 89 and won a Grammy at 90. Kyndra sang to me once a portion of “Freight Train” and this is why, I believe, she really does represent the blues.
“She (Elizabeth Cotten) wrote that song out of an experience she had. So many songs have been stolen. That whole style of playing, that whole tradition, it comes from Africa. We have a responsibility as women who play music—we cannot exploit ourselves. That’s all we see on the TV, that’s all we hear on the radio. There’s just so much. There’s so much in the world and you can either look at it and be like ‘well, what the fuck is going on, why does this hurt so much?’ Or you can be like, ‘what the fuck is going on? I have a responsibility, I need to own up to it.’ It’s time to move forward.”
“I represent women in blues, for so many blues songs men have laid claim to. Our music has been stolen and it is now our responsibility to give credit where credit is due. So as a female musician in Akron, I represent women in blues. Music is everyone and we know that.”
“You go from being a scale to becoming a song; to make a melody that can go to your heart, and to your soul, and shape who you are as a human being, that to me is respecting music. That to me is music.”
***Correction: As reader Tomasz points out, it’s hard for a woman born in 1895 to be alive in the 18th century. We all apologize for missing this typo in edit, and I sincerely hope it didn’t distract from the point of the series of profiles. To clarify, Elizabeth Cotten was not alive in the 18th century, and therefore was not likely practicing blues music in the 18th century. Not even in the 1800s, unless she was really good. We’re guessing that line should have been about the century in which she was making music, probably the late 1900s. Let’s say, the late 20th century. Again, apologies. — Chris Horne, editor-in-chief, publisher, fact-checker, webmaster, maker-of-corrections
On a Tuesday evening, the women I had spoken with and some I had not yet, all met at Uncorked Wine Bar in downtown Akron. The catalyst was to come because they were female musicians, and as a favor for a writer. But what happened was electric and unexpected.
I didn’t know until then that Lizz and Sandra played in the same band. Or that Jeri knew Anne, and Sarah knew Tracey and almost everyone was playing at Big Love on Friday. I passed around a notebook and between drinks, we wrote down our thoughts about being creative and living in the same space. At some point we made our made toward the back of the building, past the pool table, down the stairs, through Urban Eats, and into Musica. We ogled the newly renovated bar. I got out my camera and discovered there was an actual photographer in our midst (Chelsae Ketchum). Naturally, we decided, she should take the photos. It was a lovely, reciprocal arrangement, we all agreed. We laughed a lot. We went upstairs, and Chelsea poured more drinks. Everyone kept saying: Why don’t we do this more often? And, this is really nice. That was really all I needed to know.