This is a post celebrating some of the women who have inspired me to make music. Growing up, I didn’t see many women musicians. I spent a lot of time looking for role models and people to play with.
Plenty of men have inspired me as well. But, identifying as a musician is still fairly unusual for a woman. It’s not a feminine thing to play in a band. Mostly the guys play guitars and drums, and a woman stands up front and sings. But I always wanted to play in the band! There are no female equivalents to the Beatles. Only a handful of well-known bands (notably Fleetwood Mac) have included more than one female member.
This isn’t a list of every cool woman musician I’ve ever enjoyed – just a handful who have been significant musical reference points.
Sue: the singer/ guitarist
Music was an important part of my mother’s life, until she discovered archaeology, married my father, and had three children. Those three factors combined to bring her music making to a standstill.
As a teenager Sue sang solos in the youth choir at the local Pasadena Presbyterian Church. As a graduate student at the University of Hawaii she learned to play guitar and ukulele.
Sue, jamming with other musicians during her trip across the Pacific in the mid-1950s.
Sue loved the blues and mid-century American folk music: Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Leadbelly, Hedy West, Judy Collins. She continued making music when she came to New Zealand in 1957, joining the local folk club, singing on radio broadcasts and around the evening campfire on archaeological digs. She also wrote songs. We have a couple recorded for posterity on an old LP.
Sue taught me to play ukulele when I was aged six, and soon after that she gave up making music herself. I was disappointed and frustrated, but maybe she felt she’d handed on the torch.
Aunt Mary: the violinist
Sue’s older sister Mary is the reason I became a fiddler. I never saw Aunt Mary play violin, but she must have been a pretty good musician, probably much better than me in classical music terms. She led youth orchestras when she was in high school. Mary gave up playing the violin in her twenties, when she went to medical school. She said to me that she was dissatisfied with the standard of playing in amateur orchestras. (I had that problem myself.)
Aunt Mary in her early 20s: I don’t have any photos of her playing violin, but she must have been pretty good at it.
Aunt Mary came to visit us in Papua New Guinea in 1969, and she brought her old half-sized violin with her. Soon after that I started having violin lessons. I’d never seen anyone playing the violin, and I don’t remember having any great interest in it, but I wouldn’t turn down a musical opportunity. At the age of eight I was already too tall for Aunt Mary’s tiny violin. When we went back to Auckland for Christmas my parents paid $100 for a full-sized violin from a violin shop in Karangahape Road. I know in retrospect that they were ripped off – it wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t a good quality instrument. They didn’t know anything about violins.
The half-sized violin was passed on to a neighbour’s son, and shortly after that his father backed over it in a Landrover. (I think my dad probably wanted to do this too. He had very little tolerance for a beginner violinist.)
I owe Aunt Mary another huge piece of musical gratitude and appreciation. In 1985, when I went travelling across the United States, I left my violin behind in New Zealand. I took a summer job in a hotel in Glacier National Park in the mountains of Montana, where music-making opportunities abounded. Aunt Mary generously lent me her violin, a rather good 20th century American-made instrument. I spent the season playing bluegrass in a bar band, and discovered that I had a talent for playing fiddle, after being a misfit for so many years in the classical world.
Jacqueline du Pre
When I was learning classical violin, cellist Jacqueline du Pre was the only woman musician on record covers, and she was my inspiration.
Jacqueline du Pre breathed life into classical music performance.
Jacqueline was beautiful and passionate and a terrific musician. I spent many hours listening to her fabulous playing on the Schubert Piano Trios – a 1960s Dream Team of du Pre, violinist Pinchas Zuckerman, and on piano Daniel Barenboim, who was Jacqueline’s husband. Then I learned that she’d succumbed to multiple sclerosis. As a role model Jacqueline du Pre had the same tragic aura as Janis Joplin or Amy Winehouse. Behind the glorious music was a runaway train about to go off the rails.
I know Miriam Makeba from a couple of my mother’s old LPs. I used to sit and listen, and wonder how to start learning to play the amazing polyrhythms of “Pata Pata”.
Miriam is one of the people who connected up South African township music with the western music world. When WOMAD arrived in New Zealand I discovered where she was coming from.
Loretta is definitely not one of life’s tragic heroines. The country music icon with the image of a powerful survivor, and a down-home attitude. An inspiration to any girl with a guitar, who wants to write songs. (I’m not sure about those frocks though!)
Out on her own, one of a kind.
Joni Mitchell in 1974. Photograph by Asylum Records (Billboard page 2) Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
I heard Joni play in Wellington in 1983. She’s so distinctive that I find it’s almost impossible to cover her songs (with the notable exception of “Big Yellow Taxi”). And another musician with something of a tragic backstory.
I’d like to think Chrissie is a role model, but actually I’m too much in awe of her. In her autobiography Reckless: My life as a Pretender (Penguin Random House, 2015), she describes how she went to incredible lengths to be one of the band, and not just the soloist with a backing band.
Cath was a few years ahead of me when I was a teenage musician in Auckland. She was the “properly trained” violinist who was always doing interesting things, at a time when studying classical music was supposed to be all or nothing. Cath played in an early music consort called Digorie. And then she played fiddle in a folk/country outfit called Gentle Annie. I didn’t know anyone else who was playing fiddle in New Zealand in the late 1970s.
Cath Newhook (at right) in the 1980s, with New Zealand country-folk band Gentle Annie. Photo used with Cath’s permission.
Much later I worked for Cath at her violin workshop, the Stringed Instrument Company. These days she’s on yet another interesting tack, as the author of lively young adult novels set in ancient Greece – Murder At Mykenai was her first.
Smart, clever, exquisitely individual country/folk singer – a forerunner of Americana. I first heard Nanci’s music in 1985 when I was in the USA. Once in a Very Blue Moon had just been released. Here’s a link to the title track.
Music writer Stuart Henderson says: “Griffith has always been a little too country for many fans of the former and a little too folky for many fans of the latter (and sometimes a little too pop for everyone).” Just how I like it. Here’s a link to his full article. Nanci’s also in the territory where “art and politics go hand in hand”. Here’s a punchy live version of “Outbound Plane“.
The Topp Twins
I remember when Lynda and Jools Topp were beautiful young activists/folksingers/ comedians. I first encountered them in the pages of Broadsheet, a New Zealand feminist magazine in the 1970s. My mother had a subscription. The editor was Sandra Coney, who’s now on the Auckland Regional Council.
The Topp Twins: Yodelling lesbian twins from New Zealand…!! Photo Nambassa Trust and Peter Terry. http://www.nambassa.com
Jools and Lynda have always been funny and dynamic and brave and lively and inspiring and hand-on-heart political. Off-centre and heartland, both at the same time. They’ve had shows on prime-time television and they’ve been on the cover of the New Zealand Woman’s Weekly. They remind me how amazing New Zealand can be.
A North Star for anyone who wants to make a difference in the world while making music and having fun – all three at once.
I’ve never met Kat in person, but I know her from her powerful, propulsive bass playing on the early recordings of Sneaky Feelings (who by the way, are by far the best band ever to release records on NZ indie label Flying Nun). Sadly, Kat’s energetic playing took a toll – she got RSI and ended up playing the bass parts on a keyboard, before leaving the band.
Kat, second from right, with the boys in the band.
An intuitive, superbly talented musician. Paula and I started making music while our sons were playing with diggers in the sandpit. We played together in a band (The Weather), on and off for more than a decade. Great times! Here’s a link to our recording of Aroha Ave. Nothing much happens in the video, but that’s kind of the point of the song. Aroha Avenue is a road in Sandringham, near where we used to live.
The Weather, circa 2000. From left to right: Mike Beck (drums), Paula Law (vocals, flute), me (bass guitar), Matthew Bannister (vocals, guitar and main songwriter). Photo by Roger Mortimer