17 Jun 2017

She will rock you: NZ female guitarists that rock

From RNZ Music, 1:59 pm on 17 June 2017
Julia Deans, Emily Edrosa, Millie Lovelock, Annabel Liddell, Amelia Murray

Julia Deans, Emily Edrosa, Millie Lovelock, Annabel Liddell, Amelia Murray Photo: Pete Monk, Dan Robinson, Roger Graumeijer, TBC, Blackroom Photography

Time and time again lists nominating the world’s best guitarists - like this one, this one, this one, and this New Zealand one - name only a couple of women among the top 100, and none at all when it’s whittled down to the best 10 or 20.

What’s happening here? Is it just too hard to grip a guitar neck with teeny tiny lady-hands? Does a boxy electric not leave enough room for a pair of boobs?

Or is it more that a lack of female guitarists feeds into the notion that girls can’t play guitar, discouraging young would-be shredders from even starting?

Melody Thomas calls her own teenage guitar heroine Julia Deans to talk about her love affair with the six-string, asking her to nominate her own favourite female New Zealand guitarist and setting off a daisy-chain of nominations for wicked guitar girl-bosses.

Julia Deans (Fur Patrol, The Adults)

Julia Deans

Julia Deans Photo: Mareea Vegas

When she was 14, Julia's mum came home from a garage sale carrying a “crappy little nylon string acoustic” and a book on how to play.

Attracted to the idea of an instrument she could play in her room away from siblings and parents, Julia spent hours exploring the instrument and the thoughts in her head. She says it just felt like the natural thing to do.

Julia recalls an early gig with her first band Banshee Reel.

“At sound check, the guitarist [from another band] hopped off stage and said to me, ‘Be careful you don’t turn the guitar amp up too much because it’ll distort.’ To which I just went, ‘Yeah, right! OK,’ got up, turned the amp up to 10, plugged my guitar in and was like, ‘F**k you buddy!’

"I’ve never been a fan of what I call gratuitous ‘widdly-widdly’ - you know Steve Vai and that kind of thing. I get why that sort of virtuosity is astounding but it just seems to me to be attached to a whole lot of posturing and you know, ‘my gun’s bigger than yours.’

“I don’t know if there was maybe a hint of resentment that I felt totally excluded from that club. But also musically it just didn’t appeal to me - it felt like it was all brain and no heart.

"Over the years people have come up to me and said, ‘oh man it was so awesome to see a woman playing electric guitar and owning it’ … It makes me feel amazing. Like really quite humbled and stoked

"At that time there weren’t that many women out there doing it I suppose and it wasn’t my intention to make any bold statements or anything. I just really f***ing enjoyed playing loud guitar."

Julia’s favourite female New Zealand guitarist:

"I am proudly and excitedly nominating Emily Edrosa (Street Chant) because she’s a great musician [with] an awesome guitar sound… she just really dives into her music and her guitar like it’s part of her and like it’s a big ocean worth swimming in. She’s fearless."

Emily Edrosa (Street Chant)

Emily Edrosa of Street Chant

Emily Edrosa of Street Chant Photo: Dan Robinson

While other teenagers were, “sneaking alcohol and going out to parties” Emily Edrosa was holed up in her room downloading songs illegally and teaching herself to play using guitar tab on the internet.

“I think it’s just that general black sheep point-of-view where you’re like, ‘You guys are all sheep … I’m so original, look at me sitting here angsty with my guitar’,” she laughs.

"[Imposter syndrome] is a really huge factor in the under-representation of women in so many areas of music… I’m a woman who has achieved quite a lot in music and I still suffer from it really badly - just second guessing everything and the general feeling of ‘I’m not good enough’.

“I’ve seen so many [guy] bands play garage rock music … then a girl group will come up and they’re playing a lot more complicated stuff and people go, ‘She’s not even that good at guitar.’ … I think that’s probably what drove me to be, I think, quite good at the guitar ... I felt like I had to strive to be better because I was a girl.

"A couple of years ago … I broke up with my girlfriend, I moved home to my Mum’s house, the Street Chant album was taking ages and I felt like everyone had forgotten about us ... and I started being like, ‘You know what? I’m just going to be really boldly confident now.’

“People always say, ‘Imagine the stuff you could get done if you had the confidence of the average white man.’ So I would basically only wear Street Chant and Emily Edrosa merch, and just be like ‘I’m really great!’

“I think people were kind of shocked... God, living in LA - people will walk up to somebody and dead-serious be like, ‘My band is amazing, I’m the greatest songwriter of my generation.’ New Zealanders are like, ‘Oh, this is my band, it kinda sucks'."

Emily’s favourite female New Zealand guitarist:

"I really love Millie from [Dunedin band] Astro Children … I remember the first time we played with them and … [Millie] was really shy and … quite small as well, and then she got on stage and her guitar playing was so intense. Almost jarring. Really brutal."

Millie Lovelock (Astro Children, Repulsive Woman)

Millie lovelock of Astro Children

Millie lovelock of Astro Children Photo: Elizabeth Beattie

Millie Lovelock remembers tinkering around on her Dad’s 12-string acoustic guitar as a child, but when she started to learn properly she went straight to the electric. Classically trained on violin and clarinet, Millie describes the guitar as a ‘blind spot’ that she doesn’t view in terms of notes and ‘proper chords’ but rather, “What sounds can I make? Where can I put my hands in a way that will sound good?”

"I started my first band when I was 14. The first gig we played … a boy wrote on our Bebo page, “I heard you were really crap at guitar” and I’ve never forgotten it … I think there were a lot of moments that threw me off balance and have made me quite insecure about my guitar playing.

“But also ... if you start off with people insulting you and assuming you’ll be bad, I think you can kind of do what you want. It’s like ‘oh well you’re going to hate me anyway so I’ll just play whatever I want to play.’

"Something I get a lot after shows is guys coming up to me and being like, ‘You can really play!’ And I just have to say to them, ‘What did you think was going to happen?’ They don’t seem to realise that it’s not actually a compliment when someone is surprised when you’re good at your job.

"I think it’s just really important for women who are in bands to talk about how… everyone’s terrible at writing songs and everyone’s terrible at playing guitar [when they start], so that there can be more space for younger girls to think, ‘Ok well I’m allowed to start a band and I’m allowed to be terrible when I start.’”

Millie’s favourite female New Zealand guitarist:

"Annabel Liddell [Miss June] is one of my favourite musicians. She’s got this real classic rock sensibility about her, when she plays she’s really channelling those rock queen vibes. She plays with her entire body, she’s so passionate, [and] I really admire her ability as a musician to listen to music that she loves … and then write really amazing songs in that style."

Annabel Liddell (Miss June)

Miss June

Photo: Jordan Wilson-Grell Photo: Cleo Barnett

Annabel Liddell started playing guitar in primary school and spent about 8 years making up tunes of her own using the handful of basic chords she knew. When she was 18 she moved to Auckland and joined her first band, Grrlfriendz, expanding her repertoire to include a bar chord copied from the Kurt Cobain poster in her bedroom, positioned in different spots on the neck of her guitar.

"You get harassed a lot if you’re a female guitar player. I would play shows where we were too young to get into the venues so we were being snuck in, and you’d just get bombarded with these men

“[They’d] want know what kind of amp you’re using and how come you’re using that pedal and not that pedal and ‘oh what model is your guitar?’ and ‘oh is that really all your equipment?’ … I really felt like I needed to know everything about everything in order to be taken seriously as a musician.

"At one of my gigs I played recently [a female musician] who I have admired for such a long time … came up to me and was like, ‘You know what? I’ve always thought you were amazing! And I’m just gonna say it, you know! F*ck it! I’m just gonna say it! You’re great! Why can’t I say that?’ And I was just like, ‘Oh my god it’s true!’

“This thing I’ve been feeling that’s been happening underground in the scene where people have felt shy and anxious to talk to each other and like we all need to be competitive … other people feel that pressure as well! 

"The only thing that matters if you are playing in a group is to play with people that you trust and feel comfortable with. And don’t worry about external things or opinions … if you’re enjoying it, other people will feel you’re enjoying it and it will be organic."

Annabel’s favourite female New Zealand guitarist:

"Amelia Murray from Fazerdaze is one of my favourite female musicians ever … not only is she a wonderful musician but she also did all of the production and recording on her first EP which is just ‘wow’ to me. I think she’s just incredible, and she’s one of the sweetest people you could ever meet, and so supportive."

Amelia Murray (Fazerdaze)

Amelia Murray of Fazerdaze

Amelia Murray of Fazerdaze Photo: Supplied

Amelia Murray picked up the guitar as a teenager, encouraged by the number of female players at her arts and music-focused school. She started her first five-piece, all-girl band at 16 - learning the ropes of live performance, guitar and songwriting that would later serve her so well in solo project Fazerdaze.

"I do try and play guitar like a woman. I’ve seen so many guys play guitar and I want to play guitar like I feel like playing it.

“Just recently I changed guitars - I was playing a Telecaster which I found out of proportion to my body … and I’ve downsized to a Fender Mustang ... It’s a lot smaller, it’s a shorter neck, and there’s some curves on the body so it works with a woman’s body a lot better I find.

“I felt a lot more empowered playing a guitar that’s sort of the same size as me.

"Fazerdaze is my solo project and I write, record, arrange … When [the band] plays shows I don’t think people realise I’ve written everyone’s parts and I’ve actually arranged everything myself.

“I edited this music video myself for a track of mine called Lucky Girl and it’s crazy how many people comment on my looks rather than the fact that I produced it and edited it and played every instrument on it and edited the video myself.

“No-one comments on that! ... [I’m like] but, but - look at the art I made and the effort that went into it!

"[If I had any advice it would be] practice… have fun with it, and be yourself with it… There’s no right or wrong with playing music. I wish I’d heard someone tell me that - there is no right or wrong, you can just do it your way."

Not to mention our many other favourites including, but not limited to: Pip Brown (Ladyhawke), Kay Woodward (The Bats), Connie Benson, Claire Duncan, GG Van Newtown (Hex), Kiki Van Newton (Newtown), Sarsha-Leigh Douglas (Fantails), Tina Pihema (Coolies), Emerald Rose (Draghound), Rebel Reid (Vallkyrie), Denise Roughan (Ghost Club, 3Ds), Maryrose Crook (The Renderers), Maxine Funke (The Snares), Hope Robertson (Death And The Maiden, Bad Sav), Elizabeth Stokes (The Beths), Gussie Larkin (Mermaidens). And that's just the rock guitarists!