OPINION Entering local music as a young woman

Most people have had experiences with social anxiety at one point or another, and being a solo female act in the male-dominated local music scene has proven difficult for plenty of aspiring WA artists. EMMA STOKES has contributed cello to recordings for local groups including COSY, The Fruity Whites, The Love Junkies and Brassika (the last two unreleased as yet). She’s involved in DIY gigs, produces visual art for bands, and performs as Daisies Net, an experimental solo project. Daisies Net recently released an album, Tired, which reflects on living as a young woman with chronic physical and mental illness. It’s a beautiful record well worth checking out. Here she writes about navigating the patriarchal pitfalls of the Perth music community and overcoming self-doubt.

The harbour is over there buzzing and framing the ocean scene. I follow my boyfriend up the stairs to the door. He opens it and lets me enter the room of boys crowding the small living room littered with instruments and recording equipment. I naively worry what they will think of me if I drink tea instead of beer and begin to unpack my cello.

I see Rabbit Island play for the first time and I stop being able to breathe. I see Akioka sit cross-legged on the ground and create upwards pillars of sound, and Lana stretch her voice all the way out. I see Pool Boy kneeling into her microphone and watch Laurel Fixation silence a whole room. This is the first time I’ve seen quiet, weird girls command a stage. I meet people who make me feel like I belong in the place where I am for the first time in my life.

Rabbit Island

My boyfriend teaches me how the microphones work and sets Ableton up on my computer. He tells me that I can turn my poems into songs and motivates me to sing when I never have before. I feel myself slip slowly into a new world.

I support his act at the pub and afterwards a succession of boys go up to him while he fumbles with his leads and they tell him how great it was and none of them notice that I’m standing there. He’s shy and he doesn’t introduce me. As I pack up my instrument alone I feel I shouldn’t be on the stage. I am shaking so much that if they were to look they would be able to see it and I am ashamed. He stands around chatting with the other musician boys. They don’t know I was the one emailing them from his account to organise the gig when he didn’t have time to do it.

When I bring this up he denies it has anything to do with gender.

He says that he invited me into the music world, he opened the door for me. Wasn’t that enough?

I am thinking aloud and brushing cat hairs off my skirt. Hugh is doing the dishes, water all down his front, and he says over the sound of it, “yeah but Emma, he just won’t understand. He just isn’t going to understand yet.” And of course he’s right. It must be hard to understand something so very slight, slight to even those who receive it.

It is subtle but the conglomerated effect is one that spreads like mould in your lungs. It spawns self-doubt that is the sturdiest wall of them all.

I wish I’d known to say that – opening the door yet still not permitting us to sit on the same rung is not enough. We ask for the door to be left open, and for you to look us in the eye and introduce us with our names.

Hugh pours himself another rooibos tea.

Then I play a show that Leigh invites me to do. The first time he saw me play I was alongside my boyfriend, so I had to double check: “Hey Leigh, if I play at your show it will just be me… that’s probably not what you want though right?” I think if it’s just me he will surely be disappointed.

I play at the show and then Amber who I look up to so much, writes about it in her blog on the cool music empire website. She writes things like: “she seemed delicate but not really, she knew what she was doing… don’t apologise friend, just be amazing and look your talent straight in the eye.” Suddenly the day feels light. I don’t want to give up on it anymore.

Maggie asks me to play a show at The Bird and I have to sit down when I realise it is the first time I have been in that room while it has been more full with people of colour than not. She tells me off every time I put myself down. I read an interview she did that says “We worship men on the stages” and I realise that’s a thought I haven’t noticed. It makes everything make a lot more sense.

One day I sit in the backyard with Jordan and the soft white dog and we talk about audio interfaces and buttons and things and while he rolls his cigarettes he listens to me as if I have something meaningful to say – and I realise that hasn’t happened before. Normally the boys won’t keep up the conversations about music with me for very long.

And then my housemate Leah assembles 10 or more girls in our tiny living room to play music, because even though they don’t quite know how to play any instruments, they feel they’d like to be able to try as well – just like the boys they watch each night. Our fantastic neighbours bake cupcakes for the rehearsals. Soon they will have a band called Low Maintenance and be performing even more often than the boys.

And then I am not with my boyfriend anymore and new friends lend me equipment, so I can keep recording. I make an album of music in my bedroom and I call it an album even though that seems far too legitimate for just me. Karl listens to it before anyone else notices it’s on the internet. From Melbourne early in the morning he sends: “you have turned something very sad and tender into something beautiful.” I read those words and watch the sun rise in my window.

I have a launch event with women speaking poetry and invite the musicians I admire to do small sets that scare them. They are vulnerable and brilliant.

Effie performs a poem about the culture, she asks us why when someone says ‘legend’ we think ‘man holding a cricket bat’, instead of ‘woman’. She references Stella while Stella is listening and speaks about women creating spaces for women and everyone – there are shivers all over all of us.

Tess comes up to me later and says, “this has inspired me a lot, I’ve had an idea for a new series of gigs.” Maeve goes on to the other stages even though it is so scary, because now she knows that she can do it.

Patrick asks me if I could please help him to set up his recording gear. A tiny part of me is elated and confused that a boy would be asking me for help with the music things? Doesn’t he notice? A year ago, I’d never thought about what a microphone cable might look like.

Caitlin invites me to go and talk on the radio and I am there, and I am talking and I remember how not long ago I was afraid to even leave the house by myself.

Now whenever I feel ill-equipped to leave the house, there are words and hands there hovering, waiting to lift me up. We all lift one another up. It is as if creativity takes the form of delicate china ornaments we all hold, and if one slips and goes to fall there is always a palm ready to catch. The hands know the importance of creating.

And then Leigh and Maisie and Patrick and Sam all ask me to collaborate with them, and now the younger boys in the bands will come up to me and remember my name and they will tell me that I did a good set. And I feel the hands beneath me and around me and that they belong to all sorts of people and I know there will be more and more to come.

And then I hear on the radio and on the internet another story about diversity in the arts, until there are multiple every day: “they don’t have any women or people of colour on their whole line-up.” It echoes around. They say, “we have to do something about this,” and then they initiate the uncomfortable conversations even though it will make them feel personally at risk. I feel like tomorrow even more little thoughts will shimmer between. Tomorrow there will be even more voices, I have hope for the conversations that will happen then. Eventually it will make a song with hundreds of differently coloured, differently toned, translucent notes, layered atop. We can hold the song up off the floor all together.

I noticed a little while ago there are two art worlds: the one that exists with money, and the one we created ourselves. Now I understand if we can create the art world, we can certainly ensure it is balanced. We can certainly guarantee that its door be wedged open.

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