Women in Music

If I can’t dance I dont want to be part of your revolution

As the late great Emma Goldman once put it, and read her book Living My Life if you can; dance. So on the 100th International Women’s Day lets dance to some of the great Women in music; continuous playlist on YouTube here.  At the moment it is PJ Harvey who most neatly captures that dance/revolution, but recently albums by Rumer, sumptuously, and Laura Marling, challengingly (you have to sit up straight to listen to it) sit on the dance/revolution boundary. But it is Polly Harvey’s ironically sly chorus, “Gonna take my problem to the United Nations“, that gives me the laughing dance by proxy The Words That Maketh Murder;

But if you’d ask me to name, off the top of my head, who my favourite female musician is then I’d usually say Cassandra Wilson, who grew out of the remarkable M-Base Collective in New York, along with Meshell N’degecello, to become the best jazz singer of the past thirty years. I could just listen to her voice alone, but the way she interplays with her musicians always seems fresh. She has a remarkable way of interpreting songs, I particularly like the way she takes Last Train to Clarksville and returns it to its anti-Vietnam roots and Strange Fruit sinks deep into its raw emotions. She has just released a staggeringly alive album Silver Pony, which is her best since Belly of the Sun for me. But demonstrating her massive intimacy here is Redemption Song 

Melody Gardot is another jazz singer who is brilliant live, but she has a smoky voice full of tremulous textures, that draws you in through her seeming fragility. Perhaps that isn’t so as she is a really strong live performer, and she learnt to sing recovering from a bad car crash. Also featured with limpid magnificence on Charlie Haden’s wonderful Sophisticated Ladies project, she really does have a marvellously Worrisome Heart

Melody Gardot replaced Madeleine Peyroux in my affections recently after her own two brilliant albums, which seemed to surpass Peyroux’s own perfect pair, Careless Love and Half The Perfect World. Peyroux, who seemed a bit nervous on stage (and has done a runner before performing in her early days) however offers marvellous albums full of great interpretations, she really takes ownership of the songs she interprets. She may say I’m Alright but best of all she takes Leonard and Dance’s him to the End of Love;  

Lhasa de Sela proved more even more compelling live than Maddy, I saw Lhasa in Bristol, especially on the songs from The Living Road album like Anywhere on This Road, partly inspired by Marseille. Like many female artists however she is poorly served by the videos on YouTube, but this is both a great song and performance, with a tribute video to this now sadly dead female singer El Desierto;  

For me Lila Downs now occupies Lhasa’s space, being both mixed blood and mixed culture. Lila Downs is Mexican and American and often produces a sound that seems to come from the world as a whole. This is a wonderful song about Mole, the Mexican Chicken in Chocolate recipe, giving you all your courses in one dish. The video captures the ingredients, the spirit and the texture of the dish, as well as allowing Lila Downs (who often looks like the Frida Kahlo of song) to demonstrate the breathy strengths of her vocal technique; Cumbia del Mole

A recently resurrected singer is Grace Jones, who released some wonderful albums in the 70s, featuring many danceable 12 inch singles, Nipple To The Bottle being my dance favourite. I was sceptical of her recent Hurricane album, feeling it was produced as a part of Island Records somewhat self-congratulatory 50th anniversary celebrations, but it is almost as strong and danceable as Nightclubbing. Well, Well, Well is the dance track but the standout is the seemingly autobiographical Williams Blood

The best live concert by a female artist I have ever seen, narrowly edging out Cassandra Wilson, was Goldfrapp on the Supernature tour. Madonna’s favourite album of the time Goldfrapp had disciplined her band as well as Madge ever did. and she produced iridiscent, sparkling versions of all of that albums’ Cerrone-inspired standout tracks, including Number One

But for a few years after Tanto Tempo was released it was Bebel Gilberto who provided the Ambient Chill soundtrack to my walks as I migrated to the iPod, and she soundsculptured my excursions; it was So Nice. She seems to capture that Brasilian musical mood of making you wonder if they will ever make it to the next beat until you are left completely chilled and spellbound. Sounding like a tropical Dido here is Samba de Benção;  

But the first woman who ever made me sit up for her musical artistry alone, and yet had started with the traditional role of being a sensitive singer-songwriter, before breaking, no shattering, that mould, was Joni Mitchell. Fed up of ‘stoking the star-making machinery behind the popular song’, she was first inspired by Lambert, Hendricks and Ross on Court and Spark, then went all the way and outdid even Captain Beefheart for wilful obscurantism. She released an album called Mingus inspired by Charlie Mingus but featuring the inimitable, God Must Be a Boogie Man

But first of all, before even Joni in the seventies, I loved Sonja Kristina who drove Curved Air through it’s various incarnations, from early classical prog-rock to a more chart-friendly lyrically driven approach, before becoming an smart live recording band until they finally split up 1977 (!) With Darryl Way she also wrote their biggest hit Back Street Luv;

Almost sui generis Patti Smith and her epic album Horses, finally created a watershed between the sexist sixties and the plastic bag equality of punk, by being a poet offering herself on her own terms ‘Jesus died for somebodies sins, but not mine‘. `One of the great album openings she brought her Brooklyn of the Mind to London so that we could Go! Rimbaud! Gotta lose control, surrounded by her endlessly listenable history of horse attitudes, Land;  

Women finally seemed to be making their own musical statements more clearly during punk and my favourite band at the time was The Slits, especially their debut album Cut. The raucous Ari-Up has gone and Viv Albertine is currently crowd-funding a new album through Pledge Music, but they are best represented by the great rhythms, which seem to follow on from Horses, of the enduringly precise pink-putdown of Typical Girls;  

Kate Bush emerged at the same time as punk and although I couldnt stand Wuthering Heights, Hammer Horror got me and Hounds of Love is one of the all-time great albums by anybody, Aerial too. She has a great live voice (I saw her with Peter Gabriel), but the song that does it for me rhythmically has always been the magically bonkers Sat in Your Lap;

But even with punk and artists like Kate Bush women were still seriously under-represented in music, even after Blondie (another great band live) provided ironic glamour, so Tina Weymouth & her big bass stood out in Talking Heads, and even more so in her funky side project the overstood Tom Tom Club. They released the delirious supercalifragilistic ‘what are words worth‘ song for the rap generation Wordy Rappinghood

The eighties gave us big hair and ambition, until yet another Art School Prankster Laurie Anderson offered Oh Superman and then Madonna finally gave us portfolio sex as a career on her terms, sculpting consumption for the next 20 years. I don’t think she got it quite right until Desperately Seeking Susan finally saw her Get Into the Groove;  

Eliza Carthy on Red Rice gave us a Mercury nominated double album where she was making music as a musician on her own popfolk terms, modern folk with elements of drum and bass and remixing. This is a great album but sadly it never propelled her out of the folk audiences, despite its endless originality, and thoughtful musical inteligence. Featuring both her delightful voice and precise fiddle playing here’s 10,000 miles;  

The twentieth century produced many wonderful female singers, here is a list of 328 of them. However the naughties seem to have produced a plethora of great albums by female artists despite the shift from Art School to BRIT School. One of whom, Laura Marling inspired this blog, and gave us her brilliant debut Alas I Cannot Swim. I would pick Ghosts as the track but the video is smeared with an awful Sky ad so here is the live version (with Whalearound) of Alas I Cannot Swim;  

And currently, apart from the caustic dance of Let England Shake, I’m taking my pleasures from the warm bath of aural luxury direct from Herne Hill girl Rumer and her enduring Seasons of the Soul. Which track to pick? Aretha, Slow or, something redolent of the slow roll of hills in South London? Here is the cheerful sadness of Am I Forgiven;  

So that is a brief run through some of the female musicians I love as a way of celebrating International Women’s Day on March 8th, and I haven’t even mentioned Anna Calvi, First We Kiss;

Or even the singer/songwriter/trumpeter (now that is sui generis) Sue Richardson, who has a new album Fanfare and here she is trumpeting her own vocals Live; And dont forget to read @MissBarton in the Guardian.

You might like Our Fave Five where Megan and Eleanor Sing the World! A blog post by Megan and Eleanor on their favourite world music videos. They made their website over half-term

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One Response to “Women in Music”

  1. […] is also a tribute to musical women, If I cant Dance I dont want to be part of your Revolution, Babes (!), on Radio YouTube. Enjoy PJ Harvey, Cassandra Wilson, Rumer, Patti Smith, Anna Calvi, Laura Marling and more and […]

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