Scene and Heard: Local musicians creating space for women, transgender and non-binary artists

Andy Downing, Columbus Alive

As a teenager, Mickey Mocnik attended youth camp at Fur Peace Ranch, a picturesque musicians' retreat in the small, riverside town of Pomeroy, and the experience nearly led the Nervosas guitarist to give up the instrument altogether.

"There were three girls out of 30 campers, and the environment there, to be honest, was pretty hostile to the three of us," said Mocnik, 26, who started playing guitar at 9 years old. "It was a real challenge to be at that camp because nobody took me seriously."

Similar stories cropped up in recent interviews with the likes of singer-songwriter Lydia Loveless, Raeghan Buchanan of the Girls! and Brittany Corrigan of Teenage Strangers, among others.

Loveless, 24, relayed the animosity she faced as a teenager getting her start in the music industry, writing in a Facebook message, "People just didn't want to accept demos and show requests from a bunch of little girls. There were some helpful people, yeah, but for the most part it was a tough learning curve. I think I'm finally [starting to] understand the music business at last, after 10 years."

Buchanan and Corrigan, in turn, both spoke of delaying musical pursuits for years due to some combination of familial and societal pressure.

"I wanted to pick up the guitar when I was 12 … and I saved up money to get lessons, but my parents wouldn't let me," said Buchanan, 33, who eventually took up the drums at 26. "They were like, 'You need to keep your head in the books because you're going to need to work a lot harder to get where other people get.' And [my parents] are not the exception; this happens all the time. A lot of women have stories where they can pinpoint the moment when they slowed down or gave up."

"I wanted to play in a band my whole life, but it didn't happen until I was 20," said Corrigan, now 23, in a separate interview. "The Cleveland scene I was involved in, to put it bluntly, was pretty sexist. Even though I had that drive, I was never asked [to join in], and I didn't think it would ever happen."

Recently, a growing network of locals has emerged with the aim of restoring some semblance of balance, creating increased opportunities for women, transgender and non-binary individuals to contribute to a music scene that can still feel overwhelmingly homogenous. These include Grrrls Rock Columbus, a music day camp for female, transgender and gender-variant youth, FemmeFest, an inclusive, grassroots music festival that recently announced it would return for a second go-round this Labor Day weekend, and the Womxn/Trans/Non-binary Folx Band in a Hat Extravaganza, an event dreamed up by musicians Maryn Jones (Saintseneca, All Dogs, Yowler) and Kathryn Keister (Katherine) that will hold its inaugural showcase on Sunday, June 7 at MINT, a mixed-use South Side arts space.

"To be honest, [the initial concept for Band in a Hat] came from a place of frustration," said Jones, 27, who started playing music at an early age but didn't join a band until she moved to Columbus six years ago. "I love all the bands in Columbus, and a lot of them are my friends, but being enveloped in a scene pretty dominated by cis males (individuals who were born male and identify as such) it started to be like, 'What can I possibly do to help change that?'"

For Band in a Hat, Jones and Keister invited anyone who didn't identify as a cis male to submit their name, and groups were then drawn at random from the pool of participants. In all nearly 40 individuals submitted, and eight bands are currently scheduled to perform at the June showcase, with the hope being at least a handful of the participating acts will continue onward in some form.

On a Tuesday in mid-May, one of these bands, dubbed Crystal Labris, gathered for its first rehearsal at Shout Out Loud Prints in Grandview. The group, which consists of first-time drummer Brittany Corrigan, banjo-toting singer-songwriter Jordan O'Jordan, visual artist and electronic musician Joel Bengson, bassist Sarah Yetter and singer/guitarist Leah Divito, spent the first few minutes of this initial meeting hashing out potential roles while "Erase You," a hypnotic cut from Bronx dance-punk crew ESG, played on a loop in the background.

"I can kind of play guitar, but I'm really into singing," Divito said.

"I'll be the Vandellas to your Martha!" countered O'Jordan, who had previously expressed an interest in providing backup harmonies in addition to playing banjo.

Though the five bandmates were meeting for one of the first times, the vibe in the wood-paneled room, which could have passed for a teenager's bedroom circa 1975 with its assembled clutter and haphazard décor (strings of holiday lights, beer signs and a blacklight poster advertising "A friend with weed is a friend indeed"), remained overwhelmingly open and congenial - a fact O'Jordan attributed at least in part to the concept.

"Normally music is about similar artistic ideas joining together and then identity comes after that, but I thought it was really cool to be part of a project where identity was the first thing," he said. "It was more 'Do you identify as a non-binary person? A trans person? A lady? Great! Do you want to make music with people like you?' And I was like, 'Yeah I do! That sounds rad!'"

While Band in a Hat (the Folx in the event listing refers more broadly to "people," or "folks," rather than a prescribed style of music) extended to all ages, Grrrls Rock Columbus, which kicks off its second year on July 19, focuses on younger musicians, inviting campers ages 12 through 18 to participate in a week of instrumental instruction, songwriting workshops and performance at the downtown-adjacent Fort Hayes Metropolitan Education Center.

"The idea is to create an environment where girls and gender-variant youth can work together and be creative and have a space to be themselves," said Mocnik, who joined fellow organizer/instructor Meg Zakany for a mid-May interview at an Old North diner. "And it's based on their abilities instead of their looks. So much of being a girl in this society is how you look and how others perceive you, and at camp we want everyone to be appreciated for their abilities and for their minds."

It's a pressure Loveless, for one, knows all too well. "In general there's a super sexist vibe in the music business," she wrote. "I actually just had a woman comment 'anything but blonde, come on!' on my Facebook page. Or people will comment how great I sound in a song, but [add] that I've gained a shitload of weight. Or they will tell my band members to 'have me' do a certain cover, or to smile constantly. It's amazing how little the focus is on music sometimes."

These gender biases don't fade with time, either. During a recent Who concert at Nationwide Arena, two gray-haired male concertgoers spent several moments dissecting opener Joan Jett's appearance, commenting about "all the miles" she's put on - this despite the ferociousness of her performance, which found the musician affixing the heel of her boot to the audience's collective throat and refusing to let up. Indeed, based solely on the strength of her material, the Who could have just as easily served as Jett's opening act.

To counter these deep-seated biases, both Mocnik and Zakany stressed the importance of connecting with female and gender-variant musicians early in adolescence, since most tend to pick up instruments far later in life than their male counterparts.

In Mary Ann Clawson's study "When Women Play the Bass: Instrument Specialization and Gender Interpretation in Alternative Rock Music," published in 1999, the sociology professor examined this divide, writing, "Women respondents … began to play their rock instruments at the median age of 19, followed by participation in a first band at the median age of 21. This was in marked contrast to male respondents, who began to play at 13 and joined first bands at the median age of 15.3."

"Even now when I'm approaching peers I ask, 'Have you ever thought about playing an instrument?'" said Zakany, who will join fellow Grrrls Rock organizers in hosting an equipment drive and fundraiser concert at Ace of Cups on Friday, May 29. "And I always get [that line] 'I've always wanted to play, but...'

"It seems people want to play an instrument, but the world gives us this model where it's like, 'Maybe this is something you shouldn't do,' so we're still not seeing a lot of women and non-conforming people making music."

Grrrls Rock aims to shift this trend, and across the board every musician interviewed expressed regret that similar programs weren't readily available in the midst of their formative years.

"I would have loved to have had something like that; I probably would have been a lot braver at a lot younger of an age," Loveless wrote.

"If I had [Grrrls Rock] when I was 12 or 13, who knows where I'd be and what kind of music I could be creating," said Corrigan, who volunteered as a band coach at the camp last year. "To instill the confidence that you can do anything regardless of your sex or who you are … is just the coolest thing."

Increasingly, local musicians are tapping into this developing sense of possibility, forging bonds and launching new creative ventures intended to draw out traditionally underrepresented and underserved populaces.

"It's not just [FemmeFest] or Grrrls Rock Columbus or Band in a Hat," said Buchanan, who helped found FemmeFest and is involved in this year's itineration of Grrrls Rock, to note just one of many overlaps among these emerging groups. "We all know each other, and we're all working together to create a network of comforting, empowering events."

Photos by Meghan Ralston

Grrrls Rock Columbus fundraiser with Didi, Ipps and Kizzy Hall

Ace of Cups

9 p.m. Friday, May 29

2619 N. High St., Old North

grrrlsrockcolumbus.com

Womxn/Trans/Non-binary Folx Band in a Hat Extravaganza

Mint

8 p.m. Sunday, June 7

42 W. Jenkins Ave., Brewery District