Our guests: singer/songwriter Kerry Alexander of Bad Bad Hats, rapper/activist Tony the Scribe, and Singer/Producer/Songwriter Ness Nite.
The conversation: music, sexism, Influence, authenticity, and craft.
The menu: spring rolls, pad thai, fried rice, and buttery gourd drink.
TRANSCRIPTION: CECILIA JOHNSON // PHOTOS: EMMET KOWLER
EDITED BY EMMET KOWLER AND CECILIA JOHNSON
THE FOLLOWING IS CONDENSED FROM A 75-MINUTE CONVERSATION. READ THE UNABRIDGED TRANSCRIPT HERE.
Cecilia Johnson: Are there any ways that you've felt sexism impacting your life as a music professional?
Ness Nite: Most of my experience is online. The thing that sticks out to me the absolute most is it's always men who contact me, on Twitter or e-mail or anything remotely professional, like, "I like your music. We should work." It's like, "Just show me what you're doing. And if I just so happen to not like it, I might not want to work with you.” It's almost the same as guys who jump in your DMs for asking you out or telling you you're cute, 'cause if you decline, then it's like, "Well, I didn't think you were that tight anyway." I've gotten shit like that — just hard feelings. I think it's dumb that you have to feel guilty for not wanting to do art with someone.
Kerry Alexander: When I was ten years old, Michelle Branch's "Everywhere" was everything to me. She sold the fact that she wrote her own songs and played her guitar. She didn't know what she would do without her guitar. I was like, "What? I don't know what I would do without my guitar."
You're not supposed to like someone in a "different" realm. The whole thing of being an artist, from the very start: it's like, "Who influenced you?" And you'd better say someone cool.
I also think that people have a problem with artists who are predominantly liked by women. Like boy bands.
Tony the Scribe: A culture of authenticity is a really, really big thing for women to access. Particularly within rap, right? Because rap is still such a boys' game, for the most part.
I've seen a lot of dudes talk to either female rappers or female heads and be like, "Oh, you wouldn't want to know about this deep cut or this album. You don't listen to Tupac like that." It's assumed that [. . .] they can't be in it for the love or depth of understanding of the culture in the same way that men are.
CJ: Kerry, do you see any pop stars using their influence in ways you admire? What would you do with influence like that?
KA: It's something I think about a lot. I really struggle with using social media as a platform to make a statement. I like using social media to be like, "Here's what I'm eating right now," or, "Here's my feet at this park." [laughs]
You see artists like Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift being criticized for not thinking through the way that they are portraying themselves or creating an image around themselves, but in some ways, it's hard because authenticity is the biggest thing for me. How do you make a statement about something powerful without it just becoming part of your brand? Without it being like, "Hey, everyone, just so you know, I'm on this side. So hit me with those likes, because I'm saying what the people want to hear."
TS: I actually think one of the weirdest, most awesome, and messiest versions of that is Macklemore's "White Privilege II." That song is so weird, and an absolute mess in a lot of ways, but he absolutely grapples with that. Like, "How do I talk about this in a way without capitalizing on it?"
Emmet Kowler: Speaking of authenticity: Macklemore. [laughs]
TS: Speaking of authenticity: Macklemore! I actually did believe Macklemore on that. He has, from the beginning of his career, talked about whiteness really explicitly. Now, I think he fucks up a lot, too. I think he can seem really inauthentic in some ways, like Instagramming that picture of him texting Kendrick [Lamar]? That's performative. Which doesn't mean that he's a bad person or an inauthentic dude, but he clearly made a mistake in that particular space.
KA: I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, and I grew up with a lot of privilege. So I was not privy to a lot of what was happening outside my tiny, Southern bubble. And when I went to college, I was like, "Oh, shit. Shit is going down out here, you guys." So someone like Taylor Swift — in some ways, I'm like, she just doesn't know. She just doesn't know. Because why would she? She became a pop star at like fifteen. So in some ways, you don't want to cut them slack, per se, because they do have such influence. But I'm sure when it comes down to it, the people around her don't have the same frame of reference as a lot of the world.
I can't really think of a pop star where it's all there. Just because the nature of now is that people don't get away with anything, which in some ways is good. It's like, "Hey, you have a voice. You have a platform. So we're going to let you know if it's not working for us."
TS: It's strange, especially, as somebody who has been a fan of music my whole life and then becomes a musician — getting to the other side of that power differential.
We expect so much of our musicians, because they're the ones that write the soundtracks to our lives. We want them to be perfectly woke on everything, and also creative geniuses, and also willing to sit at the merch booth for five hours and talk to every person, and also really nice and awesome when you meet them at 2:00 in the morning in the grocery store and they're just trying to get some ramen. You know? I think that expectation of people to be more than human is pretty dangerous. It's not necessarily an obligation, but if you have that platform, you could be doing good with it, and if you're not, that's kind of on you.
CJ: Can you say more about the power differential thing?
TS: Yeah. This is actually one of my favorites to think about and to talk about. I hate power dynamics. They're one of my least favorite things about making music in general. I think this also curtails to a lot of the way that women are treated.
At its best, it means that hanging out with a bunch of music people is just having a bunch of really cool friends who want to help you get to where you're going. At worst, it means that there are a bunch of people who have different levels of power over you as a musician who's trying to succeed. And that can result in a lot of problems. So even if it's not even explicit power — even if it's not a music director at a radio station or somebody's who booking you at a venue — it's working with mentor figures in the industry who are years more experienced than you. It at least seems to you, when you come into the industry, that [they have] a lot of power over you.
I think there are a lot of people at that higher level who will abuse that power. Kesha's a really good example of that. Dr. Luke basically is like, "I am your god. You came through me to get famous. And now, I get to treat you however I want." And the American legal system is bearing that out. It's ridiculous, but that's one really egregious example of a broader problem we have.
I'm not sure that's not deeply baked into the system on some level.
CJ: Ness and Kerry, how do you feel like fans act toward you?
KA: We opened for Hippo Campus, and that one I was nervous about, because they had intense fans. [all laugh] I was like, "I think these girls are just going to hate us." The guys are really friendly, so I think they're used to hanging out with fans after the show. For me, it was the best feeling ever to open for them and have their fans come up to us and give us the time of day, want to say hi, and be like, "Oh, wow! So cool you're doing this." Like, "You can do this [too]."
And all these girls are so cool. They showed up to the show early; they brought their cameras; they were excited. They bought merch. They want to talk to the band. They want to be involved. And I was like, "Oh, my heart." That's what I wanted to be when I was younger, but I lived in a place where there weren't shows happening. It warms my heart to see young girls just wanting to be a part of the music scene, even if they don't make music.
The only bad interactions I've had — a few times, and Ness, you may note this, middle-aged men will try to kiss you on your face.
NN: Yes. Are You Local?.
CJ: Oh, no.
KA: I think they think it's a fatherly thing, but it's not what you want.
NN: That's disgusting.
KA: So that's not great. And the biggest gripe I have — again, it only happened a few times. But people like to come up to me after shows — men like to come up to me after shows — and tell me that I should move around more on stage. I think some men just don't understand that I don't have anything to compensate for and therefore don't need to go nuts on my guitar. [laughs]
CJ: At Soundset, I was at Doomtree's set, and the guys behind me were objectifying Dessa to no end. Like, "She gon' be my wife. She's so fine." And I was like, "Oh no. You're not cool."
KA: It's tough, because I feel like all musicians know that "the look" is part of the thing. Whether or not it's a "sexy look" or a "weird look" — I'm looking at you, Weird Al. [laughs]
NN: I definitely identify as a woman, but on stage, in my songs, and in the things I wear on stage, I almost try to shield myself from dumb shit. I'll have a sleeveless collared thing that shows my tattoos, and I'm wear a semi-long skirt and some Tims. Something that's strange but looks cool but isn't what a pop star would wear. It's a part of who I am as a person, too, 'cause I'm not a girly-girl.
Back to the men trying to kiss you stuff, several older guys at the Are You Local? show came up to me to, in their minds, do me a favor by saying something. The body language — tall, older white dudes standing over me patting me on the shoulder, being like, "Oh, your voice is really great, but..." This one guy was really drunk, and he was like, "Yeah, you were great, but I think all these people — [Holidae] is what they're mainly looking for." He literally said that to me. And I was like, "Thanks, Mr. I-don't-give-a-fuck-about-your-opinion." [laughs]
I go out of my way when I'm on stage [to say] that I make the beats, because people just assume I don't. Several times, when me and Mike [Frey] play a show, somebody will go up to Mike and be like, "Oh, dude, those beats are so tight." And I'm like, "I made those." Mike mixed them so they sound tight coming out of big speakers and stuff, but I literally sat in my bedroom and made those. On SoundCloud, that's the first thing I changed: "makes the beat//writes the words//says the words."
So many girls and women want to produce and make beats, and I'm like, "Do it. Please. Come over and I will teach you anything I know about Ableton." There's nothing I want more.
TS: One of the things, as I think about it more: it goes back to the idea that women can't handle technical shit. It goes back to, "Women can't do math! Women can't do science. Women are mushy creative things who can't get their heads wrapped around whatever bullshit." I think that's one of the gaps of why a lot of women don't jump into producing. People definitely have this idea that women could maybe be singers or songwriters, but there has to be somebody else who's actually doing the technical aspects of producing, which is ludicrous.
CJ: The heavy lifting.
TS: Yeah, totally!
KA: If we're working on a song, I know how I want it to sound. And I know enough about the production side of things that I can —
NN: Get in there.
KA: Yeah, I can direct someone and know that the levels aren't right, or this needs more reverb. Or whatever. Even beyond whether you're trained as a producer.
I was talking to one of my friends who did a lot more production stuff than me. She said the same thing; she does work in LA, and she said she's worked with a lot of people who, when she's like, "Yeah, that needs some compression," he's like, "What are you talking about?"
It's all assumption.
THE WIZARD OF OZ
CJ: What is something that you appreciate when somebody does it? That makes you feel really respected.
KA: When things are going normally. When everyone is just a human in a space. I don't need any special treatment — so many sound guys are really mean, but they're really mean to everyone. It's not because I'm a woman.
When I have a night when I feel like myself and have a good time and talk to fans, and no one tries to kiss my face — that's cool.
NN: I've had a couple guys ask me to make them beats, which I think is actually kind of cool. I never have. [laughs] But I think it's cool.
KA: In the same way, when people come up to me at a show and ask about my pedal board or something. Legitimately asking, "Oh, what do you use?" They're not asking, "Do you know how that pedal works?"
TS: "Who bought you those pedals?! Is there a secret pedal board in the back where some old white dude is doing the things for you?"
CJ: Like The Wizard of Oz!
KA: It's a cliche that a lot of middle-aged men love gear. But I don't mind talking with some middle-aged guy about my gear, if he's talking to me. I love that. I'll talk about my guitar and what year it is. "Oh, is it Japanese?" I don't know, sir! But thank you for asking.
I do struggle with this, though. Because sometimes, I'm like, "I don't care about gear." But then I'm like, "Maybe I should know about it. It's my instrument, and it's good to be educated. I should maybe know how to fix my amp.” But then I'm like, "Do I? Can't I just bring this somewhere?"
TS: I feel like that's also an authenticity thing. I feel that way too, as a dude, but I'm sure it's to a very different extent. "How much do I actually know about this? Do I feel weak when I'm in the studio with a mixing engineer? Oh, that's a toxic masculinity thing. There we go."
'Cause why does it matter if you don't know what kind of guitar you have? It's not your job to know what kind of guitar you have. It's your job to play the goddamn guitar.
KA: At the same time, you want to be good at something, and I feel like maybe I should be a master of my craft. Enough to know how an amp works. Which I only just learned.
But I never want that to be like, "I have to learn this in case a middle-aged man tries to quiz me on it."
CJ: Mmhmm. Am I actually learning it for myself, or am I learning it for somebody else? Yeah.
EK: [to the group] If you have any, where does your training come from? Informal or formal?
TS: Mostly informal.
KA: I took violin and piano lessons when I was younger, so I got a good basis for making music. But I'm pretty much self-taught on guitar.
NN: I played violin for a long time, but I could never actually read music.
EK: That's quite the instrument to play by ear.
NN: I feel like it's an easier one to play by ear, because you literally control every little [move] — you can make whatever sound you want. That's also how I taught myself how to sing. I don't sing normally, whatever that means. I just imitate a violin. I see it more than I sing.
TS: I don't know what the fuck you're talking about, but that's dope as fuck.
NN: I listen to music like textures, not like sound.
EK: You mean like Lorde?
NN: Doesn't she see colors?
NN: It's texture to me. Like, "I need that to be thicker" or gelatinous. [all cheer] I feel like it should be easy to explain, because I know what I'm thinking. I try to say things to Mike, and he's like, "What the hell are you talking about?" I'm like, "I can see this wall, and there's things poking out, and that's how I see it." [all laugh]
TS: [mock-exasperated] Do you want more compressor on there or not? [all laugh]
EK: Do you think that influences why you're so adamant and committed to doing your production yourself?
NN: Probably, 'cause I would listen to other beats and be like, "Nah. . ." I want to be able to control the sounds around me, and I don't know how to communicate it. So I have to do it. Which, it's cool that I manage to do it. I think Mike's getting used to me, though.
TS: Spiky wall.
NEXT HOTTEST SHIT
KA: Half the battle of sexism in music is just to — one, just be supportive of the women around you. Or anyone who is a minority in the field. And two, just keep making good music. That's the biggest thing for me, personally. If I keep making good art, that speaks for itself.
There are times when I've started to feel like there are only so many spots for women in music, and I have to be the one woman to get there. But there's really room for everyone.
EK: Like there's only room for Beyoncé.
KA: And no one's ever getting that spot.
TS: Beyoncé and Taylor Swift. Everybody else: go home.
NN: Subconsciously, my sound tries to counteract power dynamics. When I started making music, I was rapping. I didn't like my voice at all, and I would never sing. And then I wanted singing on my music, so I just started doing it.
I could see how people interact in the rap community, and I didn't want to be jammed into a particular community because of the structure. That made me change my sound a little bit. I made conscious decisions to change what I was doing as I was doing it, because I didn't want to be stuck.
TS: I definitely agree with that. I had a female friend in the industry — a photographer — who was talking about rap shows one time. She was like, "I don't like going to rap shows, because it's just a bunch of dudes trying to prove shit to themselves." But musicians in general, we have a lot to prove to ourselves. We make stuff, and we share it, because we believe our voices are important.
I think that ties into a lot of stuff dudes (and particularly marginalized dudes of color) have in our culture and in rap. Trying to one-up each other all the time and make the next hottest shit with the next tightest crowd. "You sold out how many shows? I sold out this many shows at this venue. How many SoundCloud plays does your shit have?" That focus on ever more and more can mean a lot of people get thrown under the bus. Particularly women.
All that hierarchy bullshit — the more we can dismantle that from the ground up, the better it is for everybody. But especially for people who are being marginalized in the current structures.
And it's just wack! It's just wack that everybody walks around playing dumbass Twitter games with each other instead of —
NN: Making stuff.
TS: Yeah, instead of just making art! Doing art!
EK: Be alive, do the thing.
TS: Dude, seriously. I was having a conversation with a friend the other day, and I was like, there are so many people in the music community who just run around acting a damn fool all the time. When do they make music? [all laugh] I have no idea! There's this kind of person you see at every show you go to, and they're always acting a fool in some kind of way. You're like, when do you create? Do you make stuff?
KA: I think it's a very exciting time to be a musician. So many genres and movements have happened, but Paul McCartney's still alive. It's so crazy to me that rock music, or contemporary music, is still that young. That one of the greatest makers of contemporary music just played a show here [in Minneapolis] the other day.
At the same time, I feel like now, genres are really fluid in a cool way. I think we're going to start to see women and people of color and people in the queer community really stepping up and filling the gaps in these genre holes. I think rock is in a really static place right now, in terms of how mainstream defines it. In the rock category of the Grammys, a woman hasn't won best rock album since 2005, when Evanescence won. In some ways, it speaks to the fact that rock music isn't part of the Top 40 anymore. Top 40 music is pretty much all pop — which has become a genre, as opposed to whatever's popular. There's so much room, since pop is getting narrower and narrower; everything on Top 40 is sort of melting. I think there's this huge space where, hopefully, some sort of musical revolution is going to do something fresh. It is, right? Can you feel it? I really feel it.
All these different players are just converging. David Byrne plus David Bowie plus Prince plus Aretha Franklin plus the Beatles. All these people are just in the stratosphere. Plus you can stream all of it at any time. The plethora of influence to pull from is crazy right now. No wonder every song in the '50s sounded exactly the same, because it was just them listening to each other.
But now, pop music is becoming the same thing, in the same way that disco came and everybody was like, "Why do these songs sound the same?" And then, know what happened? Punk music happened. And then grunge happened. I think people are having trouble defining music with the genres that we're aware of now, so it's going to be up to musicians now to redefine what those genres are. 'Cause [now] it's basically, like, Top 40 and everything else. I see electronic music, indie music, rap music — all of those are converging in a very cool way.
CJ: One thing that I was curious about is if you guys have tips or suggestions for the media. How can we be better?
KA: That's tricky. I do often blame the media.
CJ: I do, too!
KA: Vaguely, I think music writing is a very difficult field. You need content; I get that. But certainly, I've gotten my fair share of reviews where I'm like, this person maybe listened to my music? And definitely did not proofread this article. I just sit there and think, "What are we doing here? Why is this happening?" It's sort of a bigger issue.
NN: I have a very specific request. If you come across any female artist who has an unidentifiable sound, do not compare her to FKA twigs. [laughs] I was talking to Dizzy [Fae] about it, because she's been compared to FKA twigs, too. I'm like, "Okay. We don't sound similar."
TS: The one thing about FKA twigs is nobody sounds like her. She's like thirty years ahead of everybody, Stanley Kubrick-stunting on motherfuckers.
KA: Maybe I'm being generous to the media, to me it seems like the media has an old formula, like okay, listen to artists. Think of other artists that sound vaguely like this, and go from there. No one sounds like anyone, deep down.
NN: I almost think avoid comparisons. Even outside of music, I don't want to be like anybody else. I don't want to read that.
KA: In a short review, it's helpful to use "for fans of blank and blank." So on the other hand, I can see that's a helpful tool in a small space to catch people's attention.
CJ: Maybe it's cooler to [write comparisons like] spiky walls.
TS: I have two things. One of them is: humanize artists as much as possible. A lot of musicians are tied up in their own mythology. But as much as is possible, try to deal with people as life-size rather than massive, mythological things.
As another: I think one of the really interesting things that anthropology has started doing as a discipline in, like, the last 20 years is that they require you to speak really specifically about who you are and what your biases are. Before you get to anything else, just be like, "This is where I'm at. I'm not going to pretend this is subjective, because nothing is subjective, so here's my foundation."
One of my good friends is Paul Thompson from around here. He writes for Pitchfork and Rolling Stone and shit now. And I'm always telling him, the favorite pieces I've read of his, ever, are the ones that are about his own personal relationship with a song or with an album or with an artist. I'm way less interested in hearing that Young Thug is a stylistic flip on Da Drought 2, from Lil Wayne's heyday. I'm way more interested in somebody being like, "The first time I ever heard Young Thug was in this particular environment, and it made me feel like this, and it changed my life in this particular, specific way. It made me feel like this Lil Wayne album did ten years ago, when I was running around in high school doing all kinds of stupid shit at 1:00 in the morning. That's why I value this."
I'm way more interested in approaching music criticism from that place than from, "This is journalism." Because it's not really journalism, in a lot of ways. It's criticism.
EK: Authenticity and ownership.