Georgia Maq, Jen Cloher and Ruby Hunter

Jen Cloher: "Indie Rock is Full of Privileged White Kids. I Know Because I’m One of Them."

Melbourne-based artist and Milk! Records label manager Jen Cloher explores the impact of female and non-binary musicians on Melbourne's music scene through looking at songs by Ruby Hunter, Camp Cope, Simona Castricum and more.

On Friday 19th October, Melbourne-based artist and Milk! Records label manager Jen Cloher gave a keynote address as part of Sonic aGender, an event at the Darebin Music Feast. The following is an edited version of her address. Jen chose to donate her writer's fee to Black Rainbow, a social enterprise specialising suicide prevention & social outcomes for the Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander LGBQTI community. Donate to Black Rainbow here .

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“Indie Rock is full of privileged white kids. I know, because I’m one of them. Who else has the luxury to gaze backwards?” I’m quoting a song I released last year called “Shoegazers.” The lyric acknowledges that I’m commenting from the experience of white privilege, that this privilege comes at the cost of the First Nations people of this country, and that I have been raised and educated on stolen land. Here in Darebin, we’re on Wurundjeri-willam land. Nearby is the Merri Creek, once a home and rich food source for the land’s Traditional Owners. I pay my respects to their elders past, present and future, and remember that sovereignty has never been ceded. Nearly two years ago I delivered a keynote at One of One’s inaugural Women in Music breakfast entitled Women in Australian Music Can No Longer Be Erased From The History Books. It examined my own professional envy and the struggle women have long endured to be visible in Australian music culture. Ironically, I erased femme and non-binary artists by not acknowledging their presence. It’s another man telling us that we can’t fill up a room
It’s another man telling us to book a smaller venue
‘Nah, hey c’mon girls we’re only thinking about you’
Well, look how far we’ve come not listening to you
Yeah, just get a female opener, that’ll fill the quota” Camp Cope — “The Opener”

In April 2016, three-piece Melbourne rock band Camp Cope released their self-titled debut album. The band’s members — Georgia McDonald, Sarah Thompson and Kelly-Dawn Hellmrich — were well-known musicians within the Melbourne scene, but Camp Cope put them on the map as one of Australia’s foremost feminist DIY rock bands. They were committed to action and using their public platform for change, willing to speak out on issues within the music industry regardless of the professional consequences. In an interview with the Guardian, Hellmrich spoke of their camaraderie: “We were brave, strong women before we were a band. When we combined forces, we became fearless. We don’t doubt ourselves any more. Once we were a band, it was like ‘Boom!’ No one is going to push us around any more because we have each other.”

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Onstage at Falls Festival, they called out the organisers for a lack of women and GNC artists on the main stages. They began the ‘It Takes One’ campaign to expose sexual assault at live shows, and before appearing at Laneway Festival, asked for a hotline to be installed for festival goers to report assaults. Online they weathered daily abuse and blatant misogyny, as well as backlash from media and industry. But they were popular, charting in the ARIAs, receiving high rotation on triple j, selling out large venues and filling tents at festivals. Finally, Australia had a visible feminist band and people were listening. Many had come before them, but few had been heard. Camp Cope helped to take the conversation around gender and inclusion within the music industry to a national level.

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Camp Cope

The lyrics in “The Opener” are powerful. There’s not a single woman, femme or non-binary artist who can’t identify with the feeling of not being seen as creative and commercial equals to their male counterparts. So much of our survival has rested in a kind of stubborn resilience. In order to be seen, we need to achieve so much more. And even though comments like, “You’re one of my favourite female drummers” or “You play great guitar for a girl” might be delivered as some form of kudos from a dude, it really just points to how we are perceived as sitting outside of the indie music space. Our excellence is only ever an exception. “They got sick of the boys club,
They got sick of those men,
Telling them what they couldn’t do cause they were too shy or too femme,
And so they started their own space where they could plug in and play,
Make their own heroes make their own noise and say what they needed to say” Cable Ties — “Tell Them Where To Go”

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The Cable Ties song “Tell Them Where To Go” points to the creation of safe and supportive spaces for women, femme and GNC artists. The queer community has often been a haven for artists to create and perform outside of hetero-normative capitalist constructs. Even though “Tell Them Where To Go” is more of a nod to the Girls Rock movement and their dismantling of the cis-centric framework of women and girls, it also hints at the underground spaces that have created movements and scenes. Sometimes these scenes extend into events like Wetfest, Cable Ties Ball and Hexfest. Sometimes they mushroom into labels, like Listen Records and Hysterical Records. But the discussion around space is an important one, particularly when you don’t feel safe or relaxed in what is currently offered. It is also worth considering if we are needed in all spaces. People of colour and Indigenous artists have often expressed the need to be in spaces free of white people. African American academic Kelsey Blackwell examines this need in her article Why People of Color Need Their Own Spaces Without White People: “People of color need their own spaces. Black people need their own spaces. We need places in which we can gather and be free from the mainstream stereotypes and marginalization that permeate every other societal space we occupy. We need spaces where we can be our authentic selves without white people’s judgment and insecurity muzzling that expression. We need spaces where we can simply be — where we can get off the treadmill of making white people comfortable and finally realize just how tired we are.”

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Perhaps a question white feminist artists can ask themselves is “How can I best support spaces where I am not needed?”

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Cable Ties

Spaces don’t need to be physical to be real. One of the greatest changes to access has been digital technology. In the past decade, musicians have been able to write, record, produce, distribute and promote their music from their own bedrooms. Platforms like Bandcamp offered an instant online store. Artists could build their own communities through YouTube and Facebook. In this new age, niche DIY careers were opening up to a global niche and this made a career in music a reality for those sitting outside of the mainstream. Major labels no longer had a monopoly on what people could hear. The digital economy was relatively inexpensive and oftentimes free, meaning access was available to more people and as a result different voices were beginning to be heard. “When my body appears
As a list of experiences
A list of sensations
Movements
Without other’s assessments
Where do I live then?
How can my home be so foreign?
How can my home be so lonesome?
How can I call it my home?
Just move your left arm
Move your right one, too
Don’t let it mean anything to anybody but you”

Evelyn Ida Morris — “The Body Appears”

In “The Body Appears” and throughout their self-titled album, Evelyn Ida Morris explores their journey through gender and the struggle of coming out as non-binary. For them, the concept of space is the reality of their body and the way in which they are seen by others. They describe the sense of being lonely in their body as they come to a place of reclaiming that space: “Don’t let it mean anything to anyone but you.” In 2014, in the book Noise In My Head — Voices From The Ugly Australian Underground, author James Kritzler referred to the energy of the band True Radical Miracle, of which Morris was the drummer, as coming from a place of male aggression. Morris took exception: “The aggression of my performance in True Radical Miracle was always coming from a space of frustration — a sense that I had to prove myself. I felt a deep inadequacy at most stages of my development as a musician, and just generally as a human. I never attributed that exclusively to being [assigned] female; however, in hindsight I can say with clarity that I’ve been trying to be perceived as ‘worthwhile’ in the eyes of men (and society generally) my whole life. I’ve never been ‘pretty’ or ‘charming’ or ‘sexy’, so I’ve attempted to achieve recognition in my own way. The assumption, then, that the energy TRM presented had anything to do with masculinity is somewhat aggravating to me. It’s clear to me now that every expression of aggression and anger I have presented in my performance has been very much about gender — but not necessarily by choice. It’s been an attempt at breaking out of my own gender, and gaining permission to exist in ‘theirs’.”

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Evelyn Ida Morris

In response to Noise In My Head, Morris started the collective Listen as a way of documenting the work of feminist musicians. Originally, it was to be published as a book, but soon grew into an online forum. The forum was criticised, but it did succeed in pushing the long overdue conversation around gender in Australian music outside of queer and academic circles into a broader sphere. Most women and GNC artists have struggled with the constructs of gender and the expectation of how they should present within the music industry. It’s important to remember that women and GNC musicians playing throughout the ’90s and early 2000s often had to adjust their appearance, music and way of acting in order to survive. The language and understanding around gender queerness wasn’t yet there. “How do you connect with all the fucked up people?
When does your hard work become unreasonable?
How do I trust anyone to look out for me?
When no one even asks me to the fucken party.” Simona Castricum — “Breakfast of Champions”

Simona Castricum’s lyrics in “Breakfast of Champions” sting with the exhaustion of needing to defend your existence in a space. Transphobia within feminist circles creates a deeper wound, where trans femme people are challenged to defend their right to be there. Simona shared a story with me about attending a Bikini Kill concert in 1996, where she was told to stand up the back as she presented as “too masculine”. The action was part of the Riot Grrrrl ‘Girls To The Front’ movement, under the banner of “Womyn Born Womyn”, encouraging women to claim back space at live shows traditionally taken up by cis men. The consequences of this trans exclusionary politic were scarring, leaving Simona with a sense she did not fit into her own community. It wasn’t until DJing at JD Samson’s club in New York that Simona was able to let go of the wound. Samson had played in Le Tigre with Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna for many years and the association for Simona was close to home. After talking with JD she was finally able to put the experience behind her.

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In a recent Facebook post, she wrote: “It’s clear that the industry infrastructure does not provide for the visibility, access and opportunity in music career pathways that queer and GNC artists are entitled to. The even playing field doesn’t exist, despite the industry’s aspiration for equality — it’s too slow to act and get around the issues. That includes festivals, awards, airplay, video, TV; an ecosystem crosses both the live and DJ stages. Politically it is still focusing on cis-centric and binary issues, accolades and causes. Meanwhile the industry is always hoping to achieve aforementioned inclusivity aspiration through the ‘next big thing’. That ain’t intergenerational and it puts visibility and coming out on their terms. “The consequence of this is that it’s creating a climate of competition as the spaces afforded are limited and token on their criteria and assessment, all in a piecemeal feed. People are being erased, jaded, pitted against each other, or often considered a risk. The glass ceiling is real.”

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Simona

The examination of power and privilege is a valuable one when we talk about music and gender. Until women and feminists address these inequalities within our own community, we are perpetuating the systemic oppression we accuse cis-centric culture of enforcing on us. We erase anyone around the edges because we are blinkered by our own privilege, not seeing how we hoard opportunities. Where do we leave people out? And how can we include them in a meaningful way? Not as a “learning moment”, as Simona refers to it, but in a way where there is no longer a need for a NAIDOC stage for Indigenous artists and where femme and non-binary folk no longer need to fear for their safety on or off the stage. It’s time to dismantle Best Female and Best Male Awards . When we acknowledge the contributions of women in music, let’s make sure we aren’t erasing GNC artists.

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Within our community, femme, non-binary, Indigenous artists and artists of colour are often heaped with the responsibility of educating those of us still catching up. How do we look after these people? Is it time we examined our expectations of them as educators? Where can we take the time to learn rather than leaning heavily on these people as resources for our learning? Within our own music community, how do we start looking out for them?

We are still working in an industry that has zero tolerance for motherhood, where having children is seen as the death knell for a woman’s career. Artists like Clare Bowditch, Suzannah Espie and Freya Josephine Hollick are just a few who have spoken openly about the challenges of touring, recording and raising children. Navigating noisy venues, hectic touring schedules, late shows and licensing laws can feel like the tipping point when you are already sleep deprived and trying to breastfeed a small baby. Midnight Lightning, the podcast from Portland-based songwriter and mother of two Laura Veirs, is an excellent document of the lengths to which mothers have gone to have a career in music, oftentimes at the cost of their intimate relationships and accompanied with feelings of guilt and deep shame. These are feelings their male counterparts may have to some extent, but are never asked to take the same kind of responsibility for. How we can start to support those of us who are mothers and musicians? It’s an issue the music industry has taken no responsibility for: let it start with us. As a 45-year-old woman in music, I had long believed the myth that after a certain age women and GNC artists were no longer relevant. That somehow, if you hadn’t made it by your early 30s, it was time to hang up your guitar and move into a new career. Of course, as we get older, the financial pressures of pursuing an artistic career become a pressing reality; but even the way a creative career is sold to us is damaging. Most of us, myself included, will always need to do something alongside our music in order to pay the bills; it is simply the reality of being an artist based in Australia. This doesn’t mean we need to work within the confines of an “all or nothing” approach to creation. There is a reason we don’t celebrate a woman in the same hushed tones as Paul Kelly and Nick Cave: women and GNC artists are given one face. The eternal beauty. Men are given two: the beauty of youth and the weathered handsomeness of getting older. We are simply not allowed to age and remain desirable.

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Ruby Hunter

Fuck that. I’m here to say we are, and I’m going to stick around to make sure we do. Thank god for Patti Smith, Margaret Roadknight, Bjork, Anohni, Peaches, Aretha Franklin, Yoko Ono, Nina Simone, Ruby Hunter — the list goes on and on — for showing me that the voice of older artists will always be relevant. There is a wisdom I need to hear in their work, a life fully lived and examined. Much of this has revolved around space and belonging, and the importance for all of us to feel seen, heard and acknowledged for what we have to offer. Below are the lyrics to “Down City Streets,” one of Archie Roach’s best-known songs, written by his late wife, Ruby Hunter. Hunter was a Ngarrindjeri woman born on the banks of the Murray River in South Australia. She often performed with Archie, who she met when she was 16 years old, living homeless on the streets of Melbourne. Hunter was part of the Stolen Generations, forcibly taken from her family at the age of eight. “Down City Street”s first appeared on Archie Roach’s debut album Charcoal Lane, named after a street in Fitzroy where Ruby and Archie spent most of their youth. “Down city streets I would roam, I had no bed I had no home
Crawled out of the bushes early morn
Used newspapers to keep me warm, then I’d have to score a drink
Calm my nerves, help me to think Down city streets I would roam, I had no bed I had no home
There was nothing that I owned, used my fingers as a comb
In those days when I was young, drinking and fighting was no fun
It was daily living for me, I had no choice. It was meant to be Down city streets I would roam, I had no bed I had no home
And there was nothing that I owned, used my fingers as a comb Now I’m a man, I’m not alone. I am married, I have children of my own
Now I have something I call my own, these are my children, this is my home
I look around and understand, how street kids feel when they’re put down Down city streets I would roam, I had no bed I had no home
And there was nothing that I owned, used my fingers as a comb Down city streets. Down city streets. Down city streets.”

Jen Cloher is a Melbourne-based musician who also runs Milk! Records.