Photo courtesy of band
London, Ontario is full of extremes: the privileged and the poor, the anarchists and the neo-Nazis, the uber-cool and the aggressively bland. It’s the place that Google Earth made briefly infamous when it was discovered that one of its residents had been mowing a swastika into his backyard lawn. It’s also the home of Guy Lombardo, one of the most influential noise bands of all time, and a vibrant but underground contemporary art scene. Some places lack character, but London seems to have too many of them, all competing for the same limited pool of attention.
You can hear both the hard and the soft edges of the London on So Young’s new record, Try Me. These are grungy songs about nostalgia and the future, about frustration and joy, about wanting to go but not being able to leave quite yet—about getting broken and putting yourself back together again. It’s a wrathful record: “I’m gonna moonwalk all over your soul,” songwriter and lead singer Paterson Hodgson threatens on “Haterz.” “Set You On Fire” feels propelled by a similar energy. Yet, there’s also vulnerability here, if in smaller quantities just below the surface. “Nothing to do / If there’s a party let me know,” Hodgson invites us in—sort of—on “Bad Kids”.
Amidst the contradictions, there is a through-line: the undying power of rock to bring lonely, weird kids together. So Young give this classic theme a much-needed feminist updating, however, on occasion pointing to the double standards and gender essentialism that continue to plague both popular music in general and indie music culture in particular. See the blistering number “Cock Rock,” for instance. So Young dismantle sexist nonsense just by doing: “Girls don’t know how to rock / They’re only good for going steady,” belts out Hodgson, effectively vaporizing the notion.
So Young is very much a band. Also featuring Chris Martin (guitar), Dave Lunman (drums), and Michael Steeves (bass), Try Me is a brief but magnetic collection of melodic and layered guitar-rock. But it’s Hodgson herself (guitar and vocals) who really takes center stage, as a strong singer is wont to do. Her dynamic pipes move easily from plaintive love songs to confident declarations, from the exorcism of shame (“The whole world says you’re ugly, you’re ugly, you’re ugly,” on “Sixteen”) to the demand for recognition (“I want to see my name carved into a tree,” on the same tune). Like the best rock ‘n’ roll, she reminds us of the constrictions of adolescence, and of Society writ large, but also what it might feel like to relive (or to live for the first time) that first taste of freedom.
Noisey: I sense frustration on the new So Young record. Is it therapeutic to sing angry songs?
Paterson Hodgson: It can be pretty cathartic. There aren’t a lot of instances in regular life where yelling about what ticks you off isn’t going to make you look like a jerk. I’ve thrown a tantrum or two, but I always feel like an idiot later.
What are you angry about?
I’m angry about a lot of things. I’m angry that I’m treated differently by music industry people because I’m a woman. It’s frustrating to see bands full of dudes with legions of adoring bro-fans take up every available bit of space. Being the lead (female) singer of a band definitely had a huge hand in radicalizing me as a feminist. And in turn, it’s hard not to get angry when you realize there’s a whole world out there that thinks you’re a second-class citizen. My feelings about my own identity and my politics changed. My songs and what was important to me, and important to write about, changed too.
Switching from folk to rock music was a surprisingly challenging transition, and I still have difficulty sometimes. It never crossed my mind that starting a rock band would feel any different than playing cello and singing back-up in a folk band, but it is. I can’t imagine being called a “fat feminazi cunt” by a male musician on the Internet if I was still being quiet and cute in an easy-listening folk band. I recently had a booker tell me he thought I should transpose my songs down lower so I don’t have to “yell” the higher parts. Men are constantly telling women to sing pretty and look nice.
How do you even respond to that kind of unsolicited advice?
It’s really hard! On one hand, this person might one day be important to the success of my band, so sometimes you just kind of smile and nod. I think I just said “okay” a few times. But on the other hand, it would feel really good to tear this guy a new one. Should I just let this guy think he’s a big smart man who knows best, or should I piss him off and maybe not get booked there again? I once had a sound guy tell me I should try singing louder, when I asked if my vocals could go up in the monitors. I can’t win! That same sound person assumed I was a girlfriend of someone in the band when I walked up on stage carrying my amp, guitar, and pedal bag.
Why do you think your experience of sexism has been so different since you transitioned to playing guitar-rock?
For starters, there are just a lot less women doing it. I feel alienated sometimes. I can count on one hand the number of female sound techs I’ve worked with. Often, I’m the only woman on the bill with two or three other bands. I don’t mind hanging out with the guys, but it’s nice when someone who kind of gets what you’re going through is around. I don’t always feel welcome, or like I’m being taken seriously.
Playing acoustic, in a band and solo, always felt more welcoming. I think people see that as a woman’s rightful place or something…singing nicely, and with a pretty instrument, like piano, strings, acoustic guitar, or a ukulele. I never had a gear-head stare at me as I set up a cello like I have when laying out my pedal board.
There is a lot of pressure on women in rock. Everyone expects us to suck. If you do, it’s because you’re a girl, but if you’re any good, you’re an exception to the rule. I find that really hard to deal with. One time a—very insignificant—reviewer said I had restored his faith in Canadian women singers. I couldn’t believe it. Why should I feel that when I’m judged so is my gender? That kind of thinking can really mess you up. All that baggage comes with me up on stage.
I also deal with some pretty weird body issues that just weren’t a thing for me before. Maybe rock ‘n’ roll is sexier than folk, maybe alcohol culture is more closely linked to rock…either way, I’ve been in some situations that made me feel really unsafe and uncomfortable about my (female) body. I think about those things when I get dressed for a show, or when I’m speaking on stage…. I’ve gotten the comment “You look really good with that guitar” a few times. Can you imagine a guy going up to a musician and saying “Hey bro, you look gorgeous with that guitar”?
Have you encountered pockets of support and solidarity?
Oh yeah, for sure. The bad times (and bad people) can weigh you down, but I’ve had so many wonderful experiences, especially working with other women. We recorded our new record with Morgan Doctor (Vag Halen, The Cliks, Andy Kim) in Toronto, which was my first time working with a female sound engineer. It was a really great experience. I met her through her partner Alysha Haugen (Sheezer, By Divine Right), who has been such an amazing friend and ally throughout So Young’s existence. There are some really strong solidarity networks being built between women working in music.
Henry Adam Svec is a writer living in New Brunswick - @performingtime