My Favourite New Songwriters Are Female
The above statement shouldn’t be any surprise. The world has never been short of great female songwriters. Carole King, Patti Smith, Joni Mitchell, Kate Bush, Amy Winehouse to name but a few. Two American sisters, Patty and Mildrid J. Hill wrote “Happy Birthday To You” for goodness sake! There is always new talent coming through all the time.
However, new female singer-songwriters and female-fronted bands, don’t often get the same representation as their male counterparts. This goes for festival lineups, music charts and – my biggest area of interest – songwriting influence. It’s become a plain fact of life for the people in the industry willing to accept it.
I’ve decided to mention just four new female singer-songwriters, and one band with a strong female songwriting lead, that I’ve admired in recent years. This blog contains my own thoughts and opinions, but I’ve also strived to add female voices to share what they think about the industry and new artists.
On the 100th year anniversary of women’s suffrage, it felt like the right time for anyone to be shouting about female songwriters. However, the reason these artists made my list is because I think they write great music.
Christine And The Queens
If you’re a follower of electronic pop music, there’s no way that you’ll have missed the phenomenon that is Christine and The Queens. Héloïse Letissier has carved her own very special niche in the world of modern pop music and has skyrocketed in popularity. Her first album Chaleur humaine (2016) was lauded by critics and it contains the single ‘Tilted’. My personal favourite song of hers.
As a guy who has spent most of his life listening to guitar-based rock music, you would think that French, electropop that pairs itself with performance art would be lost on me. However, Letissier’s music is some of the most accessible 21st Century pop music that I’ve come across. Songs like ‘5 Dollars’, ‘Doesn’t Matter’ and ‘Girlfriend’ from her second album, have a dark, poetic quality that works beautifully when combined with infectious melodies and swelling synth sounds.
And if you didn’t like the lyrics in English, you can hear the entire album in French on side two!
Letissier has written virtually everything that has appeared on the Christine and The Queens records. Her outspoken attitude towards her sexuality, gender and the industry have seen her very quickly becoming a role model to her fans.
She is the archetypal example of a female singer-songwriter who is uncompromising in her vision and that determination is being rewarded.
I could talk for days about Courtney Barnett. I’ve been following her music for a long time and I was lucky enough to meet her at a medium 100-capacity venue back in 2014.
Her garage-grunge inspired music combined with a witty drawl has seen her popularity grow enormously. I love virtually every song she’s released: from the wistful ‘Depreston’ about the boring home truths of house hunting; to the brutal honesty in ‘Nobody Cares If You Don’t Go To The Party’.
The Australian attracted a Grammy award nomination in 2016, the year after her debut album was released, and her new album for 2018 ‘Tell Me How You Really Feel’ is another brilliant collection of songs.
It features some of her most overtly feminist lyrics yet. This chorus from ‘Nameless Faceless’ offers a poignant truth:
“I wanna walk through the park in the dark
Men are scared that women will laugh at them
I wanna walk through the park in the dark
Women are scared that men will kill them”
Every album by Barnett contains songs written entirely by her. If she feels any responsibility to write from a distinctly woman’s perspective, then she is masterfully carrying out that responsibility through writing about her own unique experience first.
– A Brief Interlude –
Now seems like an excellent time to mention that not every young female songwriter is given the artistic license to express themselves in an unrestricted way. The world’s label bosses, A & R representatives and managers are mostly men; much of the music industry bureaucracy is male. So when female artists appear to dominate festival line-ups, like BBC’s The Biggest Weekend 2018, the influence of women can appear to be greater than we think.
Taylor Swift, Adele, Rita Ora, Ellie Goulding, Pink and Paloma Faith have all been encouraged to work with, male songwriters.
Did you know ‘It’s Raining Men’ was written by two male songwriters? Fantastic song though…
BBC Radio 4 recently broadcast a Women’s Hour special called ‘Women In Music’, in which singer Mabel addressed the issue of female artistic control:
“I think the root of the problem is that young female artists aren’t being encouraged to be themselves. So many female acts get to a point in their careers when they go ‘Oh my God, I don’t know what it is I want to say, I don’t know who I am anymore.’ Then you get dropped and you lose your way. There are so many young talented female artists, I think it’s about encouraging them to be themselves”.
With that in mind, let’s continue this list.
A new and pleasant discovery for me this year, was the young songwriter Jade Bird. Unlike many of the others on this list, Bird is at the very beginning of her career, having released just one EP and three singles. She’s already attracted the attention of Rolling Stone magazine and her first three singles ‘Lottery’, ‘Uh-Huh’ and ‘Love Has All Been Done Before’ are excellent. I would insist that you go and marvel at her full performance for BBC’s The Quay Sessions.
What I admire about her work so far, is the combination of simplicity and sophistication in her songs; they’re seemingly effortlessly written yet expertly crafted. She clearly has a unique sense of identity. Her voice is bold, in tone and in words. In ‘Lottery’ she talks about her past relationships with older men with a knowing sense of her own naivety but never once sounds regretful or out of control.
Like all the best artists, Jade Bird comes across as funny, personable and real in her interviews. I met her in Manchester last month so I can say that she comes across the same way in person. Let’s hope she continues to let her own voice dominate her sound as her popularity grows.
Wolf Alice (Ellie Rowsell)
I’ve had the distinct privilege of watching Wolf Alice perform live on stage twice. Their alternative rock sound frequently has more of a mainstream pop flavour than I’d normally like but I love the aggression in songs like ‘Yuk Foo’, containing the chorus: “you bore me to death, no I don’t give a sh*t”. You can’t say this band lack energy on stage, and when that’s thrown together with ethereal lead vocals, there’s a beautiful mix of calm and chaos.
Lead singer Ellie Rowsell is a force of nature on stage, she seems to dominate their distinctive sound. Despite being backed by three boisterous guys, Rowsell is uncompromising in her femininity; putting on the persona of rock chick or glamorous star at varying times in their performing career. The same mentality is evident in her songwriting.
This is a four-piece band that share songwriting credits, but the central voice is clearly Rowsell’s. Take the lyrics from ‘Your Love’s Whore’ for example, or one their most popular songs, ‘Bros’:
“Remember when we cut our hair
Both looked like boys
But we didn’t care”
Her central lyrical voice is integral, but more than that, her voice is the centrepiece of most of their songs.
Laura Marling is one of the most celebrated young folk songwriters of the twenty-first century. I’ve been a fan since hearing her song ‘New Romantic Way’ many years ago and I was instantly taken with songs like ‘False Hope’ and ‘I Feel Your Love’ from the 2015 album ‘Short Movie’.
I really like her ability to adapt to many musicals genres and that combined with poetic lyrics, really reminds me of Bob Dylan. Marling herself appears to have an assured elegance, though I’m sure she would humbly argue otherwise. She comes across as a deep-thinker.
In Daniel Rachel’s book of great songwriters, he placed her right next to the likes of Ray Davies, Annie Lennox and Damon Albarn.
Marling appears to be keenly interested in her position as a woman and channels that interest into her art, perhaps more than any of the other songwriters on this list. Her latest studio album Semper Femina (2017) tackled issues of femininity and masculinity head on. Marling’s podcast ‘Reversal Of The Muse’, saw her take an active investigation into the music industry by interviewing female sound engineers. She was struck by having worked with just two during her decade-long career.
For an artist who became involved in the industry at a young age, she has markedly retained control of her own sense of identity and destiny. Her voice is already an important one and I’m sure it will continue to be.
There are many other young female singer-songwriters that I wanted to mention in this blog. Amy McDonald, Lily Allen, Misty Miller, Sigrid, Nina Nesbitt, Aurora, LP and many others. They would all have featured if I was writing an essay instead of a blog.
To put the point across simply:
I am inspired by these young songwriters purely because they are making and writing great music. I wouldn’t like them for any other reason.
However, I have singled them out for praise because, even from my limited experience of this industry, I’ve noticed that being a woman in music is tough going.
Ladies, I salute you!
I’ll conclude with the forthright yet hopeful words of broadcaster and columnist Jasmine Dotiwala (again from the BBC Radio 4 programme) on the importance of women in songwriting for the future:
“I think if we listen to music that we sing along to on commercial radio, when it comes to pop music, a lot of the lyrics are really misogynistic. They’re accepted and we’re brain-washing young people to talk about young women like that. So when young people grow up singing those lyrics and nobody challenges them, because a male songwriter has often written them, nothing changes; I genuinely believe songwriters have a lot of power. If we can get more females in there writing more empowering lyrics, I think the music industry will look inwards and change things themselves; because they will be more empowered on that side.”
– Jasmine Dotiwala, Broadcaster and columnist