When I heard Prince say, "Sheila E. not bad...for a girl..." I knew he was playing on the cliché, subverting it, mocking it - and I knew this because he had his tongue in his cheek as was so often the way with Prince banter, which was usually spoken between songs that talked of him having his tongue in someone else's cheek. And so he said "Sheila E. not bad for a girl..." while Sheila E. was playing some sweet grooves and would go on to knock out one of the drum solos that first captivated me - back when, as I said here already, I would watch and re-watch the Sign O' the Times concert film.
I've just finished reading Girl Power: The Nineties Revolution in Music by Marisa Meltzer - it's part memoir, part extended essay and though it might seem a stretch to afford equal weighting to the Riot Grrrl movement/scene and The Spice Girls, the book does a good job of collecting the different sorts of female-driven music that had impact across the 1990s. From Babes in Toyland and Liz Phair to Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears.
And it was a small point in the scheme of the book but there was mention that the idea of a female virtuoso musician was rare. In this case the discussion is around female instrumentalists - not vocalists.
Joni Mitchell seems to have all but lost the plot in the past few years - telling interviewers that she is better than anyone, a genius. She has quit the industry "in disgust" only to return with lazy re-recordings and rewrites of some of her best material. But I almost understand her outbursts - not the things she says, there's a bullishness to her insistence for her work to be revered (also, I thought it was!) but I can see that a professional lifetime of being called "the female Bob Dylan" or "up there with Leonard Cohen" would be frustrating to someone who, lyrics aside, can play rings around them on the guitar.
For me there are many great reasons to listen to Joni Mitchell, the voice, the song shapes and structures, the lyrics, the session players involved in shaping the tunes - and then there's her playing. She was a phenomenal talent. I say was only because it's unlikely she'll return to the stage or recording studio and show her instrumental skills again.
In recent years the success of Feist, St. Vincent and Laura Marling has been heartening for me because all are great musicians. It's possible that Annie Clark (aka St. Vincent) is actually too good if that makes sense; her incongruous bursts of guitar start to feel like a sideshow parade, a gimmick that is pulled out to remind anyone just there for the voice, or the way she looks, that this person can really play. And she can. But she's almost reduced her own instrumental proficiency to a party trick.
Kaki King has done no such thing. But her music won't be for everyone, nor is it trying to be.
And though King is unlikely to find the same column inches - in much the same way as James Blackshaw won't get the coverage that Jack White will - it's been great to see attention paid to the St. Vincents and Feists of this world - Anna Calvi is another name I'd add to that list. Musicians who are being applauded for their instrumental capabilities. PJ Harvey goes from strength to strength - adding more instruments to her CV with each album; she strips back the noise but layers in new sounds.
And then outside of the singer/songwriter types - or solo artists - there are many talented female instrumentalists. But even that prefix - having to refer to them as "female instrumentalists" says something for, if nothing more, the relative paucity - no wonder I feel as though Annie Clark's guitar squall is a weird, odd, clever, close-to-unsettling trick when I see it. I'm not used to seeing it. But it shouldn't matter.
When I first heard Joni Mitchell and Joan Armatrading and other talented players I had no way of knowing who was doing the playing. And that's what matters - ultimately. It's the sound and whether you like it. The best person for the job is the one who gets the gig. Male, female - it shouldn't matter. And I'm sure it doesn't - but still I think it's harder work for many women when it comes to being accepted as being a good player. The sound they make might be applauded but having people applaud them for making the sound, for being the talent - that seems as though it still doesn't happen enough.
In more recent years Prince had Candy Dulfer in his band. She can really play. But then, when she wasn't working with Prince she was releasing albums with names like Saxuality (just as Sheila E. released Sex Cymbal). That's the reality that the industry has sculpted - being a great player is not enough, you must point out that you're female also.
Rhonda Smith is one of my favourite bass players on the scene currently (another Prince connection) and when I first heard her sound I didn't think in terms of sex - just as you should never think in terms of colour with music. I heard great bass-playing. That's what I heard. And then I heard Prince announcing over the playing, "Ah Rhonda, you're killing me with that bass!" His update of "not bad, for a girl!"
And Tal Wilkenfeld is another of my favourite bass players on the scene currently - her playing with Jeff Beck and on her own albums is sublime. She can play the lead-bass role, a star turn; she's equally happy sitting back and anchoring the groove.
So I'm curious to know what you think here - and if this is something you think about. Who are the great female instrumentalists? And why is that tag even needed? Why must it be "female instrumentalist?"
Cindy Blackman, Terri Lyne Carrington, Meshell Ndegeocello, Bonnie Raitt, all players who made my head spin when I first heard them - and on this day. And there are more. And though virtuosity is often frowned at - and I would argue always for Mo Tucker to be included on a list of the great (and influential) drummers, for example - it is the topic of discussion here today, so, virtuoso players, thoroughly proficient instrumentalists...who, in your mind, is "not bad for a girl"?
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