Local music sheroes

Women musicians from Twin Cities bands talk about triumphs, challenges, being feminists (or not) and getting the respect they deserve

The Chalice: (L-R) Claire de Lune, Sophia Eris and Lizzo. Photo by Shea Dunn.

The Chalice: (L-R) Claire de Lune, Sophia Eris and Lizzo. Photo by Shea Dunn.

Despite the success of some female musicians and a female-friendly Twin Cities music community, Casey Sowa of the band Strange Relations and other musicians said that women continue to face challenges in the music industry.

“People come up to me at the end of the night and want to talk about how hot Marisa [Helgeson] is. … That’s painful,” Sowa said.

Helgeson, the bass player in Strange Relations, added that it’s especially difficult when audiences fail to acknowledge their music in favor of obsessing over their appearance. Guitarist and singer Alisha Thunem of Yasen Marie, related similar experiences.

“You always get some guys [who are] … only commenting on our looks and not at all on the music, and that’s kind of frustrating,” Thunem said.

Bandmate and bassist Emily Olson explained that sexism shows up even when audiences do comment on, or even compliment, their music.

“The most common response after people see us is ‘You’re actually good!’ ” Olson said. “As sad as it is, I don’t think people expect that much from us.”

Sexism often appears in subtle ways, as when club owners assume Strange Relations’ (male) guitarist is in charge of the band instead of Sowa.

“I think a lot of people funnel towards him for networking and administrative stuff, and that’s not really his role in our project,” Hegelson said.

Thunem described the positive aspects of being a female-only group, including bonding with other women on tour. “A lot of people think that it’s really empowering and really cool to have all females” onstage, Thunem said.

The term “feminist” in particular often has negative connotations for female groups.

Thunem expressed mixed feelings about representing Yasen Marie as an all-female band, explaining that such a label can cause audience members, especially men, to feel defensive.

“When you say ‘I’m a feminist,’ it automatically turns people off,” Thunem said. “None of us describe[s] ourselves as feminists, but I would say that we’re all for equal rights.”

Erica Krumm, of the Minneapolis-based group OAKS, does identify as a feminist. She attributed women’s avoidance of the term to assumptions that feminism is an outdated concept.

“I think a lot of people think that there’s no need for feminism. That’s ridiculous,” Krumm said.

Instead, she argued, today’s women have an even stronger need for the sense of unity that feminism can provide.

“Now more than ever we need to support each other, and we need to create communities,” Krumm said. 
Sowa and Helgeson expressed a similar interest in creating a sense of female solidarity; both strongly identify themselves as feminists.

“I don’t think that female musicians should have to reject their womanhood to be taken seriously or treated as equals,” Sowa said.

Helgeson agreed, saying that women often feel the need to identify as “just musicians” rather than as female musicians.

“Female artists … have kind of fallen inadvertently into this trap of continuing sexism instead of breaking out of it like they intend to,” Sowa said.

Claire de Lune said her band, The Chalice, tries to celebrate women without reducing them solely to their gender identity.

“We’re not ashamed of being female, but it’s not about being female. It’s just about being strong,” de Lune said. “We want the music to speak for itself.”

Gabby Landsverk is a student at Hamline University in St. Paul. A longer version of this story appeared recently in The Oracle, Hamline’s student newspaper. Used with permission.