When I was growing up, I thought it was plain uncool for a guy in high school to listen to female musicians. Looking back, it might have had something to do with the Southern Albertan embrace of traditional gender stereotypes. It could also have had something to do with my deep-seated fear of anyone on the senior boys basketball team finding out I had once accidentally found myself humming along to Alanis Morissette. Whatever the case, I steered clear of female songwriters in high school and I escaped with my “cool, bro” reputation intact. Boy, did I miss a lot.
Thankfully, in my first year of university, a friend of mine introduced me to the music of Ani Difranco, who somehow managed to remove my patriarchal ear plugs and get me to really listen. She helped me lower my guard and recognize the fact that I was missing out on half of human experience with my selectively sexist listening habits. So, in honour of all the female songwriters who have since then influenced and shaped the way I listen to music, and the way I write songs, here’s a list of six songs by some of the female songwriters who have had the greatest impact on me:
Anais Mitchell – “Tailor” – This song so perfectly captures the way a person can be tempted to change who they are to meet the desires and expectations of another, only to be left questioning their identity when the relationship ends. I’m a sucker for a song where the meaning of a repeated lyric can change subtly over the course of a song. It’s a beautifully crafted conceptual song, on a record I return to more than almost any other (Young Man in America).
Chrisy Hurn-Morrison of Basement Revolver- “Wax and Digital” – Chrisy is a dear friend of mine, and one of my favourite songwriters. I’ve always admired her ability to write simply, yet beautifully, and to make every word count. Wax and Digital is one of the current contenders for best Basement Revolver song in my opinion. It chronicles moments spent with her partner, listing the songs and album titles that are the soundtrack of their relationship. It’s a deeply personal song, yet easily accessible to anyone who knows the joy of sharing the things they love with the people they love.
Phoebe Bridgers – “Graceland Too” – Every few years, a new songwriter will come along who stops you in your tracks and demands your attention with their unique voice and focus. I knew from the first listen through Stranger in the Alps that Phoebe Bridgers was one of those writers. She writes bluntly about the ways that our pasts can haunt and continue to harm us, but she somehow sneaks in this bit of optimism about our ability to make new right decisions and free ourselves of that baggage. “Graceland Too”, from the album Punisher, captures this better than anything else she’s written. It has this lilting simplicity to it, but you’re left with this intense hope: that we can find love and understanding in another person, even when we’re still splintered, through simple acts like eating saltines on the bedroom floor.
Nabi Sue Bersche of Ellevator – “St. Cecilia” – I met Nabi playing coffeehouses at her parents home near Guelph, Ontario, and I was immediately floored by both her voice, and her incredible warmth and encouragement. She’s a prolific, talented writer, and the fact that she saw something in my songs gave me the confidence to keep writing for years after we first met. “St. Cecilia” is a song about dealing with all the shit you have to deal with as a woman in the music industry, and how it forced her to sharpen her defenses and put up a guard. It’s often stuck in my head as I walk around my hometown, and it’s made me more conscious and aware of the gender and power imbalance in the industry.
Ani DiFranco – “Both Hands” – This song is a vibe. I first heard it while driving out on a flat stretch of road on the prairies, clear blue sky stretching in all directions, no destination in mind. It was a fitting setting for a song about leaving one place or person behind, accepting that no matter how hard you tried, it’s time to move on.
Julien Baker – “Appointments” – I vaguely remember watching an interview with Julien Baker where she told the story behind the title lyric in the song. Essentially, she was feeling quite down and someone close to her casually suggested that she might feel better if she “just [tried] not to miss any more appointments…” As if getting your ass out of bed isn’t the most difficult thing in the world when you’re feeling depressed! I love how she took that simple, likely well-intentioned comment and made it the centerpiece for a song about her struggles with mental health and how it can impact the ones we love.
Jennifer Castle – “Texas” – Just listen to the first few lines of this song, most notably: “When they find out
I’m not a young American // And they whip me with the belt of Orion”. How do you write a lyric like that? I’ve had this song stuck in my head more than any other song for the past two years.
Listen to Timid, the Brave‘s new single here.