Love Letters Zine on Gender Equality in Music

Ahead of Love Letters' Glasgow website launch party, we speak to co-editor Lola Stephen about the zine's beginnings, gender equality in the music industry and Debbie Harry

Feature by Megan Wallace | 09 Jul 2018
  • Love letter to Courtney Barnett

Are you sick of seeing guy-bands overpopulate playlists and festivals in equal measure? Are you filled with gratitude towards the femme and non-binary musicians who made it, against all odds, to carry you through hard times? If the answer to either of these questions is “yes” then Love Letters is the zine for you.

Launched earlier this year in Perth, Australia, Love Letters provides a space to celebrate female and non-binary musicians, share killer music recommendations and have long-overdue conversations about diversity in the music industry. After the first issue dropped in February, Love Letters is returning in digital form through a new website where fans and contributors can continue to ask the important questions between print editions. Ahead of the website’s Glasgow launch party on 11 July, we catch up with Lola Stephen – one half of an editorial dream team also including photographer Pamela Boland – to talk about the zine’s beginnings, the change she wants to see in the music industry, and her eternal love for Debbie Harry.

When she fell upon troubled times, Stephen turned to music and this is what inspired Love Letters. "I came up with the concept just over a year ago when I was going through a break-up and just felt a bit shit," she tells us. "I had made a playlist of all these strong female artists like The Runaways and Patti Smith – these songs made me feel so much better about myself, especially when I was feeling vulnerable and my heart was a wee bit broken. I thought it would be cool to do a zine thanking these women for that, and that’s where the idea came about: writing love letters to femme and non-binary musicians for how they’ve impacted our lives." When Stephen met her co-editor at a party, things quickly fell into place: "It was an idea floating about while I was living in Australia and then I met Pam at a party. She liked the idea and came on board, then we made the first issue together."

"It’s so important for people to have role models in music. When they see someone like themselves onstage, it gives them the motivation to make music themselves"

The result is a 72-page printed zine which combines the bright colours and imagery of original fanzines with a feminist riot grrrl sensibility. Both editors were among the writers who contributed their own love letters; Boland’s was directed to Patti Smith, while Stephen wrote two, one devoted to Angel Olsen and the other to Debbie Harry. "I listened to Angel Olsen’s album My Woman on repeat. I admired her vulnerability and it inspired me to do the same in my own music." Stephen continues enthusiastically: "And Debbie Harry’s the coolest person I could ever think of. From such a young age, I’ve always been in awe of her. She has such a strong presence and she doesn’t take shit from anyone. Especially when she was starting out in New York, it was such a boy’s scene but it didn’t bother her. She just did her thing and made no apologies for it."

With both editors immersed in Perth’s vibrant creative scene whilst writing these letters and making the zine, it was inevitable that "the first issue really focussed on Australian artists and a lot of the femme and non-binary local musicians [in Perth]." However, this focus has shifted, particularly as Stephen – originally from Dundee – has relocated to Scotland: "I moved back here in March this year and wanted to bring Love Letters with me; to work with people here and launch the zine over on the Western Hemisphere."

As the editors broaden the zine’s geographical focus they hope to extend the important conversations taking place in the Australian music industry to new audiences. "Over in Australia there’s such a big conversation about the music industry as a whole – like with #MeToo in the film industry," Stephen explains. "In Perth, everyone’s really switched-on in terms of making line-ups more inclusive. I wanted to bring some of that with me when I came back to Scotland, to help make line-ups more inclusive rather than being all just one kind of person (particularly straight, cis, white men). It’s so important for people to have role models in music. When they see someone like themselves onstage, it gives them the motivation to make music themselves."

Stephen's goal of making line-ups more diverse begins at a grassroots level, in local music scenes, and is something which she has actively participated in when curating the music for the Love Letters' website launch in Glasgow. "One of our favourite Scottish bands is Hairband, so they’re playing it, and then we have Freakwave. 4mina, who is my really close friend Katie, is also playing; she’s in ST.MARTiiNS as well, but this is her first solo show." Topping off the billing of mostly female and non-binary artists are DJs Moon Bather and ChipSlut, proving that an inclusive line-up should also be encompassing of multiple genres.

As well as advocating for more diverse line-ups, Love Letters strives for gender equality in the music industry at an even more fundamental level. Edited by two women, and with contributions open to everyone, the zine seeks to combat the bias in music journalism itself: whether it be the erasure of non-binary musicians or the sexist narratives established around female musicians. Coming from a journalism background, and as a practising musician herself, Stephen is keenly aware about the urgency of making music journalism more inclusive and less prejudiced. "I identify as female so I could never speak on behalf of a non-binary person," she explains, "but I just think it’s so important to give people who identify in this way a platform. Especially as there are so many people who identify as non-binary, but in the mainstream it’s not really spoken about."

Specifically talking about the issue of sexism, she explains: "In music journalism, there’s always the question of; 'What’s it like to be a girl in a band?' when you’d never ask; 'What’s it like to be a guy in a band?'" The way this negatively impacts upon female musicians’ lived experience is what makes Love Letters such a vital project: "A lot of music journalism is written from the male perspective and it has been for so long. The way that female musicians are written about makes it seem that what you look like is way more important than your music." This establishes a troubling double standard in the music industry, which is reflected in the everyday sexism female musicians encounter: "If you’re a female musician, it’s automatically assumed that you didn't write your music yourself or that you don’t play your own music [in a way which is not true for cis male musicians]. I have [female] friends who are in bands and they tell me stories about the sound guy only talking to the men in the band and completely disregarding the women."

What, then, can journalists do to clean up their act and contribute to making the music industry fairer and more equal? Stephen’s answer comes loud and clear: "Music journalists just need to be more respectful with their approach, and do their research. If you’re a journalist you need to be educating yourself constantly, rather than falling back on lazy questions. When you’re there to talk to someone about their music, you’re just there to talk about the music, nothing superficial."

Love Letters' Website Launch Party takes place at Nice 'n' Sleazy, Glasgow, 11 Jul