Meet The Women Levelling Scottish Music's Playing Field
We chat to Tamara Schlesinger from Hen Hoose, Brat Coven and Uninvited about the rise of Scottish women in music: a post-lockdown grrrl power resurgence
While much of the music industry struggled under the limitations of lockdown, with a halt to live performances and studio production, Scotland's DIY music scene flourished with newly established female and non-binary artists. We catch up with some of Scotland's talented and newly formed female and non-binary collectives who have risen from the flames of isolation to shine a light on the importance of gender equality in music and representation of women in the Scottish music scene.
Tamara Schlesinger, aka MALKA, is the founder of musical collective Hen Hoose, who release their debut album, Equaliser, on 5 November. Funded by Creative Scotland, Hen Hoose is composed entirely of female and non-binary artists, spanning a variety of genres, with Equaliser mixed by producer Susan Bear and mastered by an all-female production team at Novasound. "I've been doing music for a long time," Schlesinger, formerly of 6 Day Riot, tells us. "I was lucky with the success I had, but as I became older and began receiving fewer opportunities I became aware of ageism and sexism within the industry. The idea behind Hen Hoose is to shine a light on how many incredible female songwriters and producers get overlooked."
Hen Hoose has an especially unique manifesto. In addition to Equaliser, there's also the goal for the collective to work as a production house, monetising their work and pitching tracks (known as syncs) to be used in film, television and adverts – already their music has been included in the ScotGov vaccine campaign. "All of us are together on a springboard pushing each other off and raising each other up; it was incredibly inspiring," Schlesinger says. "There were times when I felt tearfully proud about the project. We had a support network of being together – we'd collaborate and inspire each other."
Schlesinger admits that lockdown was largely responsible for the existence of Hen Hoose: "Part of the problem is that if you're not allowing women and non-binary artists to get credits, then they have no CV to show off their skillset," Schlesinger says. "Amandah Wilkinson (who features on and produces Equaliser) said it was life-changing for her – her first credit as a record producer.
"There was almost an excitement with being in lockdown. Lockdown levelled the playing field; everyone was in the same situation. I think so many women and non-binary people formed bands because they were so used to going into a studio with a man. When they weren't there, they had to set up studios and do it for themselves." Schlesinger continues: "That gave us the confidence to take on roles. We know we don't need to have someone else around to do the work. We can do it, if not better, than the rest." Where will Hen Hoose go? "I'd love to do another round and bring some up-and-coming songwriters together with some experienced writers, but I'm definitely looking at Hen Hoose as a production house. Instead of going to LA and London to write pop songs, why not come to Glasgow?"
Also established during lockdown were Glasgow-based, riot grrrl-inspired three-piece Brat Coven, composed of Beth McLeish, Lucy 'Luce' Smith, and Sarah-Jane 'S-J' Mellin. "We wanted to start a band that represented our version of riot grrrl and create a safer and more inclusive space in the scene," McLeish says. Mellin adds: "We had a lot to say – a lot of pent-up anger – with the UK Government's treatment of vulnerable people and minorities and the increase of gender-based violence. We knew we had to use our platform to make them heard." Brat Coven are successfully reviving the riot grrrl manifesto but updating it. "We love the riot grrrl movement," Smith says. "However, it did have limitations towards middle class, cis, thin, white women – which is something we want to change."
Their unapologetic, breakneck debut single, White Noise, released earlier this year, is accompanied by a VHS-style homemade music video with each Brat performing in their separate rooms as lead singer Smith roars into a makeup brush: 'Don't break me down for fighting for the girls'. It's the epitome of the authentic bedroom/DIY phenomenon, perhaps heightened by the Government ban on studio use at the time. Although the gig prospects seem to be rolling in for the Coven now, lockdown presented both opportunities and obstacles.
"It was a slower process to get music written and recorded," Mellin explains. "We released our first song with a music video, without ever being together." The upside? "Lockdown allowed us to focus on Brat Coven," Mellin continues. "We have always had a DIY ethos; it’s rewarding and we enjoy having full creative control. Since we couldn't get to a studio or practice together, we had no choice but to do it ourselves and record our parts at home." McLeish adds: "Our drummer mixed everything for us, and S-J’s boyfriend did the mastering. Our social media is entirely run by us. We put together all our promo stuff – graphics, a website and a store. It's all us – which is very important to us."
Formed through "chance meetings on public transport and a little help from Instagram," Uninvited were welcomed with waves of support. The lockdown-formed alt-rock four-piece from Glasgow were signed to 7 West Music and reached over a thousand followers on Instagram in a matter of weeks – all before releasing any music. "It's so amazing to read/hear the response. It means so much to us and boosts our motivation to continue – because it is a tough industry to crack," vocalist and bassist Taylor-Ray Dillon begins. "Personally, I wanted to create a band I wish were already around. We wanted people to be able to relate to us, our songs, and show that the male-dominated music scene is changing; to prove that gender does not limit ability."
Gillian Dhlakama (vocals/guitar) reflects: "We found that lockdown was beneficial for the creative process as it allowed us to improve individually and as a band before getting thrown into the scene. We had loads of time to grow to love each other – it's important to create a solid bond with each other. Now we're on the other side of lockdown, it's time for us to display everything we've worked on." Did lockdown encourage the band to adapt to a DIY mentality? Agreeing with Hen Hoose's Schlesinger, Dillon adds: "Lockdown and isolation really put everyone on the same playing field. The studios and venues usually dominated by male artists and producers were no longer available – to anyone! I think that made it a lot less daunting for people to get involved without feeling intimidated."
Reflecting on women and non-binary people in music, Dhlakama notes: "We find in music there can be a lot of gatekeeping, which really inhibits women, non-binary people, and minority groups from accessing resources and opportunities to share and expand their musicality. It can be as simple as buying or borrowing a cheap guitar and watching some videos, teaching yourself some chords or mimicking tunes."
Following on from singles Tomboy and Diet Cigarette, what's next for the four-piece? "We've got another single to be released by the start of 2022," Dillon says, "but our focus until then will be gigging. We want to build our fan base as much as we can and enjoy the live music scene!"
Time for change
So, are we seeing a positive change in the Scottish music scene? All the artists seemed to agree. "We are seeing change," hesitates Brat Coven's Smith, "But at a snail's pace. Incredible women are working behind the scenes, but a lot are turned off to even try, based on the representation and treatment [once you're part of the scene]. It can be exhausting being someone who has to give 110% all the time."
"I've noticed a small change but nothing to really make noise about," Uninvited's Dhlakama considers. "I feel there is a lot more work that needs to be done in giving non-male musicians a chance to make themselves known and heard, and to disassemble this hierarchy that has been built over the years in this (cis) male-dominated scene."
"Coming out of lockdown was depressing," adds Schlesinger. "Suddenly, we're back to reality, and it's all men booking the festival slots and it feels like nothing's changed. But now is a good time for women and non-binary artists in the industry; people are trying hard to ensure there is more visibility and more representation. There is an acknowledgment – not everywhere – to try and make sure that the playing field has been levelled a little bit more. Women feel empowered to shout about it more in recent years, but a huge change is required across the industry – we can't do it ourselves."
Four more Scottish female and non-binary artists to support...
Electronic producer and artist, Kilmarnock musician TAAHLIAH was longlisted for the 2021 Scottish Album of the Year award for her record Angelica. TAAHLIAH has proved to be one to watch for fans of trance, club, and dance pop with the track Brave acting as a celebratory anthem for the LGBTQIA+ community – click here to read our chat with TAAHLIAH from back in May.
Hailing from Tomintoul in the north of Scotland, sisters Breagha and Onnagh Cuinn are a self-identified "vegan, riot grrrl punk band" hailed by the BBC as possibly "the UK's most remote punk band". Bratakus shine bright, with a large European fan base and equally large selection of tracks available on Bandcamp.
One of the key players in Scotland's jazz revival, solo artist kitti's silky smooth vocals blend sounds of old with newer, hip-hop tones. In 2020, kitti was awarded the Scottish Music Award for "best female breakthrough" and has recently released track Pretty Girls to critical acclaim.
Pretty Preachers Club
Formed during lockdown after meeting at university, bedroom-pop duo Pretty Preachers Club already have two EP's, Going Nowhere Fast and Romance and Adolescence – both of which have caused waves in the Scottish indie-pop scene.
Hen Hoose release their debut album Equaliser on 5 Nov via Tantrum
Brat Coven play Stag & Dagger, Glasgow, 13 Nov
Uninvited play A Fundraiser for Tiny Changes at St Luke's, Glasgow, 28 Nov