Inside The Hum’s Quest for Female Solidarity in the Music Industry
We meet the brains behind this twice annual, month-long residency that brings together female artists—including Emmy the Great and Cibo Matto—for one off collaborations.
When asked about the most common misconception when it comes to Rachael Pazdan's female musician collaboration series, The Hum, she responds in gliding Chicagoan vowels: "We're not a pity party. I know terms like female fronted band get overused for marketing purposes, but..." Pazdan trails off, finding herself in yet another buzzword bind. As the driving force behind a critically acclaimed residency which brings female artists together for one-off collaborative performances at The Manhattan Inn in Brooklyn, she must weigh her words carefully. Until instrumentalists and songwriters of the fairer gender start joining forces on the regular, we'll have to make due with this on-trend terminology. With any luck, Pazdan reasons, one day we'll recall the wording "all female" as a stopgap measure of yore, used in the name of raising awareness around a marginalized group in the industry. "In 10 years, I hope there won't be any particular labels for what we're doing," she sighs. A tricky business, this celebration of musicians who happen to rock a vagina in addition to, say, drums... or even that purportedly most feminine of instruments, the harp.
Kat Cunning + Idgy Dean - by Amanda Hatfield.
Pazdan got her feet wet in arts management and dance at college in New York City, and it didn't take her long to notice that while both of these arenas seemed to welcome and reward talented women with a ready-made community and upward mobility, the ivory towers of the music industry weren't exactly stacked in ladies' favor.
She went on to be music director for East Village venue Le Poisson Rouge, not to mention working with festivals like BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn, and then she took the next logical step by developing an event dedicated to giving New York's female musicians a platform to create new music. Thus we have the fourth installment of The Hum, a Monday night October residency, which this year boasts creative alliances between the likes of Cibo Mato, Buke and Gase, TEEN, and Emmy the Great, among others. Each Monday there will be three sets, so when October is over, 12 new collaborative pieces will have been born into the world. In the past this series has hosted everyone from Joan Wasser to Kaki King to Kimbra to Kelsey Lu.
Surprisingly, Pazdan's brought her twice annual, two year strong passion project this far without crowdfunding or corporate sponsorship, and no, she'll have you know, "I'm not a trust fund kid." She continues: "This whole thing's been out-of-pocket and it could never happen without enthusiasm and hard work of the artists involved." To this day, Pazdan calls the shots from a grey sofa she bought on Craigslist and dragged home from Jersey. From the quiet of her living room she powers through long days of event planning and gives hope to, well, folks like me.
Kaki King + Kiran Gandhi - by Amanda Hatfield.
As a female musician I must admit, I've collaborated with far more male musicians than women. I have only one ongoing project with another girl and I guard it jealously because it's such a rarity. Whatever gender you ascribe to, just finding people you enjoy putting in long hours with at work can be daunting. If you're lucky enough to experience creative partnerships with even a handful of professional, non-sociopathic people then you've really struck gold. (This goes without saying in any work environment really.) So me and this other chick, we talk. Our conversations outside of the studio toggle between a glass half-empty/half-full diagnosis of gender in music. We share mild to moderate anxiety over being mischaracterized through branding as a product of tokenism: Look, two boob-havers side by side, warbling about emotions! They probably bicker when they get PMS! (Spoiler: we do!) These pow wows are all fun and games until somebody loses hope that we'll ever just be recognized as a duo and not a girl-duo. Then we back peddle. Does this concern even make sense? Is it fundamentally lame that this even occurs to us? Guys in a band don't sit around fretting about whether they'll be perceived as a "male-driven" act, right?
My colleague and I then make our way down the spiraling rabbit hole of relativism. We know that we're far from being the only population who experience marginalization in the workplace and that, in fact, we have it plenty easy, comparatively speaking. Then we circle back to trying to parse the real meaning behind inclusivity. We can't shake off that mounting fire-ants-in-your-bra panic that we must choose between definition-by-identity (instead of good, old fashioned talent) or the very real possibility of erasure from "the scene" if we don't weigh in as a lady duo when we communicate with labels, licensing houses, publicists, festivals, and music writers.
In an industry known as one of the remaining strongholds of flagrant patriarchy, pioneers like Pazdan are helping to foster the potential of untapped creative partnerships in the arts by bridging a fault line that many female musicians themselves aren't quite sure how to explain. Here is an event that casts off the the waning notion of woman musicians as being forever "crowded out" in favor of an opportunity to be "sworn in" with all-female collaborators.
It can get ugly out there. I've heard tell of girl-band auditions where female guitarists were turned away at the door in favor of male applicants because the agents or marketeers who made the call in the first place came to the conclusion that there were "already enough women" on board. In one especially damning account recently divulged to me by an anonymous LA session instrumentalist with ovaries, a noted male sound technician asked her if the female group she hoped to join on tour even had "enough room onstage for another woman."
Then there's the matter of how inter-female rapport plays out in mainstream music, which like any forum for celebrity, tends to pit women against one another to the point where they dread "sharing the limelight," and swear off reaching out to each other in the first place. When the camaraderie does happen publicaly, it can risk coming off as some cloying marketing ploy and worse yet, when recruits resist the siren call of clique culture among women, the whole thing starts to reek of squadism, putting yet another dent in our idea of what women are capable of doing when we unite. Science journalist Natalie Angiers' observation in this keen article on female friendships and rivalries in Beams and Struts says it all: "If you are or have ever been a girl, you know that the first job of being a girl is learning to survive in girl groups. And girls in groups are not little Joni Mitchell tunes made particulate. Girls in groups are… how shall we say it, what's the word we insist in thinking has a penchant for boys? Aggressive. Of course they're aggressive. They're alive, aren't they?"
Latasha Alcindor, Nikara Warren, Hailey Niswanger, Katie Jones, Alissia Benveniste & Attis Clopton - by David Andrako.
In a milieu where heavy hitting bros like Diplo punch in with sound bites like, "It already sucks to be a woman in the music industry, but to be a boss woman is even harder," the call to action is only getting louder. One company who creates "experiences" at music festivals was cited in an interview by Portia Sabi—who founded Tom Tom Magazine in advocacy of female drummers and beatboxers— saying that while 50 percent of audience members at metal music festivals are women, a paltry one or two out of hundreds of their onstage performers are gals.
But there's no need to throw the babes out with the bathwater; the upswing of feminist motifs in mainstream music has been undeniable in recent years. Special female-exclusive categories, polarizing as they might seem to some, are a welcome twist in the timeline of an industry heaping with grim tales of women being treated appallingly. Even non-musician penis-haver Einstein called it: "We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them."
A great example of fancy footwork around such quandaries is Pazdan's response to a breach of protocol when, in spite of The Hum's unisex performance tenets, one participant arrived on the night of the event with a couple of mansicians in tow and threw them into the performance mix. Pazdan recalls, "I introduced Samuel and Alexander as Samantha and Alexandra and made a point to acknowledge their support to the main event: the woman performers they were backing."
Kiran Gandhi - by Desdemona Dallas Meck
Some of the sets in The Hum series are completely improvised collaborations. Pazdan concedes, "I know a lot of artists just find it scary to do a half hour set with someone they've never—or barely—met, but the response to this series from performers and audiences alike has been so positive and strong," she explains. "People love the idea of female artists coming together like this, whether it's rehearsed or spontaneous. Participants comment after the fact that it had never even occurred to them to approach other women to work with like this, but [that] moving forward they'll do just that. Some of them go on to make music together again, stay friends or just hang out for fun, and that's the best feeling for me."
Know what else feels good? While she won't name any names, Pazdan hints that at least one of the musical matches she curated for The Hum bore romantic fruit, and that the partners in question share a home to this day. Between encouraging creative kinship, setting the stage for meaningful discourse, and hooking up unlikely lady artist posses, on a local level at least, The Hum has done more for female musicians in a couple of years than a sophisticated holographic computer designed to be a surrogate mentor to musical babes with magic powers could do in a lifetime. Insert shameless Jem and the Holograms plug here.
Pazdan anticipates a growth spurt for The Hum and has plans on the simmer to book more one-off female driven shows in roomier venues and eventually abroad, but insists that The Hum's footprint will remain at Greenpoint's Manhattan Inn, prized for its velvety movie theatre chairs and (mostly) organic menu.
"The space is so intimate," effuses Pazdan. "It reaches capacity at less than a hundred attendees, so it may not be able to contain these performances for much longer if our aim is sponsorship, but it's so special."
As for dream guests, Pazdan cites Gloria Steinem, Yoko Ono, and Lena Dunham. "But I might melt into a puddle if I saw any of them in person at the series," she laughs. 'I'd also love to have more trans-woman musicians join us." She gets asked about dream collaborations all the time, but what about the ultimate nightmare pairing? "The least harmonious collaboration I can think of at the moment might be Patti Smith and Nicki Minaj jamming out in the same room."
Ladies, start your engines
The Hum kicks off this evening at Manhattan Inn in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Full programming below.
The Artist's Circle w/ Wendy Parr curated set feat. Tanis Chalopin + Jessica Carvo + Michelle & Sarah Cagianese (Frances Rose) // Rachel Angel + Rachel Housle (Invisible Familiars) + Caitlin Frame (FRAME)
Gabrielle Herbst (GABI)
Rachael Price (Lake Street Dive) + Lynette Williams + Christina Courtin (Pilot Violet)
Eszter Balint + Dayna Kurtz + Sydney Price (Northwood)
Joanie Wolkoff makes music as Wolkoff. Listen to her music here.