Local Women Making Beautiful Music
By Ashley Cooper | Photos by Jeff Gerew
In the 1950’s a boisterous cultural revolution shook the earth (quite literally) when the progressive phenomenon called, “rock and roll” entered the scene. How could a musical genre, with roots in such familial sounds as jazz, blues and western swing be so imposing upon a nation’s moral code? As with anything new, rock and roll was threatening: a style of music that was symbolic of a rebellious cultural revolt, a time of turbulence and therefore, much-needed change. Rock and roll, the novelty that never wore off, shaped an entire generation. As Larry Williams suggested, “Rock and roll has no beginning and no end for it is the very pulse of life itself.”
As if rock and roll music was not threatening enough, a deluge of controversy, perhaps not yet depleted, stirred when women began identifying themselves with rock and roll music. This month, Rochester Woman Magazine invites you to experience the perspectives of a carefully-selected panel of highly favored local musicians, all female. Many of them commented on the trail-blazers for women in the music industry, particularly in the realm of rock and roll, or any musical situation in which, as Deborah Magone put it, “women are commanding the stage.”
In terms of pinpointing these early female pioneers, unafraid to resist the laws of conformity, Magone suggests that a good place to start is with a woman by the name of, “Sister Rosetta Tharpe,” who seems to posthumously have a cult-like following. Today, many are quick to forget her name, but little do they know that were it not for Tharpe, so-called the “Godmother of Rock and Roll,” there mightn’t have been such early rock forerunners as Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, or “The King” himself—Elvis Presley.
Perhaps decades before her time, Tharpe was one of the premier “crossover artists,” having popularized a gospel record into the mainstream circuit. Equipped with an animated stage persona, belting set of pipes and electronic guitar, Sister Rosetta inspired musicians across the gamut. Ultimately, Tharpe may have inadvertently paved the way for women in the industry with her contemporary Ella Fitzgerald.
According to local “indie pop” harpist/vocalist Mikaela Davis, Fitzgerald is, “a lady with amazing phrasing, scatting, range and musical ability. I’ve idolized ‘Lady Ella’ since I discovered jazz. If anyone has ‘blazed the trail,’ it’s got to be her, in my opinion.” If you’ve had the pleasure of hearing Davis sing, you might liken the soft, ethereal quality of her voice to Fitzgerald’s. Davis goes onto say of her predecessors that, “we learn from the women of the past and present in the music industry that anything is possible! Take every opportunity you get.”
Just about the time that Sister Rosetta passed away, other brave and innovative female musicians dared to break out of the mold.
Enter Janis Joplin and Grace Slick.
Joplin, a transcendent artist and veritable “game-changer” in the industry, deviated altogether from the traditional female performer of the era. She charismatically fronted three rock/blues bands before joining the likes of the star-studded Festival Express. Many modern-rockers are products of her influence.
Deborah Magone, who, at moments seems to channel her, was introduced to “The Pearl” before the age of ten. Other local artists record their earliest exposure to Joplin as clearly as any significant life event:
“Shortly after I started performing, I had something happen that influenced the way I looked at everything I was doing,” recalls edgy singer-songwriter Teagan Ward. “I was walking home from grabbing a bite to eat with a group of friends and on the side of the road, I found a CD. When I picked it up I read on the frontside ‘Janis Joplin: Greatest Hits.’… I popped the CD into the stereo in my bedroom and listened to it in its entirety. What I heard changed the way that I look at performing live all together. Janis put so much energy into not only her voice, but also her body while performing. She demanded everyone to not only listen but to watch just as closely, and I knew that this is how I wanted to be.”
Ward credits Joplin, who tragically succumbed to the “Curse of 27” in 1970, as being a major perpetuator in the decision to head her own band.
No listed entourage of female rock legends is complete without mentioning Jefferson Airplane’s lead singer, Grace Slick. Another revolutionary, Slick’s thunderous voice and audacious attitude left their mark in history. Owning one of the most enduring careers of her contemporaries, Slick also fronted Jefferson Starship, Starship and The Great Society.
By the 1970s, a slew of musically repressed women entered the forefront, again, defying the societal norm. Suzi Quatro was the first female bass guitarist to make the big time. Quatro, in turn, directly influenced yet another unsurpassed pioneer of rock and roll: Ms. Blackheart herself, Joan Jett.
In our interviews, local headliners Amanda Lee Peers, Lisa Canarvis and Melia Maccarone all cite Joan Jett as a master vanguard.
When an all-girl rock band called, “The Runaways” showed up circa 1975, the masses dismissed the act as a passing fancy. Today, music critics are taking the breakout band more seriously, examining their repertoire with an elevated degree of reverence. The collective members of the band who popularized “Cherry Bomb” went on to enjoy success an independent performers, including Jett, Lita Ford and Cherie Currie.
Succeeding the short-lived success of “The Runaways” were the Wilson sisters of “Heart,” Patty Smith, Chrissy Hynde of “The Pretenders,” Pat Benatar and Stevie Nicks, among others.
The above-mentioned artists, along with countless others, have doubtlessly changed the way the world has approached this wonder-here-to-stay known as, “rock and roll.”
“Where would music be without women?” asks Deborah Magone. “Women bring a whole different perspective to music: the lyrics, the melody, the point of view.”
In Their Blood
Among the dynamic, versatile female artists we’ve interviewed, most fell into music as a result of a genetic breakthrough. Alternative rocker Michelle Sestito explains, “I was born into it. My dad was a guitar player in Rochester. For me, it comes naturally.”
Amanda Lee Peers fostered her talent within the church.
“I grew up in the church,” she verifies. “My entire family was very involved so it was just the natural order of things for me to get involved as well. I attended a very charismatic church and music played a big part in the service. I think my passion for music stems from that. I saw first- hand how powerful music was to people and how influential and life changing it could be.”
The Morgan Twins, who recently caught global attention on NBC’s hit reality show The Voice, call their astounding vocal abilities “a gift.” Neither one received professional training, yet others in our panel spent the better part of their lives under the tutelage of grand masters, such as Mikaela Davis, who was a member of the Rochester Philharmonic Youth Orchestra for four years.
For the now outgoing, seemingly omnipresent Amanda Ashley, possessing a talent that separated her from the rest was sometimes unnerving.
“From childhood through early adolescence, I was very nervous, and even somewhat embarrassed by my talent,” she divulges earnestly. “I always loved to sing, and had a desire to perform, but was afraid of being ridiculed, which gave me mild anxiety to jump on stage. I knew my vocals were different, and knew they were powerful, but feared how they would be perceived by my peers…Through the years which hormones, and the trials and tribulations of being a young teenager began to settle in, I began writing songs as a way of coping and channeling any and all negative feelings and emotions I was going through.”
When asked whether being a woman in the music industry presented any challenges, some of the artists we interviewed admitted to lingering sexism issues, while others commend the progress that’s occurred in recent years.
“I’m fortunate to only run into a sexist action or comment every so often,” comments local rocker Melia Maccarone. “The business end is where I see more sexism or a man’s desire to feel dominant over me but I don’t anymore. Now I’ve found the right people and I’m lucky to have a trustworthy and incredibly supportive manager.”
“Unfortunately,” Maccarone adds, “I have also run into issues with females. I’ve gotten rejected or even kicked off bills because I was a girl. According to the management, a girl next to a girl doesn’t look good. Yet, guys are next to guys all the time. So what is the industry portraying us as? Just
Michelle Sestito presents a positive report; her experiences have allowed her to cherish the positives of being a woman in the industry, though all the while, she balances a full-time job outside of music and raising a family. Amanda Ashley rarely encounters issues related to sexism, but admits that as a businesswoman, she fights to be taken seriously.
Lisa Canarvis shares a similar experience:
“Sometimes people who work in the scene and handle the business overlook you,” she says. “You could be in a group with three or four guys and they want to talk to ‘the guy’ in the band or they just assume it’s not you so they look and talk to everyone else. That can be annoying, but more often, I think it’s because a lot of women may look shy or appear standoffish and that can be interpreted as disinterested or detached.”
The performance aspect of being a musician, the intimate connection with the audience, for many, is the opportunity to shine, to dismiss all conflicts or ill-will against confidence.
“I love to perform,” shares Amanda Peers. “It’s where I get to let loose and really express myself. A lot of people who see me for the first time are surprised when I get onstage. I’m normally a quiet and composed person, but when I walk on that stage I really come out of my shell.”
Rochester, home to the International Jazz Festival, is often alluded to as a city accepting and embracing of all arts. The gracious panelists agree, but not without revealing the drawbacks of being a local musician. Michelle Sestito explains that the majority of challenges rest in the competition with cover bands, and the lack of awareness.
“We just got back from performing a few shows down south and I caught myself describing the Rochester music scene to a local performer with a great sense of pride,” says Teagan Ward.
“I guess I had never really thought about it, but Rochester has been good to us, and continues to be. There is a great amount of opportunity here that stems from the history that this city holds and I am proud to say that this is where my musical beginnings are.”
For aspiring musicians craving words of wisdom from veteran performers, Cara Morgan, who also works as a mental health therapist at Rochester General Hospital advises, “to take chances because you never know what could come out of it! Don’t let failure stop you from continuing to try.”
Deborah Magone has enjoyed a long career and remarkable success all over the world. While she is content with her career as an artist, she shares:
“I’d be even more content if everyone remembered to support and fight for independent live music, musicians and music programs in schools across America. It’s so important to the health and well-being of absolutely everyone.”