by Dan Ray
I have visceral memories of being somewhere between six and ten years old, cringing in the backseat of my mom’s car as she belted Sarah McLachlan’s “Building a Mystery.” At the time, I saw my mother’s actions as nothing less than incredibly embarrassing. (Although, I — and most fellow millennials — was probably burned on McLachlan by those terrifying animal welfare commercials where “Angel” blared suddenly over the TV speakers, casting shame.)
Looking back, I see a different picture: a mother proudly rejoicing in her own womanhood, led by a female artist brave enough to do the same. Frustrated by radio’s refusal to add more than one female artist to their rotations in any given week, in 1997, McLachlan founded Lilith Fair, a touring festival featuring only female or female-led acts. The festival ran from 1997–1999, with one revival tour in 2010. McLachlan, a Canadian balladeer with two Grammy Awards, headlined each festival, but the rest of the lineup varied from singer-songwriters like Fiona Apple to hip-hop artists like Missy Elliott. The very first Lilith Fair, on July 5, 1997, featuring McLachlan, Tracy Chapman, Jewel, and Paula Cole, was held at The Gorge in George, Washington.
I was pleased to find that “Women in Music Vol. 1”, a compilation album released in March, listens like Seattle’s own personal Lilith Fair.
Curated by Ailisa Newhall and papercut, (formerly the Women in Music Collective), the 15-track album is a collection of songs from local female-identifying and non-binary artists, mostly written and recorded during the COVID-19 pandemic. The artists run the gamut in both name recognition — from literally zero online music presence (Ceci Nguyen) to local dynamos (Shaina Shepherd, Tekla Waterfield) to a Grammy-nominated jazz singer (Sarah Gazarek) — and style. Shepherd holds potentially the most rockin’ track on the collection with her solo debut, “The Virus;” Stephanie Anne Johnson’s “American Blues” sticks to their traditional, country blues style; Kat Bula’s “Nobody’s Woke” is a fiddlin,’ anti-cancel culture, social justice country jam that could only come out of Seattle; and on “Easy Love,” Gazarek coos a melodious jazz vocal above a twinkling piano line. Yet they all work together — in part because most of the tracks deal with larger issues surrounding and caused by the pandemic but also because, much like Lilith Fair, they’re told from a distinctly feminine perspective.
Emily McVicker’s “Time to Myself” opens the collection with a ukulele melody that’s so oddly spaced it’s jarring — like, whoa, I’m listening to music! I forgot! — but that’s the point. As she sings, “I just need to be alone / Maybe take a long drive / Maybe look at my phone / Maybe just stand in the bathroom for a long, long time,” the ukulele sporadically bounces beneath her, like this was the first chance she got to play all week and this was just whatever came out. I can quite literally picture McVicker quietly grabbing her instrument and sneaking off to “stand in the bathroom for a long, long time” to write this track — alone. There’s a beautiful, honest simplicity (and reclamation) to it.
Rani Weatherby’s “Where Can I Run” is a bluesy track about deteriorating mental health, fear of disease, and racism. Like McVicker’s song, it touches on the need women often have to find excuses to get away but unearths a darker side to that sentiment. Slowly arpeggiated piano chords and a thickly hit snare run underneath lines like, “You’re out here like you respect me / When all you try to do is correct me.” And “Invisible,” a Black-Sabbath-esque dark rock jam from Chasing Oz, takes on the state of homelessness. The first verse centers around a male soldier, but the second verse is a story of a mother separated from her child: “She walks out and loses a child / Hungry, cold, I see the fears / Of the child she left behind.”
The album came together after a show Newhall was planning for June 2020 in collaboration with the Tractor Tavern and Seattle Repertory Theatre was cancelled. Newhall searched for a new way to highlight female musicians in her community. She reached out to women in the collective to see who could provide original music for an album within the timeframe of the project (it dropped on International Women’s Day) and set off to get a grant. Several applications later, she was able to pay all of the artists for their work, as well as mastering engineer Rachel Field and visual artist Ava Wadleigh, who designed the cover.
In lieu of the original show, Newhall and papercut co-founder Nikki Barron produced a livestream concert from the Kirkland Performance Center on June 3. It featured several of the artists from the compilation — Lady A, Stephanie Anne Johnson, Shaina Shepherd, Rani Weatherby, and Emily McVicker (with Marina Christopher) — in what may have been an even closer, if smaller, approximation of Lilith Fair.
While Lilith Fair was groundbreaking for showcasing an all-female lineup, it was also groundbreaking for its diversity in both age and race. Sarah McLachlan was 29 when Lilith Fair premiered, but many of the other performers, like Sheryl Crow, Tracy Chapman, and Natalie Merchant, were older. As McLachlan noted at the time, it’s often difficult to find women at all in the music industry. And when you do find them, they’re rarely over 30. With at least half of its artists over the age of 30 (and at least three of those over the age of 40) and five artists of color, “Women in Music Vol. 1” not only channels Lilith Fair in its female-forward attitude but also in its commitment to being truly diverse. And that’s the kind of album I would proudly belt along to in the car (or in the bathroom) to take some much needed “time to myself.”
You can watch a video of the Kirkland Performance Center concert here.
Dan Ray is a freelance journalist and the founder and CEO of Dan’s Tunes. Ray got her BA in English and music at the University of Michigan. She moved to Seattle in 2017. Ray is passionate about food and education around the American food system. She loves cats, especially her own, who is named Macaulay Culkin.
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