Female songwriters on International Women’s Day 2022
For International Women’s Day, 50 of our favourite songwriters tell us about the women who have inspired and influenced them
Whether it’s the trailblazers who kicked down doors for those who followed with their songwriting talent and sheer force of will, or the more personal mentors that created a nurturing cocoon with their love, guidance and great taste in music, we all have those deeply personal influences and inspirations who we owe a huge debt of gratitude. To celebrate this year’s International Women’s Day, we asked 50 of our favourite female artists to shine a light on the amazing women who have made it all possible…
I remember hearing Taylor Swift’s song Love Story at the back of my music class in school when I was 15 years old and being blown away by it. The storytelling and imagery captured me and when I found out she played guitar and wrote the song 100% herself I knew that’s exactly what I wanted to do. I love how she took control of her own narrative and wrote songs about feelings that everyone could relate to. I mostly grew up listening to chart music that often wasn’t written by the artist, so discovering Taylor and other singer-songwriters like Alanis Morissette, Dolly Parton, etc. was a game changer for me.
When I was small – about three or four years old – this woman came on the telly singing this song and even though I was slightly scared by her, I couldn’t get her out of my head. A decade later she was on telly again, this time playing piano and singing This Woman’s Work and it was so amazing I was hyperventilating. I decided there and then that that was what I wanted to do with my life. (Play piano and sing, not hyperventilate.) There is nobody I love like Kate Bush: no artist or writer or musician or producer – because she’s ALL those things – who can compare as far as I’m concerned. She has made her own world and nobody sounds like her. What’s even more inspiring is how she has done it all on her own terms. Queen Kate FOREVER.
I would say that the music that has had the most influence on me was what I listened to in my childhood/teens. Looking back, my parents didn’t play a huge amount of female-made music, but one band that they did play lots of were The Cardigans, fronted by Nina Persson. I think her lyrical style and approach to melody made an impact on me, for sure. I’m lucky enough to work closely with one of my biggest influences, Lucy Rose. As a teenager, I would sit and watch endless acoustic sessions of her on YouTube and long to be able to write such impactful, evocative songs. I’d be remiss not to mention Dido. Maybe not the “coolest” of references (although I don’t really know why), she was the first female songwriter I was properly exposed to. Her first couple of records are packed with great songs, and as children, my sister and I would sing along to them on every long car ride. I can still hear her influence in my own writing sometimes. The list of female songwriters who inspire me is vast, but special mention to Joni Mitchell, Adrianne Lenker, Lana Del Rey, Sharon Van Etten, Julia Jacklin, Phoebe Bridgers.
One of my all-time biggest influences is Betty Davis, who passed away recently. She took the 70s scene by storm and broke boundaries for women with her daring personality, sexuality and authentic funk music. Despite being banned and boycotted, she became the first black woman to perform, write and manage herself. She wrote from the heart, she said what she felt, she didn’t censor herself, she didn’t fit the masses and was the true queen of female power in music.
Songwriting, for me, has always been like writing diary entries. There was definitely something about hearing Amy Winehouse’s Frank that made me want to start writing songs myself. I think the way that she just said it how it was and was so vulnerable lyrically made me feel like my own feelings could become poetry. I’d also say Adele had a similar impact and I definitely was incredibly influenced by her melody choices. More recently, I’ve definitely taken notes from writers such as Julia Michaels and Lianne La Havas, I love the chord sequences in Lianne’s stuff, as well as the writing. Julia has this way of finding really unique pockets often over chord patterns that we’ve heard many times before but makes them feel brand new which I think is genius.
There is something so innate about womanhood. The way our minds and bodies are connected to the cyclical nature of the world. I mean, we don’t call her Mother Nature for nothing. Women are tireless. Constantly going through this cycle of giving up all of themselves and then starting again. Joni Mitchell, Stevie Nicks, Bonnie Raitt, Lana Del Rey, Billie Eilish, Annie Clark, Adrianne Lenker…they’ve all carved their place somewhere in between vulnerability and tenacity. To rise in their field, women either bashfully and expertly move between the obstacles that are a part of this current social system or they stick their claws out and make the world gawk at how unforgettable they are. Either way, it’s damn impressive.
Female songwriters are pivotal to this industry and this world, sharing who we are, our perspectives in a world and an industry that feels like it’s constantly fighting against us is so inspirational to me. My mom being the first songwriter I was introduced to, I was instantly immersed in that world, inspired by her attention to detail and craftsmanship she used. Inspired by the way she persevered, when at the time she was one of the only successful female songwriters in the U.K! I’m grateful and excited to be able to learn from some incredible women.
We stand on the shoulders of brave creative forces who have come before us. I am so grateful to the women who painted with their writing and voices so that their expression lives on. Nina Simone, Etta James, Tracy Chapman and Joni Mitchell, to name but a few! I hear the raw heart and soul in the vocal and it moves and inspires me deeply. I feel a kinship and sisterhood with these songwriters who convey their experiences as women. I’ve also grown up listening to soulful, powerful contemporary writers: Amy Winehouse, Laura Marling, Imogen Heap, Alicia Keys, Lianne La Havas, Arlo Parks and Cleo Sol.
I grew up absorbed by the stories of the ultimate songwriter, anon. The tradition spun fairy tales from my daydreams and imparted a lot of life wisdom too. And I have often suspected that ‘anon’ was a woman – whether she was singing to her baby or telling her friends that “he’s got no faloorum…Maids when you’re young, never wed an old man!” I would perform the special rite of selecting and carefully placing a record on my parents’ turntable, applauding Janet’s bravery in Tam Lin, lamenting Lady Franklin’s sadness, wishing Lord Barnard ill. Then I discovered Joan (Baez) and Joni (Mitchell), transporting me to Greek Islands or Amsterdam, showing me how a song could be written that grew from and beyond the tradition.
I was about 14 and in the midst of my first boyfriend drama (hi Chad!) when I first heard a version of It’s Too Late by Carole King. I remember it giving me a whole new perspective and transforming what was previously a mess of emotion and confusion into clarity and calm. Such was the power of Carole King’s ability to be a friend and confidant through her songs: I felt like I grew up in those three minutes. I’ve always found Skin from Skunk Anansie so inspiring – the way she combines her absolute force of a voice, presence and energy with lyrical topics of vulnerability, raw emotion and power. Witnessing the power of that rawness being expressed and unapologetically celebrated in her songwriting and performances was both cathartic and empowering. She made me feel like anything was possible.
Working in folk music has meant I’ve been lucky to have been exposed to songwriters from hundreds of years ago right up to the present day. One of the women we focus on in our Heal & Harrow project is Mary Macleod or, in Gaelic, Màiri nighean Alasdair Ruaidh. Nurse to the children of Dunvegan Castle in Skye, Harris-born Màiri was a talented bard, composing praise poems for the chieftains of the clan in the late 1600s. I love the thought of singing the words of a woman who lived such a long time ago. Bringing us back to today, I’ve just started listening to the new album by Anaïs Mitchell, a brilliant songwriter with great empathy who manages to convey so much in a subtle yet heartbreaking way. Another woman whose songwriting I love is Karine Polwart. I’m lucky to work with Karine on the The Lost Words: Spell Songs project and her writing is clever, thoughtful and generous.
Joni Mitchell and Kate Bush would be the most influential for my musical journey.
Both are wonderful storytellers and I can see and find myself in many of their lyrics. They are not afraid of taking a rather unconventional turn at times and it makes all the difference in their work. They are poets with their words and at times sirens with their voices – a vigorous combination!
There are many, many female songwriters that have influenced and inspired me. From old-school songwriters such as Joni Mitchell, Nina Simone, Dolly Parton and Carole King to modern-day songwriters such as Melody Gardot, Celeste, Olivia Rodrigo, Benee, among many others. I love depicting songwriting – how so many people can describe universal subjects such as love and heartbreak in their own unique and beautiful way. A line from Joni Mitchell’s Case Of You always sticks with me, “I could drink a case of you and still be on my feet.” I have taken Joni Mitchell as a big influence as I really love how her writing is simplistic yet deep and meaningful at the same time; something I am still striving to achieve.
Growing up, I was shaped by female songwriters. I didn’t realize that the voice I was hearing coming through the radio, wasn’t always the same voice who wrote the song. I was an avid lyric-booklet reader as a kid, and learned that some of my heroes did write their own songs and that inspired me greatly. Carolyn Dawn Johnson’s name was beside all of her songs and I’ve looked up to her ever since her Room With A View record. Dolly Parton was a solo writer with her name next to Coat Of Many Colors and I Will Always Love You and I thought that was an incredible thing. I remember reading Tia Sillers’ name beside I Hope You Dance by Lee Ann Womack and Gretchen Peters’ beside Independence Day by Martina McBride and it made me think about what a cool job that would be to create the songs. After moving to Nashville, I was lucky enough to land a seat at the Bluebird Cafe to hear Lori McKenna play, and hearing her style of writing that night changed me. I went back to the little rental apartment I was staying in and listened to every one of her records that I could find. She tells the story of real women and makes ordinary moments of our lives feel like anything but ordinary.
As a songwriter, I’ve been influenced by many things, mostly that occur in my everyday life, but one large part of my influences comes from my discovery and interactions with like-minded female artists/songwriters as well. Artists like Brandy and Erykah Badu really opened up the songwriting door for me in the beginning. There was a certain level of emotion that Brandy portrayed that I always admired and often imitated and Erykah made it easy for me to write from whatever place felt right, without too much thought. Once I locked in on those two things I started listening to the likes of Jazmine Sullivan, Whitney Houston, Toni Braxton, Sade and Deborah Cox, to name a few, and really dove into my creativity to challenge myself a bit more overall as a songwriter and vocalist. Today many female songwriters have elevated the process of songwriting in ways that makes it even easier and more exciting to express ourselves without boundaries. SZA’s Ctrl album was my first real example of that. I think there is something to be said about the level of inspiration that most female songwriters possess that brings out the natural side of any artist. Being a part of this realm is truly a blessing.
Missy Elliott has been a deep inspiration to me all my life – innovative, prolific, consistent, and just one of my absolute favourite artists. The songs are endlessly imaginative and great. You can tell she is not only the most talented but also the hardest working. Thank you, Missy, for everything you are and everything you make!
It was impossible for eight-year-old me to fully understand the stories and emotions Alanis Morissette was singing about and yet, I felt their weight. Little did I know how much I’d be able to relate to songs like Hands Clean or I Was Hoping – songs that so eloquently and honestly tell of power structures, male privilege and glass ceilings. To this day, I think her ability to so beautifully express the female experience in song format is almost unparalleled. I am so grateful for her art and am just as in love with her work as I was as a child – I’ve learnt a lot (vocabulary, singing techniques, as well as life lessons) from singing along loudly and proudly to Alanis Morissette.
Regina Spector was so important to me as a teenager. She was wacky and weird and tender, and wrote and sang in her own vernacular. Listening to her songs first inspired me to go to a piano and write my own.
Growing up my mother’s record collection was the first influence on me as a songwriter. Female artists (a lot of country and western, before it was cool) tended to dominate. Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris as well as world artists Miriam Makeba and the irrepressible Tina Turner left me with a sense that it was completely normal to be a female artist. Later I’d discover Joni Mitchell, Stevie Nicks, Patti Smith and PJ Harvey. Liz Phair’s Exile In Guyville was a revelation and Kristen Hersh and Tanya Donelly‘s Throwing Muses release The Real Ramona gave me huge confidence that having a band led by girls was cool. My heart, then and now, probably belongs to Kate Bush because her voice is so truthful. Be authentic and everything else will follow.
I remember very strongly the moment everything fell into place for me, as a young musician, and I realised what kind of an artist I wanted to be. It was at a Feist concert in Carré, Amsterdam. Her artistry, her poetry, the way she held herself on stage just blew my mind. She was (and is!) as bad-ass as she was vulnerable and I remember how – after the concert was over – everybody in the audience came away just glowing with joy. She made the world a happier place for one night, and that felt like pure magic to me.
Laurie Anderson is a fearless boundary pusher, feminist, innovator, and a total icon. The way she has integrated multimedia and innovative technology with her songwriting, her performance and her approach to the sonics of the violin is a huge inspiration. Her work and her existence has given me the confidence to be bold and seek my own path. She’s been a cultural pioneer since O Superman came out in 1981, but my current favourite album of hers is the 2018 album Landfall – a collaboration with Kronos Quartet. The composition, the textures and the storytelling are a go-to for inspiration.
The list is long! Songwriters whose music has stuck with me since childhood and have provided a huge amount of inspiration include the likes of Carole King, Kate Bush, Joni Mitchell, Nina Simone, Tori Amos and Annie Lennox. I have fond memories of singing along to their albums and being in awe of their mastery of words and melody. How can just a few words create such incredible emotion?!
Women and non-binary musicians have always been more inspirational to me than male musicians. I’ve specifically noticed myself enamoured with and empowered by female instrumentalists that I’ve met personally. Maybe it’s because I enjoy having role models, or because my hands are little and I want to know that it’s possible for me to take a killer solo – either way, women and non-binary folks have made music possible for me, and with each new person I meet, I’m grateful to witness their power. The first time I saw Courtney Hartman play the guitar, the posture of her left hand blew me away. So relaxed and strong and tender and capable. After taking a banjo class with Allison de Groot, I noticed the same thing with her right hand! An effortless and embodied hand creating intense complexity out of what looks like nothing. When I first attended Grey Fox and saw Carolyn Kendrick fiddling, the groove of her fiddle seemed to be rooted in her casual bobbing hip and the sly smile on her face. It was apparent that the groove was so deep within her that nothing she played could be wrong.
When I started writing songs in the 90s part of my brain thought women couldn’t really write songs. There were so few of them visible, rock and roll was such a boy’s game. Now I know that isn’t true, but back then I did sometimes believe that. Tori Amos tore through those conceptions with a blazing sword. Not only did she write what I needed to hear, but she played so fiercely and completely occupied the stage. A perfect balance between bravery and vulnerability. I remember it felt like the universe suddenly had another dimension, that there was another room, another space to occupy. That is was possible to create, also for me.
Recently, it seems a lot of my songwriting inspiration comes from Ellen Kempner of Palehound and Bachelor. As my style evolves, I am trying to become more in tune with the minute details of emotion one might miss, but can be found in lines such as, “You made beauty a monster to me, so I’m kissing all the ugly things I see.” I love being gutted by songwriting – it’s the best part of listening to music. Ellen sets you up with her sweet guitar riffs and laid-back vocals, and then rips you to pieces with the words that come out of her mouth. You can feel the sincerity in Ellen’s lyrics – it’s powerful.
I’ve always been very impressed with Billie Holiday’s songwriting. Her voice was already a cut above as far as expression and depth. She could have easily leaned on the existing writers of her day. But instead, she had the courage to write such a vulnerable, intense mournful song as Strange Fruit – well that just brought her artistry to a whole different dimension.
Dolly Parton is another favourite. Her massive catalogue of catchy, relatable songs, as well as the way she continues to write rather than leaning on her back catalogue – it’s super inspiring. She is blazing a trail for the rest of us on how to be a strong female songwriter. She fully owns her feminine side, not becoming “one of the guys” even a little bit, while managing to write them all under the table!
There are so many female songwriters that have inspired my career and my writing. If I could pick only two though, I would say Patty Griffin and Emmylou Harris. Patty Griffin’s writing is so beautiful and feels deeply personal, whether she’s singing autobiographically or telling stories about others, (and usually I can’t tell.) Her lyrics at times are very literal, which I love. Often, as songwriters, we’re urged to be relatable over poetic. Somehow Griffin’s music is always both. And Emmylou Harris’ entire career is inspirational to me. From her songwriting style, to her angelic vocals, even her unique way of singing harmonies, Emmylou is an original. I’m also very inspired by the way her career has unfolded and how she has continued to make records and play live shows, when many artists retire much earlier. I know I’ll never stop writing and playing music, so it’s so amazing to see other women who feel the same!
I have always been fascinated by Grace and her no-nonsense stage presence. As a performer, if I feel intimidated by an audience or I feel fragile before a gig, I try to invoke the spirit of Grace Jones. I found her record in my mum’s vinyl collection when I was eight; that image of what I imagined a perfect human being to look like, a canvas for all energies to flow upon, feminine and masculine and unbound to one, has stayed with me. “I think it’s ridiculous trying to categorize people’s feelings…. It’s just: do what you feel, when you feel like it, if you feel like it.” She remains relevant in her expression of freedom to this day and I would encourage the younger generations, if they don’t know who she is, to discover her. She shines fresh light over topics like gender identity and feminism. She was, and still is, a woman ahead of her time.
I feel such a Ghrá for this woman, Sinead O’Connor. Her strength and passion through the years and how she connects through her art. I also feel very sensitive for her mental health and all she is going through currently through the passing of her son. Sinead has been so giving of herself within the music industry and I feel adoration for her in her constant quest for truth. Her voice hits home for me, I especially love her song One More Day and her rendition of She Moved Through The Fair. I have an affinity with any artist that sings from the heart, and Sinead not only encompasses this but she is a master at connecting through live performance.
My first song obsession was Little Bird by Annie Lennox. I was taken, lifted to a new place and wanted to be in that space all of the time. It’s like I’m flying every time I hear that song. Lauren Hill, Tracy Chapman, Sheryl Crow, Joni Mitchell and Skunk Anansie all shaped my youth in a big way too and were a permission slip for me to write from the heart, and to not be afraid of sharing my vulnerability. In my teens, it was one woman who stole the show and her and her band are why I moved from pure acoustic to electronic sounds. Sian Evans of Kosheen; changed my life. She wrote folk style songs to acoustic guitar and somehow they made full epic drum and bass albums out of them. Amazing!
There have been countless women whose music has inspired me over the years, but when I was making my debut album Stand, I was particularly inspired by Allison Wolfe of riot grrrrl pioneers Bratmobile, Peaches, and the late great Françoise Cactus of Stereo Total. As a woman coming up on 20 years of playing music professionally, I am in awe of how all three songwriters have made exciting and vital music decade after decade, somehow always managing to stay interested as well as interesting. Allison has a great knack for writing politically biting lyrics that somehow still feel personal, and always feel fun. It’s not easy to write a protest song that fills the dancefloor! Peaches is completely unapologetic about who she is and what she wants, and has always carved a different path for herself, making incredibly bold musical and artistic choices. Françoise was a true legend, an iconic figure in music and art – her lyrics and music were always playful and exuberant, and her joy as a songwriter and performer were infectious.
Having grown up in a culturally mixed background, my mother Chinese and my father Scottish, and having been classically trained I was curious when I was first introduced to jazz singers such as Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan by the revered Scottish jazz singer-songwriter, Sophie Bancroft during my time at City of Edinburgh Music School. These women, to name a few, fuelled my interest in jazz, improvisation and songwriting. However, with fairly limited access to their life stories in the early noughties, it took me longer to learn about these women, the extraordinary lives they lived and the struggles they endured due to racial and gender-based inequality. With racism and misogyny still prevalent, I look to modern female artists who have been influenced by the original great singers and who now carry their voices forward. Though truthfully, it’s my closest female relationships that largely provide my inspiration as well as the local female artists from the Scottish scene who are now a fast-growing, diverse community and where there’s a flourishing sense of support.
My parents are really into music so I was lucky enough to be raised on some amazing female songwriters that carved an image of who I wanted to be; Patti Smith, Meredith Brooks, Alanis Morissette, Kate Bush, Joan Armatrading to name but a small few. I was listening to Stevie Nicks in the womb, she’s a total legend. Her unique tone of voice, storytelling ability and unwavering presence on stage have always fascinated me. She has shaped the way I write songs and authenticity tell my stories whilst adding in a performance element too. Yukimi Nagano from Little Dragon has been consistent, quietly churning out profound earworms that became the soundtrack to my formative years. Ritual Union is such a multi-layered track, Yukimi’s rich voice flying over repeating instrumental was an intro into a more electronic side of things for me – something I then started to incorporate into my own songwriting.
If I think of modern female songwriters who inspire me every day I would have to hold the flag up to the incredible talents of Merrill Garbus of Tune-Yards. I love the layers of sounds she creates, the at-times crunchy melodies, sounds and harmonies and the unapologetic force with which she explodes through my speakers. I think she is one of the coolest female musicians of our time and I hugely admire the way she rocks her facial hair proudly. Whokill is a masterpiece. I read that it was originally going to be called Women WhoKill and was meant to feature an all-female cast of collaborators. It would be an unusual day if I didn’t bathe in the stunning music of Kate Stables and This Is The Kit. In my opinion, the music she writes is pretty flawless. Her voice has that gorgeous purity to it and her lyrics are so imaginative and real. Most of her songs tell a story, but are never lyrically predictable. There is a grit to some of her writing sat within beautiful melodies and rhythms one can’t help but dance to. See Here, Bashed Out and Bulletproof are particular favourites of mine and The Turnip makes me cry without fail.
A few years ago I decided I wanted to pay tribute to all of the women in music that have inspired me to write, so I put a song (THANK YOU) together with all of my favourites in it, I’ve been extending it ever since with new loves when I find or remember them so it’s a never-ending song. Here’s the intro…
To all the ladies, that gave voice,
That sang of things, that spoke to us,
That made us cry for injustice
Or just want something more than this,
That spat their rhymes, that wrote their truth,
That rapped of hopes for me and you,
That gave with heart to comfort all,
Or disturb what we’d settled for,
I just want to say thank you
Julia Michaels is in my opinion currently one of pop’s best female songwriters. Her ability to write vulnerable and bluntly honest lyrics makes her songwriting recognisable, even when it’s featured in a massive co-write. She has truly mastered her own style and it resonates in all her work. There’s something both comforting and funny in her confrontational honesty when writing. A line that has stuck with me is, “But I’m not a priest so fuck your confession” from her song Priest. This is in reference to her lover coming clean about their mistakes, and how she views it as self-indulgent. I’d love to work with her at some stage in my career… if that is not obvious by now hahaha!
Amy Winehouse was hugely inspirational for me as a writer. Without a shadow of doubt, she influenced how I think about lyrics and the way I strive for them to be better. Amy knew how to describe things in exactly the right way for the listener to immediately relate and emotionally connect. I loved how she said things as they were and without any need to dress them up in poetic metaphors. Her endearing wit and unique slant on reality made her lyrical realism so fresh. You feel like she’s talking to you in a quiet bar somewhere. I always try and achieve this emotive and conversational style in my writing. Forever grateful.
PJ Harvey is an artist who is hugely inspiring to me. She is an incredibly authentic and expressive artist, shape-shifting from album to album, like Kylie or Madonna but badass, and indie. I love the way she doesn’t give a damn what anyone else thinks, she writes and performs exactly how she wants. She writes witty, intelligent, evoking songs and I love the way she tells stories of other women’s experiences through her songs, and the way she frames the themes of gender and love in a provocative, freaky way. She’s just…awesome.
The female songwriters that influence me the most are Julia Jacklin, Adrianne Lenker, Anaïs Mitchell and Jade Bird. The songs they write are beautiful and gracious, they inspire me not just because they are female but because of their craftsmanship. All of them have one thing in common; they are more painters than musicians. Folk can be a very “male” place at times but I love how these women stand up against that dominance. They might be even better because their voices are hypnotising like no man’s can be.
Sia is one of the best songwriters on the planet – she turns pain into power and combines the most avant-garde verses with the most accessible choruses. The balance has inspired me. She writes images and paints pictures that are relatable but detailed, there is no “baby in the club” kind of generalism; instead, she relates chandeliers to our volatile inner saboteur, and elastic hearts to our resilience. I’m just a massive fan. Her journey from the early solo work Breathe Me to her recent collaborations (Labyrinth, Diplo, etc) (basically really mainstream collabs) has always had her DNA shining through – this hardcore strength that’s born from vulnerability. Her courage to be in the industry too, i.e. not to tour, not to show her face – doing her career in her own way, on her terms, is another source of inspiration to me too. Long live the icon.
It is an undeniable metamorphosis – I have been fundamentally changed by the music of countless incredible female artists! To name a few- growing up listening to PJ Harvey, Cat Power and Patti Smith gave me the inspiration to dare to be raw, and lyrically honest. Bjork’s visionary work also demonstrates the power of pure expression. She is fearless in her visual and sonic approach, and is a reminder to us all to never be afraid to push the form of music itself. Sadly history demonstrates a certain brutality in the music industry and media machine, all too often yielded against female artists. As one of the first mixed-race female punk singers in the UK, Poly Styrene (X-Ray Spex) was a pioneer in the face of this. It was an honour to compose the original score for the recent documentary about her life Poly Styrene: I AM A CLICHE. Another artist who was no doubt overlooked in her time was the jazz musician Alice Coltrane – her music channels such a unique sensation of transcendence, it’s unlike anything I’ve ever heard! Daring to continue in the footprint of these greats, I am forever in debt, and forever grateful for their existence.
Between us, we’re into a real variety of music and take inspiration from so many amazing female songwriters it’s hard to name just a few. We love girl groups from the 1960s and being bilingual, we’re inspired by the Welsh girl groups Y Diliau and Y Cymylau with their haunting choral arrangements. We’re all also big fans of Cate Le Bon, her unusual song structures and phrasing and of course, the Welsh connection! The folk tradition of storytelling and singing about nature and activism is something that has informed our music too, artists like Buffy Sainte-Marie, Judee Sill and Sandy Denny are all inspiring, distinctive voices. Songwriters who bend genre and unapologetically present their own creativity are a massive inspiration to us as a band. From Trish Keenan’s nostalgic landscapes to Divide and Dissolve’s visceral cacophonies to Tirzah’s experimental pop poetry about motherhood to Betty Davis just being a total powerhouse, we love them all and would be lost without them!
I think my earliest female influences were artists like Amy Winehouse and Fiona Apple, really raw, emotional writing that made my chest ache even though I couldn’t empathise with or really comprehend the circumstances they wrote about. The older I’ve gotten and the more I’ve experienced, I’ve realised how special and vulnerable it is to be a woman and feel so deeply, to express it through music in a way that connects with others; I’ve always been such an emotional, “hysterical” person that viewed my feelings as an ugly flaw, something to be suppressed and hidden so that I wouldn’t be perceived as unstable, but even now artists like Phoebe Bridgers, Little Simz, St. Vincent, Mitski, Lorde, FKA Twigs, SZA… there are so many! So many women that are unapologetically expressing the pain they have endured and are still processing. I’m on tour with Self Esteem right now and after ignoring so much of how I’ve been feeling for the last few months, watching the show on the first night of tour made me feel so safe, understood and inspired to accept that I feel a lot and I am allowed to express that through my writing, it’s the most cathartic, healing thing I can do for myself.
One of the most powerful artists to have influenced my songwriting is definitely Kate Bush. The entire evolution of her music is nothing short of amazing, but her earliest records and demos have been some of the most influential to me. The way she evokes so much imagery and emotion through her chord transitions and vocal delivery of lyrics is something that is almost indescribable to me. It feels like it is written from a very subconscious, dream-like world and I often find myself tapping into a similar creative and emotional place whenever I write music.
Some of my top female influences are my mother Christine, Regina Spektor, Sia, Catherine Marks, Patti Smith, Ebony Stewart and Marie Ponsot. The first songs and lyrics I ever learned to play and sing on the piano were produced and penned by my mother. She taught me how to play piano and wrote beautiful, deep lyrics. My first co-writes were with her as well. She has a way of connecting minor chords that move ever so slightly into unique inversions that are heart-wrenching. I always try to write songs that have that level of unspoken depth in the chord progressions. As a teenager, I discovered Regina Spektor’s Soviet Kitsch and Begin To Hope records. At the time, Regina Spektor’s music, especially on those two albums, felt like they were written for me. These songs were guiding me as I processed my strange new self every morning and afternoon on the school bus. I also love the work of Sia. She has the most beautiful poetry aligned with some of the best pop songs made in the last 20 years. Catherine Marks must be mentioned when discussing any women in the music industry. She is a record producer, mixing engineer and audio engineer who works primarily with alternative rock acts. I would love to do what she does and how she does it. Listening to her and following her journey has made me more active in becoming a stronger producer and engineer.
For the majority of my inspiration behind the music I write, it is mainly inspired from women in music. Although some of my own lyrics vary from different topics, I tend to pick out a lot of techniques, references and words from the women who motivate my music. The women who have created me as the singer-songwriter I am today are, Mariah Carey, Nina Simone, Abbey Lincoln, Valerie Simpson, Meghan Trainor, Kehlani, H.E.R., Zara Larsson, Doja Cat and many more. There are some artists that differ between their lyrical techniques in this list, however I believe that I have learnt and taken a lot of innovation from them all. They have all encouraged me throughout their music to find my own individuality as an artist. Their genius and flair of different attitudes towards their theme of a song that they have written have helped me a numerous amount of times to spark my own creativity. I would not be here today without the representation of these women and further female artists that I continue to learn from…
Here are some female songwriters who have shaped the playlist of my life and why… Carole King for her ability to write perfect songs… Kate Bush for being beautifully bonkers, fearless and free… Regina Spektor for her intelligence and wit (any song that sends you on a Google train and teaches you something new is a win in my book)… PJ Harvey for being a total badass… Tori Amos for showing how you can beautifully blend in your classical roots whilst making progressive modern music… Joanna Newsom for her seamless, twisting, turning albums where you’re never quite sure what song you’re on and if you’ll ever catch a ‘chorus’ 😂… Fiona Apple for just being the coolest person ever and for making the coolest music ever! All these fabulous artists make their own rules, set their own trends and create their own genre-defying sounds. These sensational singer-songwriters have made me the artist I am today and if I can touch one person’s life the way they have mine, I’ll feel it’s a job well done!
Björk’s incredible and eclectic catalogue is packed full of musical inspirations that have heavily influenced mine and my duo Twelfth Day’s work. When I think of Björk, the first thing I feel is empowerment. Her never-ending musical curiosity and fearless individuality in a world where the music industry is battling corporate attention-span-zapping social media trends, constantly reminds me that staying true to your uniqueness as an artist is the thing that, in the long run, will sustain a fulfilled and genuine artistic life.
As a child, I grew up listening to the works of female pioneers such as Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Anita Baker and Mariah Carey. Joni Mitchell in particular was a huge inspiration to me as a young songwriter; I was in awe of her poetic lyricism and her ability to meld genres from jazz to folk, creating a sonic universe that is unquestionably her own. To me, there is no doubt that she is the source of her own music and I was struck by her ability to maintain such a strong artistic voice throughout her career. The theme of identity has been central to my journey in establishing myself as a respected female creative in the industry – feeling comfortable in my own ideas and feeling free enough to express them in what has often felt like a predominantly male-dominated environment. Growing into myself as a woman and a writer has been an empowering and fulfilling process. I believe female creators are able to tell stories that are as nuanced and wide-ranging as the female experience itself. It is so encouraging to see how songwriting has become an art form through which many women feel safe and confident enough to shine their light.
Sharon Van Etten for me is one of the best songwriters there is. The style of language used in her lyrics thread moving images like silk, in and out of what I picture to be some grand pre Raphaelite tapestry. Her ethereal melodies and vocal penetrate something deep inside of me as an artist. There are not a lot of artists who can do that; not for me anyway. She strikes and then heals all in one motion. It’s real. No holding back…. She’s also cool as fuck.
Everyone in our band is really interested in early electronic instruments and analogue synths (Joleen is by far the most knowledgeable of us!), so we wanted to talk about some of the pioneering ladies of synth and electronic music, of which there are MANY to choose. A couple of notable favourites include Clara Rockmore, who is basically the world’s greatest theremin player. Bob Moog actually produced her record, The Art Of The Theremin. We adore watching her play, she plays with her whole body, and it’s very beautiful and rock and roll. We also love Suzanne Ciani, who is inspirational for many reasons, including her music, but also her work with modular synthesis, sound effects, and vocal manipulation that has had a major influence on decisions Joleen makes musically. Also, a shout out to Wendy Carlos who was a real pioneer of synth composition!