The 10 best frontwomen of all time, as chosen by HAWK
Julie Hawk, frontwoman of Berlin-based alt.rockers HAWK, choose the bands – and their frontwomen – who most inspired their glorious, shimmering sounds
It’s probably not surprising, looking back over the gigs I’ve been to since my teens, to see that only about one in 10 of them are female artists – especially in my earlier days of getting into live music. Most of these [choices] are the [bands] that have resonated with me most, and that have energised and motivated me. In an industry where we are so used to seeing male artists glorified as powerful and rebellious, there’s something so profound about watching women perform on stage and own it. As a younger artist, I needed to witness this more than anything, and I still do today. I know I’ve been to a good gig when I leave the venue feeling like I’ve been totally lazy, and dying to get home to write and play.
This was my first time experiencing live music in Berlin, back in 2010, in a tiny packed little smoky venue – there are sadly few of these left in the city these days. Yasuko Onuki’s [performance] was one of the most raw stage performances I’ve ever seen. The band shredded through every song, making the room shake and sweat, with Yasuko shouting and breathing and yelping down the mic, tearing into our brains like a high-pitched drill. I don’t think I saw her face for the entire show – she was either moving too fast or had her entire head of hair sprawled over it. I remember walking home with my brother afterwards as it was getting bright and promising to myself that I’d live here [in Berlin] someday.
My Irish roots are extremely musical, but I hadn’t ever connected with a singer who was taking the singer-songwriting tradition into such a colourful, dreamlike place until I heard [Lisa Hannigan album] Sea Sew. Her music is at once intimate and galactic; organic but extremely methodical, like a box of old trinkets perfectly lined up, shining and polished. I saw her playing the Roisin Dubh in Galway, where I’d eventually return to with the band a few years later. She played with maybe six or eight other musicians, taking the lead but giving every instrument a moment to swell. Everyone, including Lisa, switched and swapped instruments for each song, and I remember being taken aback by how eclectically talented she was. My resounding memory is of her practically mounting the harmonium during the performance of I Don’t Know, shoving it back and forth with a peaceful smile on her face throughout. No sweat.
I’ve been a massive fan of Annie Clark since Marry Me. To me, she is the ultimate transcendental artist, not only from a purely musical perspective, but in terms of visuals and performance too. I have seen her a number of times over the years, and I’ve never been disappointed. Her filthy pop sound, her staggering stage presence, even her style just totally blow me away. As a guitarist, she has to be seen live to be believed – she brings an entirely fresh visceral interpretation to her songs on stage, and puts every inch and jolt of her body into executing her guitar parts. Of everyone on my list, I look forward to see her again the most, because I know it will be totally new and unexpected.
Buke And Gaze
I have a theory that when you’re witheringly hungover from drinking until 5am the previous night, you’ll possibly be more susceptible to having an epiphany at a live-show. Not that I recommend it, but that’s exactly how I discovered Buke And Gaze last year at Funkhaus in Berlin. I very nearly didn’t get out of bed that day, but I’m very, very glad I did. Buke And Gaze make brain-breaking, mathematical music with a hugely eclectic and dynamic sound. Arone Dyer’s vocal range and tone is unbelievable, and she uses it not only as a top-line, but as a deeply ingrained instrument, stuttering and wailing and weaving above and below the arrangements. It was like nothing I’d ever heard before. In fact, I think I spent the first ten minutes slightly afraid. Their rhythms and melodies seemed to make zero sense to my hungover mind, but slowly, the parts knitted together and I found myself wanting to burst open and dance. However, I didn’t because I almost certainly would have thrown up.
Hands down, Merill Garbus gets my top marks for physical and vocal energy on stage. The woman is a psychedelic, acrobat force both to listen to and to watch, even down to the colourful stage costumes and make-up. She brings radical, challenging ideas to her stage performance in the form of a massive tribal celebration. If I had to pick one of these artists to host my birthday party, it would be tUnE-yArDs, every time. Just imagine that game of pass the parcel!
Live music can be much more than entertainment. The very act of women taking the stage in the first place can be a powerful political statement on its own. Dream Nails embrace this power and hand it right back to their audiences to share. They treat each of their shows as a chance to make space for women to feel safe, to have fun, and to express themselves. They celebrate diversity and actively admonish misogyny as having no role to play in the music scene. And they host amazing immersive events like Queer Proms and Pyjama Parties, rebelling against the idea that a punk show can’t be fun, extravagant, feminine, or whateverthefuckyouwant! And they do all of this while playing gorgeous, energetic pop-punk music that gets every single body in the room dancing. Go see them, next time they’re in your town. Wear your finest fluffy slippers.
Cate le Bon
This was one of [those] happy chance gigs, where you discover a new artist and become a fan immediately. I caught Cate le Bon’s set at The Southbank, opening for St. Vincent in 2011 (which was lined up to be the gig after which I could ‘die happy’). So it was a bonus to get there early and discover something new. Cate performed unaccompanied, just her and a muddy hollow-bodied electric, standing alone on a massive stage. I had never heard a voice like hers; so deep and rich and patient as she told cryptic tales about burying dead dogs and exploring forests through storms in her homeland in Wales. It was a slow and trippy, dreamlike set that resonated enormously with me, especially coming from Ireland where story-telling (and bad weather) is a massive part of our song tradition.
Sleater Kinney’s No Cities To Love tour was the equivalent of the Spice Girls getting back together for me. So, in short, it was a lot to live up to. Being in that crowd, especially amongst those who had been fans of them since their Riot Grrrl inception, was really special. It was like being part of a reawakening. They performed with energy and sincerity, nailing every song and really celebrating the women in the audience as part of the show. I knew that this was an important show to most people in the crowd, but watching them, I believed it was just as important to the band. They seemed to be coming back to tell women and marginalised folks, ‘We are still here, we still see you, and guess what, we’re still fighting for you!’
These guys get my vote for best mosh pit/worst whiplash recovery. I saw them at the Roundhouse a couple of years ago and the crowd was on edge from beginning to end. On stage, they are a total force, rumbling through their set, and bringing the audience to an over-boil. Each band member is fascinating to watch, putting body and soul into every track. And Jenny Beth has a kind of magical touch over a crowd, to the point that I’m convinced they would do her bidding at her command. The most surreal and powerful live music moment I’ve seen was Jenny literally walking over the crowd as if totally weightless, and performing to entire songs as if her feet her firmly on the ground.
Got to throw one of my teen gig experiences into the mix. I was very lucky to have access to so much music growing up, and experience live music from a young age. Dancing was my only exercise. One of the most positive gigs I’ve ever been to was seeing The Gossip just on the wave of releasing Standing In The Way Of Control. Like 1000s of other teenagers at the time, this album had been an anthem to me, a symbol of self-expression and celebration. Beth Ditto was such a joy to watch, dancing and head-banging in a neon-green leotard. The entire crowd was ecstatic. It was a feeling of being accepted and celebrated regardless of gender or looks or sexuality. Any performer who has the power to bring that kind of positivity to their performances should be celebrated.
HAWK's new AA-side Can’t Explain / Below will be released on 17th November 2017 via Veta Records. You can check out the video to their last single, Take It Away, below.