Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Women Who Rock Wednesday: Jessica Hopper!

Welcome to Women Who Rock Wednesday! As usual there is a fabulous prize to give away from last week's guest, my lovely editor, Jen Heddle. The winner of A Rush of Wings by Adrian Phoenix is... Joanne Levy from Blogger. Joanne please send your mailing address to stephanie at stephaniekuehnert dot com to claim your prize!

Today's woman who rocks, Jessica Hopper completely changed my life as a teenage girl. I learned about the Riot Grrrl movement through an interview with her, but more importantly, she captured the spirit of what Riot Grrrl was about (at least to me, since it certainly meant different things to different people) and the kind of release you could find through zine writing in her zine Hit It or Quit It. That zine inspired me to start my own zines and if I hadn't started my own zines, I never ever would have become the writer I am today.

If Jessica had written The Girls' Guide to Rocking: How to Start a Band, Book Gigs, and Get Rolling to Rock Stardom fifteen years ago, she might have changed my life in a different way. Instead of writing about rock n roll characters likes Emily Black, I might actually BE Emily Black. So if you have any musical ambitions, this book and interview is a must read for you. Jessica Hopper is about to change your life. Let's meet her.

Q: You get a pretty good idea of what your book The Girls' Guide to Rocking is about from the title, but can you give us a little more detail about what people will find inside and some the parts that you are particularly proud of or think are big highlights?

Jessica: I have this joke with my friend that “The Girls Guide to Rocking will take you from fandom to band-om!” (you have to say it in a cheesy voice, like you are on a mop commercial)—but it’s true. I think it meets girls where ever they are in the process and takes them step by step through everything that comes up—whether it’s big stuff like how to book shows or mix your home recordings or small but important stuff like choosing drum sticks, or a brief history of electric guitars, or the list of all the must-see girls-in-a-band movies.

When I first started playing, when I was 15, I was so passionate and so excited to be playing, but I would get really discouraged because I had no idea what I was doing; I didn’t know how to keep a band together, I didn’t know how my equipment worked or how to make it sound the way I wanted it to. I just wanted to make book that explains it all (including the stuff that no one ever tells you) and encourages girls to pursue their musical dreams.

Q: I was on a panel with you a little while ago and you'd said you'd wanted to write this kind of book for a long time. Can you tell us a little bit about your own experience as a musician (when you started, what you played, band names, etc) and the path that led you to writing this book?

Jessica: I started playing guitar and bass when I was 15, with my best friend in her basement--she played drums. We just sort of banged around loudly and took turns screaming words out of Seventeen magazine into a mic we hung from the rafters. Once we knew four songs (three were covers, all were terrible), we played a show in her house and two people came—her boyfriend and Craig Finn, who is now in the Hold Steady.

I briefly tried switching to drums and had a band with my sister, who was then nine years old. That lasted about a week and was probably my favorite band I was ever in. I’ve probably started 20+ short-lived bands the most recent being A Billion Dollars, which was a blatant Yeah Yeah Yeahs rip off, purposefully so. I played drums and some guitar in that one. I prefer playing in party bands that break up after three shows.

In 2004, I convinced my roommate to let me be the touring bassist in his band, Challenger. I had to learn all the songs in 3 weeks—I actually had to take lessons to learn them, it was hard. We toured the US, Canada and Japan for about 3 months and it was the best time ever. I had never felt so free in my life. Every girl should go on tour. It’ll like a secret world opens up to you.

I think I first had the idea to write this book when I was about 16. I wanted to write the book because I needed it. I also was really inspired by Riot Girl and the feminist movement within the music scene I was part of, and really wanted every girl I knew to be in a band; I would meet girls at shows and talk about playing music and they would say “oh, I could never do that” and I would want to just grab them and shake them and say “YES YOU CAN! WE CAN! LETS PRACTICE TOMORROW!” Years later, when I was touring, I would meet girls at shows and they would tell me I was the first woman they had ever seen play in a band, and they would tell me they were trying to start a band, or tell me about how they couldn’t find anyone to play with because boys didn’t want to play with a girl. These girls, and how totally brave and cool and determined they were—it totally inspired me. I kept thinking I had to make the book for these girls, to encourage and support them. It took a long time until it all came together, but alas.

Q: There is a fold-out timeline in the middle of the book, highlighting some of the most amazing females in music from the 20s to today, who are some of the women who have influenced you most-- musicians, writers, women in your life--both when you were young and today?

Jessica: The band that made me want to start a band was Babes in Toyland—they were a really tough all-woman trio from Minneapolis when I was growing up and I NEVER missed a show after the first time I saw them. Kim Gordon from Sonic Youth was the reason I started playing bass; I copied her outfits and her playing style. My friend Kristin Pfaff was the first really seriously technical player I ever saw in a band, she was so good, that I remember hearing dudes come out of a show once and they were insulting her shoes—you couldn’t say anything about her playing, she was just awesome and aggressive. She died when I was still in high school, but the book is dedicated in part to her. She made a huge impression on me. The women who’ve inspired me most—musicians: Nina Simone, Chrissie Hynde from The Pretenders, PJ Harvey are all big ones—Patti Smith, of course. My big writing heroes are Joan Didion, Nikki Giovanni and the critic/essayist Ellen Willis, who was the first big-deal female rock critic in the late 60’s. I have framed pictures of Jane Fonda, Sister Corita, Georgia O’Keefe and my grandma, Zola, up around where I work—they are all big inspirations to me. Lately, every band I see has some total powerhouse girl in the band—last week I saw Gay Beast, and their drummer, she could flatten the earth with her pounding. Every week, every show I have a new heroine.

Q: Admittedly, I had a big fangirl moment when I met you because your zine Hit It or Quit It was a huge huge huge inspiration to me when I was about 14 years old. It helped me both personally and professionally in that I decided to start my own zine and for me, that was the beginning of my journey as a writer. Can you talk a little bit about how doing zines shaped you as a writer? And tell us about the other freelance writing you do and your fabulous blog?

Jessica: Oh gosh. It’s funny, some times I look back at those old zines and I can only just flip through, because if I read them I get so embarrassed. I was such a dork, but I guess such is the nature of 10th grade confessionals/record reviews.

Starting to publish my own writing at such a young age, and coming out of fanzine culture, it really made me feel like expressing myself was important—not just for it’s own sake, but the idea was also that everyone in the scene should be a participant—not just a consumer. I published my zine for geez, like 15 years?—and then I switched to blogging. Everyone switched to blogging. I think maybe 11 people make fanzines anymore. Putting my free, unbridled, unedited opinion into the world for years made me the writer and critic I am now, it is what made people hire me to write for magazines. I wasn’t interested in being a great writer so much as I wanted to just be honest, to get down to whatever my truth was.

I have been freelance writing for different magazines and papers since I was 16, and then for most of my 20’s, I worked as a publicist for bands, but eventually all I wanted to do was write, so I quit, and now I have been a full time writer/critic for the last five years. I mostly write for the Chicago Reader, the Chicago Tribune and I help pick music for the public radio show This American Life.

Q: I feel like I was really lucky to grow up in the early-mid nineties where there were a ton of amazing female bands out there. No doubt your book is going to create another female band renaissance, and in the research for the book you probably made some great musical discoveries. Who are some of the current female bands to watch? I believe you will be doing a mini tour with one of them, can you talk a bit about that?

Jessica: Oh man. So many rad things, rad bands and players happening right now—Marissa Paternoster from Screaming Females, a punk band from New Jersey, she is just a shredder. She is oblivious to her own rock stardom, she just radiates. Emily Lacy is a solo artist making these intergalactic, sad, sad cowgirl albums all by her lonesome, she’s fairly prolific. Her new one, Armor, just came to me this week and my mind is melting—I love her voice. I am touring with Katie Stelmanis, and her all-girl band—she’s got this huge voice and her backing band is just cool charm incarnate, the twin sisters of Ghost Bees sing back up—and so it’s actually two bands in one touring with me. They are coming down from Toronto and doing their first proper tour, wherein we do some rocking and some reading in places like Cleveland and Nashville. I figure if I am talking about girls rocking, a working example is a must. Plus, I’ll come up with any excuse to tour in the summer. I am totally a fan geek for Katie’s music, I couldn’t be more stoked to see them play every night.

Q: Now for my standard Women Who Rock Wednesday questions. The first is a two-parter. What was the first album you purchased and the first concert you attended?

Jessica: Technically, the first album I purchased with my own money was a very bad mid-80’s Elton John album, as a gift for my mothers 32nd birthday. I was at Target, I was nine and tried to hide it behind my back, despite that I was shopping with her. The first album I purchased for my own home use that created a total obsession was The Bangles, Different Light on cassette, I was 10 or 11. “Walk Like An Egyptian” was a hit, but I liked all the non-hits on the B-side best.

First concert is tough. I went to house shows of high school bands, saw hardcore bands that boys I knew were super into, but they never made an impression on me. First concert I bought a ticket to with my own money, where I had records by the bands and was excited to see them was 9th grade: Dinosaur Jr / My Bloody Valentine/ Babes in Toyland—which begat a life long love of wretchedly loud squealing guitars and feedback.

Q: Please dish about your biggest rock star moment. It could be a big moment of success in your career, a time where you met someone famous and had the Wayne's World "I'm not worthy" experience, or where you got the total rock star treatment?

Jessica: Gosh. The moments of success have all been things happening that made me realize I was some sort of for real writer. After an essay I wrote--“Emo: Where The Girls Aren’t”—was published in Punk Planet, I got mail about it every day for a solid three years. It was half hate mail and half thank you letters from girls telling me their own stories; I feel like if I got one thing right in this life, it was that. The first story I wrote after I quit doing PR and jumped full time into writing was nominated for awards and got in the DaCapo Best of Music Writing book for 2005 and I realized I probably could have been writing full time for the previous few years, I just lacked the self-confidence. I’ve gotten in the Best of Music Writing series three times since then, and cried every time I’ve gotten the letter telling me so. Having a book come out is pretty much the topper though. Having adult women, musicians I grew up being inspired by, write to me and say they wished it had come out 15-20 years earlier—it makes me feel like I really accomplished what I set out for.

The book is amazing. I'm still in the process of reading my copy and absorbing all the fabulous information. I plan to give it to my younger cousin and my friends' daughters as they grow up. It is just that important and inspiring. And Jessica is just one of my heroes. Sorry to get all gushy but she totally is. And her publisher gave me a copy of The Girls' Guide to Rocking: How to Start a Band, Book Gigs, and Get Rolling to Rock Stardom to give out so you know what that means! Comment away on this fabulous interview and you'll be entered to win.

I will announce the winner next week when I interview my favorite record store co-owner, Jodi Gianakopoulos of The Old School Records!


Annika said...

I know this is Women Who Rock Wednesday, so it's kind of a given, but she REALLY rocks!

little miss gnomide said...

Fantastic interview. Jessica really is a Woman Who Rocks!!! Now I have to go look up some of the musicians/singers that she mentioned. I always feel like I'm trying to catch up. It also makes me sad that I didn't know what zines were until after college and by then they were pretty much over with.

bunnybea said...

Great Interview! I actually heard about Jessica when I saw a pic of her in the book about Babes in Toyland. I love her new book. What a needed book! Can't wait to read it :)