The day after International Women’s Day on Monday, Pitchfork published the results of a study highlighting that women are still underrepresented in music. Women make up less than 23 percent of artists, less than 2 percent of producers, and less than 13 percent of songwriters. There’s progress, and some women are taking the music industry by storm (Billie Eilish, for example), but we’re still far off from a gender balance.
Instead of stating the obvious this week and talking about how we must do better, I thought I’d just remind you of some great female singer-songwriters without whom this world would have been a much bleaker, sadder place (they’re mostly folk artists because that’s what I listen to most of the time, but feel free to make your own suggestions). Just a disclaimer: I have left out the super obvious ones, like Joni Mitchell and Carole King because everybody knows them (or should) and loves them without me preaching about how marvellous they are.
1. Gillian Welch
“I wanna do right but not right now” is a line that I have copied into my diary. I was listening to ‘Look at Miss Ohio’ over dinner with my best friend the other day, and we both laughed at how relatable it is. There’s something about Gillian Welch’s voice that sounds like she just gets you, like it’s an older version of you singing specifically to you. I remember showering at an ex-boyfriend’s house while ‘The Way the Whole Thing Ends’ played through my phone speaker and feeling the acceptance in her voice wash over me. She’s essential listening.
Recommended album: ‘The Harrow & The Harvest’
2. Cat Power
‘Lived In Bars’ is my favourite song ever, it makes me feel melancholic and grateful to be alive whenever I hear it. I’d listened to it many times while walking around Regent’s Park in London, trying to figure out where the hell I was going to live if I ever managed to get out of the hostel I was staying at. But it was when I heard her album ‘Wanderer’ for the first time that I spent the whole day writing lyrics trying to imitate her style. I’d never wanted to be someone else before, but Cat Power seemed so adventurous, wild, yet exuding the confidence of someone who knew exactly what she was doing.
Recommended album: ‘Wanderer’
3. Ani DiFranco
Ani DiFranco is a feminist icon we all need in our lives. She’s also a lyrical genius. I have spent hours pouring over her lyrics that read like the finest poetry, with its puns, wordplay, and clever rhymes. She’s also kind of terrifying. When one of my friends was cooking me dinner, and I put her on in the background, we both jumped up as she strummed her guitar violently in ‘Dilate’. There’s something incredibly powerful in her songwriting, and listening to her I feel her energy reverberate in my bones.
Recommended album: ‘Dilate’
4. Kae Tempest
I’m always amazed when people don’t know who Kae Tempest is. Their narration is captivating, pulling you in with vivid and unsettling images of London life, guiding you through the lives of different characters that often sound familiar. I listened to their album about Brexit ‘The Book of Traps and Lessons’ on the double-decker bus on my way to work, with the rain beating down on the windows, and with the sound of their voice, my desperation usually ebbed away.
Recommended album: ‘The Book of Traps and Lessons’
5. Courtney Marie Andrews
Courtney Marie Andrews was the one who helped me through the second lockdown. Most of December, I fell asleep humming along to ‘Rough Around the Edges’. She transcends country, making music that speaks to the soul and makes you (read: me) wail at the sound of her voice. There’s something very simple and honest about her lyrics that translates into the avalanche of feeling in the arrangement of the songs.
Recommended album: ‘May Your Kindness Remain’
6. Lianne La Havas
I saw Lianne live when I was seventeen and then spent a week volunteering at a jazz festival so I could see her again for free two weeks later. She was funny, playful, clever, confident. She was the young woman everyone dreams to grow up to be. My friends and I sang along to her jazzy songs during that second show, having already learnt the lyrics to all of them by heart. Listening to her voice is like being coated in honey.
Recommended album: ‘Blood’
7. Mary Gauthier
Before I heard Mary Gauthier, I heard a cover of her ‘Drag Queens In Limousines’. Pulled into the story in the lyrics, I looked her up right away. I was stunned by the pain, honesty, and fear in her songwriting. Her confessional songwriting was different from anything I’d heard before – she wasn’t singing about stuff she was comfortable sharing, she was singing about topics that needed to be shared. In ‘I Drink’, she sings about dealing with alcohol addiction, in ‘Slip Of The Tongue’, she sings about fear of commitment. Her album ‘Drag Queens In Limousines’ is so raw it always grabs me by the throat. It also inspires me not to be afraid of the truth in my songwriting.
Recommended album: ‘Drag Queens In Limousines’
8. Adrianne Lenker
Adrianne Lenker really has the DIY aesthetic down. The hiss in her last recordings, the homemade video for ‘Zombie Girl’ – all of it exudes such warmth and authenticity. She ultimately sings about vulnerability, the kind that soothes with its honesty while it secretly breaks your heart.
Recommended album: ‘songs’
9. Valerie June
‘Workin’ Woman Blues’ is a song that inspires me every time I hear it. Not to do anything in particular, it just inspires to feel. I was walking down the street last night, it was dark and empty and terrifying because I’m a woman. But Valerie June was singing in my headphones, and I couldn’t help but be grateful for her voice cutting through the silence, as if she had my back wherever I went.
Recommended album: ‘Pushin’ Against a Stone’
10. Laura Marling
Something fell into place when I heard Laura Marling’s last album ‘Song For Our Daughter’. The album is one of those perfect song compilations that sounds complete. Nothing sounds out of place, the songs float through the air with the grace and elegance of their songwriter. I’ve listened to Laura Marling in many different places – on trains and at bus stations, in bed, and while walking around Ghent, London, and Berlin. The first time I heard of her I was twelve, and ten years later, she’s still as relevant to me as she was then. I will carry her around with me always.
Recommended album: ‘Song For Our Daughter’
Other singer-songwriters that are worth checking out: Bedouine, Josephine Foster, Lotta St Joan, Lael Neale, Julia Jacklin, Mone…