Making Wesleyan’s Music Scene More Inclusive: An Interview with Molly Balsam ’14

“I want to be a rock star, straight-up.”

molly-rocketandthecrooks

Discussion has escalated recently about the gender imbalance in Wesleyan’s music scene. Although some female-powered bands have established a presence on campus, male-led bands still dominate the concerts here.  Ally Bernstein ’13’s guest post in April about the lack of women in the Spring Fling lineup tackled the issue head on, sparking lots of conversation and argument in the comments section. One student who chimed in was Molly Balsam ’14, lead vocalist of Molly Rocket and the Crooks, who noted that she plans to start a women’s music co-op this fall in an effort to make the scene more inclusive.

You might have been to one of her band’s shows this semester (of which there have been many) or heard about her plans for this co-op—either way, Balsam has been making a name for herself on campus lately. Wesleying caught up with her for an interview about female empowerment in music, which is what the co-op (and her band) is all about.

How do you see this music co-op working?
I already have a bunch of female musicians I’m friendly with who are interested in helping me start this. What I want to do is get a rehearsal space, book it once or twice a week for three hours, have anyone come in that wants to. The first couple of sessions will be getting to know each other, getting to figure out who likes to play what, who does what, who’s interested in what, and jamming together.  And just starting a conversation, too, about how people feel about the music scene, why they might not be in it, why they might be in it, why they might be interested in being in it but not having the ability to be in it… you know, getting all that out there. Because I know how I feel, I don’t know how everyone else feels. I’m going to need to know that before I go too much further. But the ultimate goal would be to have female musicians be more of a presence on this campus. This is my somewhat solution. It’s not going to be a full solution—it’s just going to be a way to start attacking a solution.

So hopefully smaller projects will come out of this one collective?
Exactly. Ultimately, boys will, of course, be included. It’s not going to be, like, eight all-female bands emerging from here. My band is me and five boys and another girl. And that, obviously, is working for me, so I think it can work for other people, too. I just think that for starters it needs to come from this female unity.

How did you come up with this idea?

Last semester I was in Dar Williams ’89’s class, which was called Music Movements in a Capitalist Democracy. It was all about following music movements through social movements. Our final project was to come up with an idea of a festival to possibly put on at Wesleyan. My idea went a little astray, because I wanted to do a festival surrounding female musicians, and then I realized—uh oh, I don’t even know any female musicians on this campus, aside from myself and the select few who put themselves out there.

And so I decided, after June Millington came to visit — she is the guitarist of Fanny, which is a female rock group from the 1960s — she came into our class and told us that she started a rock and roll girls’ camp and only allowed girls to join, and it created this environment where the girls felt so much more open and wanted to collaborate and play in a much more creative and open way than they would have if a boy was there. And so I want to try to create this bubble in order to allow people to have the chance to play, just because people don’t make that a chance for themselves. Like, there’s so many ways that you can play on this campus, but people won’t go out of their way to do it, for many reasons — whether it’s self-confidence or just lack of interest or even just because there isn’t anything telling them, “Do this.” You know?

I want to create an environment where women can feel comfortable just stopping in and playing for 30 minutes if they want, meeting other female musicians like them who want to play, starting bands that are primarily girls. A big thing to notice is — not naming any bands in particular — there’s lots of mediocre dudes out there playing, and there’s not that many girls that are comfortable bringing themselves forward. I don’t get it. I shamelessly self-promote, and that’s also because I am a confident person and have that ability to step outside myself and bring people in. But a lot of people aren’t comfortable doing that, so I want to create a forum for people to even enter the scene, and then from there it will branch out. Eventually I would probably open it to boys as well, but I want to start it as a bubble so people can have that sense of comfort that they don’t necessarily feel on this campus.

Why isn’t that sense of comfort there as it is?
I think that because there aren’t that many people doing it right now, there aren’t that many people to look up to. I’m out there, but I’m also putting myself out there so much that it gets to the point where I’m almost shoving myself down people’s throats. I don’t necessarily want to be seen as doing that, but because I’m one of the only girls out there, it can kind of feel like that. And so it’s a lot easier for everyone to participate if everyone participates. Getting to that first step is so hard, and even acknowledging that there is a first step to get to is hard, too.

I think Ally Bernstein [’13] at least opened up the floor for there to be a conversation about this. There wasn’t one beforehand. I try to have conversations individually with people, but as a campus, we haven’t recognized this as a feat until now. And I think that’s kind of crazy.

What do you think is making the music scene so hard to access for some people?
There are tastemakers out there, and there are people who have that knowledge and are already on top and want to keep it that way, not necessarily consciously, but because it is kind of a cutthroat scene. They don’t make it accessible to everyone.  There are plenty of ways that you can book a show, but the amount of times people have come up to me and asked me how to book a show is unreal. There are so many opportunities and ways; there’s just not a forum saying, here are the steps you can take. It’s definitely a logistical thing — people don’t go out of their way to make those logistics available to everyone. And that’s also because there are so many people who are trying to play.

That’s also what this female music co-op is going to be about. It’s going to be about introducing people to all the ways that they can get involved themselves, and creating new ways for people to get involved. I’m only here for one more year, and I don’t want it to just fall off after me. It needs to continue, and hopefully thrive. I kind of have no shame at this point. I want to be a rock star, straight up. I’m going to leave here, and I’m going to focus on music, and I’m going to hope that it takes me where it takes me — I’m just trying to learn from all these experiences and take in as much as I can.

Do you see this problem on a larger scale, too?
Definitely. There is a climate in this country of stigmatism surrounding female musicians, and there always seems to be a male puppeteer somewhere behind all of it. And I’m wondering if we’ll ever get away from that, and I guess that’s something I’m trying to access with this music coop — to see, if we take away all the boundaries, if there’s something that we’re not tapping into that we can.

In other news, how did you get involved in the music scene at Wesleyan?
So basically I started out as a freshman trying out for a cappella groups, and that wasn’t my scene at all. And I didn’t get into any of them, but then I tried out for Will Feinstein ’13‘s group, and he came up to me afterwards and said, “You should sing for my band.” So that was my first entrance into the music scene. I hadn’t even thought that I wanted to do that much, and then I did that for a while and then I had another band for a while—that was a psychedelic rock band called Third Wheel. That was last year, with my ex-boyfriend, and the band broke up for obvious reasons.

And then this year… I decided I was going to start this project. A lot of it was coming from me feeling like I needed to express myself and get out there, but also seeing that there aren’t that many powerful female musicians on this campus and wanting to change that, and starting to open up the conversation to even accept someone like that.

I wanted to find a group of musicians that I felt comfortable playing with, and who I knew would back me up and not try to be the forefront. And I’m not saying that it’s all about me, but for this project, I needed it to be more centered on this female power thing than anything else, and I was lucky enough to have a bunch of friends who were willing to play and who meshed well with me. My music — it’s all pretty much stayed the same, but coming together with the band has been amazing for my creativity, as well. I feel like I flourish a lot more working with other musicians. All of the songs in the band I wrote, but I would bring them into the guys and they would start fiddling around, writing parts for it. Like, Atticus, the drummer, he really has a big part in what the songs end up sounding like, because he creates the feel of it. I didn’t even know what my music would sound like with a band until I brought it to the drummer.

The parts of the band that I do specifically are the piano and the vocals and the lyrics — that is all done, and then I bring it to them. And I’ve started to get into the habit of writing out the horn parts for the saxophone, because I feel like that’s a sort of tone that a lot of bands on this campus don’t necessarily go for — the sultry sax sort of thing. There’s a lot of horn players,and a lot of funk-like stuff going on out there, but this is more rock/soul, I would say. And I feel like it all comes down to this central female powerful thing, surrounding this idea that I’m trying to put out there.

You guys have been doing so many concerts lately.

Yeah. We don’t have anymore left.  I haven’t booked another show for the rest of the semester. We might play one more time during senior week. I really wanted to get us out there, and have people remember us. There’s so many concerts going on every weekend that it’s hard to keep track of who you’re actually interested in seeing and who just happens to be playing. And so by playing a bunch of shows in a row, people start to recognize that you’re a presence and you’re out there. By Zonker Harris Day, we had a full crowd, and it was wonderful.

I want to create this environment, this entertainment, that people can be a part of, and not just be standing and watching. I feel like at a lot of concerts at Wesleyan, it feels like you’re just watching a guy crying into his guitar. And that’s not what I’m all about. I want the audience to be a part of it. And that’s also my creative process — I try to write catchy songs, I try to be tuneful and uplifting and I want to bring people together. That’s ultimately the goal. I have some songs where there’s audience participation. We try to play covers that entice people to dance, to get up and groove. At Zonker Harris Day, I brought up a bag of lollipops and was throwing them out to the audience. I just thought that was a good touch. It’s all about the community.

  • Hate to say it but

    I miss Third Wheel. No offense to what you’re doing now. It’s great that you’re making the music you want to be making. But I liked Third Wheel.

  • zzzzz

    This is awesome! I want to join

  • chillstons

    one issue that I think needs to be more specifically addressed in this debate is the common roles that females play in bands – as a singer, for example. in the gendered music scene, that’s the most pervasive one. To have a female fronting a band composed of males isn’t progressive, but to have a co-op of female musicians and INSTRUMENTALISTS playing together is. It’s about that involvement in all elements of the creative process, rather than being given a song to sing or a simple bass part.

    i love what you’re up to, Molly. But I also wish this debate wasn’t necessary – that we could look past problematic discrepancies in gender involvement and just love the music for the music. But that’ll come someday, soon I hope, and we’ll be able to see the music for what it is and not for who is or isn’t behind it.

    • female musician

      If I understand this comment correctly, you would like women to ignore the fact that they are underrepresented in the music scene at Wesleyan. Is that what you mean by “I also wish … we could look past problematic discrepancies?” If so, I find it extremely insulting that you’re basically asking female musicians at Wes to be okay with the fact that their voices (or drums, bass, guitar, keyboards, saxophones, xylophones, whatever) are not being heard as often as they should.

      Looking past the problematic aspects will only perpetuate the problem. It is not enough to “just love the music for the music.” This debate is absolutely necessary, and in my mind, there is no debate: it matters that there not enough featured female musicians on campus. I wish Molly and her comrades (male and female) all the best in their efforts to change this disparity.

      • oh well

        you…don’t understand the comment correctly.

      • chillstons

        You don’t understand the comment correctly. What I meant to do was invoke a utopian future – where there’s no discrepancy in participation. I should have been clearer in that idealism. My wish is not for women to be content with their marginal status, but for all to be equal participants in music making, to the point where debates like this become irrelevant.

        I also want the all-female or predominantly female group to become commonplace, because it sometimes feels to me as if the all-girl group is advertised as a kind of novelty. This strikes me as a bit problematic – while it helps draw support from the community, it also puts who makes the music above the music itself. This step is important now, but I also hope that in my silly little ideal post-gender music world it’ll be secondary rather than primary.
        yes, I realize i will probably get shat on for this statement. Attribute it to my “white-hetero-male-musician privilege” or something of that ilk if you will, but when I see a show I come to listen, and I put the music above the people. That’s just my personal preference.

    • Batte_A

      “To have a female fronting a band composed of males isn’t progressive, but to have a co-op of female musicians and INSTRUMENTALISTS playing together is.”

      I understand the point that women who play in mixed-gender groups are often vocalists. I also understand that this contributes to a conception that when women *do* play music, the most “appropriate” place for a woman in a band is as a vocalist. That’s an issue.

      However, implying that a female vocalist isn’t “progressive” because they’re fronting a [mostly] male band – in the comments section of a 2,000 word interview where a female vocalist includes lead singing among her efforts to support women in music – is a kind of backhanded sexism. Obviously, supporting more female non-vocalists is an awesome thing to do, but there’s no need to throw one category of female musicianship under the bus when there are several paragraphs describing how empowering it is just overhead.

      Maybe this will be a helpful analogy: to say that women (and all people, really) shouldn’t be confined to oppressive gender roles ISN’T to say that women who choose to play traditional gender roles – wearing heels, using makeup, or otherwise “being feminine” – can’t be progressive or radical feminists. Every woman that Beyoncé inspires to sing, dance, or otherwise express creativity is a counterexample to that idea. Every woman who Molly inspires to play music – including herself! – is a counterexample to your categories of what is or isn’t “progressive” female musicianship.

      I hope that makes sense; I’m trying to educate, not to hate. Talk to me about this if you see me around.

      • chillstons

        Very astute, man. I’m with you all the way – but I feel like I was not clear enough. I did not mean to contest the relevance or progressiveness of a female vocalist, but I think that it will be best for female participation in the music scene to go beyond vocals, and start emphasizing instrumentalism and songwriting. Molly is a great example of that.
        Sexism is of course something I would expect to be called out on in this article, though it’s of course far from my intention in writing that. Perhaps i should have worded differently. I don’t mean to discount the female vocalist, but I mean to say that going beyond the vocals is an important thing.
        I’d love to chat with you about this in person. Will definitely holla next time I see you.

    • Batte_A

      Oh, forgot about the second half of your comment. I fully sign on to what “female musician” said about the debate being necessary. I also think that “[seeing] the music for what it is” has to include examining “who is or isn’t behind it”. I doubt you’d disagree if I said that a music’s historical context is a key part of what makes it music. Since people make music, and gender is an important part of what defines people, gender is also a part of that context. Make sense?