Irish female musicians strike a note for equality

Women singer-songwriters such as Lisa Hannigan, Saint Sister, Wyvern Lingo Mary Black and more explain what it’s like to perform in the male-dominated music world

Ireland has no shortage of incredible musicians, but for a while every singer seemed to be called David or Damien. Where were the women? It’s an imbalance that has sparked a discussion as festival line-ups have started to trickle through each year. And if you were to remove all the male acts from radio playlists, would there be enough music to fill the hour or even get you to the first ad break?

Women of Notes/Mná na Notaí, a photographic and narrative series that coincides with International Women's Day on Tuesday, shines a light on some incredible women in the Irish music industry, both those who take to the stage and those who work behind the scenes.

The series, by the photographer Ruth Medjber and this writer, kicks off today at Thirty Four, on Lennox Street in Dublin, with The Musicians, among them MayKay from Fight Like Apes, Soak, Heathers, Loah, and Sorcha Brennan from Sleep Thieves.

"We want people who come to Woman of Notes/Mna ná Notaí to recognise that women working in the music industry are some of the most hard-working and creative people in Ireland," says Medjber. "There is a noticeable absence of female musicians being celebrated at a professional level, and we want to showcase the phenomenal women in the creative industries in Ireland."


So instead of asking where the women are, Women of Notes/Mná na Notaí will show you where and who they are.

Women of Notes/Mná na Notaí opens at Thirty Four, Lennox Street, Dublin 8, today

Sorcha Brennan: ‘The fight, the push, has gotten somewhere. It’s like waves crashing, the break, the little bit of water that peters away’

After almost 15 years in the music industry, Sorcha Brennan of Sleep Thieves has experienced its huge changes first hand, from joining bands through ads posted on forums such as to using Spotify to learn about her band’s audience. Streaming services have made finding new music easier, and she says  that level the playing field for male and female musicians.

“The decision-makers of old, they still have their corner that they’re working in, but it’s now in the corner, and there’s this whole broad spectrum of other ways of getting new music out there, and new ways of being part of something that can’t be ignored,” she says.

Spotify’s statistics for You Want the Night, the band’s debut album, show that their audience is mixed, regardless of who fronts the band. “The interesting thing about our stats was it was 51 per cent women, 49 per cent men listening to us and now it’s 50/50 just last month. It’s totally balanced.”

As a teenager Brennan would find music by making mixtapes from the radio.

“If it wasn’t on the radio it was much harder for me living, in the country, to] discover, but now kids hear somebody . . . and they look them up on YouTube for free, they look them up on Spotify for free, and they can learn a wealth of information.”

For bands starting out now, she says, sexism is less of a problem than it was a few years ago. “I think for younger people, for newer bands, hopefully they just don’t see it as an issue, and then it doesn’t become an issue. If they see themselves as everybody else, the same way as I see myself when I get out of bed in the morning, I think that’s how you make changes.

“It’s actually by feeling that you can have the same value as other people. That’s how you make a difference. The fight, the push, has gotten somewhere. It’s like waves crashing, the break, the little bit of water that peters away, but that’s maybe, hopefully, where we are. That point where people, whether they’re women or men, are just being valued for the music and the performance and the artistry of what they’re doing.”

Loah: ‘I didn’t get into music to change perspectives. But it’s a side-effect as a performer'

Kylie Minogue was my first love.” Sallay Garnett, better known as Loah, is reciting her favourite singers from childhood. “Followed by Mariah Carey, the Spice Girls and Destiny’s Child. There were so many. Björk is a lifelong love. She has fascinated me from the moment I became aware of her on my MTV screens. Lauryn Hill blew my mind – I learned every single breath of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill . . . Missy Elliot I thought was some sort of godlike apparition: there she was making beats and no one was telling her she couldn’t.”

Garnett’s childhood was split between Maynooth, Co Kildare, and Freetown, Sierra Leone. Theses influences are apparent in her music, especially on songs such as Cortege, on which she sings in Sherbro, the language of her grandfather’s Sierra Leonean tribe.

“I suppose being of mixed background means that I have come to play a role, whether I choose it or not, changing the perceived face of what it means to be Irish,” she says.

“I didn’t necessarily get into music so I could go around changing perspectives – I just love songs – but it’s a side effect of getting out there as a performer. My cultural identity influences how I create music, so it’s inevitable.”

If you catch Garnett live – her debut EP is set to be released later this year – she’s a commanding presence, impossible to look away from. When she’s onstage, she says, she feels powerful. It shows.

“I feel completely present, in the moment, alive and excited. I feel strong in my body and I get chills down my back. I often come close to tears, and also often feel pumped with ferocity, like I’ve grown in size.”

Even though she is a classically trained singer and violinist, Garnett found, when she started out, that a lot of people were surprised to discover that she wrote her own music. “That became interesting to me . . . Why? I have lots of male songwriter friends, and they would not have had the same assumptions made.

“There are so many amazing female songwriters that you have to wonder how people could still be unsure. As a result it has made me much more open about discussing my process in interviews, because I feel that perhaps by taking the time to be open about how I write, it stops being a surprising thing and becomes just a normal thing.”

When Mary Black is asked if she’d consider taking part in another Woman’s Heart compilation, she excitedly lists musicians she adores and suggests it’s time for a new generation to get together and record.

“I think it could be a great opportunity for young women now, because if you think of all the female artists – Róisín [O, her daughter], Aoife Scott my niece, Lisa Hannigan, Heathers, Wallis Bird – so many strong female artists. All you need is half a dozen and you could have A Woman’s Heart Now.”

Released in 1992, A Woman’s Heart outsold the Bodyguard soundtrack – one of the bestselling of all time – in Ireland, with 750,000 copies, and reached number one twice. Featuring her sister Frances, Eleanor McEvoy, Dolores Keane, Maura O’Connell and Sharon Shannon    , it was a feat for an album featuring only women to be released, and to be so successful. “It was a great time,” she says.

Mary Black: ‘Hozier has two women in his band, which is great – it’s always guys’

Black says the album’s success was unexpected, and the idea of an all-women’s album wasn’t welcomed by all. It is the third-bestselling album ever in Ireland.

“We didn’t expect a lot of it, so anything we got from it was a huge bonus, you know? There were some men who asked, ‘Why’s it all women?’ It’s a woman’s thing, and women like to band together sometimes and do it themselves without the help of men. You know yourself.”

She says Irish music is in a great place at the moment, praising her son Danny, of The Coronas, as well as Róisín, but adds that it is still a male-dominated industry.

“If you look at all the big bands they’re all guys, mostly . . . Snow Patrol, Radiohead . . . I know there’s female artists: they’re usually solo artists. You get the girl-band-type thing, but mostly it’s solo female artists that become successful.”

Black would love to see more women as musicians in bands. “Do you know what I’ve noticed lately? Hozier has two women in his band, which is great. That’s what I’m talking more about: musicians, backing bands. It’s always guys.”

She’s currently on her Last Call tour in Australia – as its name suggests, it’s Black’s last time touring there – but she’s not finished with Ireland.

“The gigs, hand on heart, they are more fun now than they have ever been.” She has seen a revival of her music, with people who listened to her as children coming to see her perform now. “Girls in their late 20s are coming to see us, singing the songs, top of their voices. They were by osmosis hearing this stuff, even if they weren’t that interested. Suddenly they’re back in that time, that place. Music is a great way of just throwing you back to another time and place.”

don’t remember not singing,” says Lisa Hannigan. “My very first memory is sitting in the back of the car and my mother is in the front, singing Big Yellow Taxi, that Joni Mitchell song, and myself and my brother are singing, ‘Ooooh bop bop bop’, doing the backing vocals.”

Lisa Hannigan: ‘All my teenage angst was poured into operatic music, which actually is weirdly suitable, because it’s really melodramatic and emotional, full of excitement and intrigue and love and death'

As a teenager she took classical singing lessons with hopes of becoming an opera singer. “All my teenage angst was poured into operatic music, which actually is weirdly suitable, because it’s really melodramatic and emotional, full of excitement and intrigue and love and death,” she says. “I would sing along in my bedroom, wailing alone to myself.”

Hannigan soon learned that her soft voice made a career as an opera singer unlikely. When she saw The Frames for the first time she realised that she could take another route. “That really blew my mind, because I’d never seen somebody – I’m talking about Glen Hansard – perform that way or sing with that passion,” she says. “It was an important moment to swing my mind around to thinking that there were other possibilities out there for music and how to find a place in it.”

Not long afterwards she started to perform with Damien Rice and make a name as a singer and musician.

She recalls the uncertainty of going solo, but when she performed at Electric Picnic for the first time, in 2008, everything fell into place.

“I hadn’t really played that much for people on my own, and I didn’t know if I could sing fully into a microphone. But it was the most incredible audience. It felt really celebratory and magical . . . I will always remember that moment, because I thought, I can really, actually do this.”

Wyvern Lingo: ‘We resent being called a girl band who play their own instruments’

Karen Cowley, Saoirse Duane and Caoimhe Barry, aka Wyvern Lingo, are making their mark on 2016. With their Letters to Willow EP out today, an appearance on The Late Late Show, and their biggest headline show to date at the Button Factory in Dublin on April 1st, it has been a busy few months for the group, and even though they’ve been together for 10 years they’re really getting started now.

The three schoolfriends from Bray, in Co Wicklow, spent most of their childhoods playing music, like their older siblings, who also played music with each other.

The trio went full time as musicians last year: they’re now “nine-to-five jammers” and can focus entirely on making music.

Barry, the band’s drummer, says of their first release, The Widow Knows, “That is the EP of a hobby band, recording that every other week, when we had a spare few hours to pop up to the studio, and a spare bit of money to spend on it. That EP isn’t ‘This is us, this is our sound,’ because that wasn’t how we were existing; we were doing different things at the time.

“Our manager was showing a bit of interest around the time of its release, so then we were like, ‘Actually, let’s give this a bash, give it a good whack.’ ”

Their blend of indie, pop and folk music and sharp lyrics makes for a unique sound, so when they’re lazily compared to other band with women members they’re less than impressed.

““We constantly get compared to bands like Haim, and it’s hilarious: we have nothing else in common with them other than vaginas,” says Cowley. “I know it’s vulgar, but it’s true. And The Staves . . . it’s really funny. People are always going to perceive you that way or box you in.”

Barry says they haven’t encountered sexism in the industry, but it’s something they’re aware of. But she adds that they are often referred to as a “girl band”, a term that reduces the group’s output and talent to their sex.

Even worse is being called a “ ‘girl band who play their own instruments’. Like, of course we play our own f***ing instruments . . . It’s never ‘boy band who play their own instruments’.”

Even though Ireland is ablaze with brilliant bands and musicians of all genders at the moment, Barry says the ‘girl band’ title could take a while to shake off.

“It’s like, unfortunately, the world we live in. We don’t see ourselves as a girl band. We met in school and we are a band and that’s the way it went. It seems to be a novelty at the moment, and we wish it wasn’t.”

Saint Sister: ‘It’s up to us to not accept that as a musician. Girl band is not a genre’ 

Saint Sister’s music is haunting, as anyone who was at their set at the Hard Working Class Heroes festival last October will tell you. Since the release of their Madrid EP, in November, Morgan McIntyre and Gemma Doherty have made a lot of people stand up and take notice.

Their melodies, paired with Doherty’s electric harp, make for music that is chilling and beautiful.

The pair met when they were at Trinity College Dublin and started making music together as Saint Sister shortly after their final semester.

The last year and a half has seen their audience continue to grow, and so far this year they’ve been confirmed for the South by Southwest festival, in Texas, Body & Soul, Indiependence, Vantastival and Longitude. The jump from music students to full-time musicians has been significant.

“When we were in college I didn’t really see much of a difference between being a boy or a girl. I knew it existed, obviously, but I wasn’t aware of how it would affect my life, especially being in the music industry,” says McIntyre. “But leaving that bubble, it’s tough.”

They’ve seen how some people can view women musicians, and it disappoints her that people can deduct from someone’s talent because of their looks or gender. “I was at a gig once, watching The Staves, and these two lads up the front row were like, ‘Ah, I’m only here because they look good.’ I was fuming,” she says. “These women, I thought they were amazing. I’ve been following their career and have seen them a few times, and I wanted to be like them, so to hear middle-aged men who probably didn’t know what they were talking about . . .”

Doherty says that kind of treatment is something they won’t tolerate. “It’s up to us to not accept that as a musician either,” she says. “You do get a bit of that, ‘Oh, that female band,’ or, ‘Oh, that girl band.’ You don’t have to be seen by your sex.”

McIntryre agrees: “It’s not a genre.”

“The people we’re working with aren’t like that, but we’re aware of it – and, systematically, we’re aware of it in the music industry. In particular behind the scenes, the label side of things, there’s a lot of men, and I don’t really see as many women in those decision-making positions, which is really frustrating,” she says. “It is changing, I think, and people are less willing to accept it or go along with it, so that’s a good thing hopefully.”

Later, in an email, they add: “People often associate being soft with being weak. We’re trying to navigate a path for ourselves in which we can be both feminine and strong, where those two ideas don’t contradict each other.”

Joni Kelly: ‘Lean in? It’s more like get the f*** out of my way’

“I grew up in nightclubs, and it wasn’t until two years ago that I ever saw women DJ’ing or playing,” says Joni Kelly. “Ireland for electronic music for women is diabolical.”

Kelly – who, like Wyvern Lingo, is from Bray, in Co Wicklow – has been writing and recording music as a solo act for the past three years; she released her first single, Running, in July last year.

She used to play violin with the Cujo Family folk group; now her music dabbles with techno and pop but also with grime, garage and house – genres that are still quite underground in Ireland. Her voice is soulful and her music introspective, but it has that all-consuming thudding bass to get people moving.

The music she works with used to be a male-dominated genre, but that is changing, and Kelly says that festivals, especially those that cater to techno and electronic fans, need to reflect that.

“There are so many female producers. It was the case for a few years that there just weren’t, but they are there now. So festivals need to cop on,” she says.

On the Metropolis line-up in November, Kelly was one of two women on the bill. It was considered a dance festival, with a number of R&B and hip-hop acts, but two women isn’t enough in a two-day event, she says. “Me and Gemma Dunleavey were the only women playing at it. The only women.