Women are Dominating Houston Music, Both Onstage and Behind the Scenes
L-R: Tontons singer Asli Omar, Sara Fitzgerald and DJ Gracie Chavez
Within the past year, one Houston band has released a critically acclaimed album, wowed industry insiders at New York’s CMJ Music Marathon conference and earned a slew of new fans right here at home. That band is not named The Suffers. A second recently announced it will represent Houston at a gargantuan music festival in Germany this fall, following a successful recent European tour and album of the month honors for its own acclaimed release. This band is also not known as The Suffers.
A third has a band-verified Spotify page with 30,000 monthly listeners, boasts a video with three quarters of a million views and will play Montreal’s Amnesia Rock Fest this spring with acts like Blink-182, Ice Cube and At the Drive-In. The name? Nope, not The Suffers.
These acts are, respectively, Say Girl Say, Oceans of Slumber and Days N Daze. They are not The Suffers — no one else is or could be — but they have some traits in common with Houston’s hottest band. For one, they’re helping establish Houston as a music city to be reckoned with. Second, and not coincidentally, they all are female-fronted acts.
“Houston is one of the most diverse cities in the world,” says Suzan Zaghmouth of experimental/indie trio Say Girl Say. “You are bound to meet talent in all shapes and sizes. In this case, women are killing it in the music scene and owning their talent. It’s inspiring and empowering to see other leading ladies, up front and unapologetic for their success. We are being recognized because we have fresh ideas, fusing genres together and creating a new sound.”
But besides the music local women make, they’re creating their own opportunities elsewhere in the local music industry as venue owners, talent bookers, sound engineers and music-marketing professionals.
“I think women are doing it ’cause that’s what women do. We get shit done, we handle our business and we express ourselves regardless of the situation or who’s watching,” offers Zaghmouth’s bandmate, Brigette Yawn. “As a woman, there are times you have to work twice as hard as a man does. We have to be strong and fearless in this world, and you really and truly have to be ‘everything.’ I think all of that hard work and fighting oppression is catching up, so women are changing the game, and women are slaying it.”
Those women also include, of course, The Suffers’ singer Kam Franklin, who is arguably the most prominent face of what appears to be a Houston music scene overrun with talented and determined females. Recalling the band’s national TV debut on The Late Show With David Letterman last spring, Franklin says, “In those moments before we went on, all I could think about was my family, all the artists back in Houston that were trying just as hard to get to that point, and everyone that had ever doubted me. It was a mix of love, fear and pride. It’s an experience that I hope every artist gets to experience at least once in their lifetime.”
Franklin believes many Houston acts will get that chance and when they do, for many it will be because of the hard work done by women in their own bands or women who support bands in peripheral roles.
“Do not get it twisted, because women in Houston have been quietly crushing the game for years,” she says. “Some the hardest workers I’ve seen come up in the Houston music scene over the last decade have been women.”
“It’s inspiring and empowering to see other leading ladies, up front and unapologetic for their success,” says Suzan Zaghmouth of Houston experimental-folk trio Say Girl Say.
Women have actually been staking their claim in Houston’s music scene for much longer, at least since the arrival of pioneers like punk rockers MyDolls and Fitzgerald’s owner Sara Fitzgerald in the late ’70s. And according to Fitzgerald herself, that’s unlikely to change anytime soon.
Her fierce reputation precedes Fitzgerald, who’s sitting at her desk in a tiny office that smells of fresh paint and plaster. Rumors of her business savvy, shrewd music knowledge and tough exterior belie the woman in blue jeans and shoulder-length blond hair, smiling behind glasses with eyes that twinkle as she unravels tale after tale of famous musicians who have passed through these rooms.
Fitzgerald laughs when talking about artists like Stevie Ray Vaughan, Clint Black, Bonnie Raitt, Jay Leno, Dennis Miller, James Brown and Tina Turner, who all played her club in the early ’80s. Her yarns may be funny, but they also illustrate how she overcame some deeply rooted discrimination and prejudice about a woman’s right to run and own a nightclub.
“I moved to the Heights in 1975 because Marcela Perry was a woman who owned a savings and loan and she was letting women buy houses and get a mortgage,” says Fitzgerald. “Never before could a woman get a mortgage.”
Fitzgerald got her start in real estate, and later worked for Xerox as the first woman the company hired after integrating, she says. She continued showing properties on the weekends, and recalls the day she took one client to view the building that would become the legendary Heights-area venue.
“He said, ‘Why did you bring me here to see this? It looks terrible. Have it torn down,’” Fitzgerald says. “It had been empty for years, covered in cobwebs, with no electricity.
“I said, ‘This building has an energy to it,’” she continues. “When I went upstairs and saw that stage and thought, ‘Oh, wow…’”
Fitzgerald inquired if the owner would finance, and soon became the proud owner of the long-empty music hall. She named the club after her husband, to whom she had been married for one full week, but wound up running it herself. Five years later, husband still unemployed (and dipping into the till to purchase certain “party favors,” she says), a frustrated Fitzgerald filed for divorce. “I didn’t want a divorce; I just wanted him to behave,” she says. “We still loved each other; I just filed as a wakeup call, and I wanted him to get his shit together.”
But shortly after he signed the divorce papers, her husband died in a tragic motorcycle accident. As if dealing with the shock weren’t enough, Fitzgerald found herself pregnant weeks after his funeral. The newfound widow began running the club with a baby on her hip.
A little later on, one evening some musicians showed up and asked if they could use the upstairs for a show. Fitzgerald hadn’t yet converted the upstairs, but was eager for an audience. She filled some empty barrels with beer and used a cigar box as a cash register, while a young fellow offered chairs and lights from an old club downtown called Liberty Hall.
“He said he owned them; I found out later he didn’t,” Fitzgerald laughs. “He just happened to have a key [to Liberty].”
With those “borrowed” chairs and lights, the venue’s first upstairs show was none other than local blues legend Lightnin’ Hopkins. Naturally, it sold out, and Fitzgerald’s soon began hosting other big names. But some club owners, not happy with the competition her success represented, actively sought to destroy her and the club. One rival from Pasadena had her tossed in jail for not having one permit or another. When she got out, he warned her not to book a certain band he felt belonged to him, but they ultimately decided they’d rather play her place.
In 1986, in the middle of the oil bust, banks had folded and Fitzgerald’s loan had accelerated, but she simply didn’t have the funds to cover it. The government seized the property, but she eventually outsmarted them all. When Uncle Sam took over the mortgage, she legally became the renter. It occurred to her she could get the property repaired on the government’s dime, and so she did. When that became too expensive for the government, it auctioned off the property at a deep discount. She bought it back, and the guile of “Stonewall Sara” has saved the club many times since.
“As a woman, you really have nowhere to go but up,” reflects Fitzgerald, who recently resumed running the club’s day-to-day operations after leasing it out in 2010.
“You can either do this,” she continues, pointing to her venue, “or go out to the suburbs, raise kids and share a car. That has always scared me more.”
While pioneers like Fitzgerald have been integral in helping shape the Houston music scene, today dozens of women play crucial offstage roles. Their numbers include promoters like Courtney Walker of Rusty Piston Productions and Pegstar’s Ariana Katechis, as well as Rudyard’s owner Leila Rodgers and Stacy Hartoon, the Montrose musician-incubator’s booking agent. At the Houston First corporation, whose mission is to sell the city to the rest of the world, Chief Marketing Officer Holly Clapham-Rosenow helps put the music scene at the forefront of Houston’s identity branding.
For Julie Johnson, director of marketing at Revention Music Center and House of Blues, her love of music has not only inspired her throughout her life but allowed her to share that passion by helping publicize literally thousands of shows at several local venues.
“I have had the pleasure of marketing shows at many buildings in the Houston area, including Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, Toyota Center, even Numbers and the Engine Room,” she says. “It was really a great learning experience to help open the House of Blues — that was the first time that I saw a building getting started from scratch.”
Johnson attributes her success to her flexibility, which she recommends to other women.
“I would say don’t be afraid to do things you wouldn’t normally do,” she says. “I have done everything from place chairs, sell tickets, unclog toilets in dressing rooms, settle shows and retrieve strange requests from artists. Look for a mentor, and if you find one, listen.”
Susanne Theis, programming director of Discovery Green, has a similar vision. Trying to help Houston grow as a home for talent and creativity, she directs the scheduling of performances, classes, workshops, festivals, visual art and other activities (more than 600 a year). Her advice to young musicians is simple.
“Be prepared to work really hard on the music,” Theis says. “There are a lot of other areas to work on — how to connect with the audience, to market your work, etc. But the music must come first, or else the rest is beside the point.”
That same kind of drive led Lauren Oakes into her career as a sound engineer. “I started my internship at Fitzgerald’s on September 22, 2004,” she recalls with a smile. “I was 20 years old, and it was one of the greatest and most exciting days of my life.”
Oakes praises the local scene’s openness, and admits this town shows respect where it’s due. “In my experience here, if you can do the job well, you are respected and appreciated regardless of your boob status,” she reckons.
She has developed a thick skin because the industry demands it, yet Oakes handles it well.
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“Although live audio engineering is thought of as a man’s industry, it’s ultimately a very feminine profession,” she explains. “It takes patience and intuition and compassion. All you have to do is tune out the guys that call you ‘Honey Tits’ that are worse at your job than you are, and you’re set.”
For more than three years, MKT BAR’s Ann-Marie Tcholakian has hosted 30 live local acts every month at her downtown grocery store turned music venue. She continually promotes bands and musicians in our scene who may not get the opportunity otherwise. According to local talent buyer and manager Mark C. Austin, “You’d be hard-pressed to find someone spending more money [on local music] on a monthly basis than her.”
“There is no doubt that I gravitate to music and will do what I can to see it flourishing locally,” Tcholakian says. “And if that means transforming a specialty-food grocery store into a music venue, then so be it. It has helped define MKT BAR and the atmosphere, and what downtown Houston can be — more alive.”
Beaumont’s Purple, featuring drummer/singer Hanna Brewer, performing at Austin’s Swan Dive during this year’s SXSW festival.
Hanna Brewer’s band, Purple, isn’t exactly from Houston. But the Beaumont trio is close enough for our purposes, especially since Purple possesses some thrilling potential. The band just released Bodacious, which features Brewer on drums and vocals. She’s the lone woman in her group, which is known for straight-ahead, 409-bred rock. That no-nonsense approach has served Brewer well when she has dealt with the obstacles men create for women in the business.
“Of course, some men try to be intimidating, and most are trying to bang,” she says matter-of-factly. “I used to be scared, but now I have no problem with telling a dude to back off. I make myself very clear about what I want.
“That’s what women need to do,” Brewer adds. “Be very clear, be aggressive and mean, if you have to. You will be called a crazy bitch and maybe some guys won’t want to work with you anymore. Who cares? If you have the music and the drive, you can do it without some pervert getting you there.”
“I don’t tend to focus on any of those types of experiences because it just doesn’t serve me, but there is value in speaking out about them,” says Black Kite’s Vicki Lynn, who avoids a lot of nonsense by working with men she calls “constantly and deliberately evolving.” Whitney Flynn of My Pizza My World and Days N Daze — which, it should be noted as a disclaimer, also includes the son of this story’s co-author Sendejas — says it’s helpful for women to remember these problems often have less to do with them than with others.
“My main priority is to play music, book shows and get shit done,” she says. “At the end of the day, people are going to think and say what they will. While they are doing so, thousands of women will be making their mark and telling their story through music, destroying the ‘token girl’ perception.”
One way to get around that perception is including more women in the band. That strategy is working for Cassandra Chiles of Giant Kitty, who recently signed with Brooklyn’s Innsbruck Records. A pair of music videos are garnering solid buzz, as is the band’s recently released LP This Stupid Stuff.
“Our music tends to be rather LGBT/feminist in tone, so some people have left visibly upset while we play a song like ‘Gay Marriage Rampage,’” says Chiles. “I have noticed in festivals that when we take the stage, all the ‘dude bros’ tend to walk away and all the women, who have this look like, ‘OMG, thank God! Not another bro band!’ come up to the stage. It’s refreshing and can be very empowering.”
Empowerment is a pivotal idea in music, one cultivated by Anna Garza at nonprofit music-education program Girls Rock Camp Houston. One barrier Garza would like to see women overcome is the notion that novices “have to pop out of the womb like you’re Jimmy Page or something,” she explains.
“It comes from women, too,” Garza says. “You have women who have worked really hard to hone their craft, and they’re not as tolerant to want to work with someone who isn’t technically as proficient.”
Gracie Chavez, one of Houston’s most accomplished DJs, admits she once felt such pressure. Over her 16-year career, Chavez has co-founded the tropical dance party Bombon, had numerous residencies, led all-female DJ crews and founded GRCH’s DJ workshop. She earned respect from her male peers early, she says, but paid a price by being so hard on herself.
“As a woman in the music world, you’ve got to double-prove yourself not once but many, many times,” she says.
According to Leslie Sloan, a 20-year Houston music veteran, traditional country music may offer the most resistance. Her talent and persistence have resulted in a half-dozen albums, a long-standing gig at the Continental Club and currently a programming role related to Houston Grand Opera’s latest production.
“Traditional country music tends to embody very traditional values where the patriarch dominates society,” says Sloan. “I have encountered ‘girl singers don’t do well here’ [and] ‘we don’t allow girl singers here.’ After a while you get used to it, and you just try to focus on your music and your fans. That’s really all you can do anyway, whether you are a man or woman.”
Even in female-heavy indie rock, Tontons vocalist Asli Omar has seen her share of obstacles. Her best advice is to stay true to one’s self.
“Male or female, don’t let anybody, in any scene anywhere, define your music or talent, because we live in an era where that’s not necessary anymore,” she says with finality. “Especially if you’re a woman, you’re going to constantly be told you could be the next ‘Erykah Badu meets Rihanna.’ I’ve gotten that so many times and it’s like, ‘No, I’m just going to be myself.’”
MyDolls’ Trish Herrera likens the early Houston punk scene to “more like boys playing football.”
Trish Herrera, guitarist in MyDolls since 1978, is a local legend. She and her bandmates have been an integral piece of the Houston punk community since it was dominated by testosterone-heavy groups like The Hates, D.R.I. and Really Red, to name a few.
With that reputation comes some impressive recognition. On July 28, the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston will host a discussion panel and performance by the band to mark the opening of "A World of Their Own: MyDolls Music and the Houston Punk Scene," an exhibit that will feature several items from the band's personal archives. Pretty big acknowledgment for a punk group.
Yet Herrera’s calm and sensitive demeanor would never make you think for a second that status has gone to her head. Whether performing for a standing-room-only crowd or working in the hair salon she runs out of her house, Herrera maintains the same cool, laid-back vibe.
Here, Herrera leans over the head of a client, clipping away while standing under a framed picture of Joan Jett. At 62, Herrera still plays a mean punk-rock guitar, with a beauty that defies whatever one might think women in their sixties should look like or should be doing. On this day, her fingers separate hair into sections as she speaks softly, yet firm in her convictions and opinions.
Herrera admits music has been a part of her identity her entire life. “I knew I was a musician from the time I was a small child,” she says. “I wanted to write songs and play guitar.”
When Herrera and MyDolls entered the punk scene, it was still very much a boys’ club. Riot Grrrl wouldn’t come into existence for nearly 20 years, often leaving her band to tough things out for themselves in an environment that wasn’t always so friendly.
“When slam-dancing started to become thrashing, with spikes and throwing each other around in the audience, the women that were once playfully slam-dancing in the front started getting hurt,” Herrera recalls. “They pushed us to the outskirts of the mosh pit. It became more like a boys’ club with a certain type of dress. More like boys playing football than expressing themselves politically or artistically.”
That “boys will be boys” attitude prevailed even in a scene that otherwise championed the values of self-expression and equality, remembers Herrera, recounting how she and her band were once treated.
“One club would not give us the money [after a show] because we were female,” she recalls. “[He] would only hand it to the male members of our entourage.”
It’s easy to laugh at the ridiculous behavior demonstrated by ignorant people of years past, but even the idea that this was the reality for women everywhere just 30 years ago is astounding. And even measured against how much progress has occurred since then, those gains can also highlight how much further there is to go. Herrera, for one, has some strong words of encouragement for young female musicians.
“Never settle!” she urges. “Always get paid for your work — you’re worth it. Make sure that the clubs have great PAs and incredible sound engineers. Stay close and connected to your audience. Observe and communicate with people younger than yourself.
“Learn your craft; study the history of female musicians that have blazed the path for you,” Herrera continues. “Don’t strive to be famous; strive to do what you love. Be calm, listen, take your time and kick ass.”
Is it really important to recognize the gender of some of the city’s most prominent music-makers? Most of the women we spoke with said yes, women have unique perspectives that inform the music they make. Others said good music is good music, no matter the sex of its writer and/or performer. But one thing they all believe is that every woman in the scene, established or upstart, needs encouragement. They didn’t hesitate to impart what they’ve learned to benefit others.
“There are always going to be people out there who will ridicule you, try to snuff out the flame — don’t let them,” says veteran rocker Alice Sin, nee Allison Gibson, who currently sings for Supergrave and Baron Von Bomblast. “Follow your passions, follow your own dreams and visions because trust me, if you don’t get the fire burning, no one else is going to do it for you. Life is way too short to let yourself down.
“That being said, I really have to give a lot of credit to the Houston music scene,” she continues. “People like to pooh-pooh on it and talk shit, but I’ll tell you what, I’ve been on stages in this city for damn near close to 25 years and the support that I have been given, and continue to receive, floors me.”
“At this time, there is a spirit of cooperation, regardless of sex, in the Houston music scene,” agrees singer-songwriter Sherita Perez, who sees this as the natural progression of a larger societal shift from the 1960s and ’70s to today.
“This has resulted in ever-increasing numbers of children seeing their parents share the earning as well as domestic duties,” says Perez, who will release an EP this fall. “With so many of us growing up in this rebalanced way, it’s only natural that we would consider it the norm for women and men to work alongside one another. I know so many wonderful men that treat me with dignity and respect and appreciate me as an equal and valued contributor to the group and to the H-town music scene.”
But even such noble aspirations come with no guarantees. The only way to be treated with dignity and respect is to go out and command it, offers Oceans of Slumber’s Cammie Gilbert.
“Practice first, everything else second,” she says. “Don’t ask for permission or let anyone tell you what you should want for yourself. Seriously, they can kiss your ass. You want it, you go after it and you take it. Nothing is stopping you but yourself.”