By Madi Chwasta and Catie McLeod
When she was 15-years-old, a teenager growing up in late 1970s Warrandyte in the outer suburbs of Melbourne, Susan Shaw (then Susan World) knew without ever having had music lessons that she was really into music. Her suburban high school had no music program, but her art teacher offered lunchtime guitar lessons in an empty classroom for anyone who wanted to come. He told the students he couldn’t really play, but said he was happy to pass on what he knew.
“So I grabbed a guitar from someone,” Susan says. “We say down and he said, ‘Okay, three chords. And a bit of a blues scale.’ And I was like, ‘Is that it?’ And he went, ‘Yeah, that’s it’. I couldn’t believe it was so simple… I thought, ‘That’s it, I’m starting a band.’”
After she was given some free drum lessons at the local primary school, Susan enlisted her three best friends to form an all-girl band – the Wet Ones. Within a few months they were playing gigs at the Prince of Wales and the Ballroom, big smoky venues which were cornerstones of the late 70s and early 80s Melbourne punk and new wave scene.
What does it mean to belong, to feel like you connect with other people? What about if you’re a young woman making your way in a world that’s always been dominated by men?
“When I started going out to venues and seeing bands, I felt I belonged,” Susan says. “The people I met I could relate to more than people I mixed with in other circles. When I thought ‘Okay, I know I can do this’ and I felt good doing it, that gave me a lot of strength.”
When you’re thinking about belonging, about connecting with others, music is powerful in the way it spans languages and cultures, genders and beliefs. “It’s the most primitive art form,” Susan says. “I teach English Language to refugees and migrants, so I’ve researched the connection between music and language and the brain. And it predates speech – singing and stuff – and it’s the easiest connection straight to someone’s feelings. I know because I teach Arabic speakers and if I play them a bit of music I’ll just say ‘Happy or sad?’ And it’s universal.”
And what does it feel like to make other people feel something? “It’s just a powerful thing… especially simple rock and roll,” Susan says.
“It’s primitive and beautiful. I can’t explain it.”
In the early 2010s, decades after Susan began playing music with women, the four-girl pop band The Darjeelings formed in Melbourne. It started out as two high school friends, Mairead O’Connor and Greer Clemens, who would busk and sing covers on Lygon Street in the inner suburb of Carlton.
“It was sort of hot busking property at the time,” Mairead says, laughing. “And we sort of gained a lot of confidence doing that because it meant that you had to grab people’s attention.”
The Darjeelings quickly started getting gigs at big venues around Melbourne, where they were often the only all-female act on the line-ups. “I don’t even think at the time I had many guy friends who were in bands,” Mairead says. “So it was just kind of unusual full stop, but there was kind of a double unusualness to it because when we did go and play gigs often with older people there was no one of our set up of four girls really”.
Mairead says she and her three bandmates were a “strong unit” whenever they performed on stage together. “There was definitely a sense of belonging that came from that,” she says. “Even though externally it made you more unusual that there were four of you.”
Janelle Johnstone says she has seen a change in the Melbourne music scene over the last three decades. The musician, arts worker and, now, student, is a PhD candidate in Anthropology – looking at gendered participation in music in Melbourne.
“There’s been an absolute shift,” Janelle says.
“Particularly in the last probably six to eight years in what I’m seeing happen around participation, seeing a lot more bands that are mixed gender bands. There just seems to be a lot of mixing it up.”
Janelle says the issue for her with diversity is just as much about social justice as it is about artmaking which is sustainable and creative and good. “When we get diversity we actually get more interesting art,” she says.
“I think what’s happened in Melbourne particularly is the development of a kind of a sound, and it’s a cross gendered sound… There’s a sound and the participation has kind of followed the sound. And that’s cool as, that’s amazing, because I don’t see people feeling as pressured to keep talking about their gender and then their music.”
She goes on to say there are still “loads of problems” around exclusion, however. Her thesis is bringing together what she says are a lot of the conversations she’s been having over the last thirty years in the hallways of rehearsal studios, the backrooms, all those spaces which provide an opportunity to speak intimately with other women.
“And you know, playing in bands is really fucking fun,” Janelle says. “It gives you a sense of belonging. It’s about creating a gang. There’s all this stuff that happens around that with affirmation, communication, negotiation.”
Janelle says she grew up in a working-class home in Sunshine where there “certainly weren’t any conversations around feminism or art or anything like that”. Her school piano teacher asked Janelle if she’d ever thought of something like electric guitar and invited her to the very first Rock ‘n’ Roll Highschool – a summer music program for girls which ran in the 1990s and is said to have inspired the film School of Rock.
“That was the beginning of my obsession with music,” Janelle says. “Particularly punk and rock and DIY stuff. The premise of rock and roll high school was to create a space for young women to participate in those genres of music as instrumentalists. I sort of dived into that space…it was premised on a feminist idea of space making and empowerment.”
These days there’s a different camp for girls and trans and gender non-confirming teens. Girls Rock! Melbourne is part of a wider Girls Rock! alliance which started in the United States and which follows a similar premise to Rock ‘n’ Roll Highschool: teens arrive on Day One, get into groups and pick instruments, then perform an original song in their respective bands in the final showcase concert on Day Five.
Shannon Driscoll is the executive director and co-founder of Girls Rock! Melbourne. When she’s asked about her own musical journey she says, “Oh man, where do you start?” And tells the story of being a teenager whose dad gave her a guitar and taught her a little bit before he passed away.
When she moved to Melbourne from the US in her twenties Shannon brought her guitars with her but says she didn’t really do much with them, until a couple of years had passed and she thought it would be fun to join a band again.
“Before that time I was really isolated,” Shannon says.
“I was living in a different country. I had an Australian partner but didn’t really hit it off heaps with many of his friends and kind of didn’t have any friends of my own. And then once I started playing in a band it was like a world opened up and I met all these people and just really felt like I was part of a community.”
Shannon says instead of worrying about whether they were any good or not, she and her bandmates were just “sort of doing it for fun”. And she encourages a similar attitude in the Girls Rock! participants. She says the change she sees in them across the five days of camp is pretty remarkable.
“The culture we’re in makes it difficult for girls or trans or nonbinary people to feel like they can be comfortable and confident in making mistakes,” Shannon says. “They might feel like there are extra harsh eyes on them or they’ve got… their own internal idea of what they need to do to be perfect… I think we need to change the way we look at making mistakes, so they’re embraced and encouraged.”
Shannon says there’s a lot happening in the world at the moment and women and other minorities are encouraging each other to have a voice and to be assertive in having those voices heard. She thinks the tide is changing. And that young women and gender diverse people should be able to look up on stage and see someone who looks like them and be excited and inspired.
“I think for such a long time we’ve always seen men on stage doing things we didn’t even really think about as things we could do,” Shannon says.
“Because we were always like ‘Playing drums is a guys thing’. And I think we’re starting to break down the gender norms and gender roles in terms of music. More people on stage who reflect the diversity of the world and the community you live in can only be a good thing because it helps everyone to expand their idea of what they can do and what they can achieve.”
Shannon says it’s difficult to be a pioneer of something if you’ve never seen anyone who’s like you do it. But just because something’s difficult that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been achieved.
Susan Shaw says when she was a young woman playing the drums back in the 70s and 80s she was never conscious of herself being a girl doing something that was weird for a girl to do.
“I didn’t even think about it,” she says. “Only when I started playing publicly people made me aware of it, like ‘You’re a 17-year-old girl banging away on the drums and that’s weird.’… You’ve gotta do it for the music. I can’t have the burden of my whole gender carrying all womanhood when I’m playing the drums. I just want to play the drums.”
When she’s asked if she’ll still be drumming as an old woman with grey hair Susan says she will be. “So I think I’ve got a really blessed life. I wake up every day and think I can’t believe how lucky I am to play music I love for all these years, have a beautiful family, a job I love which is different to my music and I feel really fulfilled in every way,” she says. Susan laughs.
“And I’m never going to retire”.