Permission slip

I know, this is the fourth post in a row about music. But I love writing, and if you're bored with hearing about music, imagine how much more boring it would be if I wrote about taking belly dance lessons, helping organize this year's Ladies Rock Camp, going out with various Meetup groups, dragging myself to Zumba on Friday evening, or doing the Saturday morning grocery shopping. That and work are mostly what else is going on in my life.

So yeah, music.

Some artists just do what they want without caring whether anyone will like it or not. They are the pioneers. They blaze new trails. They boldly go where no one has gone before.

Me, well, I don't have that kind of personality. There's probably a genetic component to it. Risk aversion and conformity run in my family. Even my ancestors weren't really pioneers. They came from Normandy (mostly) not to explore but to rather to settle down, till the soil, and make tourtière (I'm probably not related to the guy who invented poutine).

So sometimes I need permission to break out of my tiny comfort zone. I need to see someone else break the rules, which tells me it's OK to do the same. I'm not a trailblazer, but I might make the trail wider. Maybe I'll even wander off onto a side path.

I like and admire so many musicians and songwriters that it would become even more boring if I were to start listing them. But a few are special, not because I like them more, but because they give me permission to break out.

A long time ago, Neil Young and Keith Richards told me it was OK to play guitar even if I was never going to be Jimi Hendrix or Eric Clapton. Later, punk and New Wave guitarists reinforced that, as well as the idea that music didn't have to be elaborate to be good.

Lately, as I relaunch my playing, singing, and songwriting, probably no one has been more influential than Polly Jean Harvey. I don't want to copy her. There's no way I could even if I wanted to. But PJ gives me multiple permissions. She lets me explore my singing and push the limits of what I think I can do. She lets me push into areas that I previously thought were too weird. In songwriting, she lets me explore my sexuality and sensuality. And if all that weren't enough, she reinforces the idea that a guitar can be an expression of self, and that playing guitar the way I do is just who I am.

Not far behind PJ Harvey are the Pixies. Now, I am never going to have a mind like Charles Thompson IV, a.k.a. Frank Black, a.k.a. Black Francis. His songs are like no one else's that I know. But again, his courage in writing what are basically twisted pop songs is inspiring. I have always written pop songs that were somewhat outside pop norms. Charles says go ahead and push that much further. And on guitar, Joey Santiago is an inspiration in textural playing. He doesn't have to be a virtuoso to add just what a song needs.

There are other bands that help explain why I make the kind of music that I do. As racist and sexist as Jeffrey Lee Pierce was, I was still infected with the edgy blue-tinged rock of the Gun Club. It's been a long time since I've made seriously dissonant music, but I still admire not only that Sonic Youth push the boundaries but how they do (or did—we all wonder if Kim and Thurston will still make music together even though they are no longer a couple).

More recently, Land of Talk, a band you might never have heard of (unless you read my blog), have been a huge inspiration. Elizabeth Powell truly plays her own brand of rock music. My love of Land of Talk goes back to the summer of 2007 in Quebec City. Sweetie and I were seeing shows at the Féstival d'été when we saw a poster that said Land of Talk would be playing a free show outside—right across the street from where we were having dinner. They had just put out their first EP, and I think I had heard one song from a free download. As the light faded, they created magic on the street.

Lizzy Powell is just one of several women who inspire me not only because they make wonderful music but specifically because they push against the inherent sexism of the industry, as we all have to do. Emily Haines of Metric, Kristin Hersh, Kim Shattuck of the Muffs, all of Sleater-Kinney, and Vancouver's own Pack a.d.—all of them and more say fuck yeah we make great music.

I wish I didn't have to seek permission, but I know myself. That's how I get started. The thing is, once I do get started, seeking permission from others becomes less of an imperative. The more I play and write, the more I give myself permission. And now that I'm working with three talented and wonderful women, I think it might be time for us all to give ourselves permission to make cool new music, music that's ours alone.

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