As a new contributor to the site, I should preface this interview with the briefest of intros – in short, I’m a girl living in LA who has a band and I know a lot of other girls with bands. I think our perspective is varied, unique, and interesting, so this series is an attempt to capture a glimpse inside that perspective, woman to woman.
The purpose of these interviews is less to review or classify music, which I’m sure many other people are much more qualified to do (and more interested in doing), but rather to capture this moment in time that I think is really thrilling — a post Riot Grrl era where sure, some battles have been won and no one is particularly surprised that we have guitars and opinions and access to the same venues as our male counterparts anymore, but nonetheless there are decades of imbalance to be retributed in documenting the lives, hearts, and minds of the females of the music industry.
My first interview is with Allene Norton, multi-instrumentalist and founder of LA-based synth-pop group Cellars. Their tracks are danceable and embody a soft, effervescent vibe that soften and modernize a definite 80s influence. She’s a friend of mine and someone I admire for her ability to be vulnerable and for her talent and technical mastery.
With no further ado, here’s the interview:
When was the first time you created a piece of music or a song that changed you?
I think it was when I started Cellars.
I had written songs in high school for coffee shops and played acoustic folk covers and stuff. I hadn’t really found out what kind of music I really loved yet.
Then I went to college and didn’t play music for a while, and then I slowly got back into it and I remember the first song I wrote before I even called it Cellars but in that style was the day my ex boyfriend left for tour and he had been staying with me.
When he left I immediately went upstairs to the piano and wrote this song. It’s still one of my favorite songs and I haven’t put that one out yet — I’ll play it live sometimes, but that song, that moment, that time was when I realized that this is what I want to do, this is the kind of stuff I want to make.
It did change me because I realized I could really write music, and I never had had that confidence before.
It was about our relationship — the first line is “the aftermath of our crossing paths left so many scars on my heart” — it was a heartbreak song, but also a love song.
It was me coming to terms with my emotionality and realizing that having music as an outlet for my feelings was really important for me as a person.
Do you find that most of your material is written from that therapeutic perspective or do you ever write narratively or abstractly?
It depends how I feel at the time — I write the music first, the drum and the bass line et cetera, and if I’m struggling with something that will naturally come out in the lyrics.
Then there are times I come up with music I want to work on but I don’t feel like it’s gonna be something cathartic, so I’ll come up with a fictional situation or character and I’ll exaggerate something I’m going through.
I have one song called “Beat of our Love” that I originally wrote as, not a joke, but – I had been listening to a lot of Prince and cheesy 80s love songs and I always thought it was funny how there were so many songs like, “I met you in the club, and then I fell in love…” kind of thing, but some of those songs are really good and stick around forever.
So I just decided to write a song about being at a club and dancing with somebody — and that’s something I wouldn’t ever really do, but it was this fictional scenario that played out in my mind, so I wrote that.
I try not to spend too much time analyzing the song when I’m writing it — I focus on capturing the feeling of whatever I’m experiencing at the time.
What has your experience been as a female in the music scene?
It is always difficult being a female musician — when we had just started playing shows as a band I noticed that a lot of the time after the shows people would come up and they would talk to the guys in my band but they wouldn’t talk to me. Like they’d come up to the guys and be like “Oh hey you were really cool” and then when my bandmates acknowledged me to them, then they would turn to me and acknowledge me.
I don’t know what it is — if they’re intimidated to talk to girls who play music, or if they think that the girls aren’t really the ones behind the music, I don’t know.
I’ve also worked as a sound engineer, and that’s such a male-dominated industry and such a technical type of job that you get second-guessed so much more as a woman than you do as a man.
I had people calling me ‘sound hottie’ or trying to one-up me with their own technical knowledge. I was hit on, I was harassed, people told me that I didn’t know what I was doing…guys would come behind the board and ask me if I was sure if I knew what I was doing.
I was 21 or 22 at the time, and I just thought, if I was a 22 year old guy with a beard wearing a flannel shirt doing the same job, would you be back here asking me if I knew what I was doing? No, it’s just because I’m a girl. Guys that I went to school with never got that kind of scrutiny. For them it was like “if you fuck up, you fuck up” but if I fucked up it was because I’m a girl. It’s frustrating.
But even as a musician, it’s been a bit weird — it’s gotten better, there are a lot of female artists now in the scene that are respected and most younger people are becoming more respectful and don’t adhere to the gender roles so much. It’s getting better but it’s still definitely a thing.
I haven’t had any issues with it lately, but I think that’s because my own attitude and the way I approach people has changed because now I’m used to having to be more assertive to be acknowledged. You can’t be timid or awkward about it as a girl in the music scene. People respond to confidence.
What advice would you give a young female musician who is intimidated to start playing music or a younger version of you?
Don’t give a shit. Don’t listen to anyone — don’t let people tell you that you are inferior or make you feel that way.
It’s a self-confidence thing, all the way. Know that you are talented, or even if you aren’t talented, just that you’re putting your best foot forward.
Just put yourself out there, everyone is different and you can’t get anywhere if you’re listening to the negative talk that’s going on around you. Don’t be intimidated. Know what you want to accomplish, and then do it.
Don’t imitate other people, don’t try to be something that you’re not — it’s cliche, but if you can be yourself and do what you love to do, you work on your craft and the rest will follow.