For women in the metal scene, camaraderie and skill help rock and roll over the sexist trolls
It’s almost showtime at the Wonder Bar in Allston. It’s a Friday, and the bar is packed with heavy metal fans huddling near the stage. On the red brick wall facing the crowd, a projector beams a giant band logo that reads, “Aversed.”
Haydee Irizarry, Aversed’s lead singer, walks over to the sound booth next to the stage. She checks her monitors, takes a deep breath, then exhales. Her expression: serious.
“When I’m up on stage, it really is as if I am entering into a different world,” Irizarry says. “Things just come so naturally. … I’m just there and all those troubles just go away. I’m able to release it.”
Still, some issues weigh heavily on her mind.
“I am a female frontwoman of a heavy metal band,” Irizarry says. “My sex shouldn’t have anything to do with it, right? But that’s just what people see. So I need to be strong in what I believe in, and I need to stand up for myself, because or else what’s the point?”
Like Irizarry, countless women in rock often find that they aren’t taken seriously as artists because of their gender. They face judgement from all sexes, are patronized about their skills and equipment, and deal with harassment and catcalls.
“I love the music,” Irizarry says. “I always loved the music, and I just want to focus on that, but now all of a sudden there’s these other issues. … A lot of people have to work a little bit harder to be heard and respected.”
Biases of the Time
Major bands including Aerosmith, the Pixies, and the Cars all got their start in Boston. As a new genre came screaming out of England in the mid-1970s and early 1980s, making its way to the United States, the songs got faster, the guitars grittier and edgier.
“Punk music sort of was tearing everything down and starting over,” Clint Conley, a local musician and bassist for Mission to Burma, says. “A lot of it was very primitive and exciting on that level.”
Conley describes the scene in Boston at the time as active, especially within colleges and universities.
“One thing that stands out is that there was a very active radio scene,” Conley says.
Students in the area, particularly film and art students, invented their own sound. The art school scene thrived, as bands played in abandoned lofts and warehouses in the South End until early in the morning.
“It was this crowd in particular where a lot of women were playing,” Conley recalls. “Because it really truly was ‘smash the rules.’ You know, fuck all the old assumptions. There were some really cool all-female bands, but there were also females sprinkled throughout the scene.”
In one standout example, Boston couple Jane and Jeff Hudson formed the Rentals after seeing the Sex Pistols perform in Europe. A classically trained musician, Jane Hudson picked up a bass for the first time for the Rentals, while Jeff handled guitar and “Pseudo” Carol Meinke played drums.
“People were shocked to see women actually playing instruments,” Hudson said. “Not just being front people.”
Hudson reminisced about her days with the Rentals and opening for bands like the Clash from her home in the Berkshires. Back then, she recalls that after shows, Jeff always went to the promoter to collect payment.
“It fell to the men to take care of that,” she says. Overall, though, Hudson remembers that the scene was relatively progressive.
“Given the biases of the time, the punk scene was very accepting,” she says. “It really opened the doors to gay people, people of color, and oddballs of one sort or another that would not have been ordinarily accepted in the inner sanctum.
“It was very special in that regard.”
Of Guitars and (Older) Men
Adrienne Cowan bustles through the bathroom door with her makeup bag. Her band, the death and thrash metal quartet Seven Spires, is the last to perform at the Wonder Bar.
Cowan laughs as she twists the cap off of her foundation. She has “a lot to say” about sexism in the metal scene. She gives an example from last year.
“Promoters—well, I guess they’re ex-promoters now—were saying, like, ‘Oh, let’s use female cleavage to sell tickets for the show or something,’” Cowan says. “It was fucked up to hear something like that.”
Besides Seven Spires, Cowan also plays with Winds of Plague and Avantasia. She says the more she tours, the more she realizes that sexism is “very much a thing.” Earlier this year in San Antonio, she says a group of older men approached her at a show.
“There were three or four of them and they were just like, they would see me and they would walk by and squeeze my arm and say, ‘Keep up the good work!’ … What the fuck makes you think that I wanna be touched by you?”
Out on the floor, Irizarry meets her friend Christina Schwarz. The two met at Berklee College of Music and bonded through a common love of metal. Schwarz worked at Guitar Center for two years, during which time she read up on every piece of equipment and learned from her managers and coworkers, especially about guitars. Now in the bathroom, Schwarz shares a story about walking up to a guitarist at a local show and complimenting him on the Xiphos guitar that he was playing.
“He was like, Oh? I’m really surprised you knew what that was,” she said. “If a dude had walked [up] to him and said, Oh, wow. I really like that. That was really cool, he wouldn’t have batted an eye.”
Tanya Venom shows up wearing a black leather jacket. She’s the guitarist for Flight of Fire, an all-female rock band in the Boston area. Cowan’s changing out of her layers of winter clothes and into stage clothes, but cracks the stall door open and pokes her head out to see who walked into the bathroom.
Everybody in the room laughs out loud.
Also trained at Berklee, Venom says when her band steps into a venue, people often misjudge them.
“They expect us to be like some froufrou pop band or like some whatever, singer-songwriter thing,” Venom says. “It’s rare that we actually get the same respect that we receive after our set than before our set.
“Part of me, when I walk into a place and I’m disrespected right off the bat, I don’t—I try not to let it get to me. … I know that after the set, they’re going to be completely opposite.”
Jess Hall and two of her bandmates are in an apartment in Allston. Hall plays guitar and is the lead singer for oldsoul, a DIY band from Lowell. She recalls a show in New Jersey where a venue owner was searching for the person in charge of oldsoul. Her bandmates weren’t around, and she told him that she was in charge.
“No, no, no,” the owner said. “Who’s in charge of oldsoul?”
“He didn’t take me seriously,” Hall says. “When he finally realized I was the only one around, he was like, ‘All right, fine.’ He handed me the drink tickets and was very hesitant.”
According to Hall, the local scene in Lowell is more inclusive than it is in Boston. Overall, though, her observation is that people in Mass are more accepting of others. Most issues with sexism, she says, occur when she is on the road. Like at a show in DC, where men “were just shouting in between songs like, ‘YEAH, BABY GIRL!’ ‘YEAH, YOU ROCK!’ ‘COME ON OVER HERE!’”
“I find that when you have a bunch of drunk cisgendered men in a room, they just kind of shout random things,” Hall adds. “’Cause they’re like, ‘I’m ready to reproduce! There’s a uterus! Let’s go!”
The first signs of spring are on display after bleak, wintery days slowly fade in Boston. It’s April 1 and show day at the Paradise Rock Club. Lindsay Schoolcraft applies the finishing touches of her blue eyeshadow and settles in the lounge area onboard her band’s tour bus, parked out front the venue.
A native of Oshawa, Canada, Schoolcraft is the keyboardist and backing vocalist for Cradle of Filth, a heavy metal band from the U.K. that formed in 1991. In high school, she admired musicians like Gwen Stefani, Shirley Manson, Amy Lee, and the women in Kittie, and says that it was liberating having strong role models who valued their talent over shallow pursuits.
“They taught me to be a really good musician, and artist, and songwriter,” Schoolcraft says. “I feel really lucky that I had role models like that. I mean, I never feel the pressure to, you know, strip down and take off my clothes. I never feel the pressure to have this aesthetically pleasing life on Instagram or social media.”
Prior to joining Cradle of Filth, Schoolcraft attended university for classical studies, but was reintroduced to metal and fell in love. She played in a few local bands and as a solo artist, and was asked to join Cradle of Filth in 2013.
“I feel like I have to fight five times harder to prove myself,” Schoolcraft says. “There’s even incidents today where people just talk to me like I’m a child and I’m like, ‘You know what? Like, I’m sorry, but anyone else can act this way, and no one gives them shit.’ And I’m behind like five minutes and I’m the enemy of the entire tour. I mean it’s really messed up.”
“You just got to stay strong and let things roll off your back, which is hard. … I try not to play the sexism card too much, but there are some days where it’s literally like, I think you just have a problem with me because I am a woman. I can’t draw any other conclusion, but life is too short.”
A role model for young women, Schoolcraft says that she goes on live chats with fans on Facebook and Instagram without makeup.
“I don’t want them to have someone who’s kind of giving them a false idea of what’s really going on,” she says. “I want to show them what’s actually happening behind the camera. I feel like the women I looked up to in high school were very good at that. They were very real with the world.”
As women have shared their experiences with assault and harassment by way of the #MeToo movement, in the metal and hard rock communities, many have spoken out about their experiences of being harassed or assaulted at shows and of having worked with people who sexually assaulted them.
“I noticed that the sexism wasn’t as bad within the industry after that happened, but I mean, I don’t feel that it’s enough,” Schoolcraft continues. “I think what needs to happen is, and I hope [happens], is the next generation being brought up will abolish this idea that the woman is the weaker and the lesser.
“I don’t want anyone to deal with this anymore. … It’s exhausting. I’m always tired. … What it comes down to is that I have surrounded myself with a group of very strong women, and women in power, and women who look out for me and protect me.
“I feel very blessed for that.”
“If you are going to do it as a woman, you got to do it bigger and better than all the men can do it because they’re going to judge you immediately—and even all the women too,” Irizarry says at Wonder Bar. “Just everyone comes in with a sense of judgement sometimes. That’s very stressful, but it’s the reality of any entertainment industry.”
She continues: “In terms of image, I always feel like I have to straddle this fine line of, Okay, I can be an artist and I can be provocative in my image, but can I also be very provocative and intense in my artistry? When you see these magazines, there are so many different levels of judgement.”
Metal Hammer, a heavy metal magazine based out of the UK, published an issue last February celebrating women in metal. Featured interviews included Sharon Osbourne and Nightwish frontwoman Floor Jansen—yet most of the articles were written by men. Revolver, a hard rock magazine, publishes an annual ‘Hottest Women in Metal’ issue that features prominent women in the scene. No such male issue exists.
“I was actually in one of these issues and I was the 11th hottest, which is whatever the fuck,” Cowan says. “I think honestly, at that point it’s just a buzzword or a marketing thing. Everybody knows ‘female-fronted’ is not a genre.”
“Not everyone’s this hard shell all the time,” Irizarry says. “Sometimes it really hits your soul, but when you feel or build yourself to be strong enough to combat those things … that’s my responsibility now—to not let that trash get into my head.”
“I try to make sure when I go out there, I’m on my own line that I still feel respected in, but still feel like I can demand the attention that is required when I get on stage. The attention that comes from respect.”
“I think that women are insanely powerful, and I think that when there is insane power, there is insane opposition and things try to bring you down no matter what. And I think trusting your gut as a woman in whatever field you’re in—do it.”
“Define your own everything.”