Tamara Schlesinger, better known as solo artist MALKA, is founder and director of Hen Hoose, an all-female songwriting collective based in Glasgow. The collaborative project is a response to music industry inequality, which brings together an impressive array of talent including Stina Tweeddale (Honeyblood), Karine Polwart, Elisabeth Elektra, Emma Pollock (The Delgados), Amandah Wilkinson (Bossy Love), Suse Bear, and Carla J. Easton.
We chatted to Tamara to find out about the game plan now the initiative has launched.
As a lecturer in Music Business, what is it like engaging with young adults in music and did this inspire Hen Hoose?
I’m always really excited to get the chance to engage with young adults beginning their music industry career. Interestingly, my latest intake is mainly women, but the previous year was all men. I don’t think that’s directly inspired the collective, but having an awareness when you’re teaching about the gender balance stats, along with the options available to women, has certainly hammered the point home to me even further. It seems the gender gap is a lot more visible when it comes to technical aspects of music in Higher Education.
As I said, I’ve a lot of young women in my current first year intake and aside from the previous year, I’ve always had fairly good gender balance in my classes. But noticeably, some of those women made the choice to move away from Audio Production after the first week of teaching. In part, I think that’s due to the fact they’re often the only woman on the course, but also because it’s really important to have role models.
With just 12 percent of music producers registered at The Music Producers Guild being women, perhaps there just aren’t enough role models for those women to believe that they can go on to make a career in those areas.
So, another area where we essentially need to reach girls from a younger age?
I think, yes – we need to be looking to schools to encourage young girls to believe that they can be high achievers in roles they might have previously been discouraged from pursuing. I think there’s often been an imbalance when it comes to selecting careers and the expectation of what role a woman would suit compared to a man.
In the context of ‘you’ve got to see it to want to be it’, there’s still a way to go?
We just need to find a way to even things up. I am so sick of the talent that we have making incredible music, playing fantastic live shows, and not getting the visibility they deserve. Without gender balance across the industry there will not be the changes that are required to ensure everyone is getting the same opportunities. Without seeing more women as CEOs of labels, or producing big acts or writing big hits, younger girls can aspire to achieve but possibly not really believe that they can make it.
I hope that Hen Hoose will be something that will encourage young girls to see the talent that already exists and the changes that we are trying to make to even the playing field a little bit.
What are the attitudes of the young people you are engaging with?
I would say there’s a strong awareness of the gender imbalance on both sides, and for the most part everyone believes that things need to change, and that they can make the difference themselves.
And the industry?
It’s the industry that seems to be slow on the uptake here. While some festivals and bookers have signed up with the Keychange initiative [formed by PRS to encourage a 50/50 gender split on line-ups with just over 150 events registered] many have not. And creating a stage just for women (see TRNSMT and their Queen Tut’s stage) is just a complete slap in the face for artists who deserve to be playing the same stages as men and don’t need a ‘little stage’ to allow them to grow.
Also, recent stats about both the roles and the income of women working at record labels are pretty dispiriting, and on top of that we have the issue that female songwriters still only make up 14 percent of signings across UK publishing companies. So, I would say many are aware that changes need to be made, but not so many companies or bookers are doing enough yet.
What’s your view on the responsibility of bookers, venues and labels to book and nurture talent in a way that ensures opportunities for women?
I think everyone has a responsibility within their roles to try to both balance and diversify their rosters. They can still try to argue that there aren’t enough women to book for headline slots but to be honest, that just won’t fly anymore. There are outstanding female artists who are huge and can sell out arenas (Billie Eilish, Taylor Swift, St. Vincent, Björk, to name a few) and there’s exceptional talent coming through. The labels need to be signing more female talent and the bookers just need to open their ears and eyes.
How have industry professionals reacted to your brainchild, Hen Hoose?
For the most part there’s been great support, with both men and women showing a real interest in the project and throwing their support behind it. There’s also some other great organisations forming to try and level the playing field, such as Scottish Women Inventing Music (SWIM) and The F-List, so we’re all supporting each other to gather momentum and shine a light on the issues.
Can you elaborate on the support aspect that’s available within Hen Hoose?
It was something I felt the need to create due to the current situation that myself and so many artists found ourselves in, with depleted income streams and lack of touring due to Covid-19. I’d been writing to brief, pitching for adverts, and decided to work more on that while I was stuck at home. Then the idea of bringing on other writers came to me, because not only would it be great to collaborate, but so many creatives were in the same position.
I wanted to encourage female writers to take on new roles they may not always have felt they could and to work in different genres. Together, we’re building our confidence as writers and producers. At the moment, this is the pilot of the project with funding received from Creative Scotland, so the writers get paid for their time. I hope this is just the beginning and we can grow the idea to bring on even more writers over the coming months.
Now that Hen Hoose has launched, what have the internal conversations been like?
There is just a huge amount of excitement and support within the project. I think it’s so easy for women to be pitted against each other in the industry, to fall into the traps of ‘she sounds like her’, or ‘she is better than her’ or even ‘we already have someone that looks or sounds like her’. In reality, with so few slots for gigs and signings, it’s not a surprise to feel that there might be a competitive element.
But this project is full of balance – everyone is equal, encouraging, self-believing and supportive. The feedback from the group after listening to the first batch of songs was incredible, and in general, the writers are energised about growing in confidence with what they can achieve. Which was really the main purpose of starting Hen Hoose.
The talent involved with Hen Hoose is diverse and staggering, with many known as advocates for females in a male-dominated industry. How did the current members come to be a part of it?
When I first came up with the idea, I approached a few of the women I’d already met and built up a friendship with. Once I knew there was interest and excitement about the project, I went on to ask others. I also had some recommendations from people that I had worked with in the industry about who to approach. And yes, you are right, the line-up is diverse and indeed staggering! I had to pinch myself when I had the final names.
What is the experience like bringing solo artists together for collaboration?
Is there an overriding sound emerging or voice that represents everyone? That’s an interesting question. I guess you’d need to ask each group about how the dynamic has been with each song, but for me I have found it so inspiring. You’ll hear a melody going in a direction with someone or a song building in a different way, and then the other writer throws their idea in and you think, wow… I didn’t think of that! Then it just opens your mind further and expands your own ideas. If you trust and respect the other writer, you will find a balance that is a mix of both of you and something that could never have existed without the other person’s involvement.
With regards to a sound emerging… actually, we had a listening party just before Christmas featuring three songs, and although they are different themes and styles, they all fit together in a way that would work on an album. It’s early days, but exciting to see how they’ll all sound pieced together as a whole.
Can you tell us more about the Hen Hoose album?
We are currently aiming to write 15 songs. Some writers want to do more and others less, but the majority will do at least two songs for the project. We’re grouped together and working to briefs, but there’s a real sense of freedom and expression. The hope is that if we are all proud and happy with what we’ve created, we’ll then go on to release the works as an album, along with pitching the songs to sync [for use in TV and film].
After hearing the first batch of songs, I would be surprised if we didn’t go ahead and do this. The format that we release in will have to be discussed and we’ll work out the best route for that when the time comes.
Main image credit: Chelsea Lowe