NadaMucho.com Interview – ROCKRGRL
Interview with Founder Carla DeSantis
By Chris McCann
Carla DeSantis founded ROCKRGRL magazine in 1994. Since then, it has become the groundbreaking publication focusing on women in music. There are no interviews about perfume or make-up, just strong, smart, fun articles on the music business and interviews with innovative female artists.
I recently spoke with Carla about her magazine and the 2005 ROCKRGRL music conference, held in Seattle from November 10-12.
Nada Mucho: ROCKRGRL has evolved from a 14-page, black-and-white photocopied ‘zine in 1994 to a full-color glossy bi-monthly magazine. When did you know you had something special that was going to be around for a long time? Are you surprised at its enduring popularity?
Carla DeSantis: Honestly, it’s been a struggle every step of the way. I felt I had discovered something special from the beginning because, at the time, ROCKRGRL was the ONLY place where female musicians were given any respect for [their] musicianship. But I was a lone voice. Many women did not want to be associated with anything to do with “gender,” even though the point wasn’t to say, “You’re good because you’re a female,” but rather to create more resources for women who, until then, only had Rolling Stone and Guitar World to draw inspiration from.
I guess I’m surprised that the point still needs to be made. Sadly, women really haven’t achieved parity on hard-rock radio playlists. There are a thousand Green Day clones yet only one all-female band like The Donnas. I see hundreds of bands like that every day; they just don’t get the opportunities that other bands do. We are lucky in Seattle to live in a community that fosters and nurtures creativity and equality but that doesn’t always happen in other places.
NM: You likened ROCKRGRL to AA, where the success of the group is in helping people feel less isolated. That’s what I’ve tried to do for women who play music. When did you realize that there was a need for this community? How successful do you feel you’ve been?
CDS: As a musician, I knew very few female musicians. I really longed for a way to connect with other women to see if my experiences – not being waited on in music stores, “good for a girl” comments, etc. – were unique. They weren’t. I guess I would base success on the fact that the magazine is around ten years later, but that is also somewhat of a failure that there still needs to be [this] resource and that the mainstream magazines rarely feature female artists.
NM: Do you see ROCKRGRL as an evangelizing force to change people’s opinions about women in music, a forum for those already in the community to help strengthen already existing bonds, or something else entirely?
CDS: I guess I want both. I want the industry to be held accountable for not signing talented females who may not be a size zero or 16 years old. I think our culture suffers when diverse voices are not heard. Sometimes people with the most to say don’t come in a supermodel package. I am NOT saying that important art cannot be made by a supermodel, but I am frustrated with the industry for often trying to turn beautiful people with no discernible talent into superstars. I want to hear music that makes me feel something.
NM: You once said, “I want to live long enough to see that ROCKRGRL doesn’t have to exist.” Reading some of the stories posted on the ROCKRGRL message boards, it seems that sexism is still alive and well in bands, clubs, and music stores nationwide. Is it getting better?
CDS: I see steps forward and backward. I thought it was great that Lilith Fair sold out all its shows, proving there is indeed a market for female artists. But there was a backlash that Lilith didn’t have enough “hard” artists. I don’t think that Sarah McLachlan and Kittie belong on the same event and that that criticism is part of the deeper female-suspect mindset in the culture. On the other hand, we have to be careful to not create a deeper ghetto for ourselves. It’s a fine line. We are open to all voices – even women who don’t consider themselves “feminists.” To me, the fact that they are working as a rarity in music is a feminist act in itself.
NM: How did the conference evolve?
CDS: I had just returned from a conference in New Orleans in 1998 where there was a day [devoted to] “women-in-music.” Over dinner and several drinks with Indiegrrl founder Holly Figueroa (talk about inspiration!) we concocted the idea to do a SXSW-style event for the ladies.
NM: What were your personal highlights from the last conference in 2000?
CDS: If I could actually remember any of it…
I think having so many women who have been influences on me in one room was staggering. I’ve always adored Ronnie Spector, admired Amy Ray, and worshiped Ann Wilson. What can I say about Courtney Love? That was a really great time in her life, [she was] in between dramas. To think about all these people coming here, on their own dime, to participate in this was incredible. Performers like Wanda Jackson, Jill Sobule, Kim Richey, The Gossip, Penelope Houston, Melissa Ferrick, Shannon Curfman – many ages and styles were represented.
NM: Was there anything you wish you had done differently? Are there any major changes in the format for this year?
CDS: Being the first time, I was terrified that no one would show up! We are cutting back showcases from three nights to two because attendance the first night was low and we don’t want to compete with our Woman of Valor dinner; although there will be a few performances on Thursday night, it will be contained.
NM: Who do you think should attend the conference?
CDS: Especially women who want to learn how to really take control of their own careers, which doesn’t mean exclusively indie artists. We also want people who are interested in hearing more music from great female artists you may not hear on the radio.
NM: Why Seattle?
CDS: I’ve always said that [Seattle is] smack-dab in the middle of Lilith Fair in Vancouver and Riot Grrl in Olympia, which makes this hallowed ground. [Seattle] is a great place where people really walk the talk. People who are political and progressive live here on purpose.
NM: Can you give us a few highlights from the panels and workshops at this year’s conference?
CDS: We will have everything from individual round-tables, where publicists, journalists, and label owners will get together for their own town hall meetings, to panels on the “Musician Personality” and “Life After Birth: Can You be a Mom and a Musician Too?” We’ll also discuss building community, another thing Seattle nurtures. We want things to be light-hearted, but the topics are very serious.
NM: Why has ROCKRGRL chosen to honor Patti Smith at the Woman of Valor Award Banquet this year?
CDS: When we ask people about their influences, Patti’s name is at the top of the list. She has been such an inspiration to so many artists, male and female. She was the first punk artist signed to a major label. It may seem like no big deal now, but “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine” was serious heresy back in the ’70s. Thank God for Patti.