Written by Chad Taylor
Women rock. Really, anyone with a mother should be able to confirm that for you, but in this case, I’m talking musically. For as long as people have been making music, women have been putting their indelible stamp on it. We’ve always had a soft spot for women in music because they face the two-headed dragon of not just needing to be good musicians, but doing so in a male-dominated industry and putting up with all the hardships that can sometimes entail. Maybe that’s why the women who succeed in music tend to stand out and shine so brightly. From the commanding, dominating voice of Billie Holliday, to the sneering punk of Debbie Harry; from Siouxsie Sioux’s goth, Lady Gaga’s glam and all that came before and will come after, the women we love in music are always forces to be reckoned with.
So too, are the women who rock our very own sound in the capital city. Much like the music industry as a whole, Des Moines’ music scene is largely a sausage-fest. But the women with the chops and the guts to make a go of it stand out like oases in the desert. There are brilliant women in Central Iowa bringing the heat in most any style of music you’d care to try. Here are three you should know.
“I call this my full-time job, and that’s a pretty wonderful thing.”
If there’s anyone in the Des Moines music scene who understands how wonderful life is, it’s Finken. Diagnosed with cancer in late 2004, the Knoxville native was faced with the prospect of her own life story finishing before her 30th birthday. When she was given the news the next year that she was cancer-free, it was a life-altering moment.
“I’m a single mom, and when I got sick, it really did scare me,” says Finken, who has a 12-year-old son. “When I was given the ‘you’re clear,’ I thought, ‘What do you want to do?’ and I love to sing.”
Finken, now 32, hit the ground running.
“I had a major surgery at the beginning of June 2005,” she says. “By July, they had said, ‘You’re clear,’ and by the end of July, I was in my first band. So it was a very immediate response.”
Finken understands that life is a constant state of flux. That understanding is reflected in her backing band, the Collective. “Some of the musicians I had recorded with kind of had their own projects, (and they said) ‘OK, we’re not necessarily going to give up those projects, but we’ll play with you too,’ ” she recalls. “Nobody would commit, but everyone wanted to play.”
It’s easy to see why. Over six years and three albums, Bonne Finken and the Collective have earned a reputation for putting on a rollicking live show. Finken’s a dervish on stage, moving with reckless abandon and displaying an energy level that’s surprising, even to her.
“It’s not (conscious) at all,” she says. “If anything, if I had control over it, I probably wouldn’t, because sometimes I’ll see pictures and it just makes me cry. (Guitarist) James (Biehn) calls it my ‘Bonne trance.’ I’ll go out for a song and I’m trying to get certain emotions through, and I’m just gone for three minutes at a time.”
The joy on stage and the passion that goes into her music are Finken’s true core. Being a woman in a male-dominated business is sometimes difficult, but Finken knows you can’t be afraid to crash the boys’ club.
“You don’t get as much respect. You do not,” she says. “You have to earn it, where sometimes the guys are given it. But the main thing I’ve found as an issue—and this is probably the main reason why I’m openly looking for a manager right now—is the innuendo. There’s a lot of that. The stereotype of the music scene is that they’re going to hit on you, and how you respond to that could make the difference (in the gig), and that’s real. That exists. I’ve never played into it, and I know it’s hurt me in some places. I know I’ve lost gigs because of it.”
She’s currently working with the Collective on her fourth album. “I want to focus on my music for a while,” she says. “We’ll probably do a few gigs around town, but I do have to choose what I focus on month to month. So now I’m getting ready for this fall and winter to just be an artist and really focus on my music and spend time on it.”
Sharika Soal understands the concept of fighting from the minority position. Being a woman in the male-dominated music industry can be difficult enough, but Soal is also one of the local scene’s few African-Americans as well.
“People outside of the African-American community may not be able to relate to what I’m saying, but I’m a dark-skinned woman,” the Chicago native says. “I’m not Rihanna. There are so many Beyonces, who are all light-skinned women, and in society, black people in general are told that if your skin is dark, you’re not pretty. So when I saw Tracy Chapman and Lauryn Hill being successful, it really gave me hope. It made me believe.”
Luckily, the 28-year-old Soal is no shrinking violet. From a YouTube channel that draws tens (or hundreds) of thousands of hits per video, to a band whose sound is loud, empowering and sassy, Soal’s modus operandi is all about tearing through preconceptions.
“I have had to break these doors down. (I said) ‘I’m just going to do awesome shit, and you guys are going to have to notice me,’” says Soal.
That plan of attack seems to be paying off. The Ames-based Ladysoal, made up of vocalist Soal, bassist Mallory Crain, lead guitarist Mike Meier and drummer Justin Whisler, is grabbing attention.
“I have had to work really hard, and that’s great, because now, major labels are like, ‘Hey, girl,’ Soal says. The band took a trip to Nashville earlier this year, and after a couple of intense meetings, they drove back to Ames with the ink drying on a new development deal.
“(The development deal) entails everything,” Soal says. “The first step is working with a producer. They will redo everything from our marketing to our image and merch. Then there’s the production side, and putting out an EP that’s so well produced that not only will our fans be really stoked but people who’ve never heard us before will be like, ‘damn.’”
The band will make several trips back to Nashville over the next year, working with a producer (Soal has requested that the label’s name be withheld for now) and fine-tuning Ladysoal into a major market force.
As of press time in August, production was beginning and Soal and the band were perfecting the new songs. “We need a more cohesive sound,” she says. “I want to stick to blues. People love a good beat, and people love the … blues. I want to combine those two under my vocals. Kind of Tina Turner meets The Black Keys.”
Musicians, be they male or female, typically approach their craft with a best-case scenario in mind for themselves. The idea of fame and fortune is something most musicians think about but are unwilling to hang too many hopes on because, if nothing else, they fear jinxing it. But listening to Soal, one gets a sense not so much of hopes and dreams, but rather of manifest destiny.
“It started when I was living in Atlanta and doing open mics,” she says. “But I didn’t start the band until I was 23 and I came back (to Ames) from Atlanta. (At first) it was just me and my guitar and it just progressed from there. It started as an idea that I know that Shakira (who is 35) is a rock star, and I know how I’m going to make that happen.”
Jen Allen is not afraid to put herself out there. Over the past two years, the Hath No Fury front woman has developed a reputation as a tireless promoter. If you’ve spent time around the local music scene, you’ve definitely heard her name, even if you’ve never heard her music.
“(Promotion) has been extremely important,” the Des Moines native says. “A couple of years ago, nobody knew who I was, and at (the) very least I knew that if that stayed the same, nobody was going to be at our shows either. So it became a networking thing. I became friends with as many bands and band members as I could. I just tried to learn. I spent a lot of time reading marketing and promotion blogs and reapplying things toward bands.”
Aside from constantly updating the information on her band’s Facebook page, the 29-year-old Allen has further developed her brand by freelance writing for the music blog “The Bigfoot Diaries,” as well as entering herself in the 2012 Lazer 103.3 Rock Girl contest (she finished third).
Another thing that makes Allen memorable to the people she meets is a more-than-passing resemblance to one of the longtime queens of rock. It’s a comparison Allen appreciates but doesn’t actively cultivate.
“I’ll be honest and say that I don’t own a Joan Jett CD and never have,” she says. “But I love what she’s done. She’s one of those early bad-ass chicks of rock who went through a lot to get there. But it’s not like I have a room devoted to her or anything.”
Being in such public view, however, does come with its drawbacks, and all of our women rockers have handled their fair share of conjecture, freshly ground from the rumor mill. Not surprisingly, it doesn’t stop them.
“Mostly I think (the rumors are) funny,” Allen says. “From what I can tell, most of the time, the rumors are incredibly off base. But people are going to talk, and it doesn’t really matter. Best-case scenario, maybe people come to a show and see what’s going on.”
Another trait all three of our rockers share is motherhood, and Allen understands the importance of a strong female role model in the lives of young girls.
“I was shy for a lot of years, so I think that just being out there talking to people and doing what I love is a pretty positive role model,” she says.
Despite outward appearances to the contrary, confidence is something that Allen has had to cultivate, a process made easier through the comfort and shelter of bandmates. “When I played my acoustic solo shows, I was terrified and would often hyperventilate before I’d go on,” she says. “And even now, if I play a show by myself, I’ll always walk off stage with my hands shaking. But when I walk on stage with a band, it feels like being home.”
In some respects, Allen is looking for a new home at the moment. Hath No Fury has undergone an overhaul to its lineup that sees Allen standing as the band’s lone original member.
“I’ve got a number of people I’m practicing with right now,” she says. “We’re not quite ready to throw it out there for the world to see yet, but it’s going to be more cohesive than it was.”
Chad Taylor, a Des Moines freelance writer, has covered music for dsm magazine and for Cityview for the past year. He also recently hung out with Joan Jett and, at the slightest provocation, will not hesitate to tell you all about it.