Invasion of the lady singers hits Minnesota

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MN Daily Editors note: The author of this article incorrectly attributed a statement in the seventh paragraph concerning the perceived merit of female musicians. The statement in question was gathered from a third-party source and incorrectly attributed. The individual in question was not interviewed for this piece. The portion has since been removed.

What constitutes a trend? Furthermore, who’s responsibility is it to deem it a movement when it blossoms into something more? In Minneapolis, for those with their ears to the ground … err … PA systems, it’s obvious something is taking shape within the local music scene. In browsing the playlists from 89.3 The Current’s “The Local Show,” the archives are spotted with female singer/songwriters and offer few male counterparts.

In the early part of the decade, Minneapolis became a Mecca for underground hip-hop. While many of today’s Y-chromosome lacking singer/songwriters are reluctant to put a label on anything, it certainly seems a similar movement is looming.

Safe to say, if this is a movement, it’s a pure one. There are no suits pulling the strings, manipulating research data or telling these ladies how to sing. What’s happening is happening purely and independently. Head of local indie label Afternoon Records Ian Anderson feels the tide shifting, too. “Remember back when we were kids, the big female vocalists we knew about were Britney Spears , Jewel , Christina Aguilera and stuff?” he asks. “Those were all untouchable female figures, whereas within the last five years, Neko Case , Feist — any number of those — are all tangible, identifiable singer/songwriters.”

But was it the national trend that acted as the catalyst for our own local boom? Anderson thinks so. “They [national indie singer/songwriters] inspire people to play music, specifically young women.” Anderson said. “They [local women] love music they can connect to.”

Anderson does see some cause for cynicism as well, cautiously stating that folks here are smart, and it’s no secret that female singers trend and sell more easily than males. Still, Anderson sides with the positive notion that this movement is rooted in organics. “As we get older, our collective age group’s talent is getting better. The amount of female singers is a direct descendant of how many have become popular in the broader indie circle.”

Bob Longmore, a former editor of the popular Minneapolis music blog How Was the Show? and current freelancer, aligns with Anderson in dubbing what’s happening a trend, but with reservations as well. “[I think it’s] more the style of music that’s popular,” Longmore states. “[It’s a] folky, old-timey music that showcases songwriting.” But is gender a complete nonfactor? “Maybe [it’s] more prominent with women,” Longmore ventures. “It’s a valid point and worth talking about.”

Longmore also senses an element of prejudice being peeled away. According to him, women are frequently relegated as inferior musicians and unfairly so — a sentiment also expressed by Lucy Michelle of Lucy Michelle and the Velvet Lapelles. But, as Michelle professes, “If you’re good, people like you. If you’re a good musician, people will like what you do.”

If this is a trend, a positive one, and in the process of happening, where’s it going? It’s safe to say this movement is still in the early stages. With most of the young, burgeoning starlets barely out of college and only one record in, there’s no way to tell how impactful the female singer/songwriter upswing will end up being. For young Twin Cities music fans too young to witness the hip-hop boom of the early 2000s, this is an exciting opportunity.

The following are players who may make the Twin Cities home to Lilith Fair 2.0.

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Haley Bonar

Bonar, originally of South Dakota but based out of Minneapolis, is the most polished female singer/songwriter in town. In the process of being courted by major labels, she’s already laid out three superb independent label full-lengths including last year’s “Big Star.”

A multi-trick pony, Bonar can sing a country-tinged pop ditty one second, and deliver a track of layered, atmospheric chamber pop the next. Her biggest draw, though, is her painfully earnest voice, which weaves through a litany of emotional plateaus. As further evidence of her potential, indie mega-star Andrew Bird has taken Bonar under his “wing” as the two have shared the stage several times. Major label status seems almost inevitable for Bonar, but her career’s foundation is wholly Minnesotan.

Caroline Smith

Caroline Smith is the baby of the group. The enigmatic indie folker is still pursuing a college degree at the University and is erecting a promising career in the process. Smith possess both the most energetic and accessible sound in the group. Her band, The Goodnight Sleeps, provide Smith with an upbeat folk-rock bounce that she tops off with her throaty, mid-register croon. It’s all done with a decidedly (albeit subtle) punk energy and the result is irresistible pop.

Lucy Michelle

Lucy Michelle performs with her band — the five-piece Velvet Lapelles — in the billing. While the band is extremely adequate in their own right, employing heavy doses of ukulele, piano, accordion, whistles and cello, the outfit is clearly Michelle’s vehicle. And when considering Michelle, it’s impossible not to summon the word “charming.” That’s not to say she’s lacking depth, but Michelle’s high-register chirp is delivered in such a way that the inherent charm is unavoidable

Michelle is unsure if she’s part of a movement, but does acknowledge the developing scene for female musicians. “There’re a lot of really talented women musicians and it goes unrecognized,” Michelle said. “Maybe they’re being promoted better or maybe tastes have changed.”

Aby Wolf

Although still very much youthful, 28-year-old Wolf is the elder of this group. Perhaps because of this, she also possesses the most complex sound. Originally from a minuscule town in Illinois, Wolf is now a Minneapolis fixture. Unlike the rather safe folk realms her contemporaries operate out of, Wolf borrows from elements of R&B, jazz and ambience to flesh out her folk leanings.

Despite the differences, Wolf is thrilled with the recent female artist movement. “It’s incredibly inspiring to witness young women standing up and presenting their artistic expressions,” Wolf said. To Wolf, there’s an element of healthy parody, too. “Every time anyone of us does something that has to do with art, it affects everyone in the community,” Wolf said. “I’ve definitely taken some hints from other girls out there.”

Dessa

More famous because of her membership in the Doomtree hip-hop collective, Dessa has been focusing on her solo work as of late. Originally a basketball recruit to the University of Minnesota, a devastating knee injury turned into an opportunity as the time away from basketball allowed Dessa time to hone her musical chops. Very much of the poetic/bohemian bent, she lists her musical influences simply as “David Eggers, Lauryn Hill and my father.”

A published poet, Dessa’s music is decidedly emotive and drives itself with her spookily dense (and slightly hip-hop-tinged) arrangements. Although she’s known more as a rapper, there’s an endearing sincerity in the confidently hushed vocals on her 2005 debut “False Hopes.” For Dessa, her gender and its scene impact are secondary. “I probably consider my gender infrequently,” Dessa said. “To be honest, I’m simultaneously trying to build my career and learn about the scene.” About her own role in the scene, she adds, “I’m more of a practitioner then a scholar.”

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