Care to adventure beyond the Taylor Swift phenomenon? Check out these five talented and diverse women musicians.
Back in 2018, I was hearing the phrase “The Future is Female” a lot. My response was that the present — in music at least — was also largely female. As proof, I began writing these “five female artist” pieces periodically. It was a way to showcase female artists who were either new or had been around for awhile but were operating under the radar.
This latest group of five female artists is diverse, to say the least. In terms of race, age, sexual orientation and even genre, they have little in common with each other. What they share is talent. You may not enjoy the music of all five of these women, but it’s doubtful that one or two of them won’t strike your fancy. With any luck, they won’t be operating under the radar much longer!
Tianna Esperanza’s debut album Terror is arguably the most arresting debut of 2023. But the young singer’s back story is almost as interesting as her music. Esperanza grew up queer and multi-racial in a lovely but very white community on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Her grandmother happens to be Paloma “Palmolive” McLardy — the original drummer for The Slits (the first all-female punk band in England!). So one could argue that music is in Esperanza’s DNA. But Terror is not a punk rock album. In fact, its 10 songs defy categorization completely when taken as a whole. “Three Straight Bitches from Hell” is both funny and painful as Esperanza describes one disastrous date after another. “Granada,” meanwhile, is a lovely ballad sung in Spanish.
But the title track of Terror, which opens the album, is so powerful that it’s difficult to listen to. In a voice that’s slightly reminiscent of Eartha Kitt, she recounts a series of personal tragedies ranging from the death of her infant brother to sexual assault. “The lyrics in ‘Terror’ are all true experiences I had,” says Esperanza. “It’s not always easy singing that song, but I often feel empowered by [it]. Sometimes, someone will come up to me and tell me how moved they were by ‘Terror’ and it makes my performance [more] worthwhile. [But it’s still frightening to have a very intimate part of my life accessible to anyone.”
As for having a grandmother who was in a seminal punk rock band, she says, “Growing up with my Abuela was the best because she really has it all — classic warm Spanish grandma but also is an original punk rocker?! She’s really fucking cool, hilarious and inspiring.”
If her debut album is any indication, Esperanza is doing her grandmother proud.
Singer-songwriter Jaimee Harris released her sophomore album, Boomerang Town, this past spring. It’s a winning collection of 10 songs informed as much by traditional country music as by Bruce Springsteen. The lengthy title track in particular is reminiscent of songs like “Thunder Road.” Harris is currently based in Nashville but was born in rural Texas. “’Boomerang Town’ had to be the title track, because all the stories on the record are wrapped around it in some way,” she explains. “The record is a collection of stories inspired by my hometown and my upbringing. So many of the individual songs have cyclical themes: grief, addiction [and so on]. Hanging it all on the hook of the town that shaped me and its larger cyclical metaphor made creative and emotional sense to me.”
Harris also had the interesting experience of growing up queer in an Evangelical family. This was a two-sided coin for her. “My family never, ever made me feel unloved or unwanted,” she tells me. “They certainly never weaponized the Bible or any church language to make me feel like I was less than for being an addict, being a troubadour, or being queer. [But] unfortunately, that was not my experience with people I had been close to in the church… When I slowly dissolved from the church, I really missed being in community with other people who were asking spiritual questions. But I’ve found those communities exist outside of the church structure. Honestly, I’ve had more spiritual conversations and gone deeper into community work in this troubadour life. I still have a deep faith, but I have no desire to define it or to align it with any religion.”
Earlier this summer, the Brooklyn-based band Big Girl released their debut disc, the wonderfully titled Big Girl vs. God. Fronted by Kaitlin Pelkey, who actually grew up in Miami, Big Girl is a punk rock band — sort of! While “Mother Tongue” and the opening track, “Instructions 2 Say Sorry,” veer more into punk rock territory, the band is also capable of a song like “Forever,” which is a moving tribute to Pelkey’s late mother.
“My Mom, Catherine, was a very cool lady,” says Pelkey. “She was a jazz singer and filled my head with fantastical stories about New York City, where she lived throughout the ‘70s. There’s this incredible black and white photo of her sitting at her typewriter in her apartment in the Village… It’s hard for me to conceptualize the finality of death,” she continues. “So I imagine [my Mom] now in her younger body, free of pain, sitting at her typewriter, dancing and singing around her old apartment. I actually was staying in her old bedroom this summer. I could feel so much of her presence and spirit in there.”
In addition to playing originals, Big Girl has been known to cover “Voulez Vous” by ABBA! When I ask if she’s a fan, Pelkey replies, “I AM A FAN. Big Girl as a band is one big fan of ABBA. I had a CD of their hits as a kid and I used to play it on my boombox and make up dance routines in my backyard, watching myself in the mirrored back door. Formative is an understatement!”
Sheillah Molelekwa — or Sheillah Mo, as she’s sometimes known — has worn many hats in her 30 years. She has already been an actor, a mentor, a beauty pageant winner (representing Botswana in the 2012 Miss Universe pageant), a reality TV star and a singer. Though she has yet to record a full album, Sheillah has released several songs — both on her own and with various DJs — that have charted in her native Africa. However, it took her awhile to even hear popular music, let alone record it! Before moving to Botswana, she was raised by her late grandmother in a small village.
“She raised me under very strict religious rules, under the Seventh Day Adventist Church,” explains Sheillah. “So I grew up listening to Gospel music. I really didn’t know much about secular music, except hearing it from my friends singing along to songs in primary schools… When I was away from my grandmother, I would listen to music that was played in a nearby bar. It’s called Splash — disco [in America]. Before that, I was just an a capella Gospel kind of girl. [But] I knew that I [could] sing when I was seven years old, in church.”
One of the prettiest songs Sheillah has recorded to date is “By My Side,” a collaboration with producer DJ Kuchi. “I had just finished a breakup,” she recalls. “My ex is also a celebrity. I felt like in that relationship, I was not heard. And I also felt worthless and unimportant to some extent. ‘What exactly is missing in me that’s making this man want attention from other women,?’ You know how it is when you’re in the public eye. People date someone that they know is already dating you and they rub it in your face. Just to say, ‘There really isn’t anything special about you. You are a celebrity, but we can still have your man.’ I was able to move on after writing [‘By My Side’].”
Clearly, it was her ex’s loss.
I YA TOYAH
Ania Tarnowska — who records under the nom de rock I Ya Toyah — is based in Chicago but actually grew up in Poland. “My parents told me that I had been reacting to music since I was born,” she says. “I grew up surrounded by all kinds of music — dark metal and horror soundtracks were always my favorite but I [also] loved jazz, rock, and electronic music since I can remember. Then there was classical music which always gave me this transcendent vibe — a sense of permanency.” Her own music leans toward the industrial side of rock.
At the moment, Tarnowska is recording her next album which will be the follow-up to last year’s EP Ghosts (which included the dramatic song “Time Machine”). “For the first time, I’m expanding my production team [and] inviting prominent industry names to collaborate,” she says. “[It’s] an honor to be working with my idols and heroes. [They] are helping me with the process and assuring me it’s okay to push the boundaries to reach the absolute level of authenticity — to the moment it hurts.”