Fran Newton interviews author and DJ Gill Loats, an expert on Bristol’s female music scene.
I like to think Bristol’s music scene is good in terms of gender representation. In three years here, I’ve seen Chastity Belt at The Exchange, Laura Marling at Colston Hall, Vagabon at Thekla, Nilufer Yanya (also at Thekla), Marika Hackman (don’t judge me, I love Thekla), and more other brilliant woman musicians than I’ve got space to list here. But when I think about bands from Bristol, the ones who made it big, the ones who pop up on that little strip at the top on Google – it’s Massive Attack, or Portishead, or Idles. Almost exclusively (creds to Portishead), they’re made up of dudes.
Ever has it been so. For the new edition of The Bristol Recorder (a magazine and vinyl, which is relaunching next month after a three-decade hiatus), Gill Loats – DJ at the famous ‘80s Bristol club The Dug Out, and author of Bristol Boys Make More Noise – has written a comprehensive map of Bristol’s forgotten female music scene. I met up with her in a café near M-Shed to find out where them girls at.
For Gill, getting into music was about thrift. ‘It was all about getting on the guest list, basically,’ she tells me. ‘Everything we went to, we just didn’t want to pay. I worked in The Dug Out on the bar at first, because I didn’t want to pay for drinks, or pay to get in, and then it just sort of evolved.’ Everyone else she knew was doing music, so she thought she might as well give DJing a go. ‘Basically, I said to the bloke who ran The Dug Out, ‘can I have a go at that?’, and he went, ‘well, yeah, alright.’’
Being a woman in a boy’s club didn’t feel like a big obstacle at the time. It’s only on looking back that she really notices any problems she encountered, but she always knew that she was different. ‘There was a bit of doubt. I knew I had to prove myself, more than if I’d been a bloke.’ After her first time on the decks, she quickly learned how that difference manifested itself. ‘I studied the people dancing on the dancefloor and knew how to keep them on there by knowing what was making them tick. Blokes tended to make it more about themselves.’
Gill’s returning to the decks for a Dug Out reunion this week, and she knows that difference hasn’t gone away. ‘I feel like I’m going to be judged. I wonder whether women are more susceptible to that – I wonder if men feel that way. If I’m playing something that doesn’t work, I will change it. I can’t bear to lose people from the dancefloor. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that when people come up and ask for stuff. You can go wrong by wanting to please – which is also a problem a lot of women have, unfortunately.’
So what about the women she’s been researching? When I ask who had the most interesting story, Gill is torn between two forgotten icons: Clara Butt – a six-foot-two contralto who was barred from entry to the world of opera because of her height, and who organised an early form of Live Aid during World War I – and Naomi St Clair (also known as Sissy or Evee, depending on when you look). Her grandfather came over to Bristol from Barbados, and there’s a photograph of her in a family archive – ‘definitely a publicity shot,’ Gill tells me – and a reference to her being a singer; other than that, nothing. ‘If there’s anyone whose story particularly interested me, it’s her,’ says Gill. ‘She’s the one I really wanted to find out about.’
Familiar names also pop up in our conversation. ‘Angela Carter was married to a guy called Paul Carter, who I used to know,’ she recalls. ‘They ran a folk club in The Lansdown in Clifton. There was a recent exhibition on her at the RWA, and there was a pencil drawing in there of them playing at the folk club. She was a musician as well, and I think she wrote some songs, possibly.’ I’m briefly ashamed of my lack of local feminist literary knowledge and earmark The Lansdown for a pint. The only other name I know is Bananarama: ‘Bristol does not celebrate the fact that they came from here,’ Gill says, a little annoyed. ‘It’s almost like they’re a sort of embarrassment. I think that pattern comes in a lot with women.’ I also earmark their song ‘Venus’ for a PJ-clad dance-around when I get home.
The mystery of Naomi St Clair is part of a wider problem of Bristol forgetting or ignoring its female musicians. I ask if this is related to men being seen as the primary consumers of music, as well as the performers. She says yes, agreeing with me that the male taste generally is the default – the decider of what’s culturally worthwhile. ‘It has traditionally been that men are the consumers and that us women are the consumers of the sort of frippery of music – the stuff that’s not taken very seriously.’
I’m hoping that Gill will tell me we can look forward to a brighter future for women on the Bristol music scene, but she’s unsure. ‘I think there are more women on the scene. Whether they’re getting a good deal or not – you’d have to ask them.’ And, despite the topic of her research, she’s surprisingly gallant about the ‘supportive men’ surrounding and encouraging the women on the scene. ‘Give them a little pat on the back,’ she says, ‘for being good.’
Thankfully, there are some good omens: Gill notes Saffron Records – Bristol’s all-female record label – and Bristol Women in Music’s DJing classes as signs that things are improving. When I ask if there are any good club nights or regular shows where I might be able to catch Bristolian female acts, she laughs and tells me she’s too old for that sort of thing. If not clubbing, maybe writing – I ask her if there’s another book in the works about Bristol’s musical women. She tells me she doesn’t have time for it right now, but that ‘it’s in my brain’.
That doesn’t mean Gill’s letting go of her female focus, though. She’s putting on a fashion show about the Bristol music scene at M-Shed in September, focusing on its women, and is currently helping to ensure that their coming exhibition on Bristol music does enough justice to the female musicians that it could leave out. In terms of feminism, ‘I think there are lots of opportunities – this year, particularly – to make sure everything one does feeds into it in some way,’ she tells me. ‘Over the last year or so, I’ve felt really enthused again about feminism. Women have seen an opportunity.’ Gill’s research is just the start of addressing the forgotten women of Bristol’s past. In terms of both her work and Bristol’s her-story, there’s going to be more. ‘This isn’t the end of it,’ she says.
Gill’s article, ‘Bristol Girls Make More Noise’, will be published in the new issue of The Bristol Recorder, which is launching on 27th April with a party at Rough Trade – the Facebook event is linked here: https://www.facebook.com/events/411440755982039/.
Illustration by Sophia Marshall.