It’s Women’s History Month. And so in honor of all that is good in the world—that’s you, ladies—we wanted to call attention to one female pioneer in the music industry from the early 1970’s.
As a preeminent lesbian-feminist folk musician, Cris Williamson is considered the progenitor of Women’s Music. She started the first all-women record label, fiercely encouraging women to write, produce, record and issue their own material on their own terms. She’s also an activist for women’s issues, as well as Native American rights, and teaches songwriting workshops several times a year.
Williamson is currently on a nationwide tour for the 30th anniversary of her seminal album, The Changer and the Changed, one of the best-selling independent releases of all time. I talked to her by phone, while she was on break at her home in Seattle.
MAUI TIME WEEKLY: How’s the tour going?
CRIS WILLIAMSON: It’s been a remarkable response from the album. [People who come to the show] know every inch of it. They look around as if they’ve stumbled into a cult—it’s so positive and so beautiful. While it is so reminiscent of the powerful women’s movement in the 70’s, when we were carving out space in the wilderness, now there are people who do them all the time. It’s not just a huge thing. There were a lot of barriers that got melted back then. There are a lot of bad connotations of the word “nostalgia,” but it’s just a turn towards home and who among us doesn’t need a turn towards home.
It sounds like people are finding comfort in your album again, 30 years after its release.
I think all good works of art need to have a firm grounding in the past with a finger pointing towards to the future and a finger firmly pointing in the now. And people come to the show leave full when they didn’t know they were empty. It’s a waterfall sort of experience. I think it’s important to remember that sense of community. How appropriate is it that our local sponsor is Women Helping Women? It didn’t exist in the ‘70’s but it does everywhere now. It is primarily women who care about women’s issues.
It’s no surprise that women care so deeply and so much. And this music has been instrumental in just that same way—it has a lifeline. There are so many stories, and from men, too, that “this music has saved my life.” That brings with it a great and powerful responsibility and I am thrilled to accept it. I’m doing what I want. I don’t know if you can ever do enough but at least I’m doing something.
Do you ever tire of the pressures of being an iconic figure in women’s music?
I don’t. I get tired physically sometimes. I’d be heart sore if that ever fell off. Or I’d done it so well that nobody needs me anymore. But I’ll be doing this forever. I’ll probably even do a 50th anniversary tour. They’ll have to wheel me out there! And it’ll just be one tune. ‘Cause the show will be at noon! But it’s the human condition to have tremendous loneliness, and there’s a real connection with music. It unites people cellularly—it isn’t just through the ears. Even people who are hearing impaired can feel it.
Music is like water for thirsty people. That’s what we’re bringing. We just gotta make sure the people get there. We’re really, really looking forward to it, to feel the special nature of Maui.
You have a very poetic way of speaking.
Poets have that nature. Poetry isn’t just some obscure thing, it’s one sense of the world, and the poet’s job is to articulate that. It’s just a slant of light, really, in an ordinary world, so that people can see it, too. What’s the use of doing it as a solo venture in the world? I’m interested in how we’re all alike.
What are your plans for after the tour?
Working on new songs. I’m going back into my sense of place, my favorite place where I grew up in the Rockies, places I knew best. I’m reading lots of journals of ranch women, who’ll write a poem about calves birthing. I admire the ability to do difficult, hard manual work and stick to it, because nobody will ever pay you your worth. I think that’s spectacular. Because nobody will ever pay you what you’re worth, what makes it worthwhile is if you have a conversation with the world and maybe it will be of value to somebody else. Mothers, musicians, etc. are all like that.
It seems you found your worth early on, by empowering women through your music, and starting the Olivia label.
I started the first women’s recording company because I knew all these great female musicians and then they get out and there’s no place to play, because they’re women. Talent isn’t gender directed. Talent just appears magically and beautifully. It’s some special way of light and the giving back of it. Nobody ever pays us enough for what we do. Almost all of us give it to the world for free because it is our job. But we have to figure out our value. That so matters.
How many older musicians, when they’re in their 70’s, turn around and have nothing? Meanwhile the Rolling Stones are getting terribly rich, and not giving anything back to the masters, the giants before them. It’s like there are beautiful old people sweeping the road for the young people to tread and they’re looking oddly at the old people, like “who’s that?”
How do you think the industry has changed since you recorded The Changer and the Changed 30 years ago?
I’m a renegade. I was in the industry for a minute—six months, actually. I’ve been on the road as a solo artist for years, everywhere and anywhere. I went to college, could’ve taught high school English. Instead I took to the road—the Dummy series wasn’t out yet on how to tour and do it successfully. When I was in Washington, D.C., I did an interview about sexism in the industry, and suggested a record company for women, which became Olivia Records.
Now what’s changed is the independent industry is thriving. Technology affords us to record at home. That just wasn’t around in the ‘70’s. It was enough to carry your guitar in a suitcase. But now, we can ship it—I have my own label, we ship our CDs ahead. In those days major labels did not sell at the show because they got airplay. But none of us got airplay because it’s all conglomerate stuff. The labels make deals with the radio stations, etc.
If you’re a renegade, you’re under the radar. You’re making the rules as you go along. There’s a great kind of honesty that occurs when you do that. In all these years, I built a solid group of fans. I can put their names in the computer. We didn’t have that—we had the #2 pencil and paper. [Laughs.] I still have a #2 pencil. It’s always good to keep a bit of the old—the ability to grow your own food, make a fire. When the power’s out, you don’t want to be stupidly standing in the store going, “Hunh? What do I do now?”
As an artist you still have to be really good when you step on stage. I don’t care how many CDs you’ve got. I’m a live artist. You must be present to win. That’s the deal. Especially on the college radio stations, and there’s nowhere else I’d rather be. What can a major label offer me that I don’t already have? Money, maybe, but it’s an illusion—you have to pay it back. It isn’t real. It’s called “a deal” for a reason. They’re dealers. You have a talent, and they turn it.
As an indie artist, you can go where you want to, you can blog, you can let your people know you’re coming to town and they buy their tickets in advance. It’s more work but you have more control.
What do you think of women in the music industry today?
My girlfriend and I—we make posters, we do everything—we’re a self-fulfilling odyssey. And as much as we can, we use women in the business. But with artists like Melissa [Etheridge], I think, “Girl, when are you going to get it?” She uses men in her band when she could so easily use female musicians. But she’s got a major label and they have a say. God, sexism is human consciousness. As long as the boys have the money, we have to make our own. And that’s what we did—we started a record company. I still fundraise for every album. They invest in my art. As a general rule, musicians are not independently wealthy—they depend on the kindness of strangers. And they’re perfect because they love your music and don’t want anything else.
Certainly people must’ve tried to take advantage, whether you’re a woman, a lesbian or a musician?
Yes, but I’ve learned to develop a sense. Over the years, that sense gets better. You have to work your way out of it. I’m not any different from anybody. These days nobody blinks when you say “lesbian.” In the ‘70’s you sort of held your breath and waited for the world to fall down. All it is about is love. And if you ask me that’s all we’re here for on earth. And we’re not very good at it. There’s thousands of books on how to do it. We apparently need a lot of instruction in this! And that’s ultimately what we’re here for. MTW