“Maybe the Music Industry Needs Killing”: The Penelope Houston interview
There are few artists as versatile, tenacious, and groundbreaking still working today as Penelope Houston. Famous for her role in the Avengers, Houston also spends time writing more singer-songwriter material, as on her divine latest release, On Market Street. Houston has an enviable savvy about the music industry. Also, she is an accomplished visual artist. No one knows where she finds the time, but we’re glad she does. Read the interview with her below the cut.
What was it like reuniting the Avengers and then trying this more singer-songwriter style?
I’ve been doing my solo career all these years alongside that. It’s not unusual for me. I think there was one Avengers tour where we did four or five shows on the west coast, and then I did one Penelope show, and went out to do more Avengers shows. That was hard. That was a little weird, just because all the songs are completely separate. It’s like [having] one drawer full of a hundred songs and another drawer full of a hundred songs, and closing that one and opening this one, trying to remember all the lyrics. It was pretty funny.
It’s kind of crazy that, all the songs I’ve written in my life, are all there somewhere. In the case of this summer, I’m pretty much ready for anything. Although when I get back from this [solo European] tour, it’ll be seven days on the West Cost with the Avengers. The Avengers’ material is ingrained in my head. Since we don’t write new songs, all I have to do is know that I will remember it. With the solo stuff, it’s newer and a little bit harder to remember.
When you write songs for your solo work, do you sit down and write out all of the musical notation? How thorough are you in documenting the songs?
Usually, for my material, I start with lyrics, or sometimes I’ll start with a melody and put lyrics to it. Generally, interestingly, using my autoharp (’cause I don’t play guitar), I’ll write out the chords ’cause I have to write those down. But I don’t write melody because once I fix words to melody, they don’t come unstuck. They become one thing. I don’t usually write the melodies down. I will do a cassette recording or digital recording just in case the melody escape my brain. For the album, there’s a string quartet on some of the songs. I hired somebody to write out the string parts. Bass players and keyboard players like to have a little freedom. [For this tour], I’m flying out on Wednesday, and then we’ll practice Wednesday night and Thursday during the day, and Thursday night is when we’ll play. It’s going to be really interesting, and one has to be open-minded about what people are going to do. With The Avengers–Greg and I and the reformed band–It’s pretty close to the record. Nobody ever came up to me and said, ‘oh this part goes like that.’
Switching subjects, you’ve been around long enough that you’ve witnessed a lot of changes as to the place that women hold in the music industry. I was wondering what sort of changes you’ve noticed and what the current situation it.
When I started in 77 with the Avengers, there were very few rock bands that had women in then. There were plenty of female pop singers, but as far as women being instrumentalists and women having bands and women writing their own material, there wasn’t a lot to look to. And I think that punk kind of blasted the doors open on that idea. Not only women, but anybody. Even if you had never picked up an instrument before, you were welcome to give it a try. You didn’t have to be able to play thousands of notes every minute on the guitar. Prowess was not something that people were necessarily looking for at that time. Punk opened doors for women to join bands and become instrumentalists and vocalists. Years later, when I was writing my own material and doing quieter stuff, there was a moment where there were lots of women singer-songwriters happening as well. And whenever that kind of thing happens — you have your Tori Amos and your Michelle Shocked and your Alanis Morissette, or people who suddenly become popular in any genre, the labels immediately start looking for a million more Tori Amoses or whatever. So it kind made the possibility of a lot of people being heard that might not have been heard. That were women. When people ask me to list my top twenty artists, a higher percentage of them are going to be women than your average music listener. I’ve always been a fan of Patti Smith, I’ve been a fan of the female point of view in popular culture. Somewhere in there, I don’t know if it came before the giant singer-songwriter boom, there was Riot Grrl, which was also important.
In the long run, women being accepted as musicians kind of go up and down. They kind of rise and then wane. I’m always happy when it’s on an upswing because, as I said, I’m a fan of the female perspective. It probably affects people that are thinking about being in a band. You see people you can relate to up there doing it, and you think ‘well, maybe I should try that.’ Since we reformed the Avengers and started touring, there’s been a lot of women who came up to me and said ‘ you gave me a lot of confidence and you got me thinking maybe this is something I can pursue.’ That’s been really gratifying to hear over the years that I’ve inspired a lot of female musicians.
As far as where women are now in the music industry, it seems kind of fuzzy. The music industry is in turmoil right now. There are so many ways to access music aside from the normal channels that were around in the 70′s, 80′s, 90′s. People can listen to something that somebody wrote and recorded three days ago. You can listen to it around the world because it’s been posted on the internet. The music industry as I think of it as a business model has always been a little suspect. Musicians work with it. A million years ago, they said ‘home recording is killing the music industry!’ And then ten or so years ago they said, ‘file sharing is killing the music industry!’ I kind of thought, ‘well, maybe the music industry needs to be killed and reinvented. But it goes on. And whether or not women are respected or encouraged to be a part of it really depends on the moment in time and who’s selling. That’s the bottom line for the music industry. It might be wrong to look at the music industry for a sign of how women are doing in the music industry, because it’ll always be based on sales. Right now, I think, because it’s so easy to get your music out there, there’s much more chance of independent-thinking people just going ahead and creating music and putting it online.
I read that you went back to college.
That’s been a long trip, too. I kind of thought, ‘oh, wow, this is a great idea. I’ll get my degree.’ So I went back to college and I had to get all my general ed requirements. When I was in college before, I just took art classes and no science and no writing and no social studies, no history. So I had to do all that. That was a real challenge. Nowadays, I got As in everything because I’m much more focused. But just putting myself through commuting to the city college in San Francisco and transferring to San Francisco State, where I am now, to study biology and all this stuff. After I finished up all the general ed, I transferred to San Francisco State, where my major is studio art with an emphasis on painting and printmaking, which is really wonderful because it’s gotten me back into visual arts, which is something I did when I was first in school. It’s very exciting to do something like that. For example, the cover of On Market Street is a portrait I did in oils.
I took this semester off because I knew I would have these records coming out and the European tour and all these interviews to do, so this semester I’m actually not in school. I think I’ll finish up in the fall and graduate in the fall.
Are you planning any art shows or installations with your paintings?
I have a little art show up right now, actually. It’s in a little gallery space in San Francisco Public Library of prints I did last semester in a printmaking course. I did a series of portraits in silkscreen and collage of people that I worked with. That was pretty fun and interesting. [I used] all sorts of pictures and ephemera that came from my work life, including old pages of books and stuff. I think people can see it on my Facebook page. I haven’t posted it on my website yet. Then I have a couple of pieces in a show in Denver related to Bruce Connor and his photographing of the punk scene. It’s in the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver. There are other galleries doing work in conjunction with that, and another gallery has five of my pieces up that are prints and sort of collage pieces and drawings. And I think four of those are actually from 1978; they wanted to get art that was made back in the day. So that’s up. After the Avengers West Coast tour, I’m going to go out to Denver to do a public conversation with the curators at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver.