Published Jul 29, 2009Jessica Hopper's Girls Guide to Rocking hopes to teach young women not only how to rock out like Patti Smith, but that they can and will rock out like Patti Smith, if they put their minds to it. The Guide methodically outlines what feels like every aspect of musicianship from where to buy equipment to what to pack on tour to how to get along with your band-mates — and was written with the type of care and passion that can only come from an author who's been thinking about the work for over a decade. Hopper's vast experience in the music industry — playing in bands, and working as a publicist, critic and This American Life "music guru" — is assurance that if she wrote it in the Girls Guide to Rocking, you can take her word for it. Did we mention that she's super awesome, inspiring and kind of a badass? Jessica took some time to talk to Exclaim! about the book, growing up in Minneapolis and Demi Lovato.
I know you just finished the first leg of your book tour and I'm wondering how it feels to be an author on tour rather than a musician?
It's actually gruelling in a totally different way, because when you're on tour with a band there's eight hours a day of down time where you're just waiting to play. You know, you're waiting to load out, you're waiting to find out where you're playing, and to see if you're getting food; there's a lot of down time between the action. For my book tour I was taking six am flights almost every day. I'd get off the plane and if I was lucky I'd get maybe two hours of sleep and then have to do press for three hours. Not that that's so gruelling, but you have to be alert if you're going to be doing morning TV or call-ins on talk radio. I normally don't do those things in my morning, so that was really different. It's much more of a naked process. I do my press and then I go have a decent session, and I can see who these people are. It's really different; it's really awesome. It's harder than rock tour, but I prefer it for different reasons.
What about the people who've shown up for your readings? Are they what you expected as your audience?
It's pretty mixed. In some places it's mostly adults with some young girls mixed in, and then in other places 85 percent or more are young girls about 16 and under. I'm definitely getting girls as young as eight or nine. In Minneapolis I had almost all little girls and I was really happy about that. The really great thing is that all of them are already playing. They would come up and they would say, "Such and such is my favourite band" or — without even being prompted — "This is the blah-blah-blah thing that I'm doing, but I can't find anybody to play drums in it. It's really hard, but I have this cousin and she really likes music, so maybe I'll give her the book" — all of them had a total layout of their ambitions. It was incredibly inspiring. It's really hard not to cry sometimes after the events because my heart is breaking with joy that these girls are so excited; I get emails from them the next day. It's a really great to feel like the book is having the intended effect and meeting its proper audience. Also, a bunch of the Amazon reviews are from 30-year-old women who say, "I'm into music and I wish I had this book when I was young" — they still found it really helpful. While I intend the audience as one thing, it may be for several demographics.
Why did you decide to market the book towards females? Did you feel that there was a void in the industry?
I didn't want to write a book for boys. I wanted to write the book that I needed when I was 15 and 16 and just starting a band with my best girl friend. I didn't have any idea how to get shows. Our basis was always just based on whomever our drummer was dating at the time — we had a constant rotation of foxy dudes with mohawks. (laughs) This was the book that I wanted and desperately needed. It was the book that I had always wanted to write. I totally remember having a conversation when I was 16 with the girl I was trying to have a band with and I just said, "I wish there was a book that taught us how to do this." I was already making a fanzine and self-publishing and I thought "maybe I could write that book."
The book is very in depth and meticulous. I know you'd been thinking about it for a long time, but how long did it actually take to compile and research and write?
I had six months to do it and about halfway in my dad was in an accident. I had to drop everything for about three months and then I came back and I had about another two months to finish it. All told, I spent about five months actually writing it, almost full-time, but I spent 17 years researching it. So much of it is based on my own life and experiences; that and the shared experiences of my friends and people I spoke to in bands that I leaned on as resources, because there were definitely places where I needed more information to fill out what I had. I have a long history with buying bad equipment, making bad choices and so it was empowering and revelatory to get all of the information needed to write the chapter about buying guitars and buying equipment. I felt really vindicated — finally, no girl is going to have to walk into Guitar Centre and have the wits frightened out of her or be intimidated. Now, they'll be knowing what they need and what they want.
You mention a lot of pop acts as recommendations in the book, like Taylor Swift and Lily Allen. Why did you feel that it was important to include acts like them?
Because they're inspiring young girls today to make music — along with Demi Lovato. The book has nothing to do with my taste and I like both of those artists. I think the really powerful thing about Taylor Swift is that for girls reading the book, she's only a couple of grades older than them, she writes her own material, she's made Billboard pop history, and whether or not I love her records is besides the point, even though I think she's pretty accomplished for her age. I think because both of those women have come up and are self-made, not manufactured, (definitely in the case of Lily Allen; Taylor Swift is more mainstream) they are women that young girls really look up to. Taylor Swift and Demi Lovato are playing stadiums and are high school-aged pop singers who can both play an instrument that they compose on. We may not look at them and go, "They are totally the Joan Jett of tomorrow," but they're what is resonating with girls and they're both great role models for girls to look at and say, "Hey, she's like me. She's in eleventh grade." If that gives them hope or an example, that's what's fundamentally important to me. This isn't a book that's trying to turn girls into discerning indie rockers; it's just about encouraging girls to go from being a fan to making their own music and seeing music as a viable and crucial form of expression for them. Just making music and playing in a band with your friends is one of the most fun things you can do.
"Women in music" and "women in rock" has been discussed forever, especially since the days of the Runaways. Writing a book like this, do you feel that it's contributing to the "ghettoization" of the industry for women? Are women a special case in the industry?
"Ghettoizing": we do plenty of it ourselves, although I do think things like Ladyfest are really valuable because it provides opportunities for women in bands that don't have opportunities outside of their own local community. With that said, I don't think when we're talking about girls as young as the ones who read the book [that it applies]. There's no place where I say: "You should only play with girls." There's no separatism in there, because, for me, personally, I've mostly been in co-ed bands; I've very rarely been in bands with just girls. I've been in bands where I am "the" girl, or maybe there are one or two others, but I've mostly been in co-ed bands. In the book I don't try to say, "Just pay attention to female artists" or "Don't just be in bands with girls," but I know with my experience and by-and-large from the experience of women I've made music with, or that I know, is that it didn't occur to us to be in a band until we saw a woman holding a guitar. I wanted all those quotes from women who've come before and also the timeline poster in the middle [of A Girls Guide to Rocking] to show the girls that they're part of a continuum. Sometimes it's hard to see that, because certain parts of women in rock have not been well documented the same way that the classic dude canon has. I wanted them to see that there's been a lot of women before you and whether you have knowledge of them or not, you are part of this by virtue of the band that you're starting with your cousin or your neighbour in your basement with a flute and bass and someone singing — you are part of that continuum. That's why at the end of the timeline there's room for you to put yourself on — that's my favourite part of this whole book. You are part of rock history and it doesn't matter if you're ten years old.
Who do you remember influencing you musically early on?
I was totally obsessed with Babes in Toyland in tenth grade. They were just starting to get going in Minneapolis. I grew up in Minneapolis, so I had a chance to see them a lot. More than anything else when I was a teenager, I wanted to be in a band that was like Neil Young meets Dinosaur Jr; I was really big on guitar solos. Like everybody who grew up with punk in Minneapolis, I wanted to be Paul Westerberg, but I was not meant to be anything like that. Babes in Toyland were the first band that made me want to be in a band. I had been going to shows for about a year before that. When I saw Babes in Toyland and later on, Bikini Kill, and in a different way, Fugazi, it really solidified my thoughts that "I want to be in a band and I can do this too."
The recommendations list in A Girls Guide to Rocking is unbelievable. What are you listening to now?
When I travel a lot, I always listen to the same Joni Mitchell record, The Hissing of Summer Lawns. That's my favourite record. I listen to a lot of Joni Mitchell and Prince when I travel. But, right now the bands that I'm super in to that are new are Screaming Females, which is this female-fronted trio that's opening on the Dead Weather tour right now. I was the first person to write about them and then I just never stopped and eventually, some other people started paying attention and I just kept sending people to their shows until people started writing about them. There's a woman out of L.A. who does solo stuff, and her arrangements are really musical and spooky, who records under the name Glasser. Hmm, what else…?
It's a hard question, I know.
I just haven't been listening to that much stuff lately. I'm always listening to a lot of Prince. You know, you can take the girl out of Minneapolis, but you can't take the Minneapolis out of the girl. (laughs) I'm also listening to a lot of Katie Stelamis, because I'm about to go on tour with her. She's very good. My next tour is with two Canadian all-girl bands. Katie sang on the last Fucked Up record and did a split with them. I saw her down here and I wanted to go out with a band that was young and predominantly female with something special going on. She has two sisters who sing backup in her band. It's called Ghost Bees and they're from Nova Scotia and they're twins and they're 19 or 20, and they're going to be opening. The Girls Guide to Rocking and Reading Tour is about to begin. I'm totally repping for Canada down here — for the many talented women of Canada.
Check out Exclaim!'s Front Five article featuring Jessica Hopper's Girls Guide to Rocking Girls Like Us.