Frontwoman Fest returns for a third year this Saturday, April 1, hosted once again by the Burlington. Organizer and cofounder Elaine Davis, who performs as Spaces of Disappearance, says the festival's work raising up women and femme-identifying artists isn't done, and it's hard to argue with that. So many sectors of the music business remain inhospitable to women (or nearly devoid of them) that such work will likely have to continue for the foreseeable future.
Presented by Chicago tape label Impossible Colors, Frontwoman Fest showcases not just front women but also a wide spectrum of female and femme contributions to the local music scene, whether the artists in question play synthesizers, guitars, or drums. The festival donates all its proceeds to Girls Rock! Chicago, a community-based nonprofit that aims to foster self-esteem and strength in girls and transgender youth through music education. In its first two years, FWF generated $2,700 for the nonprofit, according to Girls Rock! operations manager Kit Curl.
"Our annual budget is only about $100,000, so the FWF donation goes pretty far," Curl says. "Last year's donation covered tuition for three children who otherwise wouldn't be able to attend our summer camp."
Every artist and band at FWF plays for free, and their enthusiasm inspires Davis and cofounder Adele Nicholas to continue hosting the event. "Everybody does it toward the cause, so it is very communally based and community based," Davis says. "There's something kind of special about it because of that."
In general, women and femme musicians don't get booked in the same numbers as their male peers, and the problem is especially bad at big festivals. This reality motivates FWF's organizers, Davis says. "I feel like there's still a lot that needs to be done in terms of leveling the playing field as far as representation of artists," she says. "It's not something specific to Chicago. It's nationwide. It's global." That said, the acts at Frontwoman Fest also include plenty of men—it's "open and welcome to everybody," says Davis, "but it does put an emphasis on the female and femme musicians."
The range of genres in the FWF lineup—garage rock, synth-pop, hip-hop—means that the fest can bring together musicians who've never shared a bill or heard one another's music before. The same goes for the fans who come to the show. "I feel like we cross-pollinate in the music scene, so people hear bands they wouldn't otherwise hear," says Nicholas, a local civil rights attorney who fronts the group Axons and runs Impossible Colors.
Given the potent threat the Trump administration presents to vulnerable communities—including artists, women, and LGBTQ folks—Davis says FWF could've taken its pick of charities working to protect and preserve the health and rights of those populations. But it chose to donate to Girls Rock! because the group's mission fits so well with the fest's focus.
Nicholas says she's volunteered as a band coach and guitar teacher for Girls Rock! for the past seven years. "It's a really empowering organization that helps a lot of people who might otherwise feel intimidated to get their start writing and playing and being in a band," she explains.
Given that this is FWF's third annual event, it's now a known quantity in the local music community, if not an institution quite yet. The Reader asked this year's performers what they think the fest does for their community, what it means to them personally to play it, and why they're inspired to donate their time, talent, and energy to support Girls Rock! Chicago.
Their responses (edited for clarity) appear below.
Representation. Point-blank. Period. FWF shows us some of the best female-led acts in the city. We need to see this more often in the music scene.
Danielle Sines of Impulsive Hearts
FWF provides a platform and entire day for women to come together, celebrate one another's art and music, and change the male-dominated music scene. Although it occurs only once a year, I believe it fosters more community awareness for women and music. More shows in Chicago need to be like this.
Mojdeh Stoakley of Radiant Devices
FWF is an excellent celebration of the truest of true things: Ladies can rock just as hard if not harder than our fellow dude musicians! More important, in the non-pop world, there's a bias toward men built on the false idea that women cannot play instruments as proficiently, or that women are the eye candy of the band, or that every song is going to be about pining over men, bra burning, periods, or some other bonkers stereotype! Those ideas are outdated, tiresome, and have to go. Especially when we have decades of truly powerful women who have time and time again proven that they are not only technically proficient (Ani DiFranco, Rhonda Smith, Alabama Shakes) but also nuanced lyricists (Nina Simone, Patti Smith, M.I.A., Garbage), influential (Bjork, Eurythmics, PJ Harvey, Missy Elliott, No Doubt, Carole King), and able to rock harder than many of their male peers (Blondie, the Cranberries, Le Butcherettes, Joan Jett, Walls of Jericho).
Ashley Holman of So Pretty
FWF for me personally means working collectively to make space for more women in the music scene. So often we are fed this concept that there is limited space for women in music and to gain those spots we must scratch and claw against each other to get them. FWF shows that simply isn't true. It shows that not only do we have room for everyone, but that women can span all genres—dispelling the myth that we can't effectively work together to produce amazing music.
Rita Lukea of Pixel Grip
Pixel Grip supports Girls Rock! Chicago because the future is female.
Megan Edgin of Bow & Spear
We wanted to support Girls Rock! Chicago because of the young girls we know that have had amazing and inspiring experiences in their programs. We also know some awesome people who volunteer by being band coaches and leading workshops. Girls Rock! Chicago is a wonderful organization!
Wendy Lynn Zeldin of Pussy Foot
FWF shows the community that womxn play and perform a vast array of music. It sounds obvious, but after so many years of often being denied that opportunity, that reminder still feels quite beneficial. We can make a hideous racket, we can sound like angels, we can blow your eardrums out, we can make you dance or make you nauseous. The point is: We make that choice.
Red Jennifer Spektor of Red's Garden
When I started volunteering at Girls Rock! Chicago, I wanted to share dance music with kids that they may not have heard because it's played in 21-and-older settings. I wanted to encourage them to create their own music and move across any perceived barriers to their creativity, specifically gender and age. Teaching guitar at camp more recently has been very humbling, and has taught me that teaching is learning too.
Not only does FWF expose concertgoers to talented women, they are also exposed to a diverse group of women: women of color, women of different ages, and women composers of different genres of music. Most of the music I perform is in Spanish, and I'm excited to be included because often music festivals will either marginalize or not include music in languages other than English. This is an exciting time when we come together as talented women and people get to see the richness and the depth of what we are creating.