Smartists: Women’s Representation in Americana music

“This weekend at AMA I felt like I was equal… I did not feel like I was the ‘queer’ girl singing… I just felt like I was making great music and that was the most important part.” — Becca Mancari

What does female representation look like in a growing genre like Americana?

Bonnie Raitt performing at this year’s Americana Music Awards. Photo courtesy of the Americana Music Association.

Every year, the Americana Music Association (AMA) holds AmericanaFest to showcase the artists on their radio charts, which specialize in roots music (Singer-songwriter, Folk, Bluegrass, Traditional, etc.) that does not fit into the mainstream pop/rock or popular country categories. While diverse representation was far from perfect at this Nashville roots music festival, especially in terms of minority and queer representation, AmericanaFest reported 90 female acts and 120 male acts this year, which is much closer to 50:50 than most festivals on the circuit. Really, there was a conscious, heartening effort to celebrate female artists at the festival — a few of whom were generous enough to talk about what it’s like to be an up-and-coming female in Americana, and in the music industry as a whole.

Michaela Anne performing on stage. Photo courtesy Kirk Stauffer Photography.

First, let’s start with Michaela Anne and her song “Bright Lights and the Fame.” Written in response to the Hank Williams’ song “Ramblin’ Man,” Michaela Anne wrote the song from the perspective of a woman left at home with the kids while her man goes out ramblin’.

“In the country world there are a lot of strong females, but it is so male [songwriter] dominated, especially the old stuff…[so this song is] a story that you don’t hear all the time…You always hear the ‘I’m a wanderin’ cowboy’ [story] but what about what is typically considered the more mundane?,” Michaela Anne said.

Michaela Anne performed the song during her showcase at AmericanaFest 2016 to an exuberant crowd who seemed thirsty for this sort of female perspective. By featuring artists like Michaela Anne, Americana takes steps to quench that thirst and reverse mainstream music’s habit of using women as sexualized mouthpieces for male songwriters.

“It has been incredible to see how much respect women get as songwriters now,” said roots songwriter Becca Mancari, who also performed at AmericanaFest. “For so long women have been focused on but often times for their looks and not the quality of their songwriting. That is changing, though it’s still an uphill fight.”

“Women are owning music right now,” country-punk artist Lydia Lovelessechoed, “[We’ve] spent so long listening to slighted dudes sing about a ‘devil woman,’ I’m ready to listen to another kind of feeling.”

The cover of Lydia Loveless’ 2016 release, Real. Photo courtesy of the artist.

At this year’s AmericanaFest, Loveless performed tracks off her newest album Real, a rough-edged album that takes a candid look at romance and relationships. Loveless has always been known for this sort of honesty in the Americana community, and even through controversial songs like 2011’s “Jesus was a Wino,” she’s been encouraged and embraced by the community.

Mancari has been similarly welcomed for her candidness, especially notable because she is queer.

Photo courtesy of the artist.

“This weekend at AMA I felt like I was equal… I did not feel like I was the “queer” girl singing… I just felt like I was making great music and that was the most important part. I mean…One song I have out called ‘Summertime Mama’ is about having a crush on a woman in town from afar, and as a queer woman I am so thankful that Lightning 100 (an independent radio station here in Nashville, and an AMA chart reporter) is playing it,” she said.

Undoubtedly, more space is being made for female narratives in Americana. But, it’s a slow, tenuous process. There is still much farther to go. Even the women who feel positive about female representation roots music note music industry sexism creeping in several ways.

“There’s still this feeling that there’s only so much room for a few select women. Or if you have a show where there’s three women, it’s always a ‘Ladies Night,’” said Michaela Anne.

Former contestant from The Voice, Sarah Potenza, also commented on the utter lack of female freelance musicians in much of Nashville, where a large chunk of roots music is recorded.

“I’ve only ever played with one female bass player here in Nashville,” she said, “The ratio of male to female freelance musicians, excluding front-women with their own bands, has got to be ridiculous, probably something like 1 to 30,” Potenza said.

In fact, AMA reported only 10 of the bands on the roster in 2016 had female musicians in them, outside of bands with front-women. This, as Michaela Anne said, only continues to narrow the list of “acceptable” roles women are allowed to have in music.

“I always say that even if it’s possible for women to do what they want they aren’t going to actually be it if there aren’t equal examples. It’s harder for females to learn that that’s an actual option without role models. That’s a deeply subconscious thing even if someone tells a girl ‘you can be whatever you want,” Michaela Anne said.

This applies not only to a female’s role in the band, but also what they can look like. It should be noted that many of the woman artists on the Americana charts are slender and young and white. (Racial representation is especially dismal: there were only a small amount of black artists showcased at the festival this year, and there’s only a handful of non-white artists on the AMA charts in general.) This comment isn’t meant to diminish thin, white women or their talent — but to point out that normative ideas of “beautiful” still have weight when it comes to success in Americana.

Sarah Potenza is a size 16, in her late thirties, and, for Americana, has an uncharacteristic husky-blues voice. She said, “I think I would have an easier time as a guy, I would have an easier time. Even if I was overweight and I was a guy I would have an easier time, especially with the voice I have.”

 
Sarah Potenza (left) walking the red carpet for Americana Music Honors & Awards this year. Photo courtesy of Americana Music Association.

She raises an interesting point — the appearances of male musicians versus females is much more varied, suggesting that appearance isn’t considered to the same degree when it comes to signing them and promoting their music. In Americana in particular, males can wear weight and age as a badge of “authenticity” in a way women cannot.

“Big men are often very successful because people love a ‘big teddy bear.’ Nobody is like, ‘oh, she’s like a big sexy bossy lady. She’s just curvy and her visible belly outline is hot!” Nobody is really feeling that, so I think it’s harder,’” Potenza says.

To be fair, Potenza did go on to comment that the red carpet for the AMA awards, which happens the first night of the festival, did show Americana to be less ageist than she had thought. In fact, many of the matriarchs of the genre — like Emmylou Harris, Bonnie Raitt, and Shawn Colvin — were celebrated on the red carpet, brought on stage to perform, and award recipients.

Americana’s recent break-out success, Margo Price, on the red carpet at the awards this year.

Yet still, up-and-coming females in Americana have felt the sexist beauty standards of the industry creeping up on them, whether that be about their age or size.

“Sometimes I wonder if putting on a dress and looking the sexy part would help my career,” Mancari said. Lydia Loveless too, said, “I think it’s a lot harder to cross-over genres as a woman, because people want you to be this little doll — fit in this box.”

So no, Americana as a genre is far from perfect. It’s still a product of the world we live in, a world where presidential candidates can threaten women’s safety and call it “locker room talk,” where women’s appearances are still judged before their brains and talent, and where the patriarchal business structure of the music industry leaves decision-making power up to older, caucasian, cis-gender males. But what is different about Americana as a genre, as witnessed at AmericanaFest and through correspondence with those involved in the Americana Music Association, is that it is affording most women the luxury of telling their stories, despite the broader music industry’s attempts to mold them to pervasive standards. So perhaps, despite some noticeable pitfalls, Americana is trying to fight the good fight.

Originally published on Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls.

10 Albums for People Who Don’t Like Jazz

(Published on PasteMagazine.com)

Jazz has never had a reputation for being accessible. Often called, “musician’s music” with its extended sections of improvisation, flurries of complex rhythms, and heady compositions, it’s no wonder the genre often alienates listeners. On top of that, many think of jazz as the schmaltzy elevator soundtrack, as a result of the commercialized and pervasive “smooth jazz” genre. And yet, in the right stuff, the jazz listener can find remnants of a beloved pop melody, their favorite funk feel, the authenticity of a country, the rhythmic energy of rock n’ roll. Listening to jazz can be a mind-expanding experience for anyone, if they give the genre’s idiosyncrasies a chance, and take the time to find what really resonates with them.

Born in New Orleans in the early 20th Century, amongst the intersection of folk music, blues, church music, ragtime, traditional African drumming, military marching bands, and many other styles, jazz has far-reaching roots. So too, jazz itself encompasses so much its discography can be a little overwhelming. In an effort to make the genre a little more approachable, here are 10 jazz albums for people who don’t like jazz.

1. Miles Davis, Kind of Blue
Kind of Blue is the best-selling jazz album in history, and a quintessential example of jazz at its best. Recorded in 1959, the album brings together seven legends in their primes—trumpeter Miles Davis, tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, alto saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, both Bill Evans and Wynton Kelley on piano, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Jimmy Cobb.

With only a few of Davis’ rough compositional sketches to go off of, the group jumped into the studio and churned out this album, utterly brilliant in its ability to straddle the line between envelope-pushing and sing-able melodies. Kind of Blue is many people’s first experience with jazz and is thankfully a perfect representation of what jazz can be at it’s pinnacle. For that reason, and many more, it had to top this list.

2. Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, Ella&Louie
Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong is among one of the most widely known characters in jazz, a seminal figure who was hugely influential in bringing New Orleans’ jazz sound into popular consciousness. Ella Fitzgerald, too, is a foundational vocalist of early jazz, known especially for her ability to “scat” or improvise vocally.

Ironically, these two could not have more different vocal qualities, yet Ella’s flawless purity is bolstered by the levity of Armstrong’s throaty growl, and vice versa. Add the palpable friendship between Armstrong and Fitzgerald and you’re in for exceptionally fun listen. Additionally, this album highlights the standards of jazz repertoire, many of which are derived from classicmusicals of the day, making the songs as lyrically entertaining as the pair is charming. Hence, if you like musicals, odds are you’ll like this album!

3. Chick Corea, Light as a Feather
Chick Corea and band Return to Forever are classic in Latin or fusion jazz. For a jazz newbie, 1972’s Light as a Feather offers lots to sink your teeth into with the pure, airy vocal quality of Flora Purim, and the pervasive influence of rock n’ roll and Latin music.

Chick Corea’s percussive electric piano and Airto Moreiro on drums give the album delicious momentum, while Joe Farrell’s airy horn lines float on top adding interest, and Purim’s vocals add story and relatable vulnerability. The album also contains Corea’s most popular fusion composition, “Spain,” which is as complex as it is fun to sing and clap along to.

Return to Forever – Spain 09/02/1973

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4. Bill Evans Trio, At The Village Vanguard
For piano jazz, there really isn’t anyone more technically proficient than Bill Evans (who you might recall was also one of the pianists on Kind of Blue. An accomplished classical musician who loved composers like Debussy, Ravel and Chopin, Evans brings astonishing agility, a honey-sweet touch, and the use of pianistic impressionism to his jazz approach. The effect is sublime.

At The Village Vanguard and the other albums from this era with Scott Lafaro on bass, captures Evans in his prime and showcase the magic between within this trio. This album also contains a rendition of one of his most famous compositions, “Waltz for Debby,” a beautiful piece Evans wrote for his niece, and “Porgy (I loves you, Porgy)” from the Gershwin musical Porgy and Bess.

5. Esperanza Spalding, Esperanza
In modern jazz, Esperanza Spalding is a rising star and for good reason. Bassist-vocalist Spalding is a 31-year old with four studio albums to her name, and multiple performances for President Obama under her belt. She is on this list for more than the recognition she’s garnered, though: Esperanza’s music has pop appeal, melding the songwriting style of Joni Mitchell with the tenants of improvisational music.

Esperanza was Spalding’s 2008 debut, the closest to a sampler of Spalding’s diverse tastes and abilities that you can get. This album combines original compositions, reimagined takes on standards, vocal as well as all-instrumental numbers. There’s a little something for anyone on this album.

6. Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly
This addition might seem out of nowhere for a jazz list, but 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly is a genius, thought-provoking introduction to jazz and the extremes of its definition. Esperanza Spalding once described Lamar to me as, “Charlie Parker reincarnate,” irrevocably connecting the genius be-bop creator with the modern hip-hop king. And she isn’t wrong. To Pimp a Butterfly is meticulous in its craft, with layers upon layers of improvisation collaged together—the socially-conscious rap of Lamar and production from greats like Dr. Dre is enhanced, transposed, and inverted by collaboration with the modern jazz musicians on the album like Kamasi Washington, Robert Glasper, Ambrose Akinmusire, and Thundercat. To Pimp A Butterfly is as much a jazz album as it is hip-hop, but it comes in that neat popular music package. In that way, it’s sort of a jazz sneak attack, with a unique power to open people’s ears and hearts to new sounds.

7. Herbie Hancock, Head Hunters
If you like soul, funk, and R&B, you’ll probably identify with _Head Hunters. With funky-conception and an in-the-pocket groove, Herbie Hancock’s 1973 album makes you want to dance, sing, and put “Chameleon” on repeat.

Hancock, a legendary keyboardist who recorded his first album at 22, was one of Blue Note’s most prized artists in the ‘60s and played in Miles Davis’s quartet from 1963-68. Head Hunterssignifies a turning point in his career from more straight-ahead cool jazz to more jazz-funk.Herbie Hancock is still putting out records to this day (54 years after the release of his first album) and Head Hunters is one of Hancock’s best, with a downright nasty tune that hooks you and won’t let turn the stereo off.

8. Duke Ellington Orchestra, 16 Most Requested Songs
Duke Ellington is a founding father in jazz and swing, and his compositions and style of arranging have persisted as the references for up and coming big bands. Ellington’s orchestra was tight and energetic, with a rhythm section perfected groove by playing regularly for the swing dancers at The Cotton Club. The compositions they played, like “Take The A Train,” “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” are still performed to this day, and yearly, “Essentially Ellington,” a highly competitive high school big band competition, is held in New York City.

With a career that spanned over 50 years as a composer and bandleader, Ellington and writing partner Billy Strayhorn wrote dozens of classic songs that continue to nurture future generations of jazz musicians. This album 16 Most Requested Songs highlights
Ellington’s best.

9. Johnny Hartman and John Coltrane, John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman
The legendary saxophonist John Coltrane, with his abrasive, honky tenor tone, is a hard to sell for many people, even some die-hard jazz heads. But, pair him with the sultry croon of Johnny Hartman and suddenly, everything is right in the world. With Coltrane, Hartman is the yang to a yin.

Coltrane’s mastery of improvisation is never more obvious than on this album, as he tastefully fills in the space between Hartman’s soothing vocals. The best part of the album is how obviously it is a conversation between the two, how they both push and challenge each other into striking some sort of musical bargain. The dynamic between the two is fascinating, and this album’s version of Coltrane’s “Lush Life” with Zara Larsson’s lyrics is one of the best ever recorded.

10. Bill Frisell, All We Are Saying…
In this tribute to John Lennon, modern guitarist Bill Frisell covers many of the classic Lennon songs in his own inventive style. Beloved Beatles songs like “In My Life” are transformed into sparse, angular pieces, all the while with that same Lennon soul that is so well loved. Country music fans may be especially enraptured by All We Are Saying…, as the album features fiddler Jenny Scheinman and steel guitarist Greg Leisz, who add a bit of twang into the fray. On All We Are Saying… Frisell and his band bring their improvisational eyes to these essentials of the pop music canon, honoring the songs as much as they reinventing them. All we are saying is give it a chance!

Smartists: Meet Artist Frida Clements

Folk artist Frida Clements waits inside a coffee shop, her blonde locks luminous as the morning sunshine, a pot of tea steeping in front of her. She smiles at me from beneath a drawing of a creature–half-whale, half-steamship–hanging on the wall. It’s the work of another Seattle illustrator, Kyler Martz. “I’m so glad to see him up in here,” she says, posting about it on her Facebook.

Over the last two years, Clements herself has garnered much appreciation for whimsical pen and ink illustrations she pairs with puns. At first, these drawings were just a fun diversion for Clements. But when she posted one to Instagram, they exploded all over the internet. She’s brought several prints to give me today: the one with a small snail inching below the words “Snailed It!” makes me laugh out loud. In the last couple years, she’s worked with Chronicle Books to publish a book as well as create journals, greeting cards, dish towels and other merchandise with the designs.

The exposure has been great, but she’s also discovered the downside of being the queen of puns. “Ever since I started this, people have to tell me their hilarious [pun] ideas and I’m like ‘what have I done?’ I get a lot of unsolicited emails,” she says laughingly. Still, she notes how thankful she is to put some joy into the universe.

“I just got a letter from a woman who’s sister just passed away from cancer. The woman said her sister was the punster of the family, so she bought a couple copies—one for herself and one for her niece so they could remember her. I thought that was so cool. That’s one of the major perks of doing something like this—I get to make work that people want to hang in their homes and have as part of their daily life,” Clements said.

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Clements has been doodling since she was a little girl, often instead of paying attention in school. She admits, “There were a lot of parent-teacher conferences about the fact that I was either reading or drawing and not socializing or math-ing.” But through her parents’ divorce, tough teen years, and an unplanned pregnancy at 19, it was Clements’ art that offered her solace.

“[My art has] saved me, and I’ve been able to do so many amazing things because of it. During every single horrible, terrible time in my life it’s been the one constant,” she said.

As a 23-year old single mom, Clements got a degree from Seattle Central Creative Academy. For most of her career, Clements worked for a company as a graphic designer. She illustrated concert posters for musicians like Wilco and Joanna Newsom on the side, but that wasn’t enough. Five years ago, she decided to quit her corporate gig and focus on her art full-time. “The best decision I ever made,” she says.

Clements feels “the most at home” in the woods, where she takes daily hikes with her tri-colored corgi named Mochi. She spends her walks in the quiet rustle of nature, collecting pinecones, feathers, leaves, rocks—anything that catches her eye. An hour or so later, she brings the items home, spreads them out on the kitchen table, and sits down to capture them. Her daily routine has immortalized the flora and fauna of the Pacific Northwest.

“I love when I’m out on a rock and I find one particular little leaf—like, nobody else would even see the beauty in it, but I’m going to give this little decomposing thing a life beyond,” she said.

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Despite years of drawing, Clements says she’s still trying to find her own voice. Part of this is because she has, as she puts it, “lived life backwards,” raising two kids before forty. “It wasn’t that I was not being creative, it was that my circumstances were not that conducive to me being my fully complete awesome artist self. I’m still getting out of that now. But there’s no right order to do things. I’m really happy [with my kids],” Clements said.

Now that Clements can spend more time in her studio, she both revels in and feels guilty about the ability to focus solely on her art and her own personal growth. “That’s one of my major challenges in life: learning to own my space. Like, [remembering] this is what I have to do for myself.” said Clements.

Clements will turn 40 this year, and but she’s by no means slowing down. Currently, she’s working on a line of greeting cards in collaboration Bison Bookbinding & Letterpress and more art prints for her website. Plus, she has an exciting future project to be on the lookout for–her first children’s book!

“I’m really excited for what the next ten years will hold—my thirties were a time of huge growth, a divorce, a remarriage, all sort of job changes,” she said. “Forty’s going to be a good one. I just bought myself a bike. I’m excited to head out to an island and feel the wind in my hair.”

For more information on Frida Clements and her art, please visit her website. Her book, Have a Little Pun is available on Amazon (and wherever books are sold), along with cute notecards, coasters, journals and tea towels!

Photo by Jenny Jimenez

Smartists: Tacocat

Published on Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls

“Start a band with your best friends!” Tacocat drummer Lelah Maupin says, adjusting her I Bet You Love Me Cuz I’m Nuts teeshirt as a group of admiration-soaked preteens swarm her. She’s just performed the entirety of Tacocat’s newest album, Lost Time, for an all-ages release party complete with Choco-Tacocat ice cream, inflatable alien decor, and the chance to behead a unicorn piñata. As the venue prepares for the 21+ show, the band stands outside and chats with young fans about everything from Sub Pop Records to chicken tattoo on singer Emily Nokes’ arm.

In keeping with the relatability of their previous two albums, Lost Time, which was released April 1st, delivers pop punk about catcalls, internet bullies, the downsides of gentrification, and even X-Files protagonist Dana Scully, putting a voice to the trending hashtags on everyone’s tongue. And through the recording and production of Erik Blood, Tacocat is more confident and adept with their sound than ever.

“He added a lot of depth to the way everything sounds. He challenged my vocals a lot by telling me [to] just sing it all the way through. [He would say,] ‘if you can’t belt the whole thing out in a recording then we’re not going to do it.’ Whereas before, I could do the chorus separately and a million harmonies [to clip in]—like Beach Boys style,” said Nokes.

The growth of their sound goes hand in hand with their further exposure. Not only did this D.I.Y punk band find themselves playing the huge Seattle Bernie Sanders rally in March, but they were also asked to write the theme song to Cartoon Network’s Powerpuff Girls reboot, which may as well be the cartoon equivalent to this fun, punch-packing band.

“We were just thinking about which Powerpuff Girls characters we are. Bree identifies with Professor Plutonium, I’m a Blossom, Lelah is Bubbles, and I guess that Eric would be Buttercup,” Nokes says chuckling. “It’s a really fun cartoon that represents girls being badasses. When Cartoon Network came to us and told us they were going to reboot it and it was going to be more feminist-leaning, we were really excited to do it. It’s really up our alley.”

Tacocat has always been an excuse for these best friends to hang out. Maupin and guitarist Eric Randall became best friends in high school while working together at a Safeway in Longview, WA. Maupin eventually moved to Seattle to attend the art institute, and there she met and befriended Nokes. Randall soon was in Seattle too, jamming with bassist Bree Mckenna.

“Lelah was like, you should come sing during a practice! And I was like, ‘I don’t know about that,’” Nokes says, “I don’t really know about singing. I mean, I was just a visual arts kid. I loved music but I wasn’t like, ‘I want to be in a band.’ It was just so fun and we all got along so well,” Nokes says.

The band released their first full-length album, Shame Spiral, in 2010, and their followup, NVM, in 2014. This April, we saw the drop of their third, Lost Time. By writing music and lyrics from their own unique interests, they stumbled upon something obsession-worthy: authentic songs about everyday life, from the perspective of young women. This perspective is usually Nokes’, who often writes the lyrics by riffing off the ideas her bandmates have offered up. Meanwhile, Mckenna, Maupin, and Randall get the instrumental ideas down and send it to each other via text message.

As Nokes said, “We get asked a lot, ‘What were you trying to do,’ but you know if I tried to do something I don’t think I could pull it off as well. You’re of course influenced by what you listen to and think about and what you’re reading and that is your own personal filter. We’ve never really aligned with the super pop punk bros or the super political, really militant punk—there are so many different scenes that we would be somewhat a part of or play a show at, but we were always just sort of our own people.”

Tacocat, Smart Girls writer Alexa Peters, and young fan Azalea outside release show.

Lost Time, with an underlying sci-fi lean, is also feminist in both in message and sound. One track, “Men Explain Things to Me,” comments snarkily on that cliché guy who is always in the woman’s way. It says, “Take up the whole sidewalk/this land is your land/the palm of you hand/I’ll walk around so you can stand.”

The band readily identifies as feminist, but also makes an effort to be inclusive. “I think that at this point it’s important to include everybody. Like, Feminism is just ‘normal.’ It’s not a genre or a splinter scene—this is half of everybody. It’s important for men to get on board too… That’s the only way we can move forward—by including everyone we can. We have a male member of our band, as did Bikini Kill. These really strong allies are really important—there’s only so much that half of any population can do,” Nokes said.

Gender inequality has been apparent to these women their whole lives, and they channel their frustration with it into their music. In the end, they capture the essence of life as a modern female in a increasingly regressive society. The magic here is that their young fans seem to suck on this social commentary as easily as a Jolly Rancher, suggesting that actual change could be coming.

But for now, Tacocat just wants to continue to have fun together as they tour with Lost Time in the next year. Nokes said, “Start a band with your best friends and do whatever you want! Be true to yourself, don’t worry what you think other people want to hear or what you think you should be doing and don’t ever underestimate the power of really good friends.”

For more information on Tacocat, visit their website. Check out the video for the new Powerpuff Girls theme song, below:

Pictures by Alexa Peters

Smartists: Briana Lynn Wolf

Published on Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls

What do mental health awareness, songwriting and Smart Girls have in common? Briana Lynn Wolf. This talented young songwriter has been writing music since she was in the fourth grade, and was recently an instrumental part of a recent benefit concert for Bring Change 2 Mind, a non-profit organization dedicated to ending the stigma around mental illness. For her abundance of talent and her social activism, Briana Lynn Wolf is our newest Smartist!

I’ve heard many compare the writing process to building a house, and for Briana, that comparison is all too appropriate. Briana grew up a “cul-de-sac kid” in New Jersey, in a home that her dad built himself. The process of building her house and beginning to write songs occurred in tandem, a coincidence that made the philosophy of creative process all the more tangible.

“It’s such a cool thing to be able to say that your dad, while being a full time lawyer and raising kids with my mom, built the house you lived in. Every floorboard he cut, painted and placed, every tile he positioned, every staircase he built, it really was is a house made of love,” Briana said. “But it took a long time to finish everything, so my house was under construction for most of my life.”

Briana’s music is similarly a labor of love, a home that has taken most of her life to build. It all began when she became a part of the musical theater community.

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“I convinced my parents to start performing in musicals when I was 7 or 8… I continued to do community and NYC theater through high school and built amazing friendships along the way. I rarely felt like I fit in when I was in school, but my theater friends from other towns were my best friends and are still my closest friends today,” Briana said.

Through the encouragement and sense of self she gained from musical theater, Briana began exploring songwriting.

“It started off where I would randomly get inspiration at weird times and have to write a song,” said Briana. “I wrote my first song in 4th grade, about my first crush. I continued to write music without an instrument for years, but always kept it a secret…When I learned to play guitar and piano more competently, I started writing every day, and started sharing my music with others. I was about 16.”

During the same year, Briana began college at Simon’s Rock of Bard College in MA.

“It’s an early college, for kids that are ready to start college young. I got an Associate’s Degree there and then transferred to Westminster College of the Arts at Rider University where I got a Bachelors in Music and Music Theater and graduated when I was 20. Ever since then I’ve been living in New York and making music,” she said.

Her music making has entailed much in the last few years, most notably, one of her music videos got more than 300, 000 views on YouTube. But Briana says the most exciting thing that’s happened in her career thus far is the response from the recent Bring Change 2 Mind benefit concert. For the event, a 4–piece band and 20 actual Broadway singers performed her work live for the charity dedicated to ending the taboo of mental illness.

“A lot of people I did or didn’t know came up to me and told me they loved my music…All the singers I worked with told me that they wanted to work with my music again,” Briana said.

This was the first time Briana had done a show like this, but it was for a cause that hits very close to home.

When Briana was 12, she was diagnosed with Bi-polar disorder. She missed a lot of school because of her struggle with the disease, and lost a lot of friends because of its stigma. It wasn’t until she was 19 that Briana found medication that actually stabilized her mood.

“My teachers in middle school, high school and college judged me for my illness, and few people could understand what I was going through. I became more stable when I started writing music every day. If I was ever feeling a strong emotion, I could write a song about it instead of taking it out on other people, and then the feeling would pass.”

For her, supporting this Bring Change 2 Mind benefit concert was a cathartic experience, the final floorboard in place after years of learning to accept herself, her disease and her way of creative expression.

“I like to think of [my Bi-polar disorder] as my super power [now], because it isn’t all bad. Through my mania and depression I can write great songs, I can empathize with others, and can think of creative ideas. I still get sad a lot, but I am happy a lot too, it’s just part of the deal, but I’ve learned how I can cope and who I can talk to,” she said.

The response she received from her work in the show underscored another thing for her: how never to be ashamed of what you really are, because (in the words of Dr. Seuss) the people who matter won’t mind.

“Every day I try to stay true to myself by believing in myself and not putting mine or other people’s thoughts and feelings down. I always listen to how I feel when making decisions, and I don’t filter myself when talking to people… I want the people who surround me to accept and like me for being myself, so I don’t try to hide who I am…Throughout the Bring Change 2 Mind concert we had monologues from the singers and I shared my own personal experience. It was amazing how many people came up to me after the show and told me stories about their struggle, or a friend’s struggle with mental illness…I love bonding with other women who are dealing with the same issues, becoming strong and helping each other grow and succeed,” she said.

Being vocal about what she believes in is an essential part of what makes Briana herself, and along with mental health awareness, Briana is passionate about Feminism, Veganism, and other causes dealing with human rights and equality.

“I am 200 percent a feminist…When I was 18 I took a class on ethics, and I decided to write my final paper on my interpretation of eco-feminism. Through that paper, I figured out that I was a feminist, meaning that I believed in equality for everyone, but also that I was passionate about treating our planet well. I also decided to become vegan, because in my mind, if I believed in equality for all humans, and not abusing the earth, I couldn’t leave anything else in the planet out, and I couldn’t justify treating animals with cruelty,” she said.

Briana plans to continue sharing her whole self with the world and working for social change through her songwriting. This year, she has shows planned that will support other non-profits she believes in, and she is in the process of making more recordings and videos for her fans to enjoy. Last but not least, Briana also has hopes to begin recording a full-length album showcasing her talent. To keep track of what Smartist Briana Wolf is doing, check out herFacebook or YouTube Channel.

Here is one of the recordings from the Bring Change 2 Mind concert. For more, visit here.