Women of Influence: Musicians

Madonna’s Like a Virgin album was one of the first cassettes I had. I remember choreographing and performing countless “shows” with my sister and our friends that we’d then force our parents to watch repeatedly. Madonna was the first female singer I adored closely followed by Cyndi Lauper and Pat Benetar. These women opened up a whole new world to me and made me daydream of being a star. Every kid should have that.

“You must be my Lucky Star, ’cause you shine on me wherever you are, I just think of you and I start to glow, and I need your light, and baby you know”


My first listen to Joni Mitchell was on vinyl. A beat up LP of Blue that I rescued from the thrift store stacks. I remember how her voice moved through me, how I felt like she was singing truths about my own life even though I was only 19 or 20 and had barely begun to really live. She sang of feelings I held in my heart and dreams I kept close. I’d spend hours lying on my bed replaying her records. You would have thought it was 1972 not 1992.

This song, “A Case of You,” has been covered by many artists but my loyalty will always lie with Joni’s original version.

“Part of you pours out of me in these lines from time to time. . . oh you are in my blood like holy wine, and you taste so bitter but you’re so sweet, oh I could drink a case of you. . . and still be on my feet”


It was back when MTV actually showed videos and you’d wait for hours for your favorite video to air. It was before the age of the internet, before everything was one Google search away, and I was sitting on the couch waiting to see Tori Amos. I’d never seen or heard anyone like her. She was quirky and raw and I listened to Little Earthquakes on repeat. To this day, some twenty years later, I can still sing the entire album from start to finish. She made sense to me then, as if all the poems and journal entries I’d filled blank books with were not crazy, that I was not crazy for feeling all the feelings and writing about them.

“I got something to say you know but nothing comes, yes I know what you think of me, you never shut up, yeah I can hear that but what if I’m a mermaid in these jeans of his with her name still on it, hey but I don’t care ’cause sometimes, I said sometimes, I hear my voice and it’s been here, silent all these years”


I was a music junkie in my late teens and early 20’s. Jenny Two Times and I spent hours upon hours at the record store,  driving around Silicon Valley singing at the top of our lungs with not much else to do except work our shifts at Michaels, go to junior college classes, meet up with friends at the coffee shop, and go to concerts.  It was 1993 and I was 20 years old. My father had just died and I was full of confusing and conflicting feelings. And then I found Liz Phair. I’d never heard a woman sing like that- with an imperfect voice, unapologetically bare and sometimes crass. She was edgy and angry and a tough chick. In her music I found an outlet for the anger and grief churning inside me.

“And I want a boyfriend, I want a boyfriend, I want all that stupid old shit like letters and sodas, and I can feel it in my bones, I’m gonna spend another year alone, it’s fuck and run, fuck and run, even when I was seventeen”


It was my second year at UC Santa Cruz as a Women’s Studies major and I was taking a Women’s Poetry class. In our section (a small group discussion) one of the lone boys in the class pulled out an acoustic guitar and sang “Both Hands” when it was his turn to share a poem that made him love poetry.  And that? Was my first introduction to Ani DiFranco. It was love at first listen. Her songs were rebellious and tough, tender and honest. They gave voice to many of my own thoughts, ones I didn’t think I was powerful enough to share. Listening to her made me feel brave and her music became the soundtrack to my year.

“I am writing graffiti on your body, I am drawing the story of how hard we tried, I am watching your chest rise and fall like the tides of my life, and the rest of it all, and your bones have been my bed frame, and your flesh has been my pillow, I am waiting for sleep to offer up the deep with both hands”

I tried to fit in when I first moved to Santa Cruz for college. I wore the Birkenstocks. I didn’t shave for a winter. I smoked weed. But none of those things stuck; I just felt like I was trying on a persona of an earthy girl. But then one rainy winter afternoon as I attempted to study in a coffee shop, I heard Billie Holiday. Her voice broke with emotion as hippies and hapless skaters and fellow students sat around sipping coffee and I was changed. I grew up listening to Frank Sinatra but this was the first I’d heard Billie. Jazz was a staple in all the local cafes and I quickly devoured her music, listening to it on repeat much to the annoyance of my housemate. I discovered Ella Fitzgerald too and together, us three, we sang our hearts out. This was right before the movie Swingers came out when everyone got the Big Band craze. It wasn’t long until I was donning vintage dresses, going to jazz shows, and learning to swing dance.

“Good morning heartache, you old gloomy sight. good morning heartache thought we said goodbye last night, I turned and tossed ’til it seemed you had gone,but here you are with the dawn”


Who are your musical influences?


17 thoughts on “Women of Influence: Musicians

  1. Oh I related to quite a few of these! I think in the last decade the female vocalist I’ve enjoyed the most is Jenny Lewis. I think I began listening to Rilo Kiley back in 2004 because she was getting some attention for changing their sound and I was like “Wait…the girl from Troop Beverly Hills sings???” (I have serious love for that movie.) I enjoy all of their albums but when she went solo and sang with the Watson twins I just found her to have so much more…I don’t know…depth. That album was almost a bit theatrical. I think I just remember her as someone I grew up enjoying watching on tv, so I felt that connection to her and then to see her move on to really flex her creative muscles has been inspiring. I’ve seen her a number of times live and just think she’s the bee’s knees.

    Wow…this came out sounding super fangirl, which was not my intent when I started writing the comment. I guess I just really like her work! And now I feel like I need to watch Troop Beverly Hills again (which is kind of perfect timing because Garrett’s going out of town this weekend. CHEEZY MOVIE FEST!!!)

    • Holly, I am right there with you on Jenny Lewis! She is on a short list of women singers who just get me. (and yeah, I totally watched Troop Beverly Hills on New Year’s Day).

      I think for me, Sizz, is there are songs or artists who define moments in my life. For example, Kris Orlowski (you knew I was going to go there) will always be the person who gave me new life. His music, him, and the Seattle music community picked me up from my hell and made me a new person-someone I actually like! I will always be grateful for that.

  2. Madonna was a game changer for me. I remember seeing her with hairy armpits in Playb*y when I was just a tween. Oh my! I finally saw her in concert back in 2009 and I loved every minute of it.

  3. We’ve got some good overlap. I had Like a Virgin on vinyl. 😉 I saw Ani DiFranco live, must’ve been my 1st year at college and was hooked. Love Liz Phair, first heard her senior year of college. Loved The Go-Go’s. The Cure and Tuck & Patti were big for me in high school, and the latter through college. Tegan & Sara- first heard them in ’98. Philip Glass. Generally, 70’s disco is like comfort food for me. Still a sucker for dance music. 🙂

  4. I had Extraordinary lyrics as the tagline on my first blog: ah Liz!

    Toni Basil, Madonna, Sarah Mclachlan, Kristin Hersh, Joan Jett, Natalie Merchant/10000 Maniacs, Curve, Imogen Heap/Frou Frou, Holly Throsby, Clare Bowditch, Lorena McKinnett, Kate Bush, Missy Higgins, Robyn, Sarah Harmer, Sia,

    Bjork/Sugarcubes, Breeders, Jale, Cocteau Twins, Belly, Delirium, Siouxsie & The Banshees, Cranberries, Hole, L7

    So not just singer/song writers….
    The list could go on but I’ll stop.

  5. Oh, what fun memories. And the choreographing with friends and making parents watch is SUCH a memory for my sister and me. I am sure there are still VHS tapes somewhere with some of our amazing dance moves on them, probably many to Madonna. Ha. So fun.
    Thanks for helping me remember that!

  6. I’m glad to hear that my friends and myself were not the only ones to choreograph dances to Madonna’s songs. LOVED her music growing up in the 80s’!

    Of course as you know, you introduced me to Joni Mitchell and I just love her music. (Please let’s remember that I did a big part of growing up in Saudi Arabia and then Lebanon.)

  7. I used to pretend to be Cher when I was five- had a jump rope for a microphone and did the hair flipping like she did. Does that count as influence? I’m a bit older than you all so I love Bonnie Raitt, Chrissie Hynde, Stevie Nicks, Pat Benetar and Deborah Harry and let’s not forget Tina Turner. And Heart and Joan Jett for refusing to be anything but rockers.

    I will also put it out there that I do so adore Barbra. Yes, that one. Ms. Streisand. No one compares in music and movies. She fricking blew off the doors for women in Hollywood for directing and producing. My grandma played her music so often, I could sing an entire album right here at my desk for you if anyone could bear to listen.

  8. I too made videos with friends dancing to Madonna…oh my goodness the memories of jelly bracelets, lace leggins and way too much black eyeliner! I distinctly remember my black “members only” jacket too! (Did anyone else memorize the “Thriller” dance? or was i just me?)
    I find most of my early musical influences came from classic rock and old jazz, never could get into Joni Mitchell, much prefer Nina Simone or Billie Holiday. As I became more aware of music it was Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Jimi, Janis and The Doors. High school was very angsty for me…Nirvana, Rage, Ministry, Pearl Jam and the heavy metal classics like Ozzy, Sabbath, AC/DC etc got me through the “angry years.”
    Now as a full grown adult I can go from Primus to DMB to Glenn Miller to Van Morrison to Ministry and back again, it really depends on my mood, eclectic would be the best word for sure!

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  10. Not sure if you are looking for just female musical influences or not, but mine would be: Joan Jett, Janis Joplin, Billie Holiday, Stevie Nicks, Kim Deal, Liz Phair, Veruca Salt, Luscious Jackson, and Shirley Manson. Kind of interesting when I see them written out. The 90’s produced a lot of women that I loved! Too bad I don’t have current ladies that are as inspiring.

  11. Yup, music meant a lot to me when growing up. My musical influences differ a ‘bit’ from yours: nine inch nails and a lot of noisy metal bands from Europe. But the lyrics of NIN is the closest I’ve felt like music speaking to me.

  12. I love this post. It made me miss the Lilith Fair. Sigh.

    I’m totally with you on the Madonna front. I have pictures of myself dressed as her when I was 9. I was pretty obsessed with Sarah McLachlan in college and for awhile after and even went through a Dixie Chicks faze (which is funny because I don’t like country). I love Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. And if I had to pick a “now” female singer, it would probably be Adele, although I don’t own any of her albums. I just love her for having so much soul. Yup, soul is where it’s at right now.

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