Annually on March 8, people from all over the world celebrate International Women’s Day. This global holiday commemorates the cultural, political, and socioeconomic achievements of women, while also bringing attention to issues such as gender equality, reproductive rights, and violence against women.
Within the music industry, women are still trying to arrive at the point where they have equal standing alongside men. Yes, there are women that are treated as equally as the men in the industry. But there are far too many women that are not, and this needs to change.
I recently was afforded the opportunity to talk with Sara Smith, a multi-instrumental musician and author living in Columbus, Ohio. Our conversation via an online video call was casual and wide-ranging.
She began down the musical path early in life, playing her first instrument, the piano, at the age of five.
“My mom was a pianist and could sight-read anything,” she informed me. “I had also started playing cello in 2005. And my first bass guitar was a 1989 Japanese Squire.”
During the early stages being quarantined due to the Covid-19 global pandemic saw her begin the process of writing a novella, having previously published three books of poetry and short stories. She is also working on a fifth book of journal compilations.
“I started writing poetry to deal with my mental health,” she said, “to really cope and understand. I wanted to get those thoughts out of my mind while chainsmoking at 4 a.m. Then, I just figured I’m going to put everything I have into a book and sell it. It’s been working out for me.”
She always seems to be busy, working on multiple projects simultaneously.
“Over quarantine,” said Smith with pride, “my band Omni-tet released an EP called Omnipresent.” The EP was released in October 2020 and is funky with an old-school, smoke-filled jazz club vibe weaving throughout the four tracks.
“I’ve also played with Nina West a few times,” she continued, “during quarantine. The first time was at the Columbus Museum of Art. It was a fundraiser that was wild, but really fun, too. I also played for Nina’s Heels of Horror show.”
She has also recently released a few songs she wrote and recorded with her roommate in their living room, while calling themselves The Neurotypicals. It’s a lo-fi blend of folk, Americana and country, with the vocals reminiscent of old-time storytellers that easily move between singing and spoken word.
When I asked her about women getting a fair shake in the music industry, she began by relating her experiences while attending college in Columbus.
“When I was going to Capital University,” she began, “I was one of two females in the jazz studies program. And to be quite frank, I knew early on that I was not going to be taken seriously; I was never going to be ‘one of the boys’ and get invited to come jam in someone’s basement. I constantly had to worry about do I want to pursue a relationship, or do I want this person to call me for gigs?
“I felt that it was either you’re one of the dudes, or you’re an outcast.”
She talked about the ongoing problem of women not being taken seriously, and how they are judged by their looks and not on their musical ability and merit. She found that getting gigs as a female musician was a constant series of doors that never opened very wide, merely offering a glimpse of what was possible, before closing tightly once again.
“Like, I’ll try and join a new band, and I don’t quite fit,” said Smith. “I’m not punk enough, I’m not rock enough, I’m not jazzy enough…”
She has earned a reputation as a quality musician among a few within the local music scene and has worked hard to build those relationships into something that will lead to more doors opening for her. More recently, referrals have helped her obtain gigs within the music community.
“I think it was really like a miracle that I got the gig with Nina West, because I was referred by somebody else.”
Although she has been playing music for many years, she is still in search of her unique musical expression.
“I enjoy playing,” she continued, “but I have not figured out what my ‘voice’ is, what my sound is.
“So, with that being said, I started writing an album last Fall. Something I wanted to do with this album is create a cohesive sound, but it’s going to be all over the place. I’m slowly trying to (nail down the sound), in what this band would sound like, I’m also relying heavily on the musicians I want to pull for this.”
While has the experience to pull ideas from myriad genres contained within the musical landscape, she has begun penning lyrics that address being assaulted by a musician she had worked with in the past.
“I have one song I wrote about the first album I ever worked on,” Smith remembered, “and about how the guy and I were on another gig later and let him spend the night and he assaulted me. So, I wrote a song about him and what a piece of shit he is. The first couple of lines are, Thirty days and forty nights, you kept me up with endless frights. No, wait… it’s been years.”
While it must feel cathartic to bring what happened out into the light, unfortunately there has been some backlash from fans of the musician that is the subject of the lyrics.
“The thing that pisses me off is when women come out and say you’re going to ruin this man’s life,” she said with a hint of anger and frustration. “A woman that I went to college with said that this is hearsay, be careful what you say. My mother even said be careful (what you say).
“It was really disheartening and at the same time depressing, but it made me feel a little bit more emboldened.”
That feeling of being emboldened has allowed her to set her sights on what she would like to accomplish in the future.
“I really would like to have a residency,” she said with a smile. “I want to have my band Omni-tet one night and I want to do my poetry maybe one or two nights.
“I’m also, very slowly, working on this other project called ‘Sad Bed Queen’ with my best friend where we would sing things like… what it’s like to have depression, or the fact that everything seems to be going great and I can’t get out of bed. It’s going to be loud, chunky and very punk. We also want it to be an all-female band.”
As you can easily tell, Sara Smith has lofty goals by any stretch of the imagination. Having spent some time talking with her, I could hear the passion in her voice as she described the things she wants to do. I have a feeling that she will accomplish all her goals, and many more that lie further down the road.
“Ultimately,” she concluded, “at the end of the day I have to remember that I’m trying to connect with people with my writing or my music.”
Omni-tet – Red Reflections
Although International Women’s Day has been celebrated for over 100 years, far too many people seem to regress into chauvinistic behavior, or worse, on the other 364 days of the year. It is past time for these attitudes towards women to change.