It takes a certain kind of woman to dump the King.
As one of the first women to break into the rock-n-roll scene, Wanda Jackson’s edgy pin-up hair and tenacious lyrics about being an independent woman shocked the prudish sensibilities of parents like the Cleavers. A singer-songwriter, guitarist and pianist recording singles at 17, Jackson was turned down from record deals initially—“girls don’t sell records,” she was told—until she earned her crown as the Queen of Rockabilly.
In 1956, after touring with Elvis for some time, Jackson turned him down. As story goes, he was a terrible kisser. What a waste of some good hip thrusts.
“There aren’t a lot of chicks who rock,” bemoans Ali Wadsworth, the Marilyn blonde sitting across from me at The Institute, chatting over drinks about womanhood and the music biz. Next to her, fellow Philly songstress Katie Frank doesn’t dispute the sentiment.
We try to rattle off names of those who do, undisputedly, rock: Janis Joplin, the Wilson sisters, Joan Jett, Siouxsie Sioux, Gwen Stefani—though she’s up for debate. But Wadsworth is quick to insist these women don’t hold a candle to the likes of Freddie Mercury. “He’s the one who took it to the next fucking level,” she says.
It’s an unsettling sort of thing to hear from two blazing stars in Philadelphia’s music scene.
Wadsworth is a singer-songwriter with an unmistakably powerful voice—a little bit Billie Holiday, a little bit Amy Winehouse—and a whole lot of personality. Performing in and around Philly with various bands and solo for—well, she can’t quite remember exactly how long—Wadsworth made a splash when she and her sister performed a duet on NBC’s The Voice in 2012 and at SXSW in Austin, Texas in 2013.
At 33, Wadsworth possesses an unapologetic, confident sense of self. “I’m old as shit,” she laughs. “I really like living in my 30s. Everyone’s scared to turn 30, and I was freaked out. I was like, ‘This is not where I want to be, this is not where I expected to be, I’m not nearly as successful as I thought I would be.”
The day after her birthday, she says, it all changed. “I was like, ‘Woah, I really like where I am. So what if I can’t pay my bills? So what if my gas got shut off last week? I really want to live this life.”
Frank heads Katie Frank and the Pheromones, a five-piece folk-rock set that played SXSW in March and is on the bill at this weekend’s Philadelphia Folk Festival.
We laugh that she’s the only one of us three to get carded—me especially, being 23 and two years her junior—but Wadworth insists Frank’s “look” is right for the industry.
She’s petite and soft-spoken, but don’t let it fool you: Frank is a triple threat—writing, composing and performing her own songs. With a voice that twangs something Southern and tugs on your heart, she often gets compared to Stevie Nicks.
Both these chicks, without doubt, rock—as audiences at PW’s annual “Concerts in the Park” series and inaugural “College Fest Free-4-All” will witness tonight, when Frank and her band open for Divers after a set by DJ Lisa Love, and three weeks from now, when Wadsworth joins Thee Idea Men and Damn Right!, preceded by DJ Royale. Both shows, free to the public, are in Rittenhouse Square.
For these two—and other musicians, surely—the writing process is difficult.
“I have songs that have taken, maybe, close to a year,” Frank admits. “‘Cause I’ll get sick of them, revisit them, get sick of them again ... ”
“Me too!” Wadsworth injects. “My father’s best advice to me was quantity over quality, which is something I grew up with.”
I suggest: “Don’t you mean quality over quantity?”
She tells us her dad wrote a song a day. Not all were gems, but he valued the ability to start and finish a song.
Frank is the only singer to come out of her family. Her parents and grandparents were musicians, but played instruments in bands. In fact, her mom, a flutist, and dad, a drummer, met in a group.
“My parents were both banders, but they didn’t listen to rock,” she says. “I started listening to classic rock when I was like, 19. That’s when I discovered that I love it, and I started writing again. I just wanted my music to be that way, and then I got a band and I was like, ‘Oh shit, I love rock!’ You know, it just progressed from there. If I had the rock influence from Day One, it would’ve been nice.”
They both admit that when younger, they lacked confidence on stage as women, mostly because they lacked a female role model.
“I never wanted to put my guitar down [on stage] because ... people are going to assume I didn’t write my own songs,” Frank says. “That’s how it goes for women: If you’re not playing the guitar while you’re singing, they’re going to assume someone else wrote the song. Now, I’m like, fuck it.”
Wadsworth agrees. “I was surrounded by amazing male songwriters, how could I write a song as good as them? It took me until my 30s when I could show my songs to people.”
She says she picked up the ukulele before learning the guitar because it’s easier, but hated the associated stereotype.
“Why would I give a shit about the way people viewed me? But I was so concerned about being this ‘I’m so cute, look how adorable I am, playing this teeny, tiny little instrument,’” Wadsworth whines, dripping in mockery. “But I assume that all girls are going to sound the same, and they kind of do to some extent. The cutesy pop stars, like Feist.”
The Manic Pixie Dream Girlishness embodied by Zooey Deschanel, Leslie Feist and Ingrid Michaelson is all too familiar. They bring cheer to rom-com soundtracks, wax emotional on teenage break-up playlists, coo soothingly in coffee shops and make cameos on feel-good Old Navy commercials. To Wadsworth and Frank, these ukulele-playing, doe-eyed MPDGs occupy a very feminine stereotype that their fringe-and-leather predecessors—Jackson, Nicks, Joplin, et al—wouldn’t dare.
I ask them: Why have there been so few women who rock?
“I think it has to do with just the way the past few 100 years have gone,” Wadsworth says. “It just happened later for us—being able to have confidence. It’s a little bit easier now.”
“Men just give themselves in a different way, and that always pissed me off,” she adds. “And it still pisses me off, and it’s why I want to succeed as a female rock star. I want to be something for little girls to fucking look up to.”
PW's Music Issue 2014