Philly singers Ali Wadsworth and Katie Frank on rocking while female

By Alexis Sachdev
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 16 | Posted Aug. 13, 2014

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Ali Wadsworth (left) and Katie Frank, outside the Institute.

Photo by J.R. Blackwell

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?”

“No.”

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.”

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COMMENTS

Comments 1 - 16 of 16
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1. NK said... on Aug 13, 2014 at 01:53PM

“the tone of this article is nauseating and very embarrassing for the author. who says "chicks" anymore? also, maybe you should explore the vast world of female musicians from the last century before concluding they don't exist beyond whatever mainstream schlock FYE is hawking.”

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2. T said... on Aug 13, 2014 at 03:17PM

“This article is extremely insulting and embarrassing to read as a woman, musician, and native of Philadelphia. I have always been proud to play music in the Philadelphia music scene but this article makes me second guess my place there. I understand an opinion piece but many of the statements made here are inaccurate. Please show some respect to the many many amazing women who rock and the women and programs working to continue that legacy.”

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3. Anonymous said... on Aug 13, 2014 at 05:31PM

“I'm in my early 20s and still say chicks...”

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4. EC said... on Aug 13, 2014 at 06:47PM

“As a female musician who calls Philadelphia home, I found the article to be disparaging towards our local scene. Writing about emerging female songwriters is great (except perhaps them being referred to as 'chicks' through the entire article. C’mon). However, I found the author’s framing of the article to be very offensive. Statements such as "There aren't a whole lot of chicks who rock" are incredibly offensive to a city full of diverse female artists and they completely invalidate an entire portion of our music scene. A publication writing about female musicians should be concentrating on building up an often ignored population and making the public aware of talented and underrepresented ladies. By saying "not many women rock", that's not only insinuating that every female member of our music scene is not talented or musically valid, but also reinforcing age-old stereotypes.”

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5. ME said... on Aug 14, 2014 at 09:21AM

“Candice Martello
Amanda X
SLUTEVER
Watery Love
Mary Lattimore
Spacin'
Sonni Shine & The Underwater Sounds
Emily Cahill and All the band's she's in except for this one...
Monika Julien
Far-Out-Fangtooth
Lily Ruth Bussey
The Apes
Meg Baird
Girls Rock Philly - you know that org. dedicated entirely to Girls and Rock and Roll...
Prince Rama of Ayodhya
The Vandelles
Ancient Creature
Marissa Anderson
The Shangri-Las
The Shirelles
Cat Power
Suzie Quatro
The Pleasure Seakers
Grouper
Broadcast
Múm
Julianna Barwick
Marnie Stern
Kaki King
Screaming Females
Speedy Ortiz
The Coathangers
Bleached
Heavy Cream
White Mystery
The Smoke Fairies
Pork - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a_zbECNH4m0
Alice Coltrane
Geraldine Swayne
Insect Ark
Dagmar Krauss
Lindsay Cooper
Joan Jett
Jucifer
Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Ethel Waters
Sandy Denny
Maggie Bell
Elizabeth Cotten
Nina Simone
L7
Martha And The Vandelles
The Marvelettes
The Supremes
Lisa Fisher
Judith Hill
Norma Jean Wofford
Peggy Jones
Cherry Currie
St. Vincent

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6. ME said... on Aug 14, 2014 at 09:22AM

“The ladies of my bloody valentine, Sharin of the Raveonettes, dum dum girls, Vivian girls, cayetana, puce mary, pharmakon, hope of mazzy star, radiator hospital, big mama Thornton, Janis Joplin, grace slick, four awesome bands on the same label I'm on (boytoy, bluffing, muscadettes, gal pals), Liz and the lost boys, bike crash, Omar, thin lips, Nancy Sinatra, Lesley gore, Bonnie raitt, Susan tedeschi, Dolly Parton, the gogos, pins, blouse, SISU, the bangles, riot girl bands, Rachel goswel of slowdive, trophy wife, hop along, missy Elliot, haim, fanny, Suzie Quattro, Meg white, the donnas, Shannon and the clams, Xeno and oaklander, void vision

a couple SHORT lists of the "chicks" ya missed, bub”

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7. Adam Levine said... on Aug 14, 2014 at 12:15PM

“"Wadsworth made a splash when she and her sister performed a duet on NBC’s The Voice in 2012"...as I recall, it was more like a belly flop than a splash. She didn't make it. Real rocker there!”

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8. Marilyn Monroe said... on Aug 14, 2014 at 12:19PM

“Ali tries to break stereotypes but she is pictured looking like a dumb blonde trying to pick up a band outside of a concert. Nothing but a groupie wannabe.”

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9. Anonymous said... on Aug 14, 2014 at 12:30PM

“When these 2 start selling out huge concert venues instead of performing free concerts, then they may be able to judge who and who isn't a female rocker. I'm so tired of these pretentious young punks (male and female) who think they know everything and are better than everyone. What a disgrace. There are so many talented female artists in the Philadelphia music scene and Philly Weekly had to pick the 2 most untalented, arrogant females to represent.”

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10. Big Al the Promoter said... on Aug 14, 2014 at 01:32PM

“Ali and Kate just alienated themselves from any respectable Philadelphia musician and venue. Good luck trying to book any shows after this interview gets out.”

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11. Harry Styles said... on Aug 14, 2014 at 01:35PM

“Where was this picture taken? Looks like the groupie line for the One Direction concert the other night. Keep swinging on everyone's nuts Ali.”

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12. Julia Nunes said... on Aug 14, 2014 at 02:56PM

“Ukes rock and are not a stereotype. Ali has no clue what she's talking about.”

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13. Ali's Ukelele said... on Aug 14, 2014 at 04:26PM

“Wow..I can't believe how these two just disrespected all of their fellow female musicians in the Philly music scene. Nice way to make connections and gain fans...NOT.”

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14. Jim Boggia said... on Aug 14, 2014 at 05:56PM

“Dear Adam Levine, Marilyn Monroe, Big Al the Promoter, Harry Styles, Julia Nunes and Ali's Ukulele: It's pretty obvious all of your comments are written by the same bitter, sour person with some kind of personal ax to grind who is too much of a pussy to sign their own name to the comments.

Ali and Katie are both really talented and working hard at it. Will they "make it"? Who knows? But they're both putting themselves out there, which is more than can be said for you.

Here's a name you might want to use for your next comment: Weasely Coward”

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15. Weasley Coward said... on Aug 18, 2014 at 01:58PM

“If this is the same Jim Boggia that I think it is, then you will be seeing me at your next show. I can definitely understand you sticking up for these 2 girls. They are definitely easy on the eyes and they probably sucked your cock after a show. They love musicians.”

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16. Anonymous said... on Aug 22, 2014 at 06:21AM

“Give us a sample of the ladies' work and then we can consider things and make our own decisions related to our own ears. Vanilla, chocolate, or swirl.”

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