Serena Ryder can always tell when she’s playing a music festival with women on staff. “They put garbage bins in the bathrooms!” she says, laughing. “It’s one of the many little things than men don’t think about.”
The Juno Award-winning singer-songwriter of “Stompa” and “What I Wouldn’t Do” has toured extensively since her teens, and has seen a lot of changes in the industry in the last three years.
“The thing I find completely different right now is that there is much more of a sense of community,” she says. “When I started touring, it felt like being a woman in rock was me against the world. My survival strategy was becoming one of the boys. I was really good at drinking. I felt like I had to be strong all the time and never show my emotions. It’s only when I started having more relationships with other women my age in the art community, my life got much better.”
One of Ryder’s longtime female allies is her manager, Sandy Pandya, whom she describes as “a warrior queen, so powerful and yet so empathetic.” The two women have been working together for 15 years, and are about to embark on another new project: an artist collective called Art House.
“We bought this building together in the west end of Toronto,” explains Ryder. “To bring as many artists — painters, storytellers, musicians — into a space where they can create with people who’ve been doing it a long time that can give them short cuts around the bullshit. I can’t wait to see everybody flourish.”
Art House will feature a recording studio in the backyard, where Ryder will record her next album. Last month, her breakthrough 2006 record If Your Memory Serves You Well was reissued on vinyl and she’s gearing up for summer festival season – with female-friendly bathrooms included.
“I feel blessed to have been born in the skin I’m in,” she says. “Being a woman in a growing community of strong women gives me a strength and balance that I’m so grateful for.”
Two of the first music videos Katy Maravala ever worked on were Drake’s “Hotline Bling” and Rihanna’s “Work.” Not bad gigs to kick off a career.
“I’ve always had this love affair with music videos that started at a young age,” she says. “I remember we once had a class assignment to do a music video – I did three.”
After moving to Canada from England (where she worked as a tour manager for bands while pursuing her degree in video production), she got a receptionist’s job at a Toronto company specializing in advertising. “I spent pretty much every waking hour learning how the industry works and was promoted to producer. But then I realized I wanted to be on set, shooting. So I spontaneously quit my 9-to-5 with benefits, and went freelance.”
The risk paid off. Maravala has now risen to the position of line producer on many of Canada’s top music videos – including recent clips for The Weeknd, Feist and Jesse Reyez, all nominees for this year’s Prism Prize. She’s quick to point out that her job is often misunderstood. “I think people think I’m some kind of record producer,” she says. “In fact, I work closely with the director to realize their vision on screen. I also manage the budget and do all of the hiring.”
Having women like Maravala in the room with creative input early in the process is one way to ensure music videos have more realistic portrayals of women on screen. She recalls working on Reyez’s “Gatekeeper,” which features a scene in which Reyez and a girlfriend are separated by a nefarious record executive so he can get the singer alone in his car. Of the original script, Maravala told the director “that’s not how I would ever react.” After discussion, they added a sequence where the girls check in on each other via text.
"Progress is not only encouraging more female directors to do more female-friendly content,” she says, “it’s making change in every position: directors, wardrobe, cinematography." While Maravala admits she has faced sexism on the job "multiple times," she feels it's important not to carry those bad experiences forward, and highlights one benefit to being a producer: she gets to choose who to work with. "I’m a real creature of habit and over the years have built up a great team."
When Kiana Eastmond opened Sandbox Studios in 2012, she became the first woman to run a professional recording studio in Toronto. But the entrepreneur, who also goes by the name Rookz, is doing more than breaking ground in a male-dominated field. She operates Sandbox, which specializes in urban music, as an incubator committed to community access.
“When I travel to the UK or LA I see creative hubs — we have a deficit here in Canada,” she explains. “Music has changed so much, there’s a huge gap between the industry and people making music. At Sandbox, I’m retailing the industry – not just recording and mixing but artistic development, marketing, photography – anything a label can offer you. I want artists to grow and cultivate and win.”
Eastmond got her start in the business at 19, working security at a live music venue. She started acting as an unofficial talent scout, and eventually became an artist manager. But finding places for her female clients making urban music proved frustrating.
“There were no professional spaces for urban music,” she recalls. “As a woman, I don’t want to show up at some random industrial building with 100 guys in there, or in someone’s basement.” And the established studios were no better, being more accustomed to recording rock artists. One of the biggest motivations to launching Sandbox was being asked by a professional engineer to have her R&B artist sing the notes straight. “In that moment, I said, ‘let’s take a risk.'”
When she spotted an opportunity to take over a small studio in Cabbagetown, she poured everything into the business. But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. She gave up her apartment when she couldn’t afford rent on both places. And then lost the car where she was storing her belongings. “Oh, 2013 through 2015 were rough years,” she admits. “I’m grateful that I’m a Leo. I’m good at maintaining a façade!”
This February, Sandbox expanded into a 2,000-square-foot space. Its studios have been visited by A-list performers like Cardi B, Tory Lanez and Little Simz, but it’s still run like a community centre. Soon, Eastmond will resurrect Sunday Sessions, a weekly open house offering free recording time, workshops and performances.
“I’ve met moms who always wanted to make a song, or really young people having their first experience; a lot of people from the queer community who said they never felt comfortable in a traditional recording studio. It’s my greatest success, showing everyone that you can run an honest business being nice.”
Here are some things you’ll see at a July Talk concert: high-energy alternative rock full of blues swagger and dramatic tension, singers Leah Fay and Peter Dreimanis trading off in intense, physically charged performances, a sign reading “Love Lives Here.”
The Juno-Award winning July Talk has a reputation for ferocity on stage, a kind of controlled danger in the true spirit of rock ’n’ roll. “I was a kid that had a lot of temper tantrums,” says Fay. “It’s always been part of my art practice.”
But when it comes to their audience, they want to make sure everyone feels safe. Last year, inspired in part by being in the U.S. when President Trump announced his Muslim travel ban, and Fay’s personal experience of sexual harassment at music festivals, they started putting up posters at their shows that explicitly state they welcome everyone regardless of race, religion, gender and orientation.
“Concerts are magic,” explains the singer, taking a break from working on the band’s third album. “We get to create this shared space for ourselves and for others. Why can’t we just decide what the feeling here should be? Let’s promote the fact that people need to be taking care of each other, looking after each other.”
Fay made headlines in December 2016 for stopping a July Talk show to call out a sexist heckler – the video went viral – and then penning a compassionate open letter to him, signing off with “here’s to a softer 2017.” She has continued to use Twitter to amplify women’s and LGTBQ issues, and engage directly with her audience, even the haters.
“Some people say to me ‘how can it still be rock ’n’ roll if we’re talking about making it inclusive and safe?’ The important thing to remember is that rock has always been about rebellion and giving voice to things like anger and a fight for freedom. It might break a bubble of fun times but it’s so necessary. And I find that now it’s so much easier. People are willing to engage and learn and converse. I think people want to change.”
Last winter, Keely Kemp and Joanne Setterington were having a business meeting over coffee and opened up an email together: a Canadian music organization had announced its new board of directors.
“We scrolled through and it was like, ‘oh, right, there isn’t a single woman,'” recalls Kemp. “This was two years after [Prime Minister] Trudeau’s mic drop of 50 per cent, referring to women in his cabinet. We said this is ridiculous. Let’s change this!”
The women created Across the Board, an advocacy movement to achieve gender parity on the boards of directors of Canadian music organizations. They conducted independent research of 30 Canadian industry boards and discovered music-specific boards contained only 20 per cent women – which did not reflect the fairly balanced gender make-up of the industry as a whole. Then they came up with their mission: “50:50 by 2020.”
Kemp is a music-industry veteran, with experience in both the private and public sectors, and founder of Culture Cap, a business services agency for creative industries. Setterington owns Indoor Recess Inc., a pr and management agency for acts like A Tribe Called Red, The Strumbellas and Sloan. The two started working their networks and soon had more than a dozen high-profile women music managers and other executives from across the country getting the word out.
“I really felt we could create a movement, just by going out and speaking with these boards. Feedback has been incredibly positive. It’s gone wide and deep very quickly,” says Kemp.
Although a formal update of their original count won’t come for another few months, Kemp says they have already seen a shift, with calls every week from boards that have added women after meeting with them. She acknowledges the process takes time, but it’s worth it. At this year’s Canadian Music Week they’ll take part in the panel “Inclusivity and Accountability: Bringing Measurable Change for the Music Industry.”
“For women who are able to serve on boards, there are a lot of benefits – opportunity, access, growth, knowledge and contacts. And studies have shown an organization that has a board with equal representation is actually more profitable. Everybody wins.”
Iswké has never been good at accepting inequality. “Even as a child, if I saw something I thought was unfair and my parents couldn’t explain it, I would not just take their word for it and walk away.”
The Winnipeg-born, Hamilton-based singer of Cree, Dene and Irish descent now uses music to speak out. Her most recent album, 2017’s Juno-nominated electronic pop collection, The Fight Within, features songs about protecting the Earth from pipelines (“Soldier”) and Canada’s murdered and missing Indigenous women (“Nobody Knows,” “Will I See”). In February she released the single “The Unforgotten” featuring Polaris Prize-winning throat singer Tanya Tagaq, and an upcoming acoustic EP will feature the new song “Safe,” about her own experiences with MeToo.
“Right now I’m extremely focused on women’s place in the world, and Indigenous people,” she says. “Because I am both. I have a niece now who is also both. It’s become more deeply rooted in my heart.”
As an independent artist who, until recently, handled all of her own business affairs, Iskwé has also witnessed unfairness in the way women are treated in the music industry. From walking into studios to record where the walls are covered in photographs and Gold Record awards without a single female artist represented, to attending Juno Week events where everyone on stage is a white male, she recognizes the need for better representation on all fronts. “Where are the women in executive roles?” she asks. “We’re here. Now we need to infiltrate.”
To that end, Iskwé recently joined two groups: Women in Music Canada, a non-profit organization that supports the advancement of women in the industry, and the KeyChange Foundation, a European-based initiative challenging music festivals to achieve 50:50 gender balance in their programming.
“I do feel a little bit pooped, creating art motivated by challenging emotional conversations,” she says. “[But] I do have a lot of light and wonderful things in my life. I just need to find ways to recharge so I can continue doing it.”
Iskwé performs May 7 and May 11 in Toronto for Canadian Music Week.