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In Watershed, Amelia Curran addresses gender gap in Canada's music industry

Amelia Curran, a Juno Award-winning songwriter, activist and mental-health advocate, addresses sexism and misogyny on Watershed, an album that comes on the heels of Denise Donlon’s autobiography and a documentary about these issues in the Canadian music trade.

"Misogyny and sexism are big, frightening words, and it's almost un-Canadian to be guilty of these things," the Newfoundland-bred singer-songwriter Amelia Curran says, addressing the gender gap in the music industry. "But I think it's in small social cues where we begin to correct what's going on. It's the simplest things, like how women around the table in an industry conversation will be interrupted more than men."

If there are deaths made by a thousand cuts, there is indignity for women by a thousand slights – in the music industry, and most everywhere else. Curran confronts the issue on No More Quiet, a jangling, brassy declaration of Helen Reddy-style defiance on her new album, Watershed. "I have lived within these borders, I was not bad for a girl," she sings. "It keeps knocking me down, knocking me over."

The small things knocking Curran and other women down are everywhere, if one is even a little aware. Look no further than this year's recent Juno Awards broadcast, which co-host Russell Peters opened inappropriately. "That's a lot of young girls here," the comedian quipped, lewdly sizing up the crowd. "This is a felony waiting to happen."

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"That's exactly the kind of small act I'm talking about," Curran says, speaking from Halifax. "It's difficult to be outraged by a small joke. But we should be, absolutely, across the board."

Curran, a Juno-winning songwriter, is no stranger to causes. She is a mental-health advocate and founder of It's Mental, a grassroots community organization based in her native St. John's. She produced and directed the documentary Gone, an exploration of art and suicide that is scheduled to air nationally this year after a CBC broadcast in Newfoundland and Labrador in 2016.

The new album, her eighth, marks a departure for Curran lyrically, in that the material is less cloaked in metaphor than her previous work. "Have I overstayed my welcome on the FM radio," she asks on Stranger Things Have Happened. "Did I capture my affection, should I pack it up and go?"

Asked about the song No More Quiet and the deeply entrenched sexism in the music trade, Curran says the conditions in her industry are no different than in others, but that discussions in the record business aren't taking place. "We're not talking about it, and we should be."

But dialogue on the subject has picked up of late. Denise Donlon's 2016 memoir, Fearless as Possible (Under the Circumstances), devotes pages to her experience as president of Sony Music Canada, in the testosterone-driven music business. "I was trying to manoeuvre in these meetings, and in a world where there weren't a lot of high-powered women," Donlon told The Globe and Mail. "A friend asked me if I was leaning in, at these meetings. I said I was leaning in so far my feet were off the ground."

More recently, the Canadian pop duo Tegan and Sara released a statement in advance of the Junos pointing out the "disappointing number of women" nominated in many of the categories. The duo's Sara Quin is one of the many frustrated female artists speaking out in the new Canadian film Play Your Gender. Directed by Stephanie Clattenburg and featuring producer-musician Kinnie Starr (the film's executive producer and host), the documentary dives into an industry that produces plenty of women at the top of the charts but few as producers and engineers.

The film is stocked with female voices (including Melissa Auf der Maur, Chantal Kreviazuk, Ndidi Onukwulu and Quin), but fewer guys. "It's a little disappointing, because the conversation has to come from men in equal proportion to women," says Starr, who told The Globe that more than one man backed out of scheduled interviews for the film. "In general, men are going to listen to men sooner than they're going to listen to women."

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A recent study conducted by the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law revealed how commonly female U.S. Supreme Court justices are interrupted by men – and how the conduct shows their disinclination to let the three women on the court make their case.

"We have all made these social mistakes and we can excuse ourselves and we can change that behaviour," Curran says. "These tiny steps will get us so much further."

In advance of a national tour in support of Watershed, Curran hits the road with three other Canadian singer-songwriters for a Writes of Spring Tour that visits eight Ontario venues this month. The other artists are Hawklsey Workman, Donovan Woods and Hey Rosetta!'s Tim Baker.

That's three men and one woman, if you're counting – and many are. Curran and others in the music business aren't seeking special treatment. They just want people to do the math.

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About the Author

Brad Wheeler is an arts reporter with The Globe and Mail. More

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