Frustrated over a lack of sources about women rock musicians, a Smith College grad student decided to go to the sources themselves. Five years later, Tanya Pearson—writer, musician, archivist—has amassed a world-class archive of digital interviews and transcripts and is the director of the Women of Rock Oral History Project, housed at Smith College. A film and a book are in the works, as she shares the wide-ranging collection—from Alice Bag to Brenda Lee to 106-year-old Viola Smith—with the world.
In December 2014, Tanya Pearson, then an undergraduate at Smith College, set out to remedy a problem faced by rock writers, researchers, scholars, and fans for decades – finding and preserving in-depth information about women musicians.
Frustrated by the scant details available about her favorite musicians, Pearson founded the Women of Rock Oral History Project, a collection of digital interviews and written transcripts that document “the lives and careers of women in rock music, focusing primarily on artists who have been left out of the popular rock narrative.” Since then, Pearson has amassed an impressive collection of videotaped interviews with musicians ranging from Kira Roessler, Melissa Auf Der Maur, Alice Bag, and Cynthia Ross to Brenda Lee, Viola Smith, Genya Ravan, Gail Ann Dorsey, Phranc, Shirley Manson and dozens of others. And the collection continues to grow.
Pearson grew up in a musical household and began playing various instruments at age 10. Drawn to rock music by groups like Nirvana, Hole, Babes in Toyland, and L7, she started playing in bands. But after high school, a 10-year detour into drugs and alcohol led her to a long-term treatment facility, followed by sober houses and community college. In her early 30s, Pearson transferred to Smith College in western Massachusetts to study American Studies (Culture and Pop Culture) and began the Women of Rock Oral History Project, which is housed in the college’s Sophia Smith Collection. Now in grad school at the University of Massachusetts Amherst majoring in history (with a concentration in public history), Pearson continues her work as director of the project and is currently working on an associated book and documentary.
Project Overview clip:
PKM: What led you to create the Women of Rock Oral History Project?
Tanya Pearson: I actually tell people that the main reason I started this project was that it’s something I wish I had access to when I was 13 or 14. I’d get obsessed with particular musicians, and I was always looking for women musicians and women musicians who were out, too, because I was this closeted little gay kid desperately searching for representation.
I worked in the archives [at Smith], like a work/study job, and I was taking a class on the history of censorship and I knew I wanted to write about music and the 1990s. That was like my decade and it was a great decade for women in music. I knew I wanted to write about women’s lack of representation in mainstream media as a form of censorship, so I chose three pretty popular bands, the Breeders, L7, and Veruca Salt, to write my paper about, but I couldn’t find enough information about them on the internet at that time to write a paper. And I thought, what the hell? They weren’t underground bands – these were just bands that got big before the dawn of the internet. What happened to these histories when these bands broke up is they just sort of disappeared.
I noticed in the archives that we had a ‘women’s music collection’ … but their music collection started with lesbian music and then there was a huge gap and then Riot Grrrl and that’s it. I thought I could fill in some of the gaps at Smith, so I decided to see if I could just interview some of those bands myself in order to write the paper. I went to see Veruca Salt, who had just [gotten back together]. And I just waited outside and lied to them and told them that I curated this institutionally funded oral history collection. I thought they would say no, but they said yes. Then I had to figure out how to get to L.A.
Now I’m friends with Lydia [Lunch] but I emailed her publicist at the time because Lydia was playing in Providence and she said ‘yes.’ And I went, “Oh shit.” So Lydia Lunch was my first interview. Now we’re friends but then she scared the shit out of me.
The four people I asked when I started all said “yes” and I went, “Oh, I can actually do this.” I got Smith to take the collection so I had a place to put it, and I’ve just gone from there. But I started because I was frustrated.
Lydia Lunch clip:
PKM: Why did you begin by focusing on lesser known women? Some people you might expect to see in the collection aren’t there yet – Patti Smith, Courtney Love, Debby Harry – but there are all of these other women. It’s an interesting way to approach it.
Tanya Pearson: I’m starting to interview more well-known people, but initially the purpose was to interview and document the histories of women who had been completely and totally overlooked in histories of rock, the rock canon. Women in rock music are a marginalized group as a whole, but then I also seek out the marginalized groups within that marginalized group. So I interview a lot of drummers and bass players and session musicians. I don’t seek out the front person in bands because I feel you’re more likely to find information on those people.
Now I’m trying to expand the project and make it sustainable so I don’t starve to death and the people who volunteer for me don’t starve to death. So there are these curatorial decisions I need to make to make the project palatable and enticing to people with money and to the general public. I need bigger names in order to draw people into the collection as a whole where they’ll be introduced to all of these people they’ve never seen or heard before. I’m trying to do that while still maintaining the original mission and integrity of the project.
Donita Sparks clip:
PKM: How do you decide who to reach out to?
Tanya Pearson: Five years ago, it was just ‘who will be in the area?’ or ‘who can I get to without spending a lot of money?’. Now I get a lot of requests from punks, “Do you want to interview me?” Who would’ve thought that punks want to be interviewed? Right now, because we’re working on a documentary and a book, I’m trying to make decisions to fill some gaps. I’m deliberately seeking out much older progenitor women to interview. I have Wanda Jackson tentatively scheduled for an interview. I’m trying to flesh out the 80s decade because I have interviewed so many punks, people have started mistakenly referring to it as the “women of rock oral history punk project.” That was never my intention. I want to get rid of compartmentalization and just document everyone and then let fans, the public, and scholars come to their own conclusions about the experiences of women, trans women, or queer women. I just want them all together without smacking a label on it.
So the way I decide has changed because we’re doing a documentary and a book. It’s down to the wire and I’m trying to get financing. I try not to be a sellout or a dick and maintain the integrity of the project, but I do realize as a historian that nothing is ever truly objective. There is always some amount of curation or a decision I’m making in order to achieve some milestone and get some funding so I can keep it going.
PKM: You’ve already interviewed a wide range of women. I love that Brenda Lee is there.
Tanya Pearson: I didn’t think she was going to say yes, and I did that one with just one videographer, Sophia, because we didn’t have enough money to bring two. And she can attest to how nervous I was. I love Brenda Lee. My excitement was no lie. It was a shining moment in my life.
PKM: How has this project been funded so far?
Tanya Pearson: Myself. Credit cards. Sometimes grants. I did two fundraising events in L.A. I made the project a non-profit so I’ll just throw whatever money I make into the project bank account. I have some interviews scheduled in Portland in May, so I’ll drain the bank account to pay for plane tickets for that trip. Then I have to think of some scheme to fund the next batch of interviews. That’s pretty much how it’s been going.
PKM: Tell me a little about the book.
Tanya Pearson: I signed a contract four years ago to write this book. An editor at UMass Press heard about the project and thought it would be a great book. But he’s been very patient because right now, with the list of interviewees, it wouldn’t make any sense. It’s too disproportionally punk. So he’s been very patient while I flesh out the interviews. I want it to be an oral history of rock music. Then when people read it they’ll either think it’s funny or they’ll be really mad or disappointed because I’m only going to have a few men in it.
You know how existing rock encyclopedias will have a bunch of guys and then they’ll throw in Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, Heart, Janis Joplin, Aretha Franklin – a smattering of women or the figureheads of each generation? So my book will be all women except, you know . . . the Rolling Stones were also pretty good. (laughs) So I’m going to try to get that published.
PKM: So the book will include excerpts from your interviews?
Tanya Pearson: Yes, excerpts from the interviews. The documentary will be the same thing too. I want each of them – the book and the documentary – to act as vehicles that will ultimately lead people to the long-form interviews. As a historian this is what’s important to me. These full histories and long-form interviews. I try to make anything public that I have permission to make public because I want journalists to use them. I want scholars to use them. I want kids in high school to watch them and write papers about them. And I want the overall discussion about rock history and the rock canon to be more equal. We can use these interviews to democratize conversations that we’re having about rock music and I feel that ultimately that will change how we think about it. And change the really stupid and false male-dominated rock canon. It’s just not real. It’s a fabrication. (laughs) That’s my ultimate goal.
The long-form interviews are my babies and I would just sit and watch them all day. But normal people don’t do that. You have to make them appetizing.
Jean Millington clip:
PKM: So is the documentary already underway?
Tanya Pearson: It’s currently underway. I had a meeting last week, and I think I may have acquired funding and distribution, which will also help get some of the bigger interviews I need to draw attention to the project as a whole. It’s good. It’s in the process of happening right now.
Our goal, with or without funding, is to have the documentary finished by August so that we can get it into the festival circuit. So, either way it’s going to happen. I don’t want to half-ass it and I want it to be as good as it can possibly be. And to do that is expensive. So if there’s an opportunity for funding, I would definitely wait and make it as great as it possibly can be.
There’s never been a documentary or film just about women in rock music as a whole. It’s not genre-specific or scene-specific. It’s not relegated to a particular location or time. I’m really excited about it because it will be the history of rock music from the 1940s, from Viola Smith, she’s 106 and she’s my oldest interviewee, to the present day.
Viola Smith clip:
So I’m psyched about it, and that’s what I want to make. If I can get the funding to make the film I want to make, I’ll be very happy. But either way it’s happening. It will either be really small and ok or it will be a big deal. We’ll see what happens.
PKM: Do you have a title?
Tanya Pearson: Yeah, and no one’s going to talk me out of it! I want to call the book and the documentary I’ve Got My Equalizer, which is a Legal Weapon song. My friend Kat Arthur passed away in October. I interviewed her two years ago and she’d never been interviewed or asked about her life in any depth before. So I was just thinking about all of these good things that are finally happening and she was always a really big proponent of the project. We ended up becoming friends and she would call and text me just to tell me how appreciative she was for the work I was doing. She was really humble; she had no ego. And she was really excited that someone was doing something to expose people like her and women who’ve never had this opportunity before.
I’m excited about the name. I just wish she were alive to see it with all this stuff happening now. I’m dead set on it. She did know that, so she died knowing that everything was going to be pretty much named after her.
PKM: Have any of the transcripts been created and do you have any plans to put them online?
Tanya Pearson: I think there are six on the Smith website. I used to do them myself, and I just physically don’t have time. We worked on a grant six months ago to get funding to do all of them. I haven’t heard back about that yet. The transcripts are important. I just haven’t had the money or the time to do it myself. I have had a few volunteers but, as we both know, transcribing is not fun no matter how cool the person [being interviewed] is. So people will usually transcribe half of one and realize how much it sucks. None of the volunteers have ever stuck around. I do have a plan B if this enormous grant doesn’t work out, but I’m waiting to hear about the grant because the plan B is still a lot of work for me. I don’t have a timeframe for it, but I hope it will be within a year.
PKM: Have you heard from anyone who’s used the site for a research project or book?
Tanya Pearson: I’ve heard from a lot of high school students and college students, which warms my heart. I haven’t heard from many authors or writers. I have heard from people doing podcasts who want to use clips from the interviews, and I say, “Yep, anything online, absolutely.” Actually I don’t know if people are contacting the college itself. They don’t tell me. So it’s possible that scholars have used the interviews. I hope they have.
It’s just about getting the word out and publicizing it. That’s the purpose of the documentary and the book. I don’t think enough people know at this point that it exists, but I hope to change that.
I’ve uploaded some interviews to YouTube (Women of Rock Oral History Project). I’ve done that for anyone who’s interviews can be made public. The full interviews are on Vimeo and the website.
Eva Gardner clip:
PKM: What have you learned from this project?
Tanya Pearson: That there are, were, and have always been more women playing music, creating art, and forming really important cultural scenes than I ever realized.
Out of my initial frustration, I feel optimistic about the future but I also still feel frustrated that so many people, not just in the music industry, who participated in underground scenes and were real cultural creators have not received proper recognition because of the people on the other side of the coin. Because of journalists, and writers, and documentarians who still don’t focus enough on the contributions that women have made throughout the history of rock ‘n’ roll. There’s definitely more now and there are tons of people doing awesome work. I know a lot of punks have grassroots oral history collections or zine collections, so I’m not the only one doing this and I didn’t make it up.
I think it’s still really hard for women to achieve any kind of historical longevity because their stories don’t fall into that stupid ‘sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll’ narrative, which to me is really tired and boring and it’s not accurate.
I’ve learned a lot about myself. As someone who was a really depressed, drug addict with no self-esteem, I just didn’t think I could really do anything. But I feel very capable. People ask me all the time, “How do I start a project, what do I need to do?” It sounds really dumb, but anyone can do it. If there are other women who want to start a project like this, I’ll help you. It just takes a while to work, but the more the merrier. I wish we could saturate the internet, saturate Netflix with stories of women, stories of female-fronted bands, stories of queer women in music. That’s my dream.
When women do stuff, there’s still this weird culture of competition. That doesn’t exist for men. … I mean, how many men have written books about Bob Dylan? Do we need another Bob Dylan biographer? And all of those guys aren’t fighting each other because they want to be the singular Bob Dylan biographer. It’s dumb. People pit women against each other for no reason when we could really be helping each other. It’s fucking stupid. It drives me insane.
PKM: And along with all of these projects, you’re still playing in a band?
Tanya Pearson: When I got sober, I couldn’t play music – I didn’t touch my guitar or drums or anything for about seven years. A few years ago, I started playing again. And now I’m playing drums in a band called Feminine Aggression, and it’s probably the most fun I’ve ever had playing in a band. It’s punky … whatever post-punk is. It’s two of my friends, and we curate these punk drag nights in western Mass. We’re all really busy and have jobs, so it’s just fun.
PKM: Do you have anyone scheduled to interview?
Tanya Pearson: I’m doing one of my dream interviews – Toody Cole from Dead Moon – in May. I love Dead Moon. I’m going to Portland for the first time.
PKM: Who’s on your wish list of people you’d like to interview?
Tanya Pearson: Oh my god … Grace Slick has ignored me for five years. She just doesn’t even respond to me. She’s just one of my favorite people ever. And Marianne Faithful.
PKM: Have you reached out to her?
Tanya Pearson: No, she’s in Paris. Sharon, I can’t get to fucking Paris. But I’m writing a book for University of Texas press called Why Marianne Faithful Matters. It’s for their Music Matters series, edited by Evelyn McDonnell, who I love. I just signed that contract, so I’m going to try to use that to get in and score an interview. So we’ll see. I’m a hustler at heart. I think it’ll happen.