SelfMade is a new platform to explore DIY music in Ireland, that launched earlier this year. Their mission is to explore the unseen sides of growing a music career through performance, discussion, and art, with a strong focus on women in music.
The project launched on February 2nd, with a sold-out event at Third Space, Smithfield centered around a live panel discussion chaired by Jess Kavanagh featuring Carol Keogh, Sive, Gráinne Hunt, ROMY, Hvmmingbyrd, Farah Elle and Mary Barnecutt.
We spoke to Julie Hawk and Joanna Bain, who run SelfMade remotely from their homes in Berlin and London. We caught up about the origins of SelfMade and got a fly-on-the-wall account of their opening night.
We initially envisioned SelfMade as an art and performance project, but the more we talked about the ongoing challenges experienced by artists, and seeing the growing conversation around mental health and diversity, we knew that this project should be centered around artists’ voices. Over a couple of hundred Whatsapp messages and Skype calls, SelfMade grew exponentially.
The more we put out the idea of “unseen challenges”, the more our cause took shape. We received amazing support from artists, volunteers, press, and radio, and the event sold out midway through January.
The night kicked off with a few drinks and a chance for the audience to take in our portrait exhibition and pick up a copy of ‘The Unseen Zine’, which featured contributions from over twenty Irish artists.
As the crowd took their seats, they were treated to two jaw-dropping performances from Mary Barnecutt (Mary and The Pigeons) on the keyboard and cello, and Gráinne Hunt with her ornate vocals and acoustic guitar. We’d spotted some tears in the room by the time the panel kicked off.
We had a remarkably varied line-up of talent amongst our panelists, both in terms of genre and also in how their careers have developed. From seasoned session players to burgeoning solo artists, there was a lot to unwrap in terms of professional experience.
No better woman to handle the job than vocalist and songwriter, Jess Kavanagh – lead singer of BARQ and voluble supporter of her fellow indie artists.
The introductions tore apart the very idea that we could even define the role of a ‘professional musician’, while highlighting the everyday issue of being challenged about having a ‘real job’. With a largely public-facing career choice, musicians feel the pressure of being under constant scrutiny, and the notion of success is in many ways, defined by the audience. Cellist and composer, Mary Barnecutt quoted the standard “taxi driver” inquisition: “Do you actually make a living from that?”. Musicians frequently find that casual bystanders don’t consider playing music to be a ‘real job’, downplaying the amount of work and pressure involved in pursuing a career in the arts."
Of course, financial strain is not uncommon in a career that requires investment both in terms of time and money. Deb from Hvmmingbyrd mentioned that when she first decided to get seriously into music she designed a four-year plan, in order to make her career a viable option financially. Her bandmate, Suzette, described the challenge of balancing the energy she puts in to teaching music and making music, as well as weighing up financial versus creative satisfaction. With the expectation to be constantly available and visible on social media, the lines become blurred between where the job stops and personal life begins. This topic would come back around later, over the subject of ‘self-care’.
There are dozens of ways that musicians can define success, but as we quickly found out, the public perception of career trajectory can be a little more cut and dry. “Sometimes, people think if they haven’t seen you in a magazine, then your career mustn’t be doing well,” noted Jess Kavanagh. But anyone within the industry will know that there are many ways an artist can be making a living, beyond NME covers and Late, Late appearances.
But it seems this field of vision becomes even narrower when you are categorised as a ‘woman in music’. It’s not a revelation that women in music are underrepresented at all levels of the music industry. With fewer seats at the table, one of the results is a false assumption of competition between female acts. Jess recalled an anecdote about Irish acts Saint Sister and Wyvern Lingo (whose genres couldn’t be further apart) being casually and competitively compared to one other in conversation by a (clearly uninformed) third party. Women in music seem to be genre-fied simply for their gender, which blindsides our ability to appreciate their unique and honed talents.
"Women in music seem to be genre-fied simply for their gender, which blindsides our ability to appreciate their unique and honed talents."
While there were thankfully few references to outright sexism in the industry, there were many accounts of microaggressions. Recalling past projects, writer and producer, Ruth O’Mahony Brady (ROMY) picked up on the dynamic of being romanticised for her technological skills in music, resulting in challenges when it comes to authorship and dealing with the ‘novelty’ that a woman could be just as skilled as her male counterpart. Gender is not, of course, the only source of stereotyping. Pianist and singer, Farah Elle also recounted a cringeworthy story of being head-hunted for her Libyan background and for singing in Arabic. Farah described the moment she first began to perform in Arabic as being a significant and defining moment for her, and clearly not something to be tokenised.
There were enthusiastic responses from both the panel and the crowd to Jess’ mention of a collective challenge for women in music to recondition themselves away from these stereotypes, and build their own self-belief from the ground up. “I’ve had to do a lot of work on myself to build up my own confidence,” says multi-instrumentalist and artist, Carol Keogh, who agreed that these negative thoughts are something that women in music have learned to perpetuate in themselves.
Music itself is a multi-faceted and unpredictable industry to work in, especially with the extra hoops to jump through based on gender and background. We asked our panelists to fill us in on how they managed their monstrous workloads, while making time to restore themselves, even on the road. Mary’s one-word response of ‘sleep!’ was met with resounding agreement. Gráinne Hunt, who wrote about tour tips for our Unseen Zine, spoke about the value of taking even 10 minutes to get space away from your touring comrades. She also mentioned the simple sense of home she gets from taking her own hair dryer on the road.
Artists also have to manage the pressure and adrenaline that comes with live performance. Hugely talented songwriter, Sive, wrote about the art of letting go for the Unseen Zine: “Just because you write songs doesn’t mean you’re the kind of person that is comfortable getting up on stage – you’re just doing your thing. Once you’ve made the note, you can’t control what anybody thinks of it, so you have to just do it for yourself.” This process of mindfulness under pressure is something that gives Sive the freedom to perform naturally, as she proved later in her live set.
As the topic of work continued there were great contributions from the audience. One budding musician asked about the challenge of managing the workload that comes with music. In the spirit of SelfMade, Jess suggested meeting with other artists for ‘admin days’ and teaming up to get the most out of events like HWCH, where it can be easy to get lost in the sea of information. Deb from Hvmmingbyrd went a step further to suggesting the potential for artists to band together for more governmental support. As Gráinne said, no other artist is doing exactly the same as any other, so giving each other a leg up wherever possible fosters a sense of community in a naturally competitive industry.
There was also a call for more opportunities to discuss equipment and gear, noting that this is an area that often gets overlooked on all female panels. There was a great sense of appreciation in the room when one music fan asked about the best ways to directly support artists. “Don’t just listen, but follow and subscribe,” suggested Deb from Hvmmingbyrd. “Come to shows. Buy tickets in advance,” was a popular response from Gráinne.
After such intense discussion, it seemed like it would be an effort to settle the buzz that was building in the room. But the crowd was quickly melting back into their seats, listening to two live sets from Sive and Farah Elle who rounded off the night with unforgettable and sincere performances.
Since the event, we’ve taken a couple of weeks to reset and take in the immense response we’ve had this month. It’s shown us there is a distinct appetite for an artist-led platform, where people can skill-share and connect about the music industry, as well as have space to explore mental health and diversity.
This month, we launched our mission statement and started a Facebook group to continue the dialogue and take input for future events (the suggestions made at Third Space filled a couple of sheets of A4 by the end of the night!).
SelfMade began from a conversation across countries. It was a simple concept – to celebrate the unseen work put in by musicians–and it has grown through open-mindedness and DIY effort. While this was only one event, it’s also an example of how individuals can work together to get a project off the ground, and which can absolutely be applied to developing a music career. We’re already talking to artists who are keen to collaborate and we’ll be unveiling future plans very soon. It was important to us that our first event had a strong focus on women in music.
While we’ll be opening the floor to artists of all backgrounds, we’re determined that any future events be a platform to address the imbalance of representation in the music industry. So far, there’s amazing enthusiasm around the project, and we can’t wait to update you on our plans for 2018.
The next SelfMade event is coming to Dublin this June. More details coming soon!