We’ve all heard the phrases for female indie/alternative musicians: chick rock, a girl and her guitar/piano. Descriptive, yes, but you always get the sense that someone’s saying that they’re oh-so precious, precious being used in that grating way creative writing teachers enjoy springing on you when they think that your story veers dangerously close to resembling a Norman Rockwell illustration. In short, so many female musicians get dismissed as not being serious artists before anyone even hears them, which is a shame because many of them are wonderful (and some aren’t, as with any group of artists.) Rather sad, don’t you think? So let me introduce you to one. By far one of my favorite “indie” folk/rock/alternative singer-songwriters is Noe Venable. Don’t feel bad if you’ve never heard of her; really, no one has heard of her outside of dedicated fans and the San Francisco music scene (although now she’s at school in Massachusetts, so maybe she’s getting some publicity over there.).
Sometimes I think becoming a fan of a musician is a little like falling in love: people hear a song they like, and it decides to follow them home. Next thing you know they are buying every single album by that artist, shelling out money for fan club memberships, and reading a year’s worth of blog entries. For about a month or so, no one can touch that artist’s brilliance, but soon the novelty wears off they get comfortable with him or her and settle down. The insatiable lust tapers off into something more comfortable. My fascination with Noe’s music was never like that. Honestly, the first time I heard her song “Boots” (from the album of the same name), I knew that I was listening to something brilliant but couldn’t enjoy it. I found her voice jarring and fragile. Nevertheless, the song wouldn’t leave me alone. It demanded to be listened to, begged for second chances. Believe me, “Boots” definitely deserved a second chance.
Noe is vibrant, thoughtful, irreverent, and tender. One minute she’ll be singing a mysterious song of personal transformation, the next she’ll be comparing a sunset to cunnilingus. The beautiful, the erotic, the terrifying, the esoteric, and the ugly all have a place in her world, which makes it all the more satisfying and real. Nowhere is this more apparent than on her fourth album, Boots. Noe says of Boots:
In so many of my favorite stories these troubled men dream of finding a woman to save them. You read stories like that and you’re troubled, and you start dreaming of the same thing. Then one day you wake up and say, wait, I am the woman in those stories. But I’m troubled! So now who’s going to save me? I think that’s where Boots begins.
I think most fans prefer “The World is Bound By Secret Knots,” which is also a fantastic album, but “Boots” is my personal favorite. Even the first two songs on the album alone work together to produce a stunning musical portrait of the disparity between projected and personal identity. The first song, and title track of the album, is sung from the point of view of a woman who relies on a pair of boots for strength when dealing with the dangerous realities of her world:
I go to the corner where it all goes down
and I do things I’ll regret but not right now
they say “angel, you been here before”
yeah, I had my boots to carry me
just like Pandora with her box
I let everything out and spin around
and when they come to me, it’s like a river to cross
but I have my boots to ferry me
I’d like to see my eyes in someone else’s face
I’d like to see my face on a magazine
the things I want, the life I need
my boots keep me between
The end of the song fades into an acapella section which soon melds organically into the softer, gentler guitar intro of the second track, “Prettiness.” It is unclear whether the narrators of the two songs are intended to be the same or different, but both women are equally aware that while the personae created by the clothes they wear may be fragile and false, they have everything to do with the way people treat them:
I have never been one for prettiness prettiness
thinking of lace ’bout makes me puke
but the thing I just bought has a little bit little bit
I’m putting it on and I’m thinking of you
when I was a child I followed some holy men
going into woods to do their work
I had an overcoat on just to cover me cover me
listening for anything I might learn
and there were stars up in the heavens
and if they caught me, what could they do?
they did not know I was a woman
at least I didn’t think they knew
It would be, as one of my friends suggests, so easy to dismiss this as another woman singing about cutesy things, using boots and lace as metaphors for what kind of woman she is. But the use of clothing here is both deliberate and clever. After all, no matter your gender, clothing is a major part of the creation of public image. Noe has done a fantastic job capturing the dilemma so many women (and men) face in deciding how to present themselves, the tention between who we are, who we have to be to get the job done, and who we could be.
When I think of these songs, I picture characters like Dana Scully on the X-Files. I see my mother back when she was trying to apply to medical school, and had to deal with interview questions such as, “How do you feel taking a man’s spot?” I remember an article I read about women in academia who faced a nightmare getting dressed in the morning because no matter what they wore they either seemed too frumpy, frigid, or sexy to be taken seriously. All of these women have (or had) to somehow transcend their gender in order to be taken seriously for the work they do. Women who want to “see their face on a magazine” or dream of being able to “follow some holy men,” have to craft their personae very carefully. In both the literal and symbolic senses, we have to know when to wear lace and when combat boots. To be taken seriously as a tough woman, as a smart woman, we have to put on androgynous boots, try to be just asexual enough without losing female identity. Therefore, when we do show a little bit of lace, ask to be seen both as brilliant minds and as potential significant others, we risk losing our boots, our symbols of strength and courage. We risk becoming mere sex objects. And it’s scary. At the end of “Prettiness,” as the instrumentation swells, only to suddenly vanish beneath her voice, Noe asserts, “He does not know I am a woman, | But I think I might want him to know.” The risk, trust, and self-confidence embodied in that statement is at once incredibly powerful and relatable.
Not all of Noe’s songs are about gender identity. In “Strange Companion,” she sings from the point of view of a car who witnesses the brutal murder of its owner. In “Prayer for Beauty,” she daringly asserts that a belief in the potential for beauty is necessary to combat ugliness in the world. In “Juniper,” she sings from the point of view of a child who feels most at home amongst the branches of her favorite tree. Noe treats all of these subjects and characters with thought-provoking insight and fantastic (mostly) acoustic accompaniment. Her music is truly a treat for both the mind and the ear.