Photographer: Dave McCarthy
Fearless and unique, Moaning Lisa are breaking industry barriers and setting the stage for a shift in how women navigate the music scene.
Canberra-based musicians Charlie Versegi, Ellen Chan, Hayley Manwaring and Hayden Fritzlaff make up the bold punk rock foursome that is making waves nationally with their powerful sound. They have just come home from their most recent Australia-wide tour, lighting up stages such as Sydney’s Oxford Art Factory and The Tote in Melbourne. Heavily influenced by Wolf Alice, Pixies and The Breeders, the group has mastered creating a live atmosphere that has venues packed out.
Amongst the numerous accolades they have accumulated – including dominating local and national competitions and having their debut single, Comfortable, attain the title of “Song of the Year” by BMA Magazine – Moaning Lisa have received extensive Australian airplay. Their unique sound features a grungy and colourful cocktail of alternative, psychedelic rock, shoegaze, and indie rock.
Both lyrically and as performers, Moaning Lisa advocate for women and the queer* community by sharing their experiences of gender expectations in the grunge scene. This group does not shy away from challenging prescribed industry expectations, speaking out against intimidating and obnoxious behaviour at gigs, and inspiring fans to rethink how they act, understand and support local acts.
We caught up with Moaning Lisa under the warm lighting of Tilley’s, with its film noir vibes and jazzy background tunes, where the family of musos sat eating dinner. By the time we’d grabbed a beer and reminisced over the bar’s history of female inclusion and lesbian acceptance, all formalities were set aside.
You’ve been gigging around Canberra for over a year now, and have gained a hugely-loyal following, but what’s it like playing gigs in different cities and states where you’re not as well-known as Canberra?
Charlie: I think it really depends on who else is on the line up – like whether they have similar music to you, or whether they’re a bigger band or a small gig. But I find audiences in other cities aren’t nearly as enthusiastic on the outside when they’re in the crowd. It’s really interesting because they’re the kind of people who’ll come up to you after the performance and say: “Oh, I really enjoyed that” or “that was sick!” But when you see them in the crowd they’re straight-faced, and not really moving around. We did play an all-ages gig once at the Oxford Art Factory though, and that was amazing.
What is different it about an all-ages gig?
Hayden: I mean, the music I listened to when I was 16 was ripped from YouTube or torrented. It was all terrible quality, but you don’t care because you’re a child, and it’s all new to you. That’s why all-ages shows are good because it’s all new to them.
Charlie: That’s how the Beatles got big: the screaming teenage girls.
Do you find yourselves with a lot of them?
Charlie: Well, I’d like to think so. *We all laugh.*
A lot of musos feel like they have to go to a big city like Sydney or Melbourne to ‘make it’. How do you feel about that?
Charlie: If you’re okay with having a band but also doing something else to sustain a living, then Canberra is a beautiful place to do it. If you want making music to be your main source of income, it’s not impossible to do it in Canberra, but it’s much harder. It’s centrally located, so for touring it’s great, and we probably have three venues that are decent to play a lot – but there are very few booking agents and next to no managers. We also don’t get many bigger national or international bands that play here that we can open for. And the fewer bands that come to Canberra, the less people from Canberra think that they can be like bands like that. For those reasons, it’s hard to sustain a living here.
Hayden: In Canberra you pretty much have to do it all by yourself. If you want a single released you have to do it yourself. If you want to be managed well you have to learn how to be a good manager. I think there’s also a lot of discrimination against people from Canberra because of this stigma that Canberra is uncool, people don’t go to gigs and don’t buy tickets. But, you can look at bands like Safia and Citizen Kay and see there are definitely bands that do very well. The bottom line is: if you have good music you can be from anywhere and ‘make it’.
In your newest EP The Sweetest the idea that women are made to be palatable comes up again and again. Do you tend to feel constricted by that?
Charlie: Definitely. Not even just in the industry, but in everyday life. As a woman, whenever you want to say something you just have to edit edit edit before you say it. Like most industries, the music industry is very male dominated, so a lot of the people higher up that you have to deal with are men. It becomes this balancing act of wanting to be taken seriously but not coming across too strong or intimidating – which I just struggle with as a person. I think I have small-dog syndrome.
With The Sweetest we’re really trying to poke holes in that idea of palatability. The single ‘New Age Boy’ is a sarcastic song about a queer* woman dating a straight girl who essentially wants you to be a man but in a softer way. They’re trying to mould you into something else – to be this arm candy, this alternative that’s almost like a manic pixie dream girl character. So, it’s as if “plant me on your arm and I’ll be the sweetest” is poking fun at that. That’s where we got the name for it, and it applies to so many things whether it’s being arm candy, or being a token female band on a line-up, or a token queer* band on a line-up.
Hayley: Yeah, it crosses my mind sometimes if we’re being asked to play because they want us there or if it’s tokenistic, but on the other hand, they’re not diverse to begin with.
At the end of the day it’s about being treated differently because of being a predominantly-female band, right?
Charlie: Exactly. I think the solution is just to have fewer men. *We all laugh.*
Hayden: No, it’s true. I think the public has started catching up with that. People stop putting up with line-ups that are all dudes. It’s such an easy fix, so people just have to take that hard line.
The punk rock and shoegaze genres are particularly male-dominated, so how do you tackle that?
Hayley: Honestly, it’s easy to forget because we surround ourselves with predominantly female bands anyway. It’s almost like a different genre. Bands like Cable Ties and Wet Lips wouldn’t sound the same if they were all dudes. It’s not a genre, but a particular style, and we fit in really well.
Charlie: I think we’re getting better and better at finding out where we fit in. The earlier days were harder because we didn’t know many people and people didn’t know us.
Do you think a part of the male dominance within the music industry is due to the toxic masculinity present in crowd behaviour?
Charlie: Yeah definitely. The most grassroots entry to music is going to a show, and if you’re met with aggression and the physical intimidation of being in a mosh pit with a lot of dudes, that’s immediately going to discourage you from going to more gigs.
Hayley: Historically these spaces – these small, alcohol-filled spaces – have been very male dominated. There was a time where women couldn’t go into pubs and bars. I mean, that shows how long it takes to change a culture. It makes me very proud to be doing what we’re doing to change that culture.
Do you have any advice for women-identifying and non-binary people wanting to get into the music industry?
Hayley: While it seems like men take up a lot of space you have just as much right to be there, and there is space for you.
Charlie: Focus on the band first and worry about the other stuff afterwards. The other stuff is very important but it should come afterwards.
Ellen: I’d love to include people of colour as well into that question. For a while I was worried about being perceived as too good or not good enough. I mean you see this five-year-old Japanese girl on YouTube and she’s amazing at what she’s doing and there’s this stereotype associated with that. People associate a certain race with being good at a certain thing and I feared that for a little while. It only comes up from time to time. I don’t let it affect me on a daily basis, but it is a thing.
Charlie: How do you not let it affect you?
Ellen: I think you just have to concentrate on the music, because at the end of the day you’re in a band to make music, not because of other things.
Anything else you wanted to add?
Charlie: Self-esteem is the main problem for anyone that’s not a man – just not feeling good enough. I think it’s that self-doubt that makes us work so hard so that when we do get to a point where we do feel good enough we’re up here. *She raises her hand to demonstrate.* Bands with not-men are so good, and I’m always wondering why that is. And it’s because when you’re not a man you have to be so sure that it’s great to get to a point where you’re comfortable making music that it ends up being phenomenal.
I’m just waiting for that lovely non-men scene to become to mainstream.
Charlie: It’s happening! It’s definitely happening. I want to open up my own venue and make it non-men only. *We all laugh.*
We finished our beers, talked about Moaning Lisa’s favourite tour car games, and waved goodbye to our heroes who were even more impressive than we could’ve imagined.