“You can’t be as good as the guys; you have to be better.” – Mandy Rowden*

Girl Guitar Austin is a women-only music school in Austin, Texas.

It is the brainchild of singer/songwriter/teacher Mandy Rowden who, after teaching privately for ten years, combined her love of teaching, playing, wine and good old-fashioned fun to form Girl Guitar in 2007.

I interviewed Mandy for Women’s Views on News and have reproduced the article here.

WVoN:  Tell me about the birth of Girl Guitar.

Rowden: I used to teach at the Austin School of Music and I’d always thought it would be fun to have a girl guitar class but I’d never had any luck starting it.

I came back from New York and didn’t want to teach private lessons anymore but I was super broke and so the Austin School of Music let me try to put a class together. At that time I guess I was just broke enough that I was really motivated to try to make it happen!

I managed to get enough people for a full class so I thought I would just do one six-week class, get my cell phone turned back on and that would be that. But we had such a good time that they all wanted to sign up again. Then random strangers started calling me wanting to do a class and it started getting too big for the space available at the school of music so I moved it.

I never planned on it being a full-time job but we just kept having fun and getting all this attention so I thought “ok, let’s keep doing this.” After about two and half years I was able to quit waiting tables and just do Girl Guitar full time.

WVoN:  What was the motivation behind the girls-only aspect of Girl Guitar?

Rowden: I’ve never been a big feminist, it just sort of happened.

It’s kind of boys-club playing guitar and there are so many women that want to learn but for some it’s like going to a gym – some women just feel more comfortable without dudes there.

I had wondered whether a girl-only class would make a difference and when we tried it, it was so much fun. Someone brought a bottle of wine and it turned into our own girl’s club. That sounds cheesy when I say it, but the women did seem to respond well. A lot of people told me that they wouldn’t have felt as comfortable if there were guys there.

WVoN:  What was the atmosphere like in your first class?

Rowden: It was so fun, we laughed so much! You know there is a lot about guitar that when when you talk about it it sounds kind of sexual so we just ran with that and laughed our asses off. Everyone has improved and it’s been great watching the girls become friends.

At the end of the course there is a showcase and we have huge crowds at our showcases and everyone is so supportive. I don’t know if they’re more supportive because we’re chicks or just because these women are trying to learn something new, but they’re supportive anyway.

WVoN:  What do your students say?

Rowden: They seem to love it! A lot of them tell me they wouldn’t feel as comfortable if there was guys there. I don’t know why. Maybe we think that guys would make fun of us or make us feel bad or maybe we assume that guys know more than us.

WVoN:  Girl Guitar has grown to provide classes for songwriting, soloing, bass and more.  Are there further plans for growth?

Rowden:  It’s something I’ve been wrestling with lately — the need to make money versus the need to keep Girl Guitar special. I could do more classes and spread myself thin but I wouldn’t know the women as well and it wouldn’t be as cool.

People tell me I need to franchise it, but if I start franchising it and I travel all over then I don’t get to do the job I like, getting to know the people and watching them grow.

Perhaps I could just be content as it is? Or maybe that’s horrible business logic. But when you’re a teacher and you’re burnt out then it shows, your students can tell and no-one wins. It’s getting so big now, almost to the point where I don’t know some of the students. I know they have good relations with their individual teachers but it sucks for me!

I’m proud of it growing but I’m sad about it being less personal.WVoN:  Did you have male teachers when you were young, and if so, how did that change your approach to teaching?

Rowden:  I have had a few but I was always more comfortable with women. I was always quite shy and so I gravitated to women teachers. I had male teachers in college but I think men take a different approach. They can be a bit more cut and dry and less nurturing – to speak in general terms.

I suppose that does influence my teaching style. I’ve been told I’m very nurturing so maybe that’s the reason!

WVoN:  Why is the music scene so male dominated?

Rowden:  No matter what field you’re in there are always women who just opt for wanting to raise kids so I think that has a lot to do with it. It’s not the whole thing, but it makes sense when you see fewer women — because women are having children.

WVoN:  But there are also fewer young women around on the Austin music scene…

Rowden:  I wonder if a lot of women aren’t encouraged as much as boys to go into music or there aren’t enough resources for them. I’m not sure but I do think it’s going to take a long time before it becomes equal. Leveling the playing field sounds great but there will also be fewer opportunities for us women now, so maybe being in the minority works to our advantage sometimes?

WVoN:  You’re not only a teacher, but also a performer. Have you faced challenges as a woman on stage?

Rowden:  I have heard people say as a girl you automatically have a few strikes against you. Especially with a guitar because it’s viewed as a guy’s thing. As a woman you can’t be ‘as good’ as the guys, you have to be better.

Some guys can be quite condescending.  I hate it when they tell me it’s ‘cute’ I play the guitar! That’s why I work hard at guitar itself as well as singing and songwriting. It gives me some weird satisfaction to be better than the male guitar players on stage to know I’m holding my own.

I have faced some discrimination but not always in a negative way. Sometimes I get gigs because I am chick, because it’s a novelty. For example, if the guys are doing song-swap they think it’s cool to have a girl up there too. A lot of guys want a woman in their bands so I think sometimes I get the gig because I have boobs!

Sometimes I think I’m not taken as seriously as a woman. I try to not use my sexuality to get ahead but I’m sure I’ve been accused of it before.

WVoN:  Do you think image plays a part in performing?

Rowden:  I’m afraid so. I hate to sound shallow but it’s one of those “all-is-fair” things and you have to use all the weapons in your arsenal. On stage, whatever your strengths, you have to pull out all the stops when you’re trying to get ahead.

People are more likely to want to watch people who look good. I’m not always getting all sexed-up for all my shows, but I think it is important. I mean, look at Nashville, there it’s all image. A lot of those musicians aren’t even talented, they just follow the formula and have a hot body.

WVoN:  How do you fit in your performing with teaching?

Rowden:  It takes a lot of energy! It’s cool because Girl Guitar has given me a built-in fan base but fitting everything in is tough.

At the moment Charlie (Charles Mason, local Austin musician and co-collaborator with Mandy) and I are trying to work our way through the legal and administrative parts of the music business but it’s not very interesting.

The thing about being self-motivated and ambitious is that you get so busy and want it all to happen right now and you spread yourself too thin. So instead of writing music we’re publicising and booking shows and writing becomes the last priority for me and I hate that.

WVoN:  How do you write songs?

Rowden:  I usually start with a hookline and then put other ideas into it. Some people say you have to write the whole melody or whatever but it’s never like that for me. It’s quite messy how I write but it’s how my brain works! I like to take incomplete ideas to other musicians. But everybody does it differently – just because something works for me doesn’t mean it works for anyone else.

Charlie and I work well together, we communicate well but we also talk too much and get lazy!

I usually finish songs quickly but I don’t write nearly enough and my inspiration is few and far between. Everything else gets prioritised over writing so it doesn’t happen very often – perhaps twice a year! It’s one of those things like working out, when I do it I think “this feels good” but getting started is really hard.

WVoN:  Do you have advice for people who are starting out and would like to perform?

Rowden:  What’s been helpful for me is not saying no to anything. When I first started playing bars I hit every open mic possible and bugged my friends to let me play in their breaks or open for them.

You also need to be nice to everyone you meet. This has got me a long way as you never know when the bar tender at the empty club you’re playing ends up booking the big club in a few years. This business is so incestuous that people who didn’t seem like they were going to be influential are just that a few years down the line! So be nice as hell to everybody.

WVoN:  Do you have a guitar heroine?

Rowden:  Well my favourite guitar players are Keith Richards and Jimmy Page. They’re not heroines as such but they’ve done a lot of heroin…so maybe that’s the same?

It’s often more songwriting that speaks to me, like Patty Griffin and Lucinda Williams. I love [Williams’] simplicity. She has a lot of imperfections and she uses them in cool ways and of course I think Carolyn Wonderland is amazing even though I’m not a big blues fan.

WVoN:  Do you have guitar lust?

Rowden:  I’ve always wanted a Gibson SJ200 with the pearl inlays and flowers. I have a Jumbo 100 which is the same thing but without the flowers and the difference is $1500.

When I was younger I didn’t know why people wanted more than one guitar. That was until I got my second guitar and now I have nine or ten and I always want more. Maybe it’s like tattoos, once you get one…

WVoN:  What needs to change in order to get more women out on stage?

Rowden:  Maybe chicks aren’t encouraged to do this as much as men. I don’t know. I never masterminded Girl Guitar, I didn’t really have an agenda to get women equal representation in music. I just saw chicks were really into it and getting lots out of it. A great organisation who works on this issue is MEOW (Musicians for Equal Opportunities for Women). They do some really good work.

*Mandy currently plays guitar and sings in Cover Girl (#2 Cover Band, Austin Chronicle Music Poll), plays keys for The Buddy Quaid Band and can be found all over Austin playing original music and sitting in with various artists on violin, mandolin and bass. Find out more at mandyrowden.com.

* Polly performs original music with Bad Alpha

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