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'It made me feel like I could do anything': artists reveal the women who inspired them to make music

By
Melody Lau

For decades, women have fought for fair representation in music, whether it's space and respect in the studio or recognition in the form of award nominations. As recent statistics continue to show how little we've actually moved forward in balancing the gender parity, it's important to acknowledge the effects this has not only on current artists but also artists of the next generation. Growing up to the macho images of men in music isn't relatable for everyone, and sometimes it takes strong, female-identifying figures to help a young aspiring artist realize their goals and dreams.

For the 23 artists below, it was the presence of specific women, be it family members or musicians, that inspired them to get into music and motivated them to pick up an instrument, write a song or perform it live. Read stories from Zaki Ibrahim, Lindi Ortega, Hannah Georgas, Weaves' Jasmyn Burke and others about the seminal women who influenced them over the years, and if there's a female artist who inspired you to become a musician, please share with us @CBCMusic.


Chloe Charles

“My mom, Victoria, and her sister wrote the most beautiful songs, mostly about love and heartache, when they were younger. They were both self-taught guitarists who favoured the classical guitar, vulnerable poetic lyrics and gorgeous harmonies. However, as talented as they are, they were both too shy to want to be in the spotlight. I was lucky enough to grow up with their voices as my life's soundtrack. [At] every family gathering, my mom would play on her classical guitar with her sister, so over the years, I learned the songs, too, and would sing with my mom or with the both of them. My mom never pressured me to follow this path but I always looked up to her for her strength as a single mom and as a singer-songwriter, and I feel like my career is an extension of what she started in her youth.”

Diana’s Carmen Elle

“As a young guitar player, I drew a lot of inspiration from Chrissie Hynde. I loved her shimmery, angular rhythm guitar parts. It was such a breath of fresh air among the heavily distorted riffs that some of the male-fronted bands of the '90s and early '00s were popularizing. Around the same time, I also discovered Björk, who blew my mind in a completely different way. This was someone who demonstrated a level of artistry that, to me, still seems unachievable. However, I find tremendous inspiration in her music because each song she writes feels like a living organism. She's the best example I can think of of an artist who combines sound, technology, texture, bare voice, words, and images into a 3D experience.”

Alana Yorke

"I experienced a critical, almost physical feeling of validation when I discovered Kate Bush’s work as a producer. I haven’t come across very many true innovators in music who have inspired me beyond my imagination and I had never come across one who was remotely like me. When I read about how she produced 'Hounds of Love,' for example, I just related to it in a way that I had never experienced; I related to her approach and her motivation. She pulled me forward into producing, showing me that, as a woman, I could do it and when I am in doubt, I still return to her work for inspiration and encouragement."

Maylee Todd

"At a young age, my sister Tanya was fronting a rock 'n' roll band, playing guitar, keys, and she sang and wrote her own songs. The band is called Sunday Best. She really inspired young Maylee to play instruments, write songs, and be a rebel."

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"When I first started singing, I was doing covers of Billie Holiday songs and trying to emulate that style. I loved how she didn’t have a huge range but made the absolute most of her instrument through her tone and emotion. Her voice is something I always go back to and it always feels like home."

The Dears’ Natalia Yanchak

"If we wanted to go back, to before I was influenced by any other artist, I'd have to attribute my ability to become a musician to my mother, Ursula. While she never directly told me what to do, she was always supporting my creativity, whether it was photography, writing, zine-making, 4-tracking, playing guitar and even busking in Toronto when I was a teenager. (My most lucrative spot was by the ferry dock at Harbourfront.) As a young person, it's impossible to know what path will end up being yours, and my mom encouraged me to walk along all of them until something emerged as most dominant."

Hannah Georgas

"I started writing music when I was a kid. I was drawn to playing the piano and singing about my emotions. My singing/piano teachers played a big role in helping me improve and be diligent about practicing. There was a time when a bunch of female artists and female-fronted bands were releasing music and I became so fascinated with their art because they had something to say and were extremely honest in their writing. I was listening to Annie Lennox, the Cranberries, Janet Jackson, Jann Arden, Fiona Apple, Sade, Frente!, Björk, Portishead and many more. I think all of these artists inspired me to follow my path and encouraged me to keep going. When I listened to their music, I felt so empowered and motivated to be who I am, work hard and follow my passion."

Louise Burns

"I grew up in a small town where I only had access to the distorted AM radio, MuchMusic, and my friends. It was the '90s, so aside from Fleetwood Mac, the Spice Girls and Janet Jackson, the women who inspired me to get into music were my friends, the girls of Tigerlily, who would later grow to be the women of Lillix. We wrote, rehearsed, performed and pushed each other every single day, from the age of 11 to the time I was an adult. Without those early formative years with them, I’m not sure where I’d be today."

Weaves’ Jasymn Burke

"Many women inspired me to get into music. I’d say some of the heavy-hitters in my heart are Patti Smith, Courtney Love, Kim Gordon, Karen O and Feist — all passionate women who have distinct ways of telling their truth."

Adaline

"I grew up in the '90s, listening to divas like Mariah Carey and Celine Dion but I'll never forget the day I was introduced to Björk. That was when I felt the shift from being a singer to the potential of being an artist. She embodied true artistry, from her unique voice and music to her live performance and epic image/style. She showed me the darker, weird and painfully beautiful side of musicality. She continues to break boundaries of what it is to be a woman in an ageist and male-dominated industry. Björk is timeless and still inspires me to delve into my truest expression."

Lindi Ortega

"I nearly quit making music a little over a year ago. It took the whip-smart firecracker female manager extraordinaire, Michelle Szeto, to talk me off the ledge. It sure is nice to have such a nurturing presence in such a male-dominated industry, but also someone who can be a kick-ass warrior if anyone tries to mess with me!"

Zaki Ibrahim

"A huge inspiration I looked up to in music was, and is, Eleanor Collins. She was the first black woman to be inducted into the Canadian Jazz Hall of Fame and the first woman of colour in North America to star in her own nationwide television series called Bamboula. I was a huge lover of jazz as a child and sang along to artists like Ella Fitzgerald and Ms. Holiday and Josephine Baker, but Eleanor was, at a critical stage in my coming-of-age, like a grandmother to me and a living, breathing queen-like character, [whom] I was able to be briefly influenced by. Her daughter Judith Maxie (Aunty Judith) was also an artist/actor and would take me to acting classes as a kid in Vancouver.

"Eleanor is now 99 years old and about to be 100. One can hardly believe her beauty and strength. She gave beautiful advice and tips on how to conduct myself as a woman with grace and style. Not only are her words and melodies inspiring but her life story and resilience have continued to be a source of strength to so many and a positive point of reference for me into my adult life and motherhood.”

Dilly Dally’s Katie Monks

"I had this piano teacher growing up who was such a free spirit. Jennifer would open up her grand piano and we would put ping pong balls inside to make these ghostly sounds, for example. Her experimental way of teaching made music so fun and accessible to me as a child. It made me feel like I could do anything."

The Rural Alberta Advantage’s Amy Cole

"My grandmother Wilma was always singing. When I was little, I’d visit her at her old house in the country that she grew up in, and she’d run up and down the stairs to the scary basement cellar, singing whatever song happened to be in her head while she rooted around for canned pickles or peaches for dinner. She always had the radio on, tuned to CHOW-FM and blasting Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn and Patsy Cline. She was never self-conscious about her voice, and just sang, sweetly and loudly, whenever she felt like it, always with a smile that lit up the entire house. I’d watch her and smile too. I often think of her when I’m onstage, hoping I can capture that same unbridled joy and pure love of music she had."

Yamantaka // Sonic Titan's Alaska B

"My parents are both musicians. A lot of times, I'll talk about my dad because he was a gigging musician but [my mom] was a singer as well — she sang at my wedding — and growing up, she was the one who was like, 'Go practice piano,' and made sure that we did all the things. My mom is good at sketching, she's good at art, she just chose to raise kids instead of pursuing that. In many ways, I do have to credit her; I don't think I would have pursued music at the level I did if it weren't for her."

Lou Canon

“Dear Bette Midler, I’d like to take this opportunity to thank you for being such an inspiration. You don’t remember — how could you remember? — but I sang your song, 'The Rose,' on karaoke night every Friday, at the country tavern, in front of my dad’s baseball team, between the ages of seven and 15. I was so nervous every time, almost unable to eat my mozzarella cheese sticks at the back of the room by the shuffleboard table. But to perform was like 'a hunger, an endless aching need.' Now, when I’m on tour and 'the night has been too lonely and the road had been too long,' your voice reminds me that I am lucky. And yes, I am strong. Sincerely, Lou Canon."

Frazey Ford

"The woman who inspired me to do music was my mom. She was always singing — doing housework and singing. She used to get me to sing the melody so that she could sing harmony, from the time I was about four years old. My life was surrounded in voice and later it just all came out."

Terra Lightfoot

"My grandmother on my mother’s side was a huge inspiration for me. She was a professional pianist in the ’60s; she played on the VIA train between Toronto and Montreal. She had seven children, so by the time I hit the scene as her sixth grandchild, she was ready to train me as her protégé on the piano bench. I’m still terrible at reading music and I remember her helping me through all the pieces I was learning in high school music class. She was a truly powerful human and a very gracious and patient teacher."

Colleen Brown

“There are many women who contributed to my desire to perform and to write songs, it's hard to pinpoint one, exactly. Definitely it started with the likes of Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand, and Julie Andrews. I was a musical-theatre kid — I lived for that stuff — and I played Dorothy in my Grade 12 production of Wizard of Oz. But I was probably just as taken with dancers like Cyd Charisse and oh, the costumes! I loved the spectacle and I loved the way these women absolutely filled the screen. I could never look away, they were so totally magnetic and dynamic and beautiful. I watched their films over and over and they left a deep imprint.

"But probably more important than these influencers, for me, were my teachers. My piano teacher, voice teacher, choir, theatre, and art instructors were all women. And they were/are all pretty badass women, talented and self-possessed. There is no doubt that those women played a big part in my choice to create music, and the confidence I had to step out onstage.”

Danielle Duval

"As a young songwriter, Joni Mitchell always had an air of innocence and light; the 'perfect' woman. The beautiful, blonde cherub from Canada with the angelic voice and calm, quiet and humble demeanor. In reality though, she was a kid from hard knocks with a badass boss lady vibe who didn't give any f--ks and whose killer musical and art chops no one could hold a candle to. The ringleader of the 1960s/'70s Laurel Canyon, Calif., music scene, and the dame who chose solitude and independence over a perfect relationship with another rock star, Graham Nash, all in order to stay focused on the only important thing in life, her art.

"Anyway, when I heard Blue for the first time, my heart broke into a billion pieces in all of the best ways. I wore the whole album out one summer while I was a tennis coach at a summer camp. 'Carey' is one of the first songs I ever learned and played in front of people. It was an epic summer and I was hooked on doing that with my life."

Twist’s Laura Hermiston

"Jeen O’Brien is a prolific songwriter and performer. She has written for artists and for TV and film. I love all her records. She’s also my sister-in-law. I was about eight years old when I moved into my stepdad Tom Szczesniak’s home in Etobicoke. It was a musical household and I was always hearing jingles and records being written and recorded. Stephan, my step brother, and his partner Jeen were in their 20s when our families joined. I grew up listening to her songs and have heard her develop over time. That exposure has been my biggest influence. Plus, she is a strong and badass female."

The Avulsions’ Samantha Renner

"In modern Western pop music, no one is surprised to see a female performer costumed and made-up on stage or in glamorous press shots, but there are limits on how women are generally expected to participate in music: usually singing, or maybe playing supportive bass, keyboard, etc. As roles recede from visibility into technicality, such as songwriting, production, sound design, even drumming, women are far less represented. The legacy of male dominance in these fields has undeniably shaped the music we hear, and our expectations of what music is supposed to sound like. Here are some unconventional and distinctly feminine approaches I find inspiring: Midori Takada's Through the Looking Glass, Ramona Lisa's Arcadia, and Laurie Anderson's Big Science."

Miesha & the Spanks' Miesha Louie

"I was one of those kids who was just always drawn to music. I didn't know it was a thing I could do for a while though. The women I saw on TV or heard on the radio who played music were singers, and they were pretty out of reach. I grew up in small-town Invermere, B.C., so there weren't any local shows until this boy from Calgary came to my high school and started putting them on, and the bands were all boys. But it led me to the Calgary music scene where I found Honeyrocket. Therese Lanz was, and still is, this fierce non-white girl, playing loud guitar with her sister and her best friend, and she's onstage screaming/singing about something that means something to her. And that was when I realized I could do it, too. And she was a real girl I could learn from and that probably changed everything, opening a door to every other killer female onstage. She went on to be in Kilbourne and Mares of Thraece and I think I've always watched her success as something I could aspire to do, too."

More to explore:

From Céline Dion to Lauryn Hill: 30 women who have changed music

MILCK: a candid Q&A about trauma, silence, activism and the power of sisterhood