Female Songwriters, The Art of Lyricism, and Queer Truckers:
In Conversation with Anna Pool

Posted on

Frau, That’s What I Call Music! at Spitalfields Music Festival 2024, brings together songs from across the musical spectrum with one big connection: they were all written by women. Today, we’re sitting down with co-creator and composer Anna Pool to discuss how the show came about and where she got her inspiration.


Where did the idea to bring together all this incredible, varied music come from?

It actually started with an attempted deep dive into one specific genre of music: Amy and I wanted to sing more cabaret music from the Weimar Republic (1918-1933).  This era gave rise to some of the most important female performers still recognized today for their explorations of gender, sexuality and class politics, including Marlene Dietrich, Claire Waldoff and Lotte Lenya.


Marlene Dietrich, Clare Waldoff, and Lotte Lenya

With this level of relative freedom for female creatives, we were sure that just behind these trail-blazing performers would be a veritable army of celebrated, experimental female songwriters. And yet, after some serious digging, there didn’t seem to be many at all. The songs that have survived are overwhelmingly male-written, with songwriters like Mischa Spoliansky and Friedrich Hollaender dominating the field. What struck us the most is that these men (although many would go on to become famous composers for film and orchestral music), made their initial mark by being publicly known as “songwriters.”

This got us thinking. As a musician who calls myself a ‘composer’, my output is actually, overwhelmingly, songs. I mostly write the lyrics myself, and stylistically, they sit somewhere between classical music, various forms of folk music and musical theatre.  However, I don’t know if I can call myself a songwriter. Does that limit me? Make me smaller, somehow? To make my mark in the “serious, classical” world, do I need to call myself a composer to show how much more I can do? We wondered if this had happened to any other female composers with a big output of songs; were they able to be “just” songwriters in this space? Does this get the same respect, the same “prestige”? Why are there not more platforms in the classical music world for the art of songwriting?

And so this was the deep dive we ended up taking and it’s been really wonderful. We’ve curated a programme that marries multiple genres, styles and time periods, bringing to light some hidden gems from some very famous and not-so-famous female faces whilst also making a few surprising discoveries which we can’t wait to share with audiences. It’s been an exciting and rare chance to centre the ‘art of songwriting’ in its own spotlight in the classical music festival space, which we hope will continue as there is such a rich seam of material to explore. We can definitely make Frau, That’s What I Call Music Volumes II, III and XXIII!

How has the process of looking into these songs changed the way you think about the artists behind them?

A big joy of this process has been celebrating the role of the lyricist. Lots of the songs we’ve chosen have women at the helm on both music and lyrics, but we’ve also chosen to feature a few important songs where the words have been written by a woman and the music by a man. It can be a classical trope that you see a lot in opera and art song, where the music is considered as having the highest importance, so the person who composed the music is placed higher up the bill, or at least, is the most remembered. However, songwriting has to be the perfect marriage between both music and lyrics – without one, you would not have the other and both must leave space for the other to shine, so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Therefore, we hope that Frau celebrates these lyricists as being considered just as much of the songwriter as the melodist.

Let's take a look at one of the inspiring songwriters you'll be highlighting.

 

Liz Swados
Liz Swados (1951-2016) was an American writer, composer, musician, choreographer and theatre director. Praised by the New York Times for her ‘unique style of socially engaged musical theatre’, she introduced a range of genres to mainstream audiences and wrote about topics not usually seen in musical theatre of the time, such as racism, murder, and mental illness, pioneering a new age in the genre.


Can you tell us how Liz Swados and songwriters like her have inspired the show?

Liz Swados deserves to be remembered as one of those multi-faceted creatives who could do it all, and as an example of how one element of your craft can inspire and influence everything else that you do. As well as writing music for theatre alongside greats such as Peter Brook and Andrei Serban, in 1978 she was singularly nominated for Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Direction, Best Book of a Music, and Best Choreography for her musical Runaways.

She’s a huge inspiration for us because her songs don’t fit into any particular box, they just all scream of rich characters and places. Listening to the 2020 album, The Liz Swados Project, where a number of American musical theatre writers inspired by her interpret her songs and legacy, was like listening to a version of how we wanted Frau to be. Spanning a vast range of styles and stories, the album is underpinned by a deep knowledge of storytelling and songwriting craft, taking the listener on a huge emotional journey. We really hope that with Frau, we’ve created an experience like this for audiences and that we can be inspired to write songs in a way that feels authentically “us”.

Talk to us about Mother Trucker, your newest group of songs that will be premiered at the festival this year

I love writing about the hidden hierarchies and communities found within the workplace, and often, in female spaces. Mother Trucker came about when listening to a podcast, Over the Road, which is a beautiful, funny, sensory overload into the world of trucking in the USA today. Between the CB radio handles, roadside diners and interior cab decoration, I was struck by how many women are choosing to become truck drivers in the States today. It’s only around 9% of truckers, but relatively, this is a huge number compared to, say, the 1970s. Through an obsessive deep dive into the sub-genres of trucker YouTube, I found out about the women who are putting multiple family members through college due to trucking, queer truckers who view the cab and the road as their safe-space, and the world of lady trucker unions.

There is also a huge role for women in the wider eco-system of trucking, be they the owners of the mom and pop stop diners which have historically fed truck drivers, or the all-night radio DJs who keep drivers going on a long trip.  Formed out of listening to the podcast, reading every article I can find, YouTube rabbit holes and the photographer Ann Marie Michel’s excellent photography album, Sisters of the Road, I have created my own colourful cast of characters, holding their own in a job that has traditionally held an almost mystical, male place in the psyche and flipping it on its head.

I also love writing songs which cross the boundaries between those you might perform in a gig setting, and those which are a theatrical performance, so it’s been exciting to work out what this might look like for Mother Trucker’s first outing in the festival.


Frau, That’s What I Call Music! will premiere at Spitalfields Music Festival 2024 on Friday 28th June at the Vagina Museum, with performances at 18:30 and 20:30. Click here to book your tickets today.


 

Share