Redefining the female rockstar

Just a day before her band’s debut album drops on Oct. 12, the Sonder Bombs frontwoman Willow Hawks talks with Music Unlabeled about her inspirations.

“I think that Hayley Williams was the first time that I saw another girl just owning the stage and being a badass and a role model for young women,” Hawks says, citing the Paramore vocalist as a personal inspiration if not a musical one.

Pop punk queen Hayley Williams comes up in every conversation about female musicians in the alternative music scene. A combination of immense talent and lack of options made Williams the definition of what the scene considers to be a female rockstar.

And while Williams made way for women in the scene, frontwomen following in her steps have lived in her shadow ever since. Press kits referencing their gender identities come with the inevitable comparison to Williams, even narrowing it down to album era.

“I think that a lot of women with powerful voices, especially in the genre that we’re in, get compared to Hayley Williams,” Hawks says.

With her ukulele, bubbly melodies and powerful voice, it might be easy to say Hawks is the next Hayley Williams. But instead, Hawks is stepping out of that shadow to redefine what it means to be a modern female rock star.

“The idea of a modern female rockstar is treated like gum on the bottom of the shoe of the patriarchy.”

The Sonder Bombs’ debut album Modern Female Rockstar tackles sexism in the music industry, sexual assault and so much more. Hawks sings with passion and anger, demanding your attention and participation in her movement. And if the title of their album is anything to say, she knows exactly what battle she’s up against.

“We took it from the lyrics in ‘Title.’ It felt so right,” Hawks says. “We were thinking about the album and the themes of it. I can’t remember who brought it up and we kind of just looked at each other.”

“Title” is the first single off Modern Female Rockstar. One of the battle cries of the album, Hawks sings “What’s more modern than a female rock star? The kind you wanna picture on her knees.”

The band spent four weeks debating the title, thinking that it was too on the nose for their first album. But eventually, they unapologetically took on the role of redefining what it means to be a female rock star, with their first single taking on the music industry head on.

“I think it just kind of happened naturally,” Hawks says. “Especially with ‘Title,’ like, those were things that men had actually said to me before. I got sick of it.”

Sexism in the music industry isn’t a new thing, but it’s one that’s not talked about at all, within our scene especially. Even over the phone, Hawks talks with the same passion that she sings with on the album.

“We ignore these things so we can get further and pretend to be one of the boys so we can get further,” Hawks says. “I don’t think we should have to compromise ourselves anymore.”

Getting to the point where you don’t compromise yourself anymore takes work. Hawks puts her journey of self-empowerment on full display in the Sonder Bombs new album, describing past relationships and experiences with sexual assault.

One of the most powerful songs on Modern Female Rockstar is “Twinkle Lights.” With soft tones and a somber innocence, Hawks describes her experiences with sexual assault throughout her lifetime.

“The process of writing [that song] started with the process of realizing that I wasn’t okay,” Hawks says slowly, with some hesitancy. “I suffer from mental illness, I’m a survivor of sexual assault and I suffer from PTSD.

“When you put all those things together in the little box that is your brain, eventually it’s going to start falling apart,” Hawks says.

One of the most powerful lyrics in the song is what one might refer to as Hawks’ #MeToo movement. With a brutal honesty, Hawks sings about saying no and fighting back but not being, “stronger than his hands across my throat, but that’s just the way it goes.”

The song peaks with Hawks coming to the realization that what has happened to her — throughout her life and at that moment in time — isn’t okay, and that she isn’t okay.

“I wasn’t in a low place,” Hawks says, referring to when she physically wrote the song. “But I was looking at myself from the outside, finally processing what had happened to me.”

When you look up “sonder” in the dictionary, it’s described as the realization that everyone in your life is living a life just as detailed as your own. They’ve got their own things going on with their own problems and experiences.

“This is when we’re like survivors, [us] women and nonbinary persons. Everybody’s not a f*cking man.”

That’s exactly what “Twinkle Lights” is; a sonder bomb, dropping the realization that the woman singing these relatable experiences to you is in fact a human being who’s been through it too. Hawks and the rest of her band strategically placed at the end of the album to leave people thinking.

“When people listen to the album and they leave with that sort of stuff in mind, it really makes people think,” Hawks says. “We placed it at the end cause it’s a gift to the people that support us and to survivors.”

Hawks says the last line with a passion and fervor held by many women in America today. At this point in time, #MeToo is a prominent movement still and Brett Kavanaugh was just voted into the Supreme Court.

The timing is not lost upon Hawks. She’s well read on issues in our government and she’s not afraid to make her stance known. That’s exactly what she does with Modern Female Rockstar.

“I think that if there was ever a time for us to put out this album, it’d be right now,” Hawks says. “This is when we’re like survivors, [us] women and nonbinary persons. Everybody’s not a f*cking man. I don’t want feel alone, I don’t want others to feel alone. And I hope this helps.”

Hawks pauses on the phone and the silence is deafening, filled with thoughts about our own experiences and the experiences of the women in the #MeToo movement. Finally, she says again: “I hope it helps.”

Hawks is revolutionizing the concept of the modern female rockstar, but she realizes that it takes time. Even in “Title,” she acknowledges that getting respect in the music industry as a female might be too much to ask for at this time.

Even while describing the barriers she’s faced as a woman in the music industry, Hawks is quick to point out how easy she’s had it in comparison to others.

“See I think that for us, as a female fronted band of all cis white people, that we had a pretty easy time,” Hawks says. “I think that there’s not a lot of representation [in the scene] if you’re not white or you’re not cis. I think that’s something we need to work on because that’s not fair anymore.”

Cis, short for cisgender is a term meaning that your gender identity matches with your biological sex. The opposite of that is transgender, with nonbinary and gender queer falling in the middle of the spectrum.

Throughout her interview, Hawks is sure to be inclusive of different genders and sexuality. She’s not afraid to call out the music industry for its lack of representation for racial minorities, and says the problem lies within the scene itself.

“I hear it vocally, I hear it everywhere. ‘Oh there’s not enough bands like that,’ That’s bullshit. You’re just not listening to them,” Hawks says.

“I think we need to start paying attention and seeing what’s out there, start supporting those bands that don’t get the same opportunities we do,” Hawks says.

Hawks talks about local bands that inspire her, including Biitchseat and Teamonade and Absinthe Father. The lead singer for Teamonade did the album artwork for Modern Female Rockstar, showing it as gum on the bottom of someone’s shoe.

“That’s exactly what it is,” Hawks says with a laugh. “The idea of a modern female rockstar is treated like gum on the bottom of the shoe of the patriarchy.”

Hawks speaks with a sardonic tone, but still there’s optimism in her voice. She knows that there’s bands working to change that, including the Sonder Bombs.

Instead of a female rockstar out of every teenage boy’s fantasies, Hawks is a modern female rockstar; one that will stand proud, speak on important issues and shine a light on blatant sexism in our scene. That’s the new wave of female rockstar that Hawks believe will change things.

“I don’t think that you should have to be a sex symbol to get recognition for the things that you do,” Hawks says. “Us and the other bands in the scene that are non male fronted or made up of non-men, I think that we’re all working to change that.”

You can buy the Sonder Bombs’ debut album Modern Female Rockstar now through Take This To Heart Records. 

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