Here strum the girls
A new wave of women aren't content to use the guitar to simply accompany songs. They have forged brave new ways to play the instrument, argues Chris Mugan
When Annie Clark's final power-chord resounded about the studio on a recent episode of Later… with Jools Holland, the pregnant pause between music and cheering was palpable. Were the audience politely waiting for it to ebb away or were they shocked by the artist's closing flourish?
Under her St Vincent guise, Clark has built a reputation, not just as a quirky, emotionally engaging performer, but as a guitar player capable of pushing the rock and pop workhorse in unfamiliar directions. She is one of a new wave of female musicians using the guitar not just as an accompaniment to songs, but as innovative instrumentalists. Of course, women have always played guitar, from Joan Baez inspiring a generation of plaintive singer/songwriters through Joan Armatrading to Joan Jett in the Runaways before Viv Albertine in The Slits and The Raincoats' Ana da Silva came through the punk scene, ahead of Chrissie Hynde finally making her mark with The Pretenders.
Yet such icons were usually celebrated more for writing, singing or trailblazing than for their playing styles. Now female artists are in a position where they can explore new vistas for themselves, or as Clark put it in a video conversation with Merrill Garbus, who records as tUnE-yArDs, "The only difference is that you get asked, 'What's it like to be a woman in music?'." There is a generation of female artists revelling in this freedom, at least on the indie labels that are home to Anna Calvi, Micachu & The Shapes and Clark, whose BBC2 appearance was especially engrossing because it was so stripped back, just her and a drummer. This was a departure for a solo artist who arrived with the assured chamber pop of 2007's Marry Me, where the occasional distorted solo appeared amid a concoction of dulcimer, brass and choirs. On 2009 follow-up Actor, Clark relied more on those aggressive sounds, balanced with sweeter melodies.
It was on 2011's Strange Mercy, though, that she firmly based her inventive arrangements and violent emotions on sinuous, though abrasive guitar lines. Now Clark is working on an album with David Byrne, the latest in a series of collaborations that show how respected she has become. Having played in Sufjan Stevens's touring band, she has recorded with Bon Iver's Justin Vernon, though her most thrilling showing has been her contribution to a celebration of Michael Azerrad's book on the 1980s scene Our Concert Could Be Your Life – a visceral cover of Big Black's "Kerosene". Just as striking, though with a very different sound, is Britain's Anna Calvi, who, like Clark, was raised in a musical family – "two former hippies" – and studied music at college.
"All my solos are based around arpeggios," Calvi explains. "I'm not a big guitar geek, but listening to Reinhardt I realised you could be melodic but quite aggressive and brutal – that's what the electric guitar, especially, wants. Not being afraid to get ugly. Then from West African music, I got a sweep-picking style, which is more fluid." While Calvi reshapes classic sounds, most female guitarists are happier occupying leftfield environs. Matching Clark for virtuosity is New Yorker Marnie Stern, whose finger-tapping style has added a note-packed density to three albums of intense indie-rock. Less showy are PJ Harvey, recently seen applying herself to the autoharp, and Charlotte Hatherley, who as well as joining Ash for a while has essayed a brand of English psych-pop, with some twitchy shards appearing in her electropop project Sylver Tongue. Also notable is Mica Levi, who mainly records as part of the trio Micachu & The Shapes. She is often described as "grimey" or an electro artist, but Levi has devised an idiosyncratic guitar sound. Classically trained, she strives to make the instrument sound alien, far removed from rock clichés, most clearly so on forthcoming album Never.
"I find the guitar frustrating," she explains. "It is easy to learn a few chord shapes and you can then play almost anything, but then the sound is so established. I'm interested in extended techniques and trying to personalise it. That's why I stuff paper between the strings, to create a percussive effect." Instead of gleaming Fender or Gibson guitars, Levi opts for cheap instruments, like a Japanese-made child's guitar. "I prefer the amps you get in starter kits – they have a real charm to them," she adds.
Anna Calvi plays Somerset House, London WC2, 12 July. Micachu & The Shapes' album 'Never' is out on 23 July
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