Women in Music: Laurel Sorenson, Frontwoman & Cofounder of Babe Booking

Laurel Sorenson, front woman of Laurel & The Love-In

I stood outside of a house on a sticky Nashville night, shaking out my sweaty hair while waiting for the next band to set up. College boys milled about, holding cans of PBR and taking drags from American Spirits, their newly acquired mustaches twitching with each puff. They were all talking about music. “My band is a little more experimental than that. It’s like indie folk rock with emo incentives,” said one.

“Do you guys have a show coming up?” I asked.

“We don’t really play out yet, we’re still in the experimental stages,” he replied.

“I’ve got some shows next month if you want me to book you on one,” I said.

“No thanks, we don’t play singer/songwriter stuff.”

“Neither does my band,” I replied.

Another guy chimed in, “Yeah, I heard her EP. It was a lot better than I expected.”

They all nodded their approval, muttered “cool,” and conversation continued. This is how many of my interactions go the first time my music is mentioned to male music enthusiasts. None of them mean any offense, I am sure. Their intentions, however, don’t stop them from making assumptions about me based on my appearance and my gender. I am a woman. There are a lot of women who sing poppy tunes backed by an acoustic guitar. I try not to take it personally. It is not just me or female singers that deal with this, it is all female musicians. Let’s be honest, it is all women in the music industry.  As a result, we’ve got a lot to prove, and the guys have a lot to learn.  I wanted to change these infuriating stereotypes about women in the industry, but first I had to change the way I thought about women in the industry.

I’ve been playing in bands since I was sixteen. Laurel & the Love-in is the first band I have ever been in with another woman. When I was younger I would never have considered sharing the stage with other women. I was accustomed to being the only girl on the bill of three to five bands, but sometimes there would be one other chick. She was always a lead singer too. Upon seeing her I would immediately become competitive, sizing her up based on her appearance and making sure I bested her. If I knew I was going to be the only girl on the bill, I would wear pants and combat boots on stage so the guys in the bands and in the audience would respect me as one of their own. When dressing for a show with another female on the bill, I would wear a dress to ensure that I would look hotter and thereby get more attention than her before, after, and during the show.

This is an example of the philosophy that many of us female rock musicians are operating under. We want to make it, but there are only so many spots available for female musicians. Most chicks just don’t get it. We start to enjoy the idea that we are the anomaly. We want to be the “cool chick,” the one who can hang with the guys. There are only so many positions available on the rock chart, just like there are only so many spots on the couch in the green room backstage. Either you’re a lap-sitting groupie, or you have to jostle to get a spot piled on the couch like one of the boys. Any other woman is competition for that spot.

When I came to Nashville I was infuriated that promoters would only put me on bills that had other women, and they were all singer/songwriters in floral dresses with acoustic guitars. They all bore kitschy titles or catch phrases like (I shit you not) “Let the girls play!” I wanted to play the cool shows, the ones at houses and at grungy venues that fit better with my music. I would inquire to promoters and people who hosted house shows about playing these places instead, but would never get a positive response. I thought if I played more shows, perfected my rock and roll scream, and got more established in town, this would change. It didn’t. I asked lots of all-male bands to play on shows that I booked myself, but none of them reciprocated. Finally I realized something. All of the “cool” shows I went to consisted of white boys screaming. None of the grungy house shows I went to featured women, except one. Two summers ago I went to a house show that was planned by the women who lived in the house. Half the musicians featured were women, and it was a great show. It was then that I realized if I wanted to play these shows, I had to plan them.

I got the idea to put together a house show consisting of bands led by women. I told my, (then) boyfriend about my idea, and he said, “Are you sure? That’ll sort of ruin your whole ‘one of the guys’ image.”  It made me realize how sad it was that I had to strive to be a part of the club that male musicians were just born into, even if they could barely play. I would never truly be a part of that group. No matter how many misogynistic  jokes I laughed at or how many shots of whiskey I tossed back without a grimace, no matter how well I sang or how good my songs were, I’d never be “just one of the boys.”

I decided then, to just be one of the babes. I met with a group of female lead singers I admired, and we planned decorations and food to make the night an entire experience, better than any other house show we had attended. We also decided to do a closing number together to show we weren’t competing, we were building a community. This show, which we named the Babe Show, had more women in attendance than I had ever seen at a house show. Granted their ears were plugged and they recoiled at the state of the bathroom (for whatever reason when you try to cram four bands and a couple hundred people into a house, toilets simply cease to function), but still. We gave them a totally new experience, and in return they listened, danced, and spread the love. After my set, I walked around in a state of euphoria listening to young women in short dresses and heels genuinely complementing one another instead of trying to one-up each other. It was all so inspiring that I, along with Fresh Lady frontwoman Emma Morcroft, decided to turn this into a regular gig. We founded Babe Booking as an event-planning company devoted to promoting gender-equality in the entertainment industry by throwing crazy house parties complete with delightful decorations and tasty treats.

So while those PBR sipping, mustachioed hipster boys were spouting pretention and talking about the music they had yet to actually play for an audience, I was learning to be brave. I was learning to be secure enough in my own talents to admire the talents of others. I learned that ultimately, we cannot really win as individuals until we win as a community. I only have my own experiences and the experiences of my fellow babes to draw from, but I have to imagine that it is not unlike the experiences of many other women in their respective fields. In order for us to be successful and gain respect, we have to respect one another. We have to help each other instead of participating in the cattiness and superficial nature by which society urges us to judge one another. We need to take each other and ourselves seriously as professionals. We must lead by example by respecting each other as much as we want the rest of the world to respect us. We have to understand that it’s no small feat being just one of the babes.

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