Above: Kim Prawn from Shrimpwitch. Kim makes up one half of the garage rock duo, who have been playing since 2015. (Kurt Eckhardt)
The Tote, Cherry Bar, rowdy basement gigs in the house two doors down: Melbourne has long held a reputation for bringing some of the rawest rock and punk music to Australian music history.
Melbourne’s rock community has remained close-knit through the early days of Nick Cave all the way to Eddy Current Suppression Ring’s return, and all of us who are part of this family would like to think it’s perfect, just the way it is.
But a study by the University of Sydney earlier this week proved the entire Australian music industry still has a long way to go when it comes to how we treat women. Women only make up one-fifth of songwriters and composers registered with the Australasian Performing Rights Association, despite being 45 percent of qualified musicians and half of current music students.
Melbourne’s rock and punk circles are notoriously male-centric, and it’s only now that pockets of women-led and gender diverse bands are emerging. With mostly male venue bookers, radio hosts and most importantly, musicians, women are constantly underestimated in rock spaces, both in their talent and passion.
There’s a misconception that if a woman likes rock, her boyfriend introduced her to the genre, she only likes the music for show, and most common of all, she doesn’t know much about it.
Women like Ruby Koomen — host of PBS show Garageland, guitarist in punk band Bitch Diesel, and founder of Fuck The Man Records — do not fit into any of those boxes.
The first piece of rock music Koomen ever heard was at the age of six, sitting in her parents’ car on the way to soccer when Jimi Hendrix began playing.
“That’s when my world changed, and I thought that this was the message of love I believed in,” she said.
The radio presenter has been listening to rock and roll ever since she could remember, and would regularly play records even though she was forbidden from using the turntable by her parents. Since then, music has helped Koomen cope with all the trauma and highlights life has thrown at her, including a close friend’s death when she was 14 years old.
“There was a Pennywise song about their mates who had passed away at that young age. By listening to that and a whole bunch of other songs, I was able to deal with the concept of death,” she said.
But Koomen’s passion isn’t just because the music is relatable; rock music’s strength and lurching guitar riffs naturally tends to empower its listeners, and for women, who are often told that their place is a submissive one, this empowerment can be potent.
“Rock and punk music gives me the power to walk through walls and have the confidence to do a lot of things I would’ve previously thought I couldn’t,” Koomen said.
Melbourne garage punkers Shrimpwitch, comprised of Georgi “Goonsack” and Kim “Prawn”, agreed. During the most uncomfortable phases of their teenage years, their love for heavy music and the power that came with it was their only solace.
“What made me feel empowered as a teen was the fact that I liked heavy metal and punk. I felt awkward, so I wanted that music to define me. I wore it like an armour,” Goonsack said.
Prawn added that as a woman in the music scene, there was definitely an element of women needing to prove themselves to male standards. Societal preconceptions are amplified in hyper-masculinised rock culture, especially at live shows where men frequently outnumber women.
“I feel like people hold you up to more scrutiny sometimes,” Prawn said.
“When I was younger and going to heavier shows, I wanted to prove myself as a woman in the mosh pit; that feeling of I can take this, I’m as strong as you.”
Despite both Koomen and Shrimpwitch’s passion for the scenes they now call family, both still acknowledged there needed to be further steps taken to welcome and support women in rock.
“The absolute first and foremost thing that comes to mind is have a really clear message that sexual harassment is not acceptable. Venues and gigs need to be promoted as being accessible from the start,” Goonsack said.
“If a guy starts telling you how to play an instrument, tell him that it’s completely unnecessary and he should remove himself. You don’t have to listen to men telling you what to do any more. It’s time for you to make your music.”
Koomen said acceptance and understanding were the keys to making improvements, and that women were “absolutely worthy of doing anything that [they] want in the music industry”.
“We want you there and we want you playing,” she said.
“And if the universe is telling you to pick up that guitar, then do it.”