MY entire life has a soundtrack. For each memory, a corresponding song. For each period of my life, a genre, artist or album providing the sonic accompaniment to the cinema in my head. It’s been that way for as long as I can remember, which is only slightly less time than I’ve been playing the guitar – and why most of those songs will feature those six strings growling.

It started by accident. I was seven when I caught the second-hand vapour – the opening bars of Black Sabbath’s Iron Man on an episode of Top of the Pops 2. I was rooted to my living room floor as those long, eldritch notes slid over a kick drum heartbeat. I was standing on the threshold of another life, one that as the pleasure centres of my brain bucked into life, I knew would involve music from this point onwards.

I didn’t know how those men made that unholy sound, but I knew as sure as my lungs were made to suck down air that I needed more of it immediately. It was at that point – before I even had an instrument in my hand – that I became a guitarist. Twenty-five years on, a song can catch me unaware and compel me to near stupor.

When you become a musician – specifically, one of choice rather than of parental diktat – your life inevitably refracts around your instrument. You fall in love with it so deeply that other aspects of your life wither.

It becomes impossible to decouple the self from your listening habits. You crave music. Without realising it, you begin to define yourself by your taste, and others by theirs. You spend your time playing or devouring more, as each artist introduces you to another.

Given half a chance, it colonises you, making you a hopeless symbiont with no hope of detachment, and no tangible memory of your life before music. So you might as well go with it.

It is for this reason that music has become the central principle around which all other aspects of my life are organised. Similarly, it is for this reason that I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t like music, and why I am drawn like a light-drunk moth to those who are similarly lured.


AS a teenager who preferred records to friends, a youth music club offered a healthy way to cultivate my interests whilst maintaining an outward semblance of normalcy. It was here that a friend introduced me to Nirvana, setting in motion a lifelong addiction to guitars, moody boys with guitars, and songs that upset my mother. And then as records tend to do, Nirvana introduced me to riot grrrl and I suddenly not only had words to describe how I felt about my place in the world – I had a soundtrack too. This is the world I moved in from age 12 onwards, newly immersed in rock and its associations.

It was a world of gigs, pals, and cultivating a particular dress sense and attitude. It was a time of black lipstick and Ernie Balls, pockets full of plectrums and a head full of new ideas about what it meant to be a girl and my place in the world. There was an alternative to the sugar and spice and model, and it involved dirty riffs, politics and cuss words.

This world of ferocious, feminist rock was totally alien to everyone in my family but me. It was a secret, uncharted place no one else had access to. No one else was a musician – or a teen goth – so it was a space I had entirely to myself, full of role models that were not shy about speaking their mind. This was the primordial soup my eventual adult self would emerge out of and inevitably return to.

BUT even though I had managed to make my way to this secret musical community, and within it found kindred spirits, I was still something of a relative novelty there. Sure, at school I knew plenty of girls who played musical instruments – but they were the sort of instruments one might expect. Piano, or the clarsach or the viola – instruments that were intended for playing sensible and restrained music to polite audiences.

I was the only girl among a group of boys who spent every lunch and break time with our guitars and our amps, making an ungodly racket in the basement music department of our Catholic high school.

Outside of school, things were another matter. Through my youth club, I’d found two other girls – sisters, a drummer and a bassist – and begun not only writing but gigging regularly. I had joined a band at 13, and unbeknownst to me then, I would spend the next 14 years of my life making music, eventually in a band that landed a record deal with an American label.


FOR the past five years, I’ve been enjoying music mostly as a listener. After leaving my last band – a band that has been around longer than some marriages – I couldn’t bring myself to make music anymore.

The space in my life the band left was quickly filled with work, and I began to play recreationally even less. It got to the point I was embarrassed by how long it had been since I picked up a guitar – something that had otherwise been a daily occurrence up until that point.

So to scratch the itch I went to watch other bands instead. It worked for the most part, until I spotted that rare and revered beast, the girl in the band, and then I’d become overwhelmed by a cocktail of delight, envy and then shame that I’d allowed a part of my life, my creative expression, to go quiet.

But god, I loved watching other women play music. In watching them with their instrument, I experienced a shared moment with that stranger – together knowing the joy of making a racket. Knowing that this other woman had likely been a girl who spent a lot of time in her bedroom playing and writing music unlike most of her peers.

It’s not easy to deviate from the prescribed path, but I delight in spotting someone who discovered the richness of music in that departure. It was a moment of sorority that I didn’t often experience with other women.


OVER the last few years, I’ve seen more and more women taking their place on stage. What’s new and exciting is seeing how many women are doing that despite only finding their way to their instruments in adulthood. Over the past year I’ve had the opportunity to meet several inspirational women whose lives have changed as a result of finding an outlet in music. This has been whilst out filming Riot Girl Rock, a documentary for Hidden Lives – the BBC Scotland series exploring aspects of contemporary Scotland you wouldn’t normally see.

Much of my time was spent with Girls Rock School Edinburgh, and the three women behind the trans-and-non-binary-inclusive music workshops. Fiona, Caro and Lesley have spent the last several years dedicating their lives to running a free music programme. It offers lessons and mentorship for women who feel like they might have missed their chance to pick up an instrument.

Even if you’ve never so much as held a note let alone a guitar, Girls Rock School offers a place for women to give in a welcoming and supportive environment. There is no bravado at the rock school, no one-upmanship. For the first time, I was in a musical environment entirely devoid of ego.

I spent an evening at their end-of-term jam night, where everyone gets up and plays in bands together, and performs two songs in front of the group. As someone for whom playing music has always come with a side of anxiety about how practised my technique is, lest I get laughed off stage by the men in the room, it was hugely liberating to see none of that in the room.

Bum note? So what. This group of women whoop and cheer until their bandmates tentatively find it, however long that takes. This is a space where women are allowed to fail without feeling embarrassed, which creates a beautiful environment to learn in. It’s no wonder that the Girls Rock School has manifested a vibrant and supportive community of alumni to boot.


ONE alumnus – their most successful to date – is Lou McLean. She graduated from the first cohort and makes narrative riot grrrl pop on her acoustic guitar. Lou had always been a singer, but learning to play the guitar was the missing piece of the puzzle. Once she knew how a few chords she had her vehicle for making the music she always wanted to create. And she hasn’t stopped since.

HER sophisticated but cheeky music blends the politics and passion of the riot grrrl genre with the brilliant storytelling of the folk tradition. We spoke at length about how rarely as women we get to see our own lives reflected back at us in music, and how refreshing it is to hear a song that directly speaks to your own experiences.

Since graduating from the rock school Lou has gone on to create several successful EPs, gigs and festivals across the country and has even been invited to curate events showcasing the talents of other women musicians.

The National:

During my time following the rock school, I got to watch a new band come together. Shambolica (above) formed out of a group of friends and colleagues attending the school together, and were preparing songs for the school’s summer showcase.

The gig was to be held at the Edinburgh College of Art’s Wee Red Bar, a much-loved institution in the local music scene that has hosted many bands who have gone on to great things.

To my surprise, this brand new band – most of whom had only been playing their instruments for weeks – was eschewing the trend for doing covers and had already been busy writing their own material.

Beyond the rock school, I spoke to Bratakus (below). This band hail from Tomintoul – a wee village in rural Aberdeenshire better known for whisky than for break-neck riot punk – and make heavy riot grrrl.

The sisters are Breagha on guitar and Onnagh on bass, daughters of Angus Quinn from anarcho-punk band Sedition, have grown up with music and the DIY ethos of punk. Unsurprisingly it underpins everything they do musically.

They are critical of a music industry that fails to represent women and that often sees profits going to labels rather than the artists. So they’ve taken matters entirely into their own hands.

The National:

Together with a drum machine, the sisters make riot grrrl punk out of their bedroom in the family home.

They run their own label, do their own artwork, create zines and merch, and sing unapologetically about feminism and veganism. Out of all of the bands and musicians I followed, their music is the most overtly political and they are – without doubt – the loudest and most energetic of all the bands I followed.

The many women I’ve met make radically different music, departing at length from the riot grrrl homelands. In Olympia, Washington, the burgeoning but hyperlocal feminist music scene would have seen bands influencing one another’s sounds to a greater degree.

This second wave is not only different in sound from the first, but each band sounds different from one another. Some play fuzzy garage-band rock, others make cheeky acoustic pop, others make ferocious, vegan-straight-edge hardcore punk. Though despite the sonic diversity, at their heart the riot grrrl blood courses through it. For me, the genre is more about the ethos, rather than the sound. Maybe now that this is happening far from the genesis of the genre bands are freer to explore the sorts of music they want.


WHY bother making a film about women playing rock music? The answer is simply visibility.

The infamous critic Lester Bangs once described rock as this: “An attitude, it’s not a musical form of a strict sort. It’s a way of doing things, of approaching things.”

This is true, and that lifestyle has the same allure for women as it does for men. But crucically, we hear “rock god”, not “goddess”. As a young girl, to imagine yourself as a Kurt Cobain or a James Hetfield requires fantastical leap, not just into an imaginary future but into another gender. It is a stretch.

As women we are not often afforded these easy self-insertion fantasies where we can just copy and paste ourselves easily into another’s experience.

It was only after I discovered the music of Bikini Kill and L7 and Sleater-Kinney and Veruca Salt that I realised this could be me too. It was only when I saw women standing on a stage playing the crap out of their instruments that the penny dropped. You could be a different kind of girl than the one people expected you to be.

On stage, unlike in life, you could be brash and angry and talented and carefree all at once. Your messy, imperfect life didn’t matter in music – it added to it.

Here were women standing on stage, with their pubic hair out, shouting, swearing, demanding better – and no one was telling them to shut up. They were writing about things other than falling in love with boys – they were making manifestos and daring you to stand up and change the world.

I know there are other girls and women out there who need to find a way to break free from the demands of everyday life. There are escape routes in music if only you brave being a beginner and pick up an instrument.

It doesn’t matter if you can’t play, or you don’t know what you are doing. There are others out there waiting for you and your songs. I hope that a peep into these hidden lives will be a rallying call to every woman who has wanted to play but didn’t think she could.

Riot Girl Rock, Hidden Lives, BBC Scotland, Thursday, November 21, 8.30pm