Women to the Front: The Elephant Trees’ Martha Phillips on Inclusivity & Creating Spaces in the Music Industry

The Elephant Trees © 2022
The Elephant Trees © 2022
This Women’s History Month, Atwood Magazine has invited artists to participate in a series of short essays in observance and celebration of the month’s significance. Today’s submission comes from Martha Phillips, frontwoman of Manchester alt-rock band The Elephant Trees.
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My name is Martha and I am the front woman of Manchester-based group The Elephant Trees and run my own label Incantation.

As a woman in the music industry, I’ve noticed that, over the past couple of years, the industry as a whole has become a lot more inclusive for both women and queer artists.

It’s been a long time coming, and its great to see the progress in real time.

I think a lot of women that have been in the industry for such a long time have become completely sick of the same old shit — being told what to do by specific groups of people who think they know best, just because the industry has been run in a certain way for such a long time.

A career in music is a full time occupation, it doesn’t start at 9 and finish at 5, it reigns over your whole being; so it really is important to feel like you can be your most authentic self.

Through extended periods of isolation with the pandemic, a lot of us have had time to sit back and reflect on what we’re doing with our lives and question why things should continue to be the same. This was the opportunity we found to change things.

My manager Natasha and myself established Incantation, a 360 music service, focused on women and LGBTQIA+ communities in music, to shine a light on that talent whilst giving them a space and supporting them. We currently have 3 queer and female identifying acts on our roster, run monthly live queer music nights at Feel Good Club in Manchester, and host a new loud and proud club night, Chipped Polish. Creating spaces for this community to thrive and feel safe is so important to us.

However… there is still a long way to go.

I’ve spent years and years of my life touring and playing very small venues where you’ve got four bands on the line up, with each of them having four or five band members, and more often than not, I’ve been the only girl. That changes something for you as a young girl growing up, makes you think it’s normal, and how it’s supposed to be in this industry.

When I was about seventeen, I was playing to rooms full of men, getting jeered at by these lads in the audience who weren’t connecting with my songs because they don’t understand me and my experience.

Lyrically, the music I write is very personal and autobiographical; I’m talking about mental health and coming to terms with my sexuality. Back then the music we were writing was very alt-rock and pop-punk, infamously male-dominated genres both on stage and in the audience.

We’d be shredding on stage, and bringing the sass, of course, and for the most part we’d have a respectful and appreciative audience, it just felt as though these lads didn’t really get it. Now, however, there’s a different kind of energy I’ve found through the music I’m writing,  I’m writing it for myself and a different audience.

I think, as a band, we’ve become better players and performers because of this; when you have these line ups that are full of men and only have one woman on the line up, it can affect your performances because the crowd just isn’t right.

We’ve just finished our biggest UK tour, and prior we made a very clear statement to the promoters that we would only accept support artists with queer or female identifying people in the lineup. Representation really does matter, and the music is better for having inclusive and diverse inputs.

The people we play alongside also determine the energy and atmosphere backstage. At this level, we rarely have dressing rooms, and it’s not really appropriate to have to get changed in a room full of teenage lads! Many times, I’ve had to take my clothes off and do my makeup in the toilet with other people coming in and out all the time because most guys don’t think to give you that kind of space; whereas the shows that we’ve been playing on this tour have been so different. We made a conscious effort selecting the support acts we took with us and thus the atmosphere backstage has been so different.

The Elephant Trees © 2022
The Elephant Trees © 2022

It’s important for me as the front of this band to start creating the spaces that I didn’t have when I was coming through the scene.

This is the point; to create the space that wasn’t there for me and other young queer or fem kids.

It’s not about not being on line-ups with men, and it’s not about segregating ourselves. But until things change and there’s a more equal balance, we are going to have to create labels and distinct spaces for women and queer people, because right now, it feels as though we have to prove we belong here.

To be in the audience at gig run by women and queer people is a completely different experience also. Imagine the energy you find in the girls bathroom on a night out, everyone complimenting each other, supporting and looking out for one another, that’s the exact energy you can expect in the audience at these shows. As women, we’ve almost become acclimatised to the testosterone fueled environments of gigs, where you cover your drinks and cover up in case of unwanted groping. It’s not an exaggeration, we’ve all been there, ask any girl you know! We’re very conscious of that, it’s important that we eliminate that, and it’s incredible how much the atmosphere changes just by diversifying lineups.

I can’t stress the importance of surrounding yourself with people who are on the same page as you in terms of your values —  the men who are open to a female energy and the men who can connect to their own feminine energy. We’re not trying to strip away anyone’s masculinity here, it’s more about creating an environment to be able to perform authentically, and with every beautiful part of yourself. Sam (our guitarist) and Tom (our drummer) give me that space, both off and on stage. They don’t talk over me and respect me as an artist and performer. When I’m getting changed, they’ll clear the green room for me. They’re such allies. I wouldn’t want to do this without those boys, they’re like my brothers.

The Elephant Trees' fully-female team
The Elephant Trees’ fully-female team

One thing I’ve learnt is, if the space isn’t there, or you’re unhappy with the way the industry is, you can change it.

You have the power to change it. We’ve now surrounded ourselves with this amazing team of women, who demand respect and deserve it.

It’s a really exciting time, but it’s been a struggle to get here. What I would say to women in music now is – find your people, collaborate, work with as many women as you can and just make it happen. There’s no point sitting around and waiting for things to change. It won’t change unless we do it ourselves. – Martha Phillips

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