My name is Catherine Elms, I’m 22, I play the bass guitar, and I’m trying to join a band. This bi-weekly column will document my journey from bedroom bassist, to rock star. Or regular in The Kilkenny Cat. That works too.
My musical path has been a disjointed one, so here’s a quick run-through: I’ve been playing the piano on and off since I was about ten years old. When I was fourteen, I started playing guitar, and soon after started up a girl band with my female friends. We were together for almost three years, during which time we all wrote music together and gigged regularly in our city. Sometimes I’d fill in for the bassist, and loved playing bass so much that I bought my own cheap bass. When the girl band fizzled out, I turned away from the guitar and moved to the piano.
I started writing my own songs on this instrument, and two years later recorded my first 5- track demo (which you can listen to here). Alongside this, I was still playing bass; my bassist boyfriend was impressed at my progress, and encouraged me to keep playing. So I stuck with the bass, and now I’m at a level where I feel like I want to get out there and start gigging again. While I still play the piano, I’ve decided that I’m going to focus on my bass playing from now on.
For a while, my messy musical history worried me – surely “proper” musicians are those who have been playing since they were old enough to hold a guitar, and have stuck with the same instrument for all those years? That was certainly the case for my male musician friends at the time, all of whom were frighteningly good. But I realised that it didn’t matter how old I was when I started (not that 22 is old, but it can feel that way when you consider how young most popular female musicians are.) If I start now, in ten years’ time I will have been playing bass for ten years. If I give up now, in ten years’ time I still won’t be able to play bass.
It’s all too easy, as musicians, to wait in our bedrooms to get good. I think women musicians suffer particularly from this, as we are under far more pressure than male musicians are – it’s as if women musicians represent their whole sex when they’re up on stage. If a man fucks up, people say “you’re a crap guitarist”; if a woman fucks up, people say “women are crap guitarists”. Despite this, we must remain proactive, and seek out opportunities. It’s like Canadian musician and my good friend Clementine Cannibal said, we need to allow ourselves to be works of progress in public. We can’t stay in our bedrooms until we are “good enough”. The more girls there are out there, rocking out and making noise, the less people can tokenise the few women musicians they do see. So, I’m going to join a band. Sure, people might say that I’m “alright for a girl”, or that I’m “just a gimmick”, but at least I’m out there playing, carving a place for myself in the local music scene, and improving with every performance. I’m excited to see what’s around the corner.
I have learned, as a rule of thumb, never to ask whether you can do something. Say, instead, that you are doing it. Then fasten your seat belt. The most remarkable things follow.