Gretchen Phillips is a musician and icon in the women’s music scene. Based out of Austin, Texas, Phillips is renowned for the range of her interests and performances, from traditional folk to disco, and her involvement with groups such as Meat Joy, Girls In The Nose, Two Nice Girls, The Gretchen Phillips Xperience, Phillips & Driver, Gretchen’s Disco Plague (It’s Infectious!), and A Joy Division Cover Band.
Phillips was born in Galveston, Texas in 1963. Her family moved to Clear Lake City near Houston when her father went to work for the National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA). Her parents divorced, and both of them moved to Houston. At sixteen, Phillips moved in with her father, who was supportive of his daughter’s sexual orientation. In an interview for the Qualia Encyclopedia of Gay Folklife (QEGF), she said, “My mom didn’t want me to be a lez, so my dad let me move in with him. As soon as I was through with my senior year, I moved to Austin.”
Living in Austin (and working in a bakery) at the age of seventeen exposed Phillips to a vibrant music scene and active Gay community in the early 1980s. “The dykes ruled this town when I first moved there,” she said. “Rent was low, so could spend time with bands that did not necessarily make money. The bakery I worked at was very lesbian and political, and served the best cup of coffee in town.” Phillips established connections with Lesbians in the folk music scene. Among the women who watched out for her were Nancy Scott, who showed her how to use humor in music, and Kay Turner (www.gretchen-phillips.com):
Kay changed my life… she took this youngster by the hand and showed me how the lesbian lifestyle is led. She’s certainly one of the most important platonic relationships I’ve ever had. We began setting Adrienne Rich poems to music almost immediately. She also taught me old Motown songs I’d never heard of. She taught me how to drink gin and tonics and she turned me on to Sonic Youth and Madonna. (accessed April 26, 2010)
Punk and hardcore music permeated the Gay Austin music scene with Queer-friendly bands featuring openly Gay members such as Randy “Biscuit” Turner of the Big Boys and Gary Floyd of the Dicks. Phillips and fellow musicians contributed to the mix by forming Meat Joy, a punk band that derived its name from two sources: a combination of the band names Joy Division and Meat Puppets, and the 1960s performance art-photography “Meat Joy” by Carolee Schneeman. Meat Joy featured both Lesbian and Straight, male and female performers.
Meat Joy’s endeavors reflected a DIY (do-it-yourself) ethos. Their only album (Meat Joy, 1984) consisted of hand-decorated album covers on all 1500 copies. “It was a very, very democratic band,” said Phillips for the QEGF. “Rather unclassifiable. We would start every show with some kind of [improvisation]. We had a lot of dance, very theatrical… We’d roll around on the floor in garbage bags while films were projected onto us, and then we’d burst out of the bags.” After the album released, the group toured for a couple of months, but broke up in March 1985. Phillips remembers the band with fondness:
This was my first love. I loved everybody in this band with all my heart. The three girls were me, Jamie Spidle (formerly of The Buffalo Gals), and Mellissa Cobb (formerly of Stick Figures)… The boys were Tim Mateer and John Perkins, (who goes by John Hawkes now, due to the fact that there’s already a John Perkins in SAG.)… We always began with some sort of improvisation and we always ended with a bunch of drumsticks and percussion instruments being handed out to the crowd. It was very important to me to release my first album before I was 21, and the Meat Joy album just squeaked under that timeline. We put this album out and then went on a tour of the Midwest… Meat Joy had a great trick with merchandise on that one and only tour. We sold our hand-decorated albums for $5 and our hand-decorated T-shirts for $5. There was pretty much always an after-party and at this party we would pull out our blank T-shirts and our RIT dye and paints and get the people of this town to make the Meat Joy shirts we would sell at our next town. Crafting is such a great way to party. (www.gretchen-phillips.com/mtjoypage.html#, April 26, 2010)
Dyke Bands: Girls In The Nose and Two Nice Girls
In 1985, Phillips co-founded two dyke bands: Girls in the Nose (GITN) in June and Two Nice Girls (2NG) in July. Phillips describes GITN as “straight up rock, little harmonies.” GITN blended women’s music with elements of activism and humor. The initial band featured Gretchen Phillips (vocals, guitar), folklorist Kay Turner (vocals), folklorist Betsy Peterson (guitar), Darcee Douglas (bass), Pam Barger (drums), and Joanna Labow (percussion, keyboards, vocals). The group released three albums: Chant to the Full Moon, Oh Ye Sisters (1988), Girls in the Nose (1990), and, with some personnel changes, Origin of the World (1992). The group toured nationally with songs that humorously confront taboo topics such as “Sodomy,” which couples the kitsch and dark sounds of heavy metal with lyrics that address Lesbian sex and sodomy laws during the Bush-Reagan era.
Three singer-songwriters formed Two Nice Girls: Phillips, Laurie Freelove, and Kathy Korniloff. “They made me quit GITN,” said Phillips (QEGF interview). “It was hard for me to have only that one outlet.” More folk-oriented than GITN, 2NG consisted of vocal harmonies, straightforward melodies and harmonic progressions, and the rustic sounds of guitars. Phillips describes the music and its relationship to queerness:
We actually rode a relatively folky wave, all my punk aspirations aside. We just really loved melody and harmony and wanted to sound pretty while saying radical things. I don’t think that just telling the truth about your life should be viewed as radical, but unfortunately it often is. Why shouldn’t we be out as lesbians? What did we have to lose? We weren’t really in the music business to get rich. We wanted to create anthems for people to come out to. We wanted to put on shows where hot, single babes could hook up. We wanted to provide an unmistakably queer soundtrack for them to fall in love to. We wanted to show men what lesbians were up to. We wanted to paint a picture of a world that was bigger and brighter than the one we were living in. (www.twonicegirlsmusic.com/bio.html, April 26, 2010)
Dictatorship, Democracy, Disco, and Cover Band
In the 1990s, Phillips embarked on a number of projects, some solo, some collaborative. The Gretchen Phillips Xperience (GPX) incorporated other Austin musicians, but was not, in Phillips’ own words, democratic. “I was a benevolent dictator,” she said for the QEGF. Since GPX, her only truly democratic band has been Phillips & Driver with Gay male musician Dave Driver. “I really do love to collaborate,” she said, “and I longed for a dyke-fag band.”
She also put together an album, Disco Dance Party 2000, which marked the first time she recorded basic tracks and then handed them over to somebody else (an unusual act of faith for Phillips), in this case producer Aimee Norwich. “I hold out for the album I will do with Giorgio Moroder,” Phillips joked, referring to the legendary disco music producer. She has also been exploring disco improv performance with another group: Gretchen’s Disco Plague (It’s Infectious!) in which performers made up songs on the spot in a seamless set for undetermined amount of time. As with other projects, audiences participated in the show. The group gave the crowd noisemakers such as water bottles with unpopped popcorn and vitamin bottles with lentils.
Phillips collects cover versions of songs by other musicians. “I want for people to interpret my stuff,” she said. “It makes me happy. It makes me laugh.” Her love of covers manifests in another band: “I have a Joy Division cover band called A Joy Division Cover Band. Our favorite club to perform is the men’s leather bar, the Chain Drive in Austin. It’s easy to book, has a simple sound system, cheap drinks, and Bears rocking out to Joy Division.”
Other experimental solo performances include spoken word and memoir readings, interpretive movement, and theater pieces with Power Point punctuating the narratives. She also continues to attend and perform at women’s music festivals across the nation.
Humor is central in all of Phillips’ projects. “Humor helps put hard ideas across. Besides exorcising my demons, music for me also is a means by which I can address large issues about politics, humanity, hope, hopelessness. Humor allows for buoyancy. It’s the yeast. You’re not just eating a brick of bread.”
Phillips’ sense of humor materializes in the lyrics of some of her songs, such as the following:
I Spent My Last $10.00 (On Birth Control & Beer)
When I was a young girl, like normal girls do
I looked to a woman’s love to help get me through
I never needed any more than a feminine touch
I hated the thought of kissing a man, it really was too much
I did not drink, I did not smoke, I did not say “goddamn”
I was polite, I was sensitive before I loved a man
My family, they were proud of me, were proud of what I am
But then along came Lester and my tale of woe began
CHORUS: I spent my last ten dollars on birth control and beer
My life was so much simple when I was sober and queer
But the love of a strong hairy man has turned my head, I fear
And made me spend my last ten bucks on birth control and beer
It was June of 1983 when Mary Lou and I did part
She said she loved another dyke. My god, it broke my heart
I was bitter and disillusioned to lose another girlfriend
Lester came to work at Papa’s store and decided to ease on in
Before that last heartbreak, nothing made me more sick
Than a hairy-chested, cheap double-breasted
Suited man with a hard dick
I guess that I was curious, I guess that I was young
I guess it was that rum and coke, I guess that I was dumb
For of course, for a woman to love a man
She must also love to booze
If a woman don’t drink beside her man
Then she will surely lose him
As I sit in this hetero honky-tonk and reflect upon my past
I think about those girlfriends and why they did not last
For there’re certain thrills that lesbian love
Simply cannot supply
Like paying for abortions from sperm gone awry
And so I say to you my friends, without this man I’d die
So listen to my tale of woe and hang your head and cry
You know you want me, and I want you, too
From where I’m lying baby, I’ve got quite a view of
Your lovely lips and your sexy thighs
But you just called me something that harshed my high
CHORUS: Don’t call me butch, I don’t feel butch
Sure, I like pants but that don’t necessarily make me butch
It’s my purse, it’s not a “man bag,” I’m in a skirt, no I’m not in drag
Please baby, do not call me butch
Some girls may like it, but this girl don’t
If you think it’s gonna make me horny, I promise you it won’t
But it might make me defensive, and unattractively uptight
So unless counseling me on my history was your agenda for tonight
CHORUS: Don’t call me butch, I don’t feel butch
Sure I look good in a suit but does that make me butch
Do not lecture me on female masculinity
Please baby, do not call me butch
Gaar, Gillian G. She’s a Rebel: The History of Women in Rock and Roll. New York: Seal, 2002.
McDonnell, Evelyn. Rock She Wrote. New York: NY Delta, 1995.
Meat Joy. Meat Joy. Flesh and Blood, 1984.
Two Nice Girls. 2 Nice Girls. Rough Trade, 2007 (1989).
Two Nice Girls. Like a Version. Rough Trade, 1990.
Two Nice Girls. Chloe Liked Olivia. Rough Trade, 1991.
Gretchen Phillips. Welcome to My World. Seasick Sailor, 1993.
Gretchen Phillips. Songs to Save Your Soul. Seasick Sailor, 1998.
Lord Douglas Phillips. A Taste of LDP. Seasick Sailors, 2001.
Gretchen Phillips Ministries. Seitan Is Real. 2002.
Phillips & Driver. Togetherness. Bar/None, 2003.
Gretchen Phillips. I Was Just Comforting Her. 2009