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Q & A: Jessica Hopper

A conversation with the music writer, This American Life consultant and author of The Girls' Guide to Rocking

By Raymond Cummings | Posted 8/19/2009

Jessica Hopper reads selections from her new book at Zodiac Aug. 23 when the Girls' Guide to Rocking Tour hits town.

Featuring Ghost Bees, Katie Stelmanis, and erstwhile CP contributor Rjyan "Cex" Kidwell.

A music writer whose bylines have appeared everywhere from Spin to the Chicago Tribune, Renaissance woman Jessica Hopper is also a music consultant for This American Life and has logged serious time as a publicist, a DJ, tour manager, and musician. With the publication of The Girls' Guide to Rocking (Workman Publishing), she can add another title to her Jane-of-all-trades shingle: guru.

Guide offers budding Joan Jetts a series of femme-friendly how-tos--how to shop for instruments, how to promote a band, how to soundproof a practice space, how to keep a band together, even how to lay down tracks using GarageBand--couched in an aspirational, anything-is-possible positivity that rubs off. Practical advise such as "Wipe down the strings after you play a show or if you have had a long and sweaty practice" abounds. Interspersed throughout are pull-quotes from female artists (Etta James, Joni Mitchell, Tegan and Sara's Tegan Quin), recommended reading and listening lists ("Women Who Rock" texts), and informative sidebars and illustrations (the definition of "MIDI," examples of direct, effective concert fliers). In a late July e-mail interview, City Paper chatted with Hopper--who answered questions from "the highway of naptime," i.e. her Chicago bedroom--about Guide's genesis.


City Paper: What led you to write The Girls' Guide to Rocking?

Jessica Hopper: This is the book I always wanted to write. This is the book I needed at 16, trying to keep my first band together but not knowing how--wanting to play shows and not understanding the first thing about booking.

When I was a little bit older, I got over this, but there was a good long stretch where I never asked questions because I didn't want to look like the dumb girl that didn't know anything about her guitar; I had this psychic hangover from playing with lame dudes all through high school who clung to this one idea of what being "good" meant, and that virtuosity was the pinnacle, not expression. The main thing is this: the most fun I have ever had in my life is playing in bands with friends and touring, and I just want to encourage all girls to do it. I wrote a book to explain things, so that nothing gets in their way.


CP: What's the format for your appearances on the Girls' Guide to Rocking tour?

JH: It's going to vary, from show to show, but I will do a 20-minute reading from the book and take a few questions, then Ghost Bees plays, and then Katie Stelmanis. It's more like, here's the talk about doing it, and here's some examples of it in action.


CP: How has the show been received so far?

JH: We haven't been touring as a show, yet. On the last leg of the tour, I was just flying from city to city, and in [Los Angeles] we set up a show at the Santa Monica public library and Mika Miko played on the steps after me. It was the coolest, to read and then have this really perfect, fun example. I want the bands playing the shows to be girls that are young, with fun accessible bands, so girls can make an easy leap to "I can do this."

The book tour so far has been really amazing, 40 to 70 people a night in some cities. The audiences are predominantly young girls and their parents; in other cities, it's mostly adults and a handful of kids. But the best is the Q&A, because the young girls always have a ton of questions. The other night in New York, a 9- or 10-year old girl asked a technical question about a problem she was having recording her vocals in GarageBand, and some women in the audience, who are studio engineers, troubleshot her question and it was just the most heartening thing.


CP: One of the best attributes of Guide, for me, is its sheer wealth of practical information about being a musician--stuff like what a beginner needs to know about gear and supplies, which is fascinating for those of us who've never joined or formed a band. Better yet, you don't evangelize or favor one particular guitar or effects pedal. And while Guide is geared toward young women, it's equally valuable for young men; you strike a very positivist, optimistic tone that makes forming a band sound like the coolest thing in the world. What kinds of feedback have you gotten from readers?

JH: The reader response so far is that this book is good for boys and adults, too. The main response is from women musicians who are my age or older, even, saying they wished they had this book 15 years ago. Young girls have written me and said it's a huge help, that they love it, that they are going to get a copy for friends in hope it will inspire their friends to want to start a band with them. I have heard from friends at the girls rock camps that they are teaching from it at some of the camps this year, which is so, so cool.


CP: In the last few decades, the presence and statue of women in rock--and popular music, generally--has grown by leaps and bounds, with bands and artists such as Hole, Evanescence, Flyleaf, M.I.A., and Sleater-Kinney amassing considerable critical respect, sales, and rabid fan bases. Do you feel that women have made significant advances, or is there still a long way to go before rock music stops being considered a boys-only club? Would, say, 16-year old Jessica Hopper be floored to know that a future existed where a Beyonce or Missy Elliott wields considerable clout, someone like Marnie Stern kicks out hard-rock masterpieces, and girls rock camps thrive?

JH: I wouldn't have been floored. I feel like where women are, in terms of influence in music and music culture, is at a pretty natural place. I feel like we still have a ways to go, but given how many young girls all over America are looking up to Taylor Swift, who is a teenager, a pop star, writing her own songs about her life as a teen girl--let's say 10 percent of those girls grow up playing music, starting bands, writing songs. By the time they're 20, they will be the dominant force in music. She's a totally mainstream example, but she's a potent one, especially for a lot of young girls.


CP: You advise burgeoning rockers headed out on tour to pack their iPods. Did you bring one along for this tour? If so, what've you been cranking on the road?

JH: When I travel, I almost exclusively listen to Prince's Sign o' the Times, with a few choice songs off Purple Rain and Around the World in a Day, plus Joni Mitchell's The Hissing of Summer Lawns and a couple podcasts of The Rub mixes. I also listen to cooking shows and some mix--I don't know how I found it--called "Rave-O-Ween" that's pretty bumpin'.


CP: You should totally ask for volunteers from the audience to come up onstage to form an impromptu, all-Prince cover band.

JH: The only person who should play Prince songs is Prince.


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