Nandi Rose Plunkett was the second female musician I ever saw perform live. Admittedly, I don’t go to as many gigs as I’d like to, but just two women up onstage – even if it’s a foot-high stage at a punk show – is not a high enough number.
Gender inequity is an issue that spans from situations that we all see–the attack on reproductive rights, for example–to those that are a little less universal and a little more difficult to pinpoint–such as punk and DIY music. Women have been making music, in every genre, for just as long as men have. Musicians like Kate Bush, Tori Amos, Nina Simone, Beyoncé, and many others have created culturally-defining music for a long time. And punk music is no exception to this; many non-white and non-male musicians have existed for a long time. But even now, the only bands on the bills of many major punk music festivals and tours are almost entirely made up of men–and this can make the work of female artists start to feel kind of like shouting at a brick wall.
Plunkett has experience with a lot of different areas under the “umbrella” of DIY/punk music. She’s in Pinegrove, and recently toured with them opening for Kevin Devine, which means those shows were some of the bigger venues the band has played. But she’s been making music for a lot longer than she’s known the other members of Pinegrove. She began playing the piano when she was 6, and followed that up quickly with her first band, in which she sang and played percussion, at age 9. “It was just what I did. I had no other choice,” she said about her long history with creating music. “After college, I got a tattoo of a soundwave, a recording of my voice, and it was like, I’m really doing this forever.:
Plunkett’s exquisite voice and keyboard talents add an invaluable layer to Pinegrove’s earthy punk sound. But where her personal creative talent really shines through is in Half Waif. Half Waif’s “mood ring pop” sound adds a beautiful contribution to the New York-based soft, vocal-focused electronic pop that’s been popping up more and more. The first time I listened to their 2016 release Probable Depths, Plunkett’s strong voice layered with euphonious piano and textured drums reminded me of artists like Eskimeaux and Frankie Cosmos, but filled me with an entirely different, inspiring sort of feeling.
Plunkett is both determined and collaborative in her goals for Half Waif. She spent a week in the woods on a retreat last summer with Zack Levine and Adan Carlo, the other members of Half Waif–their first time writing as a trio. “Part of me wanted to hold on to the ‘I do everything myself’ mindset, and I think part of that comes from being a woman,” she told me. She often feels like she has to prove herself. But in the writing process for Half Waif’s most recent release and other work, she tried to let go of that. While she is inspired by female musicians who ‘do it all’–Grimes, FKA Twigs, Lydia Ainsworth–she challenges herself to go beyond what she is used to. “There are plenty of male musicians who don’t do it all themselves, and I sometimes have to go above and beyond to meet what my male counterparts do.” Even if it’s something as simple as asking a man to loosen a mic stand for, it can feel like letting something down. But “it’s okay to show your limitations; it doesn’t mean ur weak, it means ur human,” Plunkett said in a tweet.
Plunkett has had plenty of encounters with the sexism that plagues DIY music spaces. She’s had this conversation with her male bandmates. “They don’t see me getting treated differently. It doesn’t happen when they’re around, or they don’t notice. And it’s frustrating! I’m doing just as much as they are. People come up to the male parts of the bands even when I’m the one singing,” she says. And her bandmates are great(both of the other members of Half Waif are also members of Pinegrove). “They would never look down on a girl or discredit talent, there are others who would.” But it’s something that they have never experienced. “I hope that the dialogue continues.”
Like most of us, she doesn’t know why a scene that can be so inclusive reports so many instances of sexual assault. Pinegrove recently played a house show, only later finding out that one of the people living there had committed multiple counts of sexual assault, which kept people from attending that show. “It’s baffling, it’s disturbing, it’s upsetting,” she says. “Not playing certain venues and not associating myself with bands that condone [sexual assault], being aware of what’s going on, taking accusations seriously,” are some of the ways Plunkett has found to take part in stopping the mindset that allows people to assault women. It’s scary, navigating spaces that don’t inherently support your existence there. But there is a community of women in music made up of crew, audience members, and performers, that is steadily growing. Plunkett has always looked up to female artists, from the time she was in middle school writing her own songs through the process of recording and producing her music these days. Female figures are vital first step to creating gender equity in music. They inspire, and show that women’s experiences in music are not always negative.
Her history is a big part of Plunkett’s life and passion, from her middle school roots in singer-songwriter angst to her multicultural heritage–her mother is Indian and her father is American. She’s let women artists from multiple eras influence her music: from Grimes and FKA Twigs to Kate Bush and Tori Amos. But when I watched Plunkett perform for the first time last summer, she was entirely her own person. Separate from the men she shared the stage with, apart from other artists, she stole the show. Hearing her serenade the audience with her unique vocal talent and lyrical cadence as Half Waif and then harmonize as a part of Pinegrove was stunning.
I am truly passionate about creating spaces for women in music. It’s not all, but a significant part of, Day of the Girl’s “Punk Feminism” campaign. Women, especially women of color, remain underrepresented and are too often subject to sexual harassment at shows. I want to see more women taking up space onstage, behind stage, and everywhere else that men have historically overtaken. Nandi Plunkett inspires me, because she is doing that. As she says, “even just being a woman onstage is such a first step.” Plunkett has an incredible way of capturing an audience, whether the audience is on the other end of a headphone wire or standing in the middle of a crowded venue. And having figures like Plunkett present, participating, and inspiring is vital to the goal of gender equity that we’re all striving towards.