Underneath This had the great opportunity to speak with Shana East from Girl Group Chicago about her band, 1960s music, feminism and more. Girl Group Chicago will be performing at the Empty Bottle on March 28.
Shana East is the founder of Girl Group Chicago – an all-female live musical performance group that is focused on bringing the female fronted “wall of sound” arrangements of the 1960’s to a modern day audience. She is also a board member of TRACERS, a Chicago-based social initiative group. Shana received her BFA in Photography, Film and Electronic Media from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Past lives include: Kinko’s copymaster, documentary filmmaker, non-profit fundraiser and database administrator.
by C.B. Lindsey
What inspired you to form Girl Group Chicago?
Well, I was going through a hard time personally. I was in an emotionally abusive relationship, and felt like it had isolated me from making female friends. I initially put the group together as a way to network socially, just a fun activity to do with other women each week. I wanted it to be a safe environment for women to have fun and be creative – like a social club where we happen to play music together. I really had no idea it would catch on the way it has, and that people outside of the group would become so interested in it! It has been an interesting way to introduce more women into my life, and to get to know them both as people and musicians.
The actual spark (so to speak) came when I had this “vision” – it sounds cheesy, I know, but this actually happened. I was listening to the Shangri-Las song, “Dressed in Black” at the time and was in that state just between being awake and asleep. I had a vision of an all-female group performing this song with a shimmery backdrop and matching costumes. By “all-female,” I mean, there was a veritable sea of ladies performing it. I always intended Girl Group to be a “big band,” but at the time I saw “big” as being 10-12 members. It just kept growing and growing from there and I didn’t stop it!
How do the different members bring together their talents to form a cohesive group?
The first year or so we were finding our sea legs, figuring out members’ strengths and what things they might be interested in doing within the group. While I knew going into it that everyone played an instrument or sang, each member brought additional talents to the group as well. But since I didn’t know any of the members until I was in a band with them, this “getting-to-know-you” phase took quite a while. We eventually needed members to pitch in in other ways – someone to keep the finances straight, someone to help with costumes, help with booking, etc. I fell into the “manager” role automatically since I started the group and it’s what I’m good at, as well as promoting our shows. Now that we have pulled together some great gigs, we have more freedom to put our shows together from start to finish. Certain venues like Mayne Stage entrusted me to “curate” our entire show, so I was able to put together a showcase featuring all-female filmmakers there, followed by comediennes, The Puterbaugh Sisterz, followed by our opening band, Velcro Lewis Group, and then on to Girl Group Chicago. It was fun putting the whole evening together as more of a special event – a night to remember!
The other gals, over time, pointed out areas where they saw we needed help or things that they were interested in working on and then they just started doing it! If someone has the extra time to contribute and enjoys doing something that we particularly need help with, I just have to let go and say, “Go for it!”
How do you decide which songs to cover?
I definitely had the most say over our first batch of songs. We needed a starting point. Over time, certain members wanted more input into what songs we cover. Not everyone necessarily came out of the garage scene or was familiar with music from the ‘60’s at the start. Over time they have all become more interested in it, so we formed a Music Selection Committee that meets every time we need to add new songs.
I personally (as a singer) might be into the message or the lyrics of a song, but someone in the horn section might be listening for horn parts or a string player might be listening for an interesting string arrangement. So it’s good to have the committee to get different points of view. We have adapted the song selection process over time, it’s been a learning process. All of the changes we have made seem to keep us moving forward and have ultimately been for the best. Onward and upward!
Sem: It sounds very egalitarian, very democratic.
Ha [laughs], well the issue of “democracy” within the group has been an ongoing one. It’s not totally democratic, but I think we are as democratic as we can be with such a large group. I’m the person who is more of the full-time employee, so I have to make a lot of the day-to-day decisions on the fly without consulting all 20+ members. I don’t think we would function as well if it were 100% democratic. The financial things I often have to figure out – negotiating with stylists or sound engineers, for example – so there’s a lot of day-to-day boring stuff that isn’t [democratic]. We have section leaders who make more of the creative decisions for their particular section. The parts of the organization where members have expressed that they want more creative input have become more democratic over time. It is important that each member feels like her voice is heard and that she is being fulfilled creatively.
Which are your favorites to cover?
It’s always changing! The first one, my first favorite song we did (and the song that inspired me to start the group) was “Dressed in Black” by The Shangri-Las. Mary Weiss is the quintessential girl group icon. The Shangri-Las, well, they were from New York. They carried guns around to protect themselves. They were the “bad girls.” Their subject matter is often pretty dark compared to some of the more bubble-gummy girl groups of the time. I’ve loved them since I was 15; I’m a huge fan.
We’re about to play a new one, “Chick Habit”. It’s not a song from the ‘60’s, it’s actually the first song from the ‘90’s that we’ve ever done. It does sound like it’s from the ‘60’s though. We’ve been working on that one this month. My favorite song always changes because we are always adding new and exciting material!
“To Sir with Love” also means a lot to me… it’s a love song but not a traditional romantic love song. It is directed towards a mentor, and I have dedicated it to my father at several of our shows. It is my most challenging song vocally, and I do get nervous singing it! But at least, I hope, it comes across as heartfelt because it is. I love that one too.
Who are your favorite “girl groups” from the 1960′s? What other musical influences does the group have?
The Shangri-Las, The Cookies, The Ronettes, The Shirelles, The Crystals… I grew up listening to oldies in the car with my Dad. The only group I despise from that era is Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons (I can’t stand that high-pitched, shrill voice of his!), but I love pretty much everything else from the ‘60’s.
I am drawn to those songs that touch upon darker subject matter – they tend to be the ballads or “slow jams.” Even though a lot of these songs weren’t actually written by women, I feel like the female singers from that time period were able to convey feelings of isolation or helplessness that women struggle with so eloquently. Even 50 years later, I share a deep understanding of the feelings so many of the lyrics describe. They have really stood the test of time!
We’re doing a new Dusty Springfield song that I really identify with. I am not singing lead on it, but I am very excited for us to do it. It’s called, “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself”. I have certainly felt that same feeling of being lost that Dusty sings about, whether I was going through a difficult relationship or just trying to figure out what to do with my life. These are common dilemmas, and the songs I gravitate toward are the songs that we as performers as well as the audience can empathize with.
Another great thing about Girl Group is that our members have such incredibly eclectic musical backgrounds and tastes. I would say our influences range from classical to punk, metal to marching band… and everything in between!
Do you perform original songs? If so, how does the band come together to create them?
We have not performed originals yet, but there is some interest from band members to write originals at some point. If we did, I would definitely want female songwriters to write them, even if they weren’t in the group. So for the lady songwriters out there, write us a song! We would definitely listen to any demo someone gave us.
The issue for me with adding original material is that it has to hold up in a set with these timeless songs. We don’t want to throw in an original just to have an original. I don’t think of us as less of a “real band” because we aren’t performing originals. These songs we cover are amazing; they’ve been around for 50+ years, often written by proven songwriting teams and Grammy Award winners… so we have to take the issue of adding originals seriously. But it’s on the table. We are open to a lot of things. I also really want to do a set of all originally male-fronted songs with our own Girl Group spin on them, and it would be cool to do another era, like a 1940’s Big Band set. We have the talent, we just need the time. It can be hard to orchestrate that many parts and practices.
We also have an extended network of talented women behind-the-scenes. Not only are the members women, but there are hair stylists, makeup artists, graphic designers, photographers, and a whole costume design team. There are so many women involved that you don’t see on the stage. And we are so lucky and thankful to have worked with the people we have. I hope Girl Group expands and expands so that one day our “group photo” will be an aerial shot!
In what ways is your work feminist?
Well, I do identify personally as a feminist, but I know that’s an individual decision and a hot button issue for a lot of folks out there. Over the past 50 years, there have been several “movements” within feminism (1st wave, 2nd wave, etc.) and I think there has also been a fracturing of any truly productive movement because different groups have different agendas. And that’s great! (The difference in goals, I mean, not the fracturing!) My personal relationship with feminism cuts through those agendas and gets back to the basics. What is feminism? I believe feminism means you believe that men, women and trans HUMANS are all equal and that all humans should have equal access to healthcare, jobs and education. Unfortunately that is still not the case and that is why I think feminist work is so important. I know the feminist struggle is real because I have lived it. Last year, I started working with a feminist social initiative group called TRACERS, and now I serve on the board. At the very least, it has helped me realize I am not alone in my struggles as a woman, but I think we are doing other important work by opening up conversations that, for some reason, seemed to come to a screeching halt after the riot grrrl movement. We offer the public information and an open conversation. We are open to all gender identities and opinions. We all learn from each other and support each other despite our differing backgrounds or opinions.
So I do more specifically “feminist work” outside of Girl Group. I know there are many women in the group that do identify as feminists, but I can’t say that we are a feminist group or initiative because I can’t speak for so many women. I think what we do is inherently feminist, but I just can’t label my bandmates.
For me, the fact that we are such a large group of female artists and musicians consciously working together and sticking together through all the trials and tribulations we have had… that is the most important thing to me, not whether all of my bandmates identify as “feminist.” There are certain socialized ways that women are taught to interact with each other, and we are learning how to counteract them.
Even putting the group together for me was a feminist act because I knew everyone was going to say, “It’s crazy for that many women to work together” – so I said, “Let’s do it!”
The more time that passes, the more we go through together, and we’ve all had creative differences. The people who weren’t jiving with the group, for whatever reason, aren’t in the group anymore. The people who want that sense of community with other women and are willing to do the work it takes have stuck with it. It is hard – I’m not going to lie. But we’re still together and I have no plans of that changing anytime soon.
I am very proud of Girl Group and the social work that I do with TRACERS. I have no problem saying I’m a feminist. I think more artists and musicians should consider identifying as a feminist or at the very least as an ally. It’s okay! Look – I have been one my whole life and I am not so bad.
Strike & Sem: I agree!
How has the reaction been in the press to Girl Group Chicago? Do the reactions differ by gender of the reviewer?
I have to say that overwhelmingly the reviews we have received have been outstanding. We’ve never received a bad review that I have seen. I think one writer had one sentence in there that was kind of negative, he said that hearing “To Sir with Love” that early in the day was “unnerving” or something like that – but it was still an okay review overall. It’s really weird, I had no clue that even the snobbiest music writer would seem to have some kind of fun with it [Girl Group]. Maybe it’s because we haven’t released an album; that it’s just a live performance thing. I think people respond well to our performances.
On what projects are you currently working?
I work with Bobby Conn and his wife, Julie Pomerleau, who goes by the stage name Monica Boubou. I’m their manager, so I’m always plotting and scheming with them on upcoming stuff. Julie has a residency at The Hideout this month that I have been helping her promote.
I am also working on another group, but we haven’t performed yet. It’s called BIG OIL and it’s in the works… we’ll see how BIG OIL comes along.
Strike: How did you come up with the name BIG OIL?
My boyfriend Jim Cooper came up with it. He used to be in the bands Detholz! and Baby Teeth, and has played with Bobby Conn off and on for a really long time. But he was looking to start something new and enlisted me. It’s really his pet project – I am just excited to be a part of a new group where I won’t be leading the pack. With Girl Group, every performance takes practically a month to prepare, so the ratio of practice time vs. stage time is pretty low. So I am looking forward to getting more experience on stage with BIG OIL, and hopefully that will keep my voice in better shape!
I also have a Devo cover band where I play Mark Mothersbaugh; it’s called DEVOid. Since both Bob 2 (Bob Casale) and Alan Myers both passed away recently, I may have to resurrect DEVOid later this year! Girl Group Chicago is more than enough work for me, but those are just some other projects I’m involved with.
What advice do you have for aspiring musicians?
Don’t worry if you’re not a “real musician.” I dabbled in band and orchestra and chorus as a kid, but I’ve never been excellent at any one thing. I have never been considered a “real musician.” I didn’t pop out of the womb singing Aretha Franklin songs perfectly.
If you have the enthusiasm and dedication I say you should just do it. I waited around too many years for someone to say, “Hey, you have talent and should be in my band.” But that day never came, so I just had to do it myself! If you have a good idea, you should just go for it. Don’t focus on criticism – if they say you can’t do it, just do it better! That’s the little feminist fire inside of me I guess, every time someone has said I couldn’t do something because I was a girl… that fire has driven me. This happened when I started Girl Group. People were like, “a 20 member all-FEMALE band?” and “How will you practice?” or “How will that many WOMEN work together?” I didn’t do it just to prove a point, but the fact that people didn’t think it would be possible certainly lit a fire under my ass!
I’m sort of a dreamer, you know… I have an idealistic “bigger picture” way of thinking and looking at the world, which can be both good and bad. Good because the world needs dreamers to reinforce hope in peoples’ minds, the thought that good things still lie ahead, that new and memorable things do and will happen. Being an idealist can also be hard because I can take it to heart when things don’t work out the way I had hoped. I’m a very sensitive person; I think it’s good for any group to have a good mix of pragmatists and dreamers. And Girl Group Chicago has all of the above, which keeps it balanced and keeps us moving forward.
-Strike & Sem