Last week I spoke with local singer-songwriter Heather Kropf, who will be participating in the SUNSTAR Women in Music Festival this weekend at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater. Watch for my interview with Toshi Reagon, who's also performing, in this week's CP.
City Paper: When you were growing up and getting into music, were there certain women musicians who inspired you?
Heather Kropf: Yes. I didn't really understand that singer-songwriters existed until I heard a Joni Mitchell record in the middle of high school. So I'm kind of late to it in some ways. My friend was playing something and I was like, “What is that?” and he told me, and I went immediately to my version of National Record Mart in the town where I lived, and got her cassette, which was very pretty, and listened to it on the way home in the car.
Other people would've been: Suzanne Vega's debut record, which I thought was incredible, I thought Edie Brickell's breakout record was really great. Kate Bush's debut album I thought was quirky and weird, and kinda cool. But mostly I'd listen to stuff like the Police and Sting and Led Zeppelin and band stuff, so the singer-songwriters didn't really come in until later.
CP: I was just talking to Toshi Reagon; she said she was really into Zeppelin too ...
HK: Well, that makes sense, she's kind of a blues artist.
CP: And she was really into KISS.
HK: I think that just sort of says that good music comes everywhere – I don't really want to sum it up, but that's awesome. And I like listening to music that doesn't have anything do with anything I'd be playing myself.
CP:You're from elsewhere originally –
HK: Yes, I was born in Portland, Oregon.
CP: Do you think the general pitch and environment of the music scene in Pittsburgh is a friendly space for women artists? Do you think it's better or worse than elsewhere?
HK: I've always felt like Pittsburgh could be friendlier – I've known a couple different accomplished singer-songwriters who just ended up moving away because there's not enough of a market here. And especially for myself as a keyboard based artist, it becomes a little more complicated. There's pockets, but this town really is much more of a bar band kind of thing, and that's not what I do. My performances are much more coffeehouse, or almost like a poetry reading sort of thing.
I'm really excited to be asked to be part of the Sunstar Festival because ever since I moved here – I did an internship with WYEP, and that's when Lilith Fair was happening, and I've always thought Pittsburgh would do really well with sort of a local festival that would highlight women musicians in the area, because there are lots, but they don't necessarily know each other, and it's a little lonely sometimes when you're on a songwriter circle stage and you're always asked to be part because you're the only woman. And maybe they think I'm a decent songwriter too, but sitting there, I'm at the keyboard and I'm a girl. I'm not resentful of that, I just think it would be awesome to have that not be the case all the time.
CP: That touches on other things I wanted to ask – do you feel like there's sort of a community of women musicians that you're a part of here? You sort of implied that you think it's more integrated.
HK: I think it's pretty integrated, actually, but I'm in a loose association called the Riveting Rosies, which was an idea of Stacey Mates, who was in a band called Jack. She moved away to Ann Arbor, I think, last year. But her idea was to just get women songwriters together to play on each other's stuff, and just to hang out and get to know each other. We'd often just see each other fleetingly at an open stage or some kind of festival event and never have a chance to get to know each other. So she's done a lot. The Riveting Rosies still exist, even without her. And I try when I host an open stage at Club Café every couple weeks, to make it a point to invite piano-based artists and women artists down.
CP: At the festival you'll be part of a panel discussion about strategies for success for women musicians. What kind of advice will you be sharing?
HK: There are a couple different ways I was hoping to approach this. First, that Pittsburgh is a great place – I'm hoping we'll be talking to a lot of local people – Pittsburgh's a fantastic place to get good at what you do. There's a lot of places to play, most requirements for playing places aren't that strict, so almost anybody can play, and cost of living is affordable. It's a great place to get your feet wet, see if you like doing it, see how things go. And the location is good to branch out and get to other places – the east coast is close.
But then on the other side, as an indie artist – and I'm pretty small potatoes compared with someone like Toshi Reagon – I'm hoping to just hear what she and the other panelists have to say. I know there's a lot that I can learn about how to become a more viable artist, beyond what I know how to do already.
I really hope that someday there'll be a 25th annual Sunstar Festival, because I think it's the kind of concept that can really grow and add value to the music community.