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To The Front: Musician Jessica Knight

Veronica Mullen
Jessica Knight

Across the country, it appears that a cultural sea change is taking place. Sexism that has long been inherent in society is getting acknowledged perhaps more than ever, in large part due to the #MeToo movement and activist women who have organized as a result of the 2016 presidential election. It’s unclear what lasting effects might take hold.

For decades, women have been battling to break through the “glass ceilings” in their chosen fields. “To the Front” is a new NPR Illinois series where we talk with female and non-binary and/or LGBTQ+ people about the way their identity intersects with their art and work. The term “girls to the front” is often credited to Kathleen Hanna, front woman for theriot grrlband Bikini Kill. Bands now use that phrase or a similar one to promote inclusivity and safe spaces at punk-rock and indie shows. Punk, like most other musical genres, has been historically male-dominated. As #MeToo has made clear, challenges that come with sexism are not linked to any one field alone. In homage to the phrase this series draws its name from, we start with musician Jessica Knight. (Check out a performance and interview she recorded at our studios this year, here.)

Knight is lyricist, vocalist and bassist for the band Looming. The band’s members now live in various locations, but have roots in Springfield, in the Black Sheep/Southtown scene. Knight says what inspired her to make music was reading the book Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution by Sara Marcus, and learning about bands like Bikini Kill, Bratmobile and Heavens to Betsy, which were active in the early nineties. Knight says when she first started out, Black Sheep’s scene was harboring some sexist mindsets. But she’s noted a dramatic shift since then. So read on & hear more about how the community and her own way of thinking about things have changed.

One of your first projects was “Child Bride” – had your focus been on starting a group that was mainly female?

Yes. A few of us, me, Meg Gillette and Roxanne Hanna, all had the same idea at the same time. We weren’t even that great of friends, I just heard through the grapevine they were trying to do the same thing ... We kind of fiddled around and decided which instruments we wanted to learn, because none of us knew anything at the time ... We had a little 15-year-old boy drummer, Roxanne’s brother Paul. We just started playing shows and it was a blast. It was so fun.

How has your take on the F-word (feminism) changed throughout the years?

I was definitely one of those people who was like, “Feminism!? Everyone’s equal! What is feminism?” I acted like that for sure when I was a teenager. And then I just started understanding the subtleties of things that a lot of people don’t pay attention to. Like the fact that I wasn’t encouraged to play music, that I had to figure it out on my own. It seems like a lot of times boys are encouraged. I think sexism even affects my brothers in that they’re not the typical “male model” ... So now it’s like a blanket, a big umbrella over everything I do, trying to overcome sexism using feminism.

Let’s talk about the ink on your arm! What’s the “bad girl” tattoo about?

A few of us just say that we’re bad girls, kind of the same thing as saying you’re a “nasty woman.” One of my friends says she has it because she feels like she’s not good at being a girl ... So we all have our own idea of what it is, but we’ve been encouraging anyone and everyone who wants to get a bad girl tattoo to go ahead and get it. It’s really just a silly friendship thing, but it’s empowering to us.

In the last year or so you had this amazing opportunity where you went out to L.A. and recorded a song for a web series about transgender people, called Her Story. Tell us about the band you worked with and what the experience was like.

That was one of the coolest things I’ve ever been asked to do. Spectacular Spectacularwas a band that didn’t have a vocalist at the time ... One member is Isley Reust, she’s really active as a trans artist and advocate. The band asked if I would help them just with this one song. It was cool because they sent me the plot of the episode and I got to write lyrics that fit the theme of it. It was a pretty serious subject, it had to do with domestic violence. Then they asked if I could do a music video for it and they flew me out to L.A. I’m really glad I got to do it.

How has the community the surrounds Black Sheep and all the related projects affected you as an artist?

Black Sheep is one of the most special music scenes in America. I’ve been touring quite a bit over the past few years and there is almost nothing like Black Sheep. It seems easier at Black Sheep to find bands that include non-male members than most places elsewhere. At first inclusion was work, and it doesn’t seem like work anymore. That’s what’s really awesome about it, now it’s just really natural. One of the owners of Black Sheep is a female, Clare Frachey. It’s just good to see those voices being heard without them having to fight to do so.

So do you feel like a pioneer for this sort of inclusion?

(laughs) Maybe? I definitely feel like a pioneer for myself and I love to hear that I’ve encouraged somebody to pick up an instrument ... I don’t like to take credit for someone else’s hard work though, these women all worked hard to earn respect and get where they are. I’m definitely a big cheerleader for them!

So what are some female fronted bands or acts that you have your eye on, locally and at large?

In Springfield, there was a band called SAP that Clare did and that is like one of my favorite bands that I’ve ever seen in Springfield. I loved them, Clare’s voice is so unique and really good. She started a new band I’m so excited to check out called Spell Breaker. Also, Moondead, Kristin Walker plays guitar and sings for that band, and Dani Sakach plays bass and she’s classically trained – she kills it. Nick Murphy plays drums, that band is so awesome. We actually played with them in July. (Moondead is not an active band at time of publication.) Outside of Springfield, I can’t stop listening to Angel Olsen. I also just came across this band called Mothers, I can’t stop listening because of this girl’s voice. And the new Lorde. Always.

(This interview has been edited for length/clarity.)

Rachel Otwell of the Illinois Times is a former NPR Illinois reporter.
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