Spearheading the Oi! movements female contingent is a singer/songwriter who meets all the criteria to make it in a male-dominated music scene. Jenny Woo explains how she went from Beethoven’s “Für Elise” to Rancid’s “Ruby Soho” and how it became a life changing experience.
Play: Jenny Woo – Here We Stand
For People who don’t know you, how did you get started playing music and who were the influences that made you pick up a guitar at a young age instead of playing the piano?
The funny thing is, I actually started playing piano before I played guitar. My mother’s husband was a piano teacher when I was growing up, so my sister and I learned about music theory from him. It was only when I was thirteen or fourteen that I picked up the guitar because I wanted to play in a band, and I was tired of studying classical music. I was interested in classic American 90s Punk Rock at that time – Rancid, Greenday, The Vandals… I had heard “Ruby Soho” on the radio, and the rest was history. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a band as a guitar player so I convinced my mom to buy me a drum kit, and for my first band I was the drummer.
What were your earliest recollections of hearing music, either from family or friends? Who did you listen to as a child?
Luckily enough, my father is a huge fan of Rock “N” Roll. He introduced us to Elvis, the Eagles, Creedence Clearwater Revival and the Rolling Stones when I was just a child. I have a video of me at 5 years old singing along to “Hound Dog.” The only problem is that Elvis was not my generation’s music of rebellion. I started searching for my own truth, and my own spirit, and ended up falling in love with punk and oi!
When and what was the reason you start getting into punk and Oi! music, who are your favourite bands/songs that will always be with you?
I started getting into punk rock when I was around 14 years of age, because I had anger inside of me and I felt like I was always the outsider. In punk I found purpose. I identified with the angst, the energy, and the “no future” mentality of the movement. Slaughter and the Dogs, The Clash, The Nipple Erectors became the sound track of my life. However, as I got older the values of the skinhead scene attracted me – pride in oneself, loyalty, and community. These values reflected the person that I wanted to become. I started listening to bands such as the 4 skins, Cock Sparrer, Cockney Rejects, and the Last Resort. These are all classic bands, and I hate to be cliché, but they will are classic for a reason. They will always be with me.
Play: Jenny Woo – Vicious
Being a female singer-songwriter were you inspired by the early female-fronted punk bands of the 70s & 80s, or do you take your inspiration from a variety of sources?
I will always remember the first time I saw a picture of Beki Bondage from Vice Squad. She embodied a kind of female strength and energy, and I found her voice and her whole image to be so empowering. I soon plastered my locker and my bedroom walls with her image, along with Wendy O. Williams of the Plasmatics and Joan Jett. I was strongly inspired by these strong female characters because they paved the way for women to express themselves through rebellion music. They also smashed the standard objectification of women in the media and took control of their own sexualities. I think that they likely had to break through many walls and prejudices in their career, and I admire their strength. In times of strife, I still think of them and imagine them as friends and sisters. I actually met Beki Bondage last year at the Rebellion Festival in Blackpool, and I felt tears running down my cheeks.
It is very difficult today to get your music heard and quality does not always come through because of the amount of music out there, how did you manage to get yourself known and what obstacles did you need to overcome on the way?
It is true that there has been an enormous explosion of music in the last few years. Given that people can now create high quality recordings for low cost, and it’s possible to learn to play guitar from YouTube, it’s no wonder that talent has exploded and music has proliferated this decade. The key behind getting yourself heard is perseverance and having a strong objective. I always knew exactly the direction I wanted to go – I wrote lists of “mini goals” such as creating my first EP and creating a MySpace site, to “major goals” such as signing with Randale Records and getting onto MAD Tourbooking. I followed through on each of my small objectives and it led me to my bigger ones. Despite all the criticism and backlash that I have received as a result of me playing acoustic music as a female in a very male-dominated subculture, I always continued. The secret to success is knowing when and how to listen to constructive criticism, and to use this to build your art. The rest is just noise. I believe that the biggest determining factor in getting what you want is pure grit.
Play: Jenny Woo – Hated and Proud
You started out in Canada what but then moved to Russia, how did this come about and how do the scenes compare in these countries and Europe?
I actually got transferred with my work from Ottawa to Moscow in 2012, which came as a big surprise, and then from Moscow to Rome in 2014. To be honest, I wasn’t completely sure about the move to begin with as I had heard that the Russian skinhead scene is quite dangerous. However, my years in Moscow were some of the best in my life. I started my own band and we toured all through the former USSR. The people in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Ukraine, Russia – they have so much passion and power in them. Of course, in many small towns there are no sound engineers and the festivals are not as well organized as in Germany, but nothing compares to the appreciation of the people. I remember I played once in Yakutia, North East Siberia, in July 2014. I had no idea what to expect going all those thousands of kilometers north… but what I found was a whole crew of people in the middle of a frozen desert who knew all my songs, and who made the craziest mosh pit I have ever seen in my life.
Your songs always come over as powerful and passionate, how would you want your songs to be described? Does there always need to be a strong message to make a really good song in your opinion?
A lot of modern pop music is based on banal universal messages such as “love” and “pain.” The music companies have to create general songs like this because they appeal to the lowest common denominators in the public. The music that has touched me the most however has struck a personal chord in my life, my perspective, and my struggle. I believe that all really good songs are a gateway to the truth, and therefore they have to contain strong messages. I would say that all of my songs have been written about the events of my life and my reactions/attitude towards them. One of the major themes of my music is “strength” because it is a concept and an ideal that I’ve been working on my whole life. There are a million different ways to be strong and my character has been defined by my adversity. We all suffer hard times, and in those times we need to find the strength inside of us that often we never knew we had.
What are the difficulties in keeping a band together and constantly getting out there and playing, would you recommend it to any young female musicians out there or would you say it takes a certain type of character to do this week in week out and has little rewards?
I would recommend playing in a band to anyone who has a passion for music and is willing to make financial and time sacrifices for this love. Playing in bands can be difficult because of personality clashes and compromises, which are always eventual realities when you work closely with people on a project of passion. I work a full time job and still play around 40-50 shows per year, so it is difficult to time-manage and I spend almost all of my evenings and weekends working on the project and traveling. It does take a certain character to deal with the stress and fatigue of constant touring, however if you love it then it is a labour of love.
Bands touring regularly throughout the world often come up against some very unusual situations, have you experienced anything similar with all the countries you have visited?
Too many to count! I’ve had a Molotov cocktail thrown on stage while my band was playing in Russia, I had a girl stabbed on my merchandise table in Colombia, I’ve slept next to a rotting dead cat in a squat in London, I’ve been bathed by an Indonesian boy’s mother in a rice field (she was surprised to find out my tattoos did not wash off with soap and water), I’ve been paid for a show with a puppy, and the list goes on. Travel and touring means adventure, and you can never be prepared for everything because the unpredictable is predictable. I think that the X factor is why we all do it, because otherwise life would be boring.
Was the idea of getting the Birds Of Prey together to give you a vehicle to explore and play other types of music, how did you find that?
I loved playing in Birds of Prey because I love punk rock and I also love the use of melody and harmony. It was refreshing to play in a punk band because I didn’t feel limited by the themes and content of the skinhead movement. I am now starting a new project based on glam rock and power pop called “Rebels Rule” and I find it very liberating to write in a new genre. All of these thoughts and feelings that I felt would not fit into my own project came out into this side project, and I managed to write 21 songs in only 2 months.
Play: Birds of Prey – Heroes of the Night
The Oi! Scene is very much male dominated with Bands and audiences, yourself and a few others have made positive changes to this recently. Do you experience negativity from being a female in the genre, is it something that’s welcomed or is it all down to the quality of music no matter who is on stage?
I agree with you that the oi! scene is very much male dominated. I’ve definitely had a few negative experiences related to sexism. For example, the music of female musicians is often reduced down to what they look like and their sex appeal. Many of the comments on my Youtube channel are just about whether I’m “hot or not” and a lot of people at shows make a comment on my appearance rather than my performance. I even had a tour manager in Argentina tell me that I should watch my weight because “people want to see pretty girls on stage.” I don’t think that men in bands receive this same treatment, which is effectively the objectification of female performers. The sad thing is that this double standard is so normalized that often we don’t see it for what it is, which is just plain sexism. I work extremely hard on my music and my creative energy, and I would rather that be commented and critiqued than my appearance. Additionally, I’ve played in a lot of bands where members or promoters felt the need to “mansplain” to me exactly how to tune a guitar, load in equipment, sign a GEMA contract… despite the fact that I’ve been playing guitar and touring for over 15 years. It’s frustrating, but the best way to change it is to unapologetically be oneself and to carry forward. I have definitely had hard moments with it, but I never let it block me from getting to where I want to go.
What has The Jenny Woo Oi! Project got planned for 2018, any new tour dates/releases?
It’s a very exciting year for me as it’s 10 years since the first release and I’m releasing my 5th full-length album this year. The album is called “Tear Down Walls” and the theme is pushing limitations and destroying old structures to build up something new. It’s a double LP with one vinyl being full electric songs (12 songs) and one vinyl being acoustic songs (12 songs). I’m also releasing a documentary/movie about the project which will be up on YouTube in May, and the full-length DVD will be included in the album which will be released in October 2018. I’m touring for the first time Iceland, Romania, Israel, Japan, South Korea, and Thailand which should be very exciting. My band “The Holy Flame” also has quite a few festival shows in Europe lined up for this summer.
What favourite song do you wish was your own and you had written yourself?
I wish that I had written “Ruby Soho” by Rancid for two reasons – 1) because it is a great song, and 2) because it is responsible for getting me into punk rock. I first heard it on the radio in the 1990s when I was growing up, and it was my first exposure to a genre that would change my life. If I could write a song that could expose someone to a new passion, a new world, a new spirit… well, that would be achieving the greatest purpose in life, no?
Play: Trailer for the documentary -Tear Down Walls