Playing Music: Paths Two Women Took After Their (Phenomenal) Teenage Band Fair Verona

I stumbled upon the awesome band Fair Verona in my early 20s. I was playing music myself, starting to run a small DIY record label Exotic Fever, and attending festivals such as MacRock, the Mid-Atlantic College Radio Conference. This awesome band played the fest, and I heard rave reviews but missed it. I was fascinated; I heard they were teenagers and that they shredded. Later, I got to meet Fair Verona’s Shawna Potter, now of War on Women, then part of the awesome Baltimore band Avec. She and I had a Bikini Kill cover band for a while even called Rah! Rah! Replica. Forget Cassettes came to town, which was Beth Cameron of Fair Verona’s band at the time, and they blew me away. 

I thought about all the journalism dedicated to the artistic trajectories men in punk bands take, and I realized I was yearning to read a piece about the paths these two women took musically. Like so many things, I realized if I was going to get to read it, I would probably have to write it myself. So here it is. 

K: Thank you both so much for agreeing to do this interview. You are both incredibly talented, prolific, hard working musicians. I was blown away when I eventually got to hear the recordings of your first band Fair Verona, which you wrote as teenagers, yes? Could you start by talking about the history of that first band and how you met?

B: I feel like we met through my sister, Catie, in high school? I have a faint memory of Shawna approaching me in the hallway to say she heard I played music. I must of been 16/17? Shawna was 14/15? We just started bringing each other songs and writing together and started playing shows. The band went through a few different line-up changes before it settled on me, Shawna, Doni, Leah. That’s when things got serious.

S: A girl we went to school with, Jordan, just walked up to me in the hallway one day and said “You play guitar? Wanna be in my band?” I was so eager to have a band. This is 9th grade, mind you. So I said “yes!”, and then at that point the band was me and her… and she only played violin. So after getting together a couple times with just us, we realized we needed other members. Asking other women was a given, it didn’t even cross my mind to ask any men. We only asked men to play drums because we didn’t know any women that did. I do also have vivid memories of those early times, having a “songwriting sleepover” at Beth’s house, just writing and writing and laughing and barely sleeping. I remember Beth liked to listen to music to fall asleep, and I wasn’t used to that (I’m still not! I have an effin noise machine that I bring on tour bc I’m such a light sleeper!) and this one Hum record was on repeat, and I kept waking up at the same spot on the record…like 5 times in one night, while we were all piled in Beth’s bed.

K: What were some of those first Fair Verona shows like? First tours and recordings? How did people respond to you all?

S: Yikes. Lots of flat notes, at least on my end! I remember a lot of people just standing there and staring at us. We weren’t great, but we were passionate and had potential, for sure, so I bet people were happy to see women doing something, even if we were doing it poorly in those early days. We were really just learning as we went, though, no different than any other band, except more people probably felt comfortable giving us their opinions or butting in because we were girls, and as the tough snarky girls we were, we were less likely to listen to them.

B: I would absolutely differ about us not being a great band. We were so young and yes, we weren’t seasoned musicians, but we rehearsed CONSTANTLY and were always writing and rearranging material. You can’t recreate that kind of songwriting or playing. We were novices, but there was something so beautiful about that. We soaked up everything. Back in those days, I was obsessed with playing guitar. I wanted to be known as being a great guitar player so I practiced all the time. Our peers were not used to seeing young women playing rock music. It just wasn’t something you came across very often. We had a lot to prove and sometimes that reared its head in ugly ways. And on top of learning to be performers we were also learning who we were as individuals. So I think sometimes the pendulum swung a little too far in one direction. And yes, I agree with Shawna about the range of opinions we received from people (especially men). I can’t tell you the amount of shit that produced. I don’t know. I feel like if you listened to FV now, you’d be like ‘What the hell is happening’ but in a nothing-sounds-like-this way.

K: I was blown away the first time I heard Fair Verona, personally. I wish I had gotten to see you play live, but I remember you all being around and playing a MacRock I was at back in the day. How did the band end up parting ways, and then what came next for each of you?

S: Oof, big question. We were going through a small legal battle with our record label and it was draining us. At some point we realized we had no idea what we actually signed in our record contract and, according to our pro bono entertainment lawyer, it was “overreaching”. My mom was really concerned that if we stayed in that contract, we’d have a TLC situation on our hands (she had just wanted VH1’s behind the music with them) – so in effect, any success we had wouldn’t “matter” because we’d be broke. I had just gotten our little heart logo tattooed on me, so … it was a matter of time before we broke up, ha ha! We wanted to renegotiate the contract, but they had no interest in that and frankly were pissed at us for considering it. We were at an impasse. Couldn’t record any new music without them owning it. I think it was Beth that actually said “Let’s not do this,” in effect letting the band break up. Next thing I did was write and play solo as Spotter, which was a big deal. I had only ever really been in our band. Eventually I played a show with a band on tour called Sand Which Is and I really liked their music and even heard guitar parts that weren’t there, so I asked if they’d ever consider adding a second guitar player to their band. They confessed they’d already been talking about doing it, and they knew of Fair Verona (and saw us at MacRock, coincidentally), so they already knew they liked me and my style, so I said “Cool, where do you live?” and I’ve been in Baltimore ever since. Since June 1st, 2002.

B: Shawna nailed it with what was happening with our record label. We were in a development deal (remember those?) with a small indie that was shopping us around to majors. Once we had some interest from a few, we got a lawyer and started looking at our contract. Basically, it was a shit deal we signed. We briefly thought about changing the name of the band and continuing on, but that seemed counterproductive so we just decided to break up. Things had gotten pretty tense between us anyway and I don’t think we were necessarily mature enough to navigate that and communicate well. Things also got pretty ugly between us and our label. The whole situation was really sad and left me with a very poor opinion of the industry. I took some time off from music and went back to school and started working a women’s shelter. I wasn’t sure I’d ever play again, but I slowly started writing and playing some solo shows. I decided I wanted to try some of my songs with a drummer and asked Doni (fv drummer) if he wanted to come over and try some songs out. Well, that’s how forget cassettes happened. On a side note, I just want to say that the Spotter stuff Shawna was doing was incredible and I still cover one of her songs, from time to time.

K: Part of why I was excited to do this interview is because I have loved so many of the bands you have done, both together and apart, and I have been really inspired by your ambition and drive. Often, I’ve read interviews with cis men who play music and their work has been contextualized in a trajectory of everything they have done up until that point. I have felt that sometimes when women are asked to talk about the music they make, this background isn’t paid attention to with the same level of regard and detail. How did the music you all made when you were younger inform what you are doing now? Can you also share some of the steps between that time and today, so that readers can get a sense of the arc?

B: I just got really hungry to be taken seriously. I thought I could accomplish that with volume and being well versed in my instrument. I just wanted to rock. I wanted to be better than the ‘she’s good for a girl’ label. I don’t know. I wrote a whole huge paragraph then erased it. It seems so futile and self-indulgent to talk about my trajectory.

S: I think wanting to be taken seriously is a big theme for me as well, and through different musical projects and age and experiences, it has manifested in different ways. So early on with Fair Verona, I had that very riot grrrl idea of “I don’t have to be a Van Halen to rock”, so knowing how to play scales or read music, or even solo, was not a priority. It was musical masturbation and I had no interest in it. Well, eventually your limits will limit you, right, so when I joined AVEC in Baltimore (with three talented people who were in band in school and have degrees in music) I began to realize I was the weak link as far as playing ability, and I wasn’t even bad! But I needed to step it up and stretch my writing style some more. We got weird with our songs, you know? It was great. After doing that for a while and feeling like my guitar was the thing that proved to everyone I was worth taking seriously, I started to have fun just singing in a Bikini Kill cover band called Rah! Rah! Replica (with Katy Otto on drums, woot woot). It was the first time I shed the guitar, and I was having a blast, and with other women in the band I didn’t feel that same pressure to represent an entire gender while on stage. After that little experiment, my longtime bandmate Brooks said “We should do this, but for real,” which might be the first time I even considered being a front person who didn’t play guitar. I was torn because I really enjoyed it, the physical freedom, but I also had to come to grips with the idea that I can still be taken seriously without an instrument, that it’s not my fault that people say “just the singer”, that I can have an impact – that I can command attention and be a good front person and that that is a worthy skill on its own. It feels complete, for me. Starting by rejecting the traditional role that guitar plays, then working on getting better at it by throwing myself into it, then making a conscious choice to just put it down and be ok with that. And frankly, though it’s nice to be good at stuff, I don’t even miss it.

K: Another reason I wanted to do this interview is that I feel like both of you have such extensive and interesting musical arcs to follow, yet I hadn’t seen this fully addressed in interviews I read with you both. It’s possible I missed them, but I have often felt as if questions of this nature, about an artist’s body of work, are more frequently directed to men than women. Can you talk a little about how you feel gender/sexism/patriarchy has impacted the ways in which people have asked you questions, whether in formal interviews or just casually, about your music?

S: Sure, yeah. Well, with the best intentions I certainly still get questions like “what’s it like to be a woman in a boy’s club?” and “tell me all about your everyday sexism”, which, if I’m in the right mood, can be a welcome invitation to vent, but if not, it can feel like a test. Like if I don’t come up with a good answer, then maybe I risk someone not believing in feminism or something. But that’s in my worst moments, I know that any interview has the capacity to explain or educate or validate, so it’s always important. There’s only one interview I can think of where the questions were so off-putting that I got angry while answering them, but it was an email exchange so my version of saying “fuck this” was coming up with what I thought to be good answers. When I read it back later, I thought I just sounded like a badass, which was not my intent, I was just mad at the dude for asking dumb questions.

But really, the everyday sexism women face, we experience it too, it’s just music related. So people assume our co-ed band is all dating, or they are really curious about who writes the songs (to validate who they already think is writing the songs), or they give us career advice! Oh man, that is the best. The assumption that we care about their opinion on our band is fantastic, because I have no problem asking for advice, or even accepting it when it makes sense to give, but most dudes advice to us is based on the very false idea that the things we have done up to this point are not deliberate choices on our end, but instead just us trying to do something else and failing.

B: I remember when I started my first band, I guess I was 15, and boys being so intimidated. And you know, intimidating boys at that age doesn’t feel empowering. It feels extremely alienating. They just assume you are a certain type of girl; man-hating, a lesbian, or both. I carried that feeling with me for a very long time. I remember starting to have serious relationships and playing my recordings for boyfriends. Sigh. Most of the time they had no idea what to think. They were like, ‘why are you trying to sound like a man?’ If you weren’t singing in falsetto, your guitar totally washed out, and writing lyrics about fucking being pretty, then it was offensive to them. Feminist was a very dirty word. Not to say it was always like that. I did have a couple of extremely positive and supportive boyfriends when I was young. BUT – most of the time it was just a serious power struggle. I think that’s how I could define the misogyny in my experience – a constant power struggle. It’s exhausting trying to prove yourself all the time. I think about that little 13 year old locked in her bedroom, teaching herself guitar. Having the mindset that she’s found that thing that makes her feel worthy and purposeful. Then, she musters up the bravery to come out of her bedroom, feeling all powerful and shit and BAM! She gets hits with the reality that basically every man she meets from here on out is itching to claim her fierce womanhood for themselves. I know, I know. It sounds like I’m grossly exaggerating. I just can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a man convince me that my idea was actually theirs. And that’s how your spirit breaks. Haha. This is why I think it’s really important for women to play music with other women. I’m not saying exclusively. Just at some point, some day. I think it’s vital.

K: What is coming up next for both of you musically?

B: The first Forget Cassettes album, Instruments of Action, just got a vinyl reissue release through YK Records this month. I play guitar in a band called Ponychase and playing some shows this summer in support of a release. I’m also recording and starting to play out with my new band, Black Bra.

S: War On Women just released our second full length album, “Capture the Flag” on Bridge Nine Records. After bringing bystander intervention education to Vans Warped Tour last summer, we’re excited to tour on our own this year and create those safer spaces for ourselves. I’ve been writing a book about how people can create their own safer spaces, and the condensed version will be released this summer on AK Press. I hope to add more speaking engagements and workshops to my schedule around these topics. WOW also wrote a companion workbook to the new record to make it easier for professors to teach our lyrics and the topics we cover in their classrooms. If we’re gonna win this war, we gotta recruit!

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.


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