Videos by American Songwriter
“Women are our worst enemies and our best friends,” Adriel Denae (Cory Chisel & The Wandering Sons) tells me. It’s sort of how we start our conversation — my first of three with the ladies of rock — and I have to agree, her insight into the female role in the music world couldn’t be more dead-on.
For some, being the only girl in a band full of guys sounds like a woman’s worst nightmare. For others, it sounds like the fastest way to a feature film about your life. Or at least a reality television show. For Adriel Denae (Cory Chisel and The Wandering Sons), Charity Thielen (The Head and the Heart), and Tiffany Lamson (Givers), this role seems to fall somewhere in the midst of this love-hate continuum.
I got the chance to chat with each of these blonde bombshells on three separate occasions, although I wished we could have all had an awesome sleepover with bad movies and rapid-fire questioning between gin and tonics. These women are vastly unique, but with one beautiful similarity: they are talented musicians and songwriters, and they somehow manage to carry out their talents amongst a bunch of boys. Their stories overlap in so many interesting ways, but each girl has a distinctive tale to tell.
(Corey Chisel and the Wandering Sons)
Adriel met Cory Chisel at a memorial service for a mutual friend that had passed away, and after being mesmerized by the pseudo-spiritual effect of Chisel’s music, she was later invited to sing with the band and had to “learn all their songs on piano, in like, a week.” Even without any formal training, she was up to the task—and this balance and chemistry she brought to the group led to quite the songwriting partnership, where Cory takes the lead and Adriel helps complete the picture.
“I think the way Cory and I work creatively is—he trusts my ears and my reactions to things; he’s looking for my goose bump response…. [And] you’re given this little space to create something in, and it’s a story that someone else is telling, and your job is to sort of…bring a color to the palette that completes the picture. I love it, I love the role that I play, but it’s one that you’re not really expressing your complete thoughts, you’re helping to paint the picture of someone else’s”
If you haven’t listened to Adriel’s contribution to the color palette, you’re missing out on an undeniable chemistry and a true knack for vocal harmonies. Not only can you hear this on the album, but she’s also slowly but surely beginning work on a solo album -— a space where she will be able to paint her own picture completely.
(The Head and the Heart)
Similar to Adriel’s invitation to work with Cory, Charity Thielen was asked to join The Head and The Heart after they were already a band. She told me about “the beautiful challenge” of being the only female in the group, and the art of songwriting and joining a band that’s already been writing together for a bit.
“I had been writing songs since I was 16. I was kind of invited in, when there’s already this wave, there’s already this boat in motion and I didn’t want to re-steer its course”
Still, this motion didn’t prevent her from bringing an immense amount of talent to the group, and it certainly didn’t stop her from contributing to the songwriting. And while she may wish she had written any (unpronounceable) song by Sigur Ros or Dylan’s “Shelter From The Storm,” she took part in a lot of the arrangement of the songs on the album and expresses the vulnerability of writing.
“Songwriting is a very vulnerable thing. You’re kind of putting something on the chopping block. And you have to be very strong in order to do that.”
The strength of the single female in a group of males is unmatchable—even though lots of times, being the only girl can be a complete non-issue. When you spend so much time with the same group of boys, all of the girls voiced the notion that these people essentially become like family—or close enough. Tiffany Lamson, vocalist (percussionist, ukeleleist, etc.) for Givers, talks about how this position is a blur sometimes.
“I think I’ve had more meals with them than my actual family. The gender role essentially dies. But there’s always those moments where you’re like’ oh I’m girl’… It’s a privilege; I have the role of the feminine qualities of the band. And that includes whatever your momma instincts are, and holding the emotion of the band. The thing about being in this group is that everybody has a really nice masculine and feminine balance.”
Tiffany has been fine tuning this balance for a while (she’s known most of the guys for years and years) — which was hilariously obvious from listening to her dynamic with Taylor (vocals, guitar) over the phone -– whereas Charity and Adriel have gotten to know their band mates mostly whilst making music together. With all these different dynamics, it’s easy to end up with a lot of different songwriting styles, processes, and ultimately, music. For each group, the songwriting process looks different, but, ultimately, it seems that there’s one common thread: sometimes, the best songs just happen. I talked to each of the girls (and you too, Taylor) about some of their favorites that have come from these groups. Adriel tells me about a time she was cleaning up around their manager’s house when she heard Cory on guitar downstairs, and thought he was playing a Bob Dylan song over and over and over and over again.
“’Never Meant to Love You’ has been one of my favorites for a while, and the birth of that song was kind of a mysterious and kind of a beautiful thing.’…The song went on for like seven minutes, and I realized he was repeating songs in a strange way… I just started writing everything that came out of his mouth… [At first] It was like 17 verses long…”
Listening to the new album, it’s clear that “Never meant to love you” is a stand out track—it’s haunting and eerily relatable.
This ability to relate is exactly what Charity tells me about is so significant in songwriting for her with the guys in The Head and the Heart. She tells me about the creation of “Rivers and Roads” — a track that closes a lot of their live performances and is oftentimes absolutely mesmerizing.
“I brought back this old song, and then he [Josiah] was droning on a couple of chords, and this melody just came to us—like, oh my gosh, — had it been the full band, I would have probably been too timid at that time… it was a lot more of a creative comfort —-just to be with those two guys… and the melody just came, and the lyrics about this person that I had known that I was so close with, but I could never get to that person, this constant obstruction, rivers and roads, incessant roads, and I’ll never get to you? I may never get to you… really?”
It’s easy to hear the honesty and the emotion in Charity’s voice — which is exactly what makes “Rivers and Roads” such a powerful song. There’s a beautiful rawness to the song, and it’s this visceral emotional connectivity that the song has truly hit spot-on:
“Along with the sonic medium, writing a song that is emotionally relatable to people—that is ultimately what makes a great song — the other things will create an even better song. But you need to start with that relatability… the more relatable, that’s what attracts people to them…”
As music lovers, we all want something that’s relatable. Something we can connect with, something we can feel, something we can make sense of. Yet sometimes, it’s the moments that hardly make any sense that lead to the most creativity and the songs that make, strangely enough, the most sense.
As I transition to a landline conversation in South Louisiana and Taylor’s contact drops out of his eye mid conversation, Tiffany giggles and shares with me a little bit about Givers’ songwriting.
“It’s based a large part on improvising in the moment from each other—trying to catch one special moment… well each song has its own formula—we don’t ever sit down and say okay we’re going to write a song.”
This freedom has allowed Givers to capture their charming and lighthearted dynamic on stage and in song—even Taylor and Tiffany seem to agree on their favorite song on the album and the song they’d most like played at their (dual) funeral.
“I really enjoy playing ‘In My Eyes; —I think it’s one of the most interesting tracks on the record, personally,” Tiffany tells me, to which Taylor echoes, “I think yeah, ‘In My Eyes’–-I like ‘Atlantic’ too because Tiff sings it and she sings so pretty.”
They then joke about how Taylor would like “We Are The Champions” played at his funeral, and Tiff would have to follow en suite and be a part of the day as well.
As these conversations intersect and overlap, I find it remarkable that three beautiful talents from every corner of the country — Illinois, Washington, and Louisiana — have found themselves living such different yet convergent lives. As I speak with Adriel, she chats with me about how much of a sweetheart Charity is, how she loves Katie from Blind Pilot, and how much she enjoys it when she gets to tour with a band that has another girl in it (Be ready: Givers, Lumineers, The Low Anthem, etc!) Tiffany and Taylor joke around, revealing their favorite Beatles songs to me, and I recognize that all the conversations have ended with the same realization: the ladies in the music world are few and far between, but they are a force to be reckoned with. Because simply among these three women, there is an enormous amount of talent, drive, and individuality.
And it seems that’s the beauty of these groups of musicians, and these fine ladies in particular. Without them, these bands are nothing more than incomplete.