I sat down (virtually) with Elise Solberg, classical-turned-pop extraordinaire and founder of Turn Up Her Mic, a brand new organization that spotlights women in the music industry doing behind-the-scenes work. Elise has a degree in classical piano performance from the Thornton School of Music at USC and has performed with multiple pop bands, including GRAMMY® winners Chloe x Halle.
Turn Up Her Mic recently hosted its premiere virtual panel on women in the music industry, which can be viewed here.
Part two of this series was streamed live via Zoom on Tuesday August 18th at 3pm PST. If you missed it, tune in for the replay here.
Tell me a little bit about your musical background, Elise.
I grew up as a classical musician, and it was a long journey doing that, because I started when I was four. And then I ventured off into college, and I majored in classical performance. And I was watching the popular music showcase at USC. They have a pop music program, and I was curious and I checked it out, and I was like, “Ah, this is so cool!” Because my whole life I had been playing piano by myself, and it gets kind of lonely. And when I was watching the students play, I was so inspired. I was like, “I really want to be part of something like this.” So I asked the head of the program, Patrice Rushen, if I could be in it, and she said they had room for one more keyboardist, so I joined. It was really inspiring because there were strong female instrumentalists in that class—bass players, keyboard, guitar players and drummers—that were really good, and I was like “Dang, okay!” I was so glad that there were women around me, and I was particularly inspired because the program was run by a woman. I got to take a few lessons with Patrice, and she said, “You know, this is something you can do.”
What led you to found Turn Up Her Mic?
When I got into the more professional musical settings, it became very clear that there weren’t many of us at all. I was still living in that world of not knowing what it was like, because my first gig was with Chloe x Halle, and they have a female band. But as I kept playing with different artists, I was like, “Oh, wait. I’m the only girl in the room.” And oftentimes there would be this energy of having to prove myself a little more than the men would have to. Men aren’t used to seeing women play, and so there’s this attitude of “Oh, we have to check her out first.” But if it’s a guy auditioning, they say, “Oh it’s gonna be fine,” even if he ends up not playing that well. I would show up to auditions for artists where I would be the only female. There was this one artist that I was auditioning for, and I was the only woman there out of 50 people. But there was one woman there, and I was like, “Wait wait wait! Is she a female musician?” But she was doing the admin stuff. I was really inspired to start this organization because I was seeing in the real world that there really aren’t that many female musicians. There are a lot more good female musicians out there now, but percentage-wise it’s still very low. I was at a jam session once, and my friend was playing—she’s the bass player for Chloe x Halle—and she was taking a solo, and people were like, “Oh my God, who is she?” And I want to get to the point where people don’t say “Oh my God, it’s a female musician!” So that’s why I started [Turn Up Her Mic], because I wanted to put female musicians at the forefront. As it is right now, there aren’t many resources that show what we do. There’s a lot of articles about songwriters and producers—like Nija Charles, Diane Warren, all these wonderful women songwriters, they’re getting good press, and that’s great, but sometimes I wonder about musicians that also make things happen behind the scenes for artists as well. I feel their stories are just as important. Sharing the struggles that we have to go through. You never know sometimes if you just put stuff out there. If it can make a difference in someone’s life, like a young woman who’s looking to get into this world and learning to play, or a man who’s been in the industry for years and goes, “Oh I’ve never thought of that before,” then that’s good.
If you could speak to a young woman looking to get into the music industry in one of these behind-the-scenes roles, what would you say to her?
Just the fact that there’s these musicians on this panel just playing and backing artists and that’s literally it—I think that’s a good message in and of itself. But sometimes it’s just really really nice to see yourself in somebody else. That’s the other aim of Turn Up Her Mic—not only giving musicians more humanity and a voice, but also inspiring younger musicians who don’t perhaps have a mentor. Because I know sometimes coming by a mentor or somebody you can look up to is hard, especially if there aren’t many female musicians. And just seeing them up there and playing I think makes such a huge difference.
Is there a particularly vivid memory you have of not being taken seriously in your profession?
There was an instance where we were in rehearsal and there was a new music director, telling us how we were going to do the intro and outro—this was with a band that I was playing with. It was so strange because he did not really question the guys—I was the only girl in the room. He wanted us to play this arrangement, and it was this other style that we hadn’t played together before. And so we were listening to it and he was going around and testing all of us to see if we could play it, and he said, “Well, I don’t think you can play it because you have a classical background,” and I was like, “Excuse me?” I thought it was just because I was a woman. If I could get into this band that plays R&B music, then why couldn’t I play this particular arrangement, which is also R&B? It was just a very weird situation, and then I proved him wrong. I could play it. I was disappointed that no one stuck up for me in that situation. The person who DID stick up for me—the coordinator of the band—she was another woman! And I was like, “Why am I surprised that this woman is the only one sticking up for me.”
What do you envision for Turn Up Her Mic in your wildest dreams?
I envision it to be something that not just women but men recognize as a platform showcasing women who aren’t afraid to speak out about their experiences. I want that to transfer over to young women who want to get into this industry. In terms of expanding, I want there to be a mentorship program where women can mentor younger musicians. Like I said earlier, sometimes it’s hard to find a female mentor. I just got lucky, especially to have somebody like Patrice Rushen, who’s been in music for such a long time. But I want there to be a program where young women can be paired up with a mentor, learn about the industry, learn how to go about auditions, learn how to respond to situations that can occur. Maybe they’re a beginner at their instrument and need some encouragement. Or maybe they’re close to a professional/collegiate level. I’m also thinking of starting this series where musicians lead a masterclass in recording at home. I think that might be helpful especially now when you can’t really do recording sessions. Just having resources like that—there’s actually a couple women that are really big on Instagram whom a lot of people follow to see their content. Maybe having a master class on that—“here’s how to get a big following and create good content”—because that’s been very powerful. A lot of musicians have gotten gigs just by people checking out their Instagram.
I’m from the opera world, and even though there are many roles for women in opera, women almost always die or are killed at the end of the show. We need to change the stories we tell about women in classical music in order to create more equity in the field. Do you feel the one-dimensional stories being told about women (mostly by men) in pop music are contributing toward the way women are seen in the industry itself?
That’s a really great question. I think the big topic about women in pop music is that everything is sexualized. As a feminist, you want women to have a choice. If they want to express their sexuality, that’s fair. The way that men—especially in rap—depict women, being really disrespectful, I wish that would change. Talking about women’s bodies disrespectfully often plays a part in women being objectified. We have leeway as a general public to say “That’s too much.” I think we need to support women that write about things that come from them. For men to project that onto women who don’t have a say in it—that’s not fair. Beyoncé, for instance, in her self-titled project, wanted to reclaim herself after giving birth, which came with her sexuality. A lot of the comments being made were that she was being a terrible role model. But what Pharrell said was “You set a whole bunch of women free. You said it was okay for them to feel good about themselves and their bodies.” Nicki Minaj and Cardi B—they brag about themselves in their songs. But whenever a female artist brags about herself, people say, “It’s too much. She’s stuck-up.” Whatever we write about, men will always say, that’s too much. So we have to keep supporting women songwriters who write content that provokes the public’s consciousness. Like Nicki Minaj says, “I’m a bad bitch.”
Turn Up Her Mic will host part two of its virtual panel series on women in the music industry live via Zoom on Tuesday August 18th at 3pm PST. Replay here
The meeting ID to join the panel on Zoom is 899 7516 9783. Password: 933666
You can learn more about Elise through her website, elisesolberg.com, and follow her on Instagram @eliseyuka
Follow Turn Up Her Mic on Instagram @turnuphermic or on Slack @ turnuphermic.slack.com
Written by Erica Furgiuele :
Erica Furgiuele is a Boston-based composer, playwright, lyricist, and singer. She has performed off-Broadway and on tiny stages in mountain towns of Vermont, always for the love of the game and bringing stories to the people who need them most. Her work has been published by New World Theater and performed all across the interwebs. She has a B.A. in Theater/Film from Middlebury College. Twitter :@EricaFurgiuele
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