Calgaryqueerhistory.ca had the good fortune to interview pioneering lesbian singer/songwriter Cris Williamson this week. She will be performing in Calgary, June 8th at the Scarboro United Church (concert info: here). The concert will also be a launch of Cris’ 31st album, Pray Tell: Songs of the Soul: 24 original songs released in a 2-CD set.
“I love coming to Calgary,” Cris says, “I grew up in Wyoming and went to school in Denver, so I am a prairie kid ultimately and feel so comfortable at the foot of the Rockies.”
Cris was one of the instigators of the Women’s Music movement which was a major touchstone for lesbian feminist culture in the 70s. She inspired the creation of Olivia Records, a recording collective of lesbian women who worked outside the music industry. Olivia Records was a social marketing machine before the internet and recruited women across the continent to function as its distribution network and concert production team.
“Young women now, especially in music, can run right down that road we made, as if that road has been there forever, but we women stood shoulder to shoulder to make that road, and we did it for the next generations – but some of them have no idea that that road had to be made,” Cris remarks.
In 1975, Olivia Records released Cris’ The Changer and the Changed, which became one of the best selling independent releases of all time.
Cris reflects, “the music industry eventually gave us a grudging respect. We sold records at shows, they didn’t – they sold them in stores; but we couldn’t get into stores! Eventually we created women’s bookstores and music stores and entirely made a new game. You know, I would go to music companies and ask about having more women recording artists and they would reply that they already had one woman in their roster of 40 or so artists – they did not notice the disparity. What we were doing was absolutely revolutionary.”
The success of The Changer and the Changed thrust Cris into the spotlight, and she became something of a lesbian icon. Cris explains, “it was kind of a double-edged sword, because you had a lot of responsibility. Women would raise you to iconic stature yet at the same time [the movement] did not want icons, they wanted equality, and they would try to make sure you were not too high on your horse. So there was a lot of criticism as well as applause and joy – but mostly joy.”
Cris recalls, “by word of mouth we were able to fill halls of 1000 – 2000 women who were hungry – really starving – for something that spoke to their lives. I was amazed. Women really wanted my work: I was like some dusty jewel at the side of the road that nobody had been interested in before, and then these women, these lesbians, took a huge, fierce interest in my work – I am really grateful.”
Women’s music was an important aspect of the construction of Lesbian Nation, a conscious movement to create safe spaces for women, and women-only spaces and institutions. “I thought women-only concerts were the thing to do for a while, but I also thought that the eventual goal should be to become part of the world. And I think it is closer to that now. But out of that movement came women’s bookstores, women’s clinics, women’s helplines, rape crisis centres – many, many things came out of that focus on ourselves,” Cris explains.
Cris concludes, “over the years, some women have come up to me and said ‘your music saved my life,’ or ‘I thought I was the only one who felt these things’ – which is so powerful. But music, because of its shape is a kind of liquid, its portable and can be shared – I feel music raises us up.” [KA]