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She Enjoys Being A Girl

An Interview with Phranc


BY NOELLE HANRAHAN

isually daring and unlike any performer you have ever witnessed, Phranc, a selfdescribed Jewish lesbian folk singer, has carved out an image that inclutles a George Jones haircut straight from the 1950s, with blue jeans and white T -shirt, all via the underground L.A. punk scene. A topical singer, she covers the Pope, fascism, homophobia, sports and individuality. She has the folksy political spirit of Tom Paxton, yet her songwriting has a much harder edge. In 1985, Phranc released her debut recording, "Folksinger," on Rhino Records. In late 1989, she became the first open lesbian on a major record label with the release of her second LP, "I Enjoy Being a Girl," on Island Records. The San Francisco Bay Times had the opportunity to interview her last month before her show at Slims. (SF Bay Times) How did you manage to be picked up by a major record label? (Phranc) My first album came out in 1985. I made it myselffor $1,500 with money I saved from teaching swimming. Then, after a long periOtl uf bci:;;g very frustrated waiting for somebody to make my next record, I went into the studio and recorded the album, completely. I had the liner notes and I had the cover. I had the entire concept; it was the whole package that I was selling. A couple of major labels were interested. When Island said, "Let's do it," I did not call my lawyer for a couple of days, because I didn't believe it had really happened. I'd had so many things fall through for years. Why is it important for you to have a personal relationship with the record company? The record business is a snarly business. There are very few labels that really care about the work and the artist. Mostly they sign a lot of people in the hopes they're going to make a lot of money. Island has always been a label that really treasures the artist. If you look at their roster, most of their artists have a lot of integrity and put out quality work, but aren't necessarily top ten zillion dollar sellers. There's a lot of soul at that label. At Island I feel that they love me just the way I am. At least so far. That's the most important thing. And it's a special kind of relationship. I personally know everybody who works on every part of my record. Island is not a huge building with a lot of floors with a president up on the top floor and the mail room on the bottom floor. It is all on one floor. So I can start at one end of the hallway, at the president's office, and walk down to the art room at the other end. Why have you straddled such divergent genres and circuits? I have very, very consciously made the decision to do that. I intentionally play with as many different kinds of bands in as many different types of venues and places as possible. I like to have hardcore yuppies, gays and lesbians, the ct tting edge people, MTV people. You know, grandma's little kids. A good mix. That's the most rewarding thing for me. And in order to do that, I feel that I have to go to them. I put myself out there and play with other bands and other types of music. It's a challenge for me to try to win over somebody else's audience. What kinds of music have you played? Nervous Gender, which was just absolutely intolerable synthesizer music. Just so painfully loud and lyrically misogynist and awful. Ooh! I wanted to be in a band more than anything. Was- it melodic? I would not say particularly tuneful, no. So what did you do in it?

Screamed. (laughter) Just screamed horrible lyrics. My god, about drug addiction and whatever else one of the members would write about. I had never done anything like that before in my life. Why were you attracted to that scene? Because people that I went to high school with never liked the same shit I liked. I felt like I was the only angry, frustrated person. I felt really alone, and all of a sudden I made this connection with all of these other people. It was exciting creatively, because there weren't a lot of rules. You just had to want to do it bad enough. That was the great thing about the whole punk scene. You didn't have to know how to do shit. All you had to do was be willing to make an ass out of yourself and go for it. I was 19 years old, and a very hardcore political, young lesbian separatist. I went to San Francisco to find a new women's community, and I found punk rock. I don't think I had spoken to a man in three years. I got all of my stuff from L.A. and moved into a flat up here with four other people; one was a speed dealer, one was like a B movie queen, one was a gal that was into leather and cops, a guy who was gay and who was an actor. I just went from one world completely into someplace where I had never ever, ever been. How have you been able to keep your own identity without feeling squas-hed? What do you mean? How do I maintain, even though Jody Watley is in the Gap ad wearing my uniform, with all of her hair cut off, wearing my T-shirt, my jeans and my com-. bat boots? Jody, come on. If it is in Vogue, it is incredibly chic. If I wear it, I look like a dyke. I have always dressed the way I have felt, really comfortable. I love uniforms, and I also like simplicity. I always wanted to grow up and have my brother's haircut. And now I have it. I don't think that if you're yourself, you can get lost no matter how many people wear Levis ' and T-shirts. But I think there are forces out there that tell you that you are going to starve. Ifyoudon'tconform. Well, yeah-even as good as it looks, because we have seen some very, very successful women in music recently that are very much themselves, which is not to say that at the same time that same old shit is not happening. The pressure will be from the label saying, "You'll alienate the audience and we won't sell as many records." It's not on paper or ink. But the people that wield the clout and dole out the money have the power to say whether your record is going to get worked.

Were you afraid of where your record was going to get put when it was out there? I go into stores personally, and when it is not in the pop section, I move it and put it there. (laughter) You can see me, I go overtoP, and I will pull myself out if I don't have a bin of . my own, and I will go put myself in the front ofP. How do you feel being put in a box all of the time because of your very out identity? I feel lonely a lot of the time. And frustrated. What do you think would change that? If a lot more people would kind of come out and carry some of the weight. Take a little risk. It is very difficult for me to see other people that compromise a bit climb those rungs so fast. I went through a period for over a year where I watched these other women just skyrocket. Somehow, there they were every time I opened a magazine or turned my TV on. It was hard not to feel bitter and envious and frustrated and angry-and at the same time, know that it was really a good thing that they were doing. I think definitely the fact that I have a big mouth-that I say the word "lesbian" out loud, that I look the way I look-has contributed to the fact that I have not been committed to a major label earlier, that I am seen as more of a novelty than anything else in the media, that I am not taken seriously as a songwriter. I cannot be who I am, a lesbian. It is not a big part, it is not a small part, it is just part of me. It has to be gratifying enough to me that it makes a difference to a couple of people .. And it does. SometimesI forget. There are people who were out as lesbians as I was growing up, and it made a difference to me. And I have made it a part of my job. Part of what I do. I think a lot of the credit goes to Island for setting an example. The L.A. Times interviewed the head of marketing at Island. He said, "We support Phranc, and we think that she can reach many, many people and cross a lot of barriers." I just love that. When did you go back to college? I got really sick from taking a lot of drugs and being really crazy and living the Hollywood rock 'n' roll lifestyle. I was told by a doctor that I had to get healthy. I enrolled at City College and got a mad crush on this gym

teacher and signed up for every single class she taught. It was like being twelve all over again. She said something about going out for the badminton team, and by golly, I went out for it. To be on the team I had to carry twelve units, so I enrolled full time. This gal that I was crazy about couldn't come out. It was scary for her because I was so out. That is the thing with Phranc-it is kind of guilt by association. The most frustrating thing in the world for me is lesbians who don't acknowledge me because I look like a dyke. When successful Hollywood lesbians that are in different industries don't associate with me because it might give them away, it incenses me. It happens often. That is the price I pay for looking like I look and being who I am. And it hurts and that makes me cry sometimes it is so painful. What are some of the good things about the women's music industry from your perspective? I think they are very brave and did a lot of really good work putting out music that nobody else would. They got their shit together, they learned a business from scratch and took incredible risks, and have succeeded in a very big way getting their records made. Some of the women's distribution networks are terrific, and much better than what I dealt with when I was on my independent. People did not have any trouble getting my record from Ladyslipper. They sure had a hard time getting it from Capitol. And Ladyslipper went through hell to get it from Capitol so that they could have it in their catalog. They care. They care about the artist, they care about the product, they care about accessibility more than anyone in the dick-head music industry is going to care. I have a lot of respect for the women's labels. The frustration for me is that, as good as they are, I wanted to make sure that I was out there and available to everyone and could reach as many people as possible. And especially because I am out as a lesbian and because of the work that I do, it would be very limiting and hard for me to be on a women's label. I don't know what Olivia's goal is, I don't know what Redwood's goals are, I don't know where they want their records. I think it would be great not to have a women's music record section in the record stores. I think that would make a big difference.

THE SAN FRANCISCO BAY TIMES MARCH 1990

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