Creator Q&A: June Millington on "Play Like a Girl"

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June Millington formed the original all-girl rock band Fanny in 1969 with her sister Jean. They toured the world — securing open slots for acts like Chicago, Dr. John, and Chuck Berry — appeared on national television, and won praise from musical luminaries like David Bowie (In January 200, he told Rolling Stone “[Fanny] were one of the finest fucking rock bands of their time…”). June later went on to found the Institute for the Musical Arts, an organization to support women in music which offers annual rock camps for girls, and she continues to make and release music with her sister. 

All in all, the Millington’s have left behind a legacy of hard work, social activism, and some seriously kickass rock ‘n’ roll. And they’re not done yet! Their Kickstarter project will help them release a new album, “Play Like a Girl”, which they refer to as the culmination of “everything musical that the Millingtons have done in their lives.” 

I recently dropped June a line to chat about her project, her musical evolution, and what it’s like to be a lady of rock for four decades and counting. Check out her answers below, support her project here.

What’s your perception on how the musical landscape for women has evolved? What’s it like recording and touring now versus then?

I think the major difference is that the idea of women playing instruments, especially electric/drums, is accepted now — especially by families — and welcomed by the industry. The problem is that young girls and women are still commoditized from the outset as sexual objects. That leads to all sorts of conflicts internally, whether the girls realize it or not, and adds to the weight of serious decision-making every step of the way as to presentation.  The good news is that the information is out there about the workings of the industry, and enough has changed, for the girls to actually have the power to make informed and intelligent decisions if they wish. In that way, the landscape has definitely evolved, because society has.

As for recording, information is power — those who bother to learn (and they can quite cheaply, because equipment is affordable and you can find techno info everywhere) can get started and zoom right in their bedroom. But once out of there, the struggles begin. For one thing, power balances in the studio with bandmates, engineer/possible producer, and so forth will probably immediately arise. If working with men, most people will assume that it’s they who do the decision-making; it’s easier if you can find women to work with, but again that’s the chicken in the egg scenario: where are they? We hope to make a difference in that area from the ground up with IMA, and with the role-modeling that Jean and I and other women are deeply invested in. 
Touring is a grind no matter what — get enough good food and good sleep. The rest will take care of itself. Oh, and be on time.

In your project description, you say “everything musical that the Millingtons have done in their lives is reflected in this album.” I would love to hear more about this! What is it about this album? Did you have an overall theme or narrative in mind when you began recording, or was it something that evolved organically in the process?

At this point, music kind of “happens” to us — we’re not striving to prove that we can do it anymore, or compete because, let’s face it, that’s what everybody does in the beginning. In a way, that’s part of the fun. For example, the song “Play Like a Girl” started because I woke up last March with these lyrics in my head, or rather sort of like on a virtual screen hanging in the air in front of me: “two little girls staring out at the sea, water touching China, it’s as blue as can be”. Hmmm. What was that all about? As the day unfolded the energy around that kind of picked up. I had to give a guitar lesson to one of the girls from Camp, and finally, that night, the song began to pour out:

Jean and I, when we went to my mother’s hometown of Lian in the Philippines, would be standing with our feet in the China Sea when we went to the beach. And all those rock licks I’d labored on those years in L.A. sort of arose and reformed themselves into patterns that sound simple at the outset, but it’s like a mosaic — they got a bit complicated because as the lyrics arose, the licks would change to accommodate them. It’s quite the dance, but I’ve got to say that by the time Jean got here in June (there’s a tongue-twister!) we learned it in an afternoon and we’d recorded the basic by that night. As to the sounds we got on that one, it reminded me of our time at Apple, recording with that edge to everything. We used some vintage gear on that one, not thinking about it too much. You can’t over-think a song like that, you gotta do it!

Jean and I played ukeleles in the Philippines, singing pop songs off the radio, and there’s sort of a sway to everything we do, a musicality (“island feel”!) that’s always there, no matter the style. “Calling Your Name” has the acoustic-folk roots we started with,”Let Love Linger” has that funk thing that Jean does so well on bass and that we started learning by playing dance clubs as teenagers (not to mention slide guitar which I got into in L.A. when hanging out with Lowell George, and then Bonnie Raitt), “Terrible Things” has a blues influence , and “I Love Your Hair!” tells the story of my career as seen through my hair (people, seriously, say that to me all the time, so I finally used it).
And that only gets me to 1973. After that comes women’s music and all its influences on me, especially lyrically (“All the Children”, that country-ish style would have never come about for me except for playing with Cris Williamson) and we zip almost simultaneously into disco and reggae in those years, when it was all really happening. Very exciting.

There are a couple of times when the different worlds converged because of the music, for example when I was producing Cris’ album “Strange Paradise” and she very much wanted Bonnie Raitt to play on it, and to meet her. So we flew to L.A. with the tapes from SF and Jean, who was pregnant with her first child Marita, came and joined us. Her son Lee, who played drums and engineered our album, wasn’t even a twinkle on the horizon yet!

And so time flies. Lee, who is 25, told me he was so excited to play on this CD because it has all the music and beats he learned with us while growing up .. this album is vintage and fresh at the same time I would say, and with the addition of girls from Camps singing on four cuts…it’s totally full circle.

What inspired you to start playing music? And then… to KEEP playing music? 

On a very fundamental level, music is what kept us alive, because as we got older in Manila the racism we encountered at the American School was crushing, and even though we were loved and cherished by our Filipino relatives we were very lonely. So singing and playing brought an innate and easy joy to our lives that no one could touch. It was ours alone. And when I first heard a guitar at age 13 —  forgetaboutit! I was instantly and totally smitten! I’ve come to the conclusion that you don’t choose music, music chooses you. I thought about trying to quit a few times when times got hard, but it’s not really possible. For one thing, it comes pretty easily and besides it’s what I do and music, I can count on always for the joy. What I can say honestly is that the more I open up and clean up my own “stuff”, the more it just naturally happens. So that’s a gift.

Your fairly well known as a teacher at girl’s rock camps. What is that experience like? What’s the most important thing you feel your students should know about playing music?

I’ve only ever taught at these Camps here at IMA and I’m a co-founder. We started our first Rock ‘n Roll Girl’s Camp here in Goshen, MA in 2002, as soon as we could after managing to acquire this property (with the support of a lot of women, incidentally - I can never forget that. This was a real visioning thing, and it’s ongoing). First off, let me say that I was shocked at how much of my intended syllabus I had to drop that week. It dawned on me that working with these girls was like looking at us when we were around 15 and starting our first band! And that is, the attitude is definitely, “give us some information, and then leave us alone to do it.” Well that’s exactly how we were, except no one gave us the information — we learned it off the radio, or by watching people, or TV (like the Ed Sullivan Show, waiting for close-ups). But basically, you weren’t gonna tell us anything — we were going to do it.

Of course, none of that is possible without a safe space and lots of gear to play with … But still. I dropped a lot, and pared it down with this one caveat: I listen. I keep myself open. I let them tell me in so many ways, just by being open, what they need. Those two combined are what works for me as a teacher, and I realize it’s a rock ‘n roll approach coupled with Buddhism. It’s not for everyone.

I don’t want anyone to think this isn’t what we’ve (fondly) started to call Rock ‘n Roll Boot Camp. It is. There are 3 main instructors, guest workshop leaders, and the girls have to work. I teach rhythm chart-writing in the context of Music as a Second Language. The girls have to know where beat one is at all times, not easy. And, do a count — absolutely frightening to so many girls, at first. But, once you do it … wow. You’re in control! The light bulbs go off. Wonderful to see. So the self-esteem rises all week (it’s 10 days for teens, 5 for pre-teens) as the girls begin to get a handle on contextualizing music in a different way, and accessing their authentic creativity. It’s very powerful. (They all stay here by the way — we provide housing, and good food is cooked right here in the house.)

What students need to know about playing music is a.) it is hard work, so don’t be surprised that you actually have to practice, and b.) you will make mistakes, so slow down and forgive yourself repeatedly for doing so. That sounds almost inane, but I find it’s key: so many people want everything to come instantly, and freak out when it doesn’t just magically happen — by being so hard on themselves they actually block the entire process. After awhile, you won’t have to think so hard about the act of forgiving, it will begin to come naturally. The advantage is that you start to relax and not be so judgemental (on yourself or others!), and muscle memory then has a chance to kick in. It’s a constant process, and once understood, will always be your friend and ally. After that, have fun!

You were in renowned all girl group Fanny in the 1970s. Your stuff rocked. Any memorable anecdotes from life on the road?

As you can imagine, there are a few … opening for great bands, for one. We did a tour with Chicago, huge audiences, and we’d do these complicated, time-intensive soundchecks always, whereas the Chicago roadies would just do a line check, you know — make sure every was in position and worked, mics at the right height, amps set at the right levels, things like that. Then the band would just come on and start to play. They were simply great with us, we hung out backstage a lot, and one day I asked the inevitable: why don’t you guys soundcheck? The answer: it didn’t make any difference. No matter how hard they worked, after the huge place filled with people the sound changed so much you’d have to make adjustments anyway. So get the crew to get it all together, good levels in monitors and all that, and just go! ‘Course, you’ve got to be a professional to pull that off — nothing worse than to see band members grimacing and gesticulating to the crew off to the side, forgetting the audience. They always looked like they were enjoying themselves, which they were. And, they were always happy backstage, always eager to play, excited about some new lick or other. I really enjoyed that.

What drew you to Kickstarter as a resource for funding?

An IMA pal of ours told us about Kickstarter last Spring but I was recovering from an injury (ok, irony of ironies, I shattered my left kneecap slipping on our handicap ramp last October) and then we recorded, and then Camps, so there was a delay in checking it out. But when I did finally go to the Kickstarter site — the very first video blew me away. And the variety, and potential for self-expression, with others’ participation … really inspiring. I’m so glad to be here.

How has your experience been so far? Any advice or thoughts for other potential creators?

For other folks thinking about creating a platform on Kickstarter, I’d say try to be as clear about your goals as you can, not to mention the content of your project. And humor in the presentation — that’s what got me on the first one I saw! It’s a profound place we’re in now, with people being able to actualize so many ideas, so much art. I’m hopeful about the success of our project, and we’d like to be out there and playing as long as we can — it’s important for us, of course, and it’s important inter-generationally. This whole thing is bigger than we are individually, and I bow to that.

    1. Vincent Brown on

      Thank you, Thank you for this fabulous interview. Very touching and inspirational. VB