Katherine Yeske Taylor – Interview

Author.  Musician. Journalist. Katherine Yeske Taylor embodies all of these titles in her own unique way.  They are evident in her articles, interviews with artists of all genres, and in her book ‘She’s a Badass’. She is a truly authentic and endearing person who is completely dedicated to her craft. I loved her book and enjoyed our conversation. It’s not surprising that the women she interviewed shared things that they never shared before. This book is sure to open discussions about the artists and what it means to be a women in the rock world, and in the world in general.

Interview by Nica Strong. Photographs courtesy of Katherine Yeske Taylor.

Nica Strong: How did you get into the music journalist arena?

Katherine Yeske Taylor: When I was growing up, I was really, really obsessed with music. I took all different kinds of music lessons: guitar, oboe, voice lessons – all these things, and I loved doing it. I practiced religiously, however, it became very clear that I just didn’t have whatever that certain thing is that someone needs to be a professional musician.  I just didn’t have that certain skill, no matter how much I loved it and how much I tried. 

At the same time, I was always being told by my English teachers that I had a real gift for writing so I thought, maybe there’s a way to combine these two things. I had been subscribing to Rolling Stone magazine and reading all these other music magazines religiously. Then one day I had an epiphany of, ‘I should do this’! I could write about music and help people who actually do have that gift. I started writing for my high school newspaper at 16 years old in Atlanta and told them I wanted to write about the artists that were up and coming through the ranks in Atlanta. They thought that was strange, but said, “go for it”. I started getting interviews with a lot of the local artists, and worked my way up to getting interviews with artists that were becoming really popular at that time, like the Indigo Girls. From there I went on to journalism school in Athens, Georgia, which at that time was having a heyday with bands like Rem and B52’s. I was really lucky that I started off in this field in two cities that were having a moment at that exact same time.

NS: Do you play any musical instruments?

KYT: I still play guitar for fun, but not very good. And it’s just for me. But I think that it’s important for a music journalist to be able to play some kind of instrument, even if it’s not at a virtuoso level. I can tell when I read other writers’ work that they don’t play because they are either overly impressed with something that I know that I could play, which means it’s not very hard (laughs), or they dismiss something that’s actually difficult to pull off. So, I think it’s important as a music journalist to have some understanding of the things that the people you’re writing about are doing.

NS: Your book is about artists who talk about feminism and has many different viewpoints and perspectives. Do you see yourself as a feminist?

KYT: I would identify myself as a feminist simply because I strongly believe in equality across gender. I think that everyone should be given the same respect and pay for the same work. That seems really basic to me. Throughout the [more than 30] years that I’ve been a music journalist I’ve heard a lot of stories from the female artists that I’ve interviewed talking about times when they were disrespected or treated really badly in some way – paid less, paid not at all – things like that. So, when I had a literary agent approach me to see if I’d be interested in writing a book, we talked about what topic I should do, and this seemed really obvious because this subject’s come up over and over again.  When I did research to see what else was out there, I was shocked to find that there isn’t another book specifically about women in rock music which is astounding to me. So, it seemed like a really big hole that I could fill and would be a topic that’s dear to my heart, because, as I write in the introduction to this book, I’ve suffered some of the same treatment that these women are talking about. It’s not just the musicians in this business. It’s all the women – publicists, managers, tour managers, and, I would say, any job. I think that all women are going to be able to relate to at least some of these stories.

NS: Your intro, and all the other stories, document this recurring theme. It’s so crazy that every artist tried to pave the way for the next one, but the next one had to start over again, usually with men in charge. Each woman fought hard to get where they did.

KYT: I think it’s a certain type of man who is willing to do this kind of treatment. [They don’t] want to let go of that power, so they’re just not going to make room for anyone else. One thing – actually, two things I want to point out, though.

I ordered this book from oldest to the youngest, and I did that on purpose. Starting with Suzi Quatro and Ann Wilson, who are in their mid-seventies on down through Sade Sanchez of the band, L.A. Witch, who’s in her early thirties. I wanted to show how things have either stubbornly stayed the same for women in music, and some things have gotten better. It’s not entirely bleak.

And the other thing I wanted to point out is that all these women, without me prompting them, told stories of men who stepped up and really helped in some significant way. So, this isn’t just some kind of gripe fest. It’s not a male bashing book. These women make it really clear that they resent a certain type of treatment that they’ve received from a certain type of man, but that men in general are not the problem. It’s very specifically a certain kind of man who’s thrown up these roadblocks.

NS: I like the fact that everybody had that one ally, or a couple of allies, that were like, “We’re not gonna stand for this.” I am a GoGo’s fan, so…

KYT: Yeah, Gina Schock is really fun. Another thing that’s really fun about her is that without me prompting, some of these women cited each other as influences, and sometimes they didn’t know that the other woman was going to be in this book. I hadn’t shown anyone other’s chapters – much as some of them asked (laughs). I didn’t want people to influence each other in terms of what they were saying for this book. But it’s a really fun thing to have.  For example, Toby Vail cites Gina Schock as an influence. And then, Laura Veirs, cites Toby Vail as an influence. That was a really fun chain weaving its way through this book.

NS: I did see that, and I love that love that they’re aware of their power and still remain humble. It’s remarkable to see that they’re awestruck or inspired by someone else when they’re a star in their own right, like Ann Wilson.

KYT: Wilson was one of the first people to sign on, and that was so helpful. Because as soon as she signed on so many other people said, “Well, if she’s doing it, I’ll do it”.  It was a chain reaction, and I really appreciate that very much. That’s how I got about two-thirds of the people for this book. I had interviewed them before, and I went back to them and said, “Would you be willing to talk to me again, but only more in depth?” Then, because of that, the other third who I hadn’t spoken to before [agreed to do it]. I got to get some people that I really had always wanted to talk to, such as Exene Cervenka of X, Amanda Palmer, people that I knew would have really interesting things to say.

Nica Strong:  Did you have any interviews that you would consider challenging?

KYT: The chapter about Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls was really significant for me, because, as I said earlier, I came up in the Atlanta scene when they were becoming famous. That chapter was good and bad… it was a sentimental chapter for me to be able to include her because she and Emily both have been really good over the years about letting me interview them. And they’re just really kind, generous people.  But what I didn’t realize until I did the interview for this book was what was really going on behind the scenes with them that wasn’t so good when they were first getting famous. To me as a teenager, it looked like they were on top of the world when they were getting Grammy awards, and were on MTV, and getting accolades and airplay. What I didn’t realize was how hard it was to deal with their own record company or radio stations who were so abusive actually toward them for being the first openly gay band. People just didn’t know how to handle it. And the abuse that was hurled their way… sometimes physical abuse. Amy talks about how Emily got punched in the face and got called a dyke. I mean just terrible things that had nothing to do with their skills as musicians. And sometimes this treatment came from their own record label.

It was fascinating to hear about this, and it was good to realize that we’ve come a long way since then, because so many artists now are openly gay, and people, for the most part, really don’t seem to stop them from pursuing their career because of that. But it was hard for me personally to hear these stories, and realize just how big the disconnect was between the image I had of them, and what was really going on.

NS: Yes, that one also for me. I’m thinking they’re living on Cloud 9 and this poor girl is getting punched in the face.

KYT: Yeah. And she talks candidly about the self-hatred that it engendered in her. It’s sad to hear. She’s gotten through that, and it was interesting to hear how. But someone I really looked up to as a teenager, it was hard to hear how different things really were for her privately.

NS: And that’s one thing that I like about the book, because our perception of what the artist is, and who they really are, can be so vastly different. And I think it helps fans appreciate them more, especially when they’re asking for privacy. I really appreciate her [Amy Ray] openness and willingness to share that, because that’s a very vulnerable and personal space. And the way that you wrote it, and it crafted it so beautifully.

KYT: So many of these women really came to this [with a willingness to be] open. Once they agreed to do this project, they were enthusiastic, and a lot of the times I barely had to start asking questions before things just started tumbling out of their mouths. I gave them my introduction to let them know what I had gone through, and why I was writing this book.  So they came to the interviews having a lot to say without me having to pry. Some of them would say to me, “I’ve never really talked about this stuff publicly before.” There are a couple of instances of that where I’m really honored that they felt safe enough and trusted me enough to handle the material correctly.

NS: One of the artists, Exene Cervenka had a story that was very interesting to me. She is very… “This is who I am, take it, or leave it, like it, or love it, and that’s pretty much how it is.” I love it.

KYT: I’d never interviewed her before, and I was really happy that she signed on, because I knew she would be like that. I’d read other interviews she’s done, and she’s always very upfront. She’s going to say what she thinks. She’s not going to care if people like it or not, and for that reason she’s a very polarizing person. People really love her, or really don’t like her, and she doesn’t seem to care either way. I really value that. I think we need people who are bold enough to say what they think fearlessly like that.

It’s important to sometimes read about people who have such different viewpoints than our own, and that was interesting for me as a journalist. It was a good exercise in reminding myself about the things that I had learned in journalism school. About being objective and being a conduit, because my job in this book was not to editorialize at all. The place, for that was in my introduction where I talk a little bit about my own experience. For the rest of the book my job was to step back and tell these women stories, to tell their truth as they see it. That means that there are a lot of chapters that entirely contradict each other. There’d be someone saying, “I believe this, and I can’t understand how anyone could think any differently.” And then a couple of chapters later, someone would say the exact opposite thing and say, “Well, I can’t believe anybody thinks any differently.” I think it’s good for people to be reminded that there are differing opinions out in the world, and if you read their stories you may still not agree with them, but maybe you can understand why they arrived at that set of opinions. It’s so important in this time, when it’s so easy to cherry pick what you’re going to read online things that only agree with your own viewpoints, and it’s easy to forget that there are people out there who have different opinions that might also be valid.

NS: Now that you finished the book, what are you working on?

KYT: I continue to write hundreds of articles every year across all genres. This book is specifically about women in rock, and it’s varied within that genre from mainstream to underground, but in my day to day journalism, I try to be really varied. I have a very wide ranging musical taste, so I’ll interview not just rock musicians, but country and pop, and all different kinds of people. 

NS: Is there a particular type of music that you like more so than others? Or do you just like whatever you’re listening to?

KYT: My taste is pretty broad. Any given day I’ll listen to everything from rock to country. But I would say, my main love is alternative rock type things.

NS: If someone could write a book about your life or a movie about your life, what would it be titled, and who would play you.

KYT: Well, actually, that kind of sends shivers down my spine – the thought.

NS: Oh wow, really? 

KYT: I was reluctant to write about myself, even for this book, in the limited way that I do in the introduction. It just doesn’t make me comfortable. I’m a pretty private person. My agent said, when we were talking about doing the proposal for this book in the first place, “you really need to write about yourself in your own experiences in the introduction. so that people understand why it is you have the authority to write this book in the first place”. He foresaw that I was going to need to show that to the women I was pitching, to prove that I had some understanding of what I was talking about. And I get that. It’s important. But I’m a pretty private person. If you follow my social media pages you’ll see I never talk about personal things. People follow me because they want to read my music writing. And I don’t think they are gonna care that I went out to dinner and here’s what I ate. I could be wrong. But if you care about that, you’re gonna be disappointed if you follow me because I just don’t do it.

NS: What do you like to do in your downtime?

KYT: I am pretty much a workaholic and I think you kind of have to be in the music business, because there’s always someone right there trying to take your place. In the early aughts I got a little burned out. I was depressed because I had a lot of musician friends who were really struggling at that point. This is when digital downloads were really becoming a thing and suddenly people’s livelihoods were being taken away. Most people didn’t think anything at all of downloading stuff off the Internet without paying for it, without thinking [that they are] actually stealing from the people creating it. It got really bleak, because it was one interview after another where I was talking to people who are saying, “I can’t do this anymore. If you love my work, why wouldn’t you be willing to pay at least a few bucks to get my album and help me continue to do this?” 

So I stepped away for a little while, and it was amazing to me how quickly I was out of the loop. Within a year.  When I decided to come back I really had to work hard to regain my place. I was fortunate that a lot of people had remembered me and were willing to let me back in. It was a real lesson. If you wanna do this you have to just power through the hard parts and be committed to it, no matter what.

I saw that same message when I was interviewing the women for this book. They’d have an obstacle thrown in their way and they just powered through it, and that’s how they became who they are. The people who don’t do that are the ones who don’t have the successful career and aren’t going to be written about. That was a real eye opener to me. I managed to claw my way back, but it was hard, and I’m not gonna let that happen again.

NS: I’m glad that you’re here. Thank you so much for taking the time to write the book because it’s important. Do you have any parting comments?

KYT: I hope people will get something out of this book, [and it will] spark discussion. There’s no way anyone’s going to agree with everything in this book across the board, because it’s impossible. There are too many conflicting opinions expressed for everyone to agree with everything. And I hope that that will really make people think about their own stance on things and maybe make people a little bit more tolerant of people who think differently. Even if you never really come around to agreeing with someone else, at least be willing to accept that other people are coming from a very different place, and therefore have very different opinion. My hope is that people will really come away from this with a lot of food for thought.

NS: Did this working on this book change your mind about anything, or provoke another way of thinking of the discussion for yourself?

KYT: I’m not sure that it changed my stance on feminism, but it really actually taught me that the definition of feminism is much more broad and complex than I initially thought. For example, I was really surprised when Exene Cervenka was not having it with that label, “Do not call me a feminist, and I guess I thought that was really surprising, because, I already had the title of this book. The subtitle is Women in Rock Shaping Feminism.

I guess I thought anyone agreeing to do this book would identify as a feminist and there’s a significant minority of women in this book, you know, who just don’t want that label applied to them at all. It was eye opening to me to find out why that was. For the most part it’s because they think that label has negative connotations, or it has come to mean something that they don’t identify with, because the feminist movements over the decades don’t align with their own personal views of how things should be done. Like, for example, they feel like, maybe things have gotten too strident, or man hating, or, you know, something like that. It was interesting to me to see that there are a lot of women who still believe in equality across the gender, but they don’t necessarily identify as feminist, and why that is so. That was really educational for me.

NS: You have a couple of people in the book that were like “That’s not my identity, but here’s why…”

KYT: I have heard from a lot of women who said that. This book is a relief because I don’t identify as a feminist – as that label – because of the reasons that people are voicing in this book. I never felt I could express those thoughts because I thought I was out of step with other people in that thinking, and it was a relief to see that there are other women who feel the way that I do. That’s important to recognize that there are many, many ways of thinking about feminism. The blanket definition that we have as a society is really kind of doing a disservice to the concept of women’s equality and gender equality because it narrows it too much. There is way more to this topic than you know.

NS: I know you have another book that you’re working on, are there any more after that? 

KYT: I’m working with Eugene Hoots [Hütz] who is the frontman for the Gypsy Punk band, Gogol Bordello. I’m helping him write his memoir. I actually finished the last chapter yesterday, so that’s a relief. These books are huge projects. It feels good. That will come out next year. His story is really fascinating. He is of Romany descent and openly identifies as gypsy, which some people think is a derogatory term, but he has embraced it as a way to try to take it back and not have it be a negative connotation. He was a refugee from Ukraine and came to America, not knowing English in his late teens. No money, really coming from absolutely nothing and worked his way up to becoming a rock star on a global level and a film star. He was in the movie Everything is Illuminated and several other films, and he’s just got a really fascinating story about what it’s like to be an immigrant. What it’s like to be a refugee. It’s a little early for me to think about what my third book is going to be. But I have some thoughts. We’ll see how it all turns out.