South Australian musician and teacher Emily Retsas has been a part of the live music fabric of Adelaide for the last few years, throwing her bass talent behind a wide array of bands. A keen eye may recognise her from her work with Koral and the Goodbye Horses or Blush Response, while interstate heads may have seen her on stage with Sydney outfit High Violet, breaking through in the second half of 2016.
While she isn’t on stage or in the studio, Retsas has been teaching at Adelaide’s Northern Sound System, where she programs a weekly rock and roll class for girls. This interest in helping young girls interested in music further their passion for the craft and also learn leadership skills has also led Retsas to the US, where she recently attended the Rock n Roll Camp for Girls in Los Angeles.
She tells us a bit more about how she found herself at the camp which boasts the likes of Sia, Katy Perry and Shirley Manson as guest speakers, and how the model has the potential to work its way out to the Australian industry.
How did you first get into playing bass/what is it about the instrument that has kept you pursuing music as a career?
My parents introduced me to music at a young age. My dad played guitar, I started on piano, migrated to guitar in my teens as it was ‘cooler’ and then when my best friend and I formed a band we realised someone had to play bass. I adored (and still do) people like Kim Gordon, Kim Deal, Melissa Auf Der Maur and Darcy Wretzky and was like, “Wait, they’re all bassists. I think this is for me.” I’ve always know music was going to be my life in some way or another. Whether I’m eating breakfast or in the shower, there’s a playlist to be listened to.
Would you say there’s still any kind of stigma surrounding female musicians/bass players in the local industry? How would you say the trend is shifting?
Definitely, It’s a slow process. If you want examples of inequality, you only have to look at most line-ups or award categories and count the number of musicians who happen to be female and compare them to the number of males, more so for musicians who are not singers. Being a singer is seen as the ‘acceptable’ role for a female in the industry. It’s hard not to be jaded but I always count the numbers, get the facts and just try and educate people by calling it when I see it and opening a dialogue.
It sets a precedent as well when you say, “Hey, this isn’t okay.” Most of the time people don’t realise how deep the bias is ingrained and genuinely think it’s just a case that there are more guys better suited for the role. Research Orchestras holding blind auditions show that when gender was hidden, the number of women being hired dramatically increases to 50%.
You’re from Adelaide; how would you describe the trajectory of the local music scene?
I’ve been here 10 years now. I think the scene has definitely unified more recently in the past few years. I’m not sure if it just a shift of musicians coming up, but there’s a camaraderie between local musicians that I didn’t feel before. I’m still finding great artists that I hadn’t heard of, which is surprising in such a small city.
As well as being a musician, you’ve also worked in a variety of roles within the industry itself – has being involved in both sides taught you any lessons of what to avoid, work ethic wise or what to strive for?
I think Hunter S Thompson said it best: “The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.” But seriously. It can be a fickle unregulated industry, everyone works so hard and if they were employed in any other industry I’m sure their salary would be double. Surround yourself with good people, because you’ll spend more time with them than your partner or your family.
Tell us a bit about your role as a teacher at NSS? What has it taught you about the way younger musicians are being approached with the opportunities to learn?
I programme a weekly Rock n Roll class for girls where we teach self esteem and leadership through music education. We do a range of things from writing, recording to press kits and industry/career advice. I never really thought of myself as a mentor but the girls have honestly taught me so much. They’re switched on and educated about equality and how they expect to be treated, way more than I was at that age.
Watching them develop further as musicians and women over the last year has been super special, it definitely reinstalls my hope for humanity. Sometimes it just takes someone saying, “Hey you can do this, and here is the space for it.” The team at Northern Sound System truely are amazing and they’ve always believed in me which is crazy. It’s a nice turn around to give back, years later in the same building.
You recently took part in the Rock Camp for Girls in LA – can you tell us a bit about how you got involved in that project and how long it went for?
I had heard about them online and approached them about coming over, to which they said yes. Which seemed nuts, but they welcomed me with open arms from day one. The program is over two weeks but they have regular presence at like-minded events all year round like Girlschool LA and Ladies Rock Camp. The campers write their own songs and preform them at renowned clubs in LA like the Troubadour and they’ve had guests like Sia, Katy Perry and Shirley Manson come and talk to the girls.
The enthusiasm spurring that camp on is fascinating and very encouraging; what was your favourite part about being welcomed into that community and would you recommend it for other young girls to get into?
They are really all about being the change you want to see in the world and incorporating that mentality into your daily interactions. The only way you can tackle the patriarchy is together, so we need to support one another. There’s so many mentors in the program who aren’t musical but are in related fields and so many have been returning for years. I think that speaks volumes about the benefit they see from a program like that.
You’re planning on heading back, correct? Do you think a similar model could be adapted for Australia?
Most definitely. I believe Melbourne and Canberra had their first rock camps this year. I’m already in talks for a similar model for South Australia. There’s some great resources and female figureheads in Australian music and related industries, getting them together and supporting one another could only bring great things.
For more information about the Rock n Roll Camp For Girls, head here.
Lead photo by Ben McGee.