By Steven Neff, Rock At Night Orlando Correspondent
THE CHRONICLES OF ELEGANCE
I love women behind the mic, especially when it comes to metal. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s the delicate energy that has the ability to usher in an aggressive yet epic sound at mind-blowing levels; the kind of elegance that steps behind the mic, only to shapeshift into a dramatic demonstration of vocal prowess that holds me in the palm of its tender hand for 60-90 minutes.
We’re currently seeing this type of demonstration coming out of Europe in the symphonic metal genre with its blend of classical music, driving guitars, cinematic like keyboards, and the vocally powerful frontwomen whose elegance with a serrated edge complete this arrangement of metal brilliance.
For some of us, the sound itself seems to fill a void that we didn’t know was missing; until we hear it for the first time. Yeah.
While many of the bands in this genre are considered juggernauts in their own right in Europe, there’s still a lot of room for their genius to be discovered in the U.S.
Producer Mark Harwood is trying to help change that. Harwood has produced a solid 93+ minute documentary in Soaring Highs And Brutal Lows: The Voices of Women In Metal. The documentary takes the viewer on a life’s journey with some of metal’s biggest voices and can be viewed via disc, streaming, or both; complete with bonus footage.
SOARING HIGHS AND BRUTAL LOWS
The Voices Of Women In Metal
A Film By Mark Harwood
“Almost all of the things that happened to one of us happened to all of us.”
ROCK AT NIGHT: Soaring Highs And Brutal Lows left me wanting more and I hope that Harwood will continue on the path of bringing women in metal to fans with future installments of this documentary as there’s a lot of talent to be included.
Mark Harwood took the time to talk to Rock At Night Magazine about his recently released Soaring Highs And Brutal Lows, what prompted the idea behind making the film, what he took away from each of the frontwomen he interviewed, and future plans for the project.
ROCK AT NIGHT: Mark Harwood, thanks for being with us at Rock At Night.
MARK HARWOOD: Thanks for the invite!
ROCK AT NIGHT: You’ve produced a documentary titled Soaring Highs And Brutal Lows: The Voices of Women In Metal. Talk to us about what prompted the production of the film and why a documentary on women in metal?
MARK HARWOOD: The simple answer to the question is that I didn’t have a choice. I came across a story that I found utterly compelling and I had to try and tell it. There were actually lots of reasons not to make the film but sometimes you just go for it. And what happened in this case is that I saw an opportunity to tell a really interesting story, not just about music that really moved me, but that also tied into all sorts of current events and issues. And the more I looked into it, the more interesting it got, and things just kind of snowballed. I sent out inquiries and people in the industry got back to me, and offered to make introductions, which led to more introductions, and suddenly I was making a film.
ROCK AT NIGHT: When did you first begin production of the documentary and how long did it take to get you from beginning to end where the film was able to be distributed to the masses?
MARK HARWOOD: Production started in 2013, and I have to admit that I was wildly optimistic about how long it was going to take me to finish. I thought I could finish in a few months and the film didn’t actually premiere until October 2015 at the FemME festival in Eindhoven (which is a great festival and well worth checking out btw). And after that it took another year for the first sale, and even longer than that to get the discs made so they could be sold. So it’s been a long road.
ROCK AT NIGHT: Mark, what is your background as far as music goes? How long have you been a metal head and who did you listen to? What was it was about metal that drew you to that genre?
MARK HARWOOD: I’ve listened to music for a very long time, I studied music through middle school, and play several instruments badly. I’ve been a metal fan since high school and was/am a huge Iron Maiden fan. From there I was introduced to harder stuff by friends – I remember one who lent me Morbid Tales by Celtic Frost and the original S.O.D. album. As to what drew me to the genre, it was a combination of the musicality, the aggression, and for some bands the lyricism.
ROCK AT NIGHT: The documentary is very good. I think you’re just getting started as there’s a lot more women in the metal landscape to cover don’t you think? After finishing the documentary, I found myself wanting more. Are there any plans to continue future installments of this project?
MARK HARWOOD: Thanks! There are obviously TONS of great bands out there that we didn’t cover. To be honest, there’s a lot of great material from the artists in the film that didn’t make it as well, including a couple of my favorite lines. Shooting has never actually stopped – some (brief) clips from other interviews made it into the bonus materials, but I just haven’t had the time to do the research to find a way to draw all the threads together. So the simple answer is that I’d love to do a follow up but the main questions are 1. how to finance it, and 2. what subjects to cover. And unfortunately, those two things may conflict in some ways. For example, there are some great singers out there on the more extreme side of things that I think would make great stories, but as hard as it is for underground bands to make money, it’s even harder to finance a film about those same bands because at best you’re probably only going to get a small subset of their fans to buy into it.
ROCK AT NIGHT: Floor Jansen said she wanted to be a biologist? We’re so glad she changed her mind. What did you think when you first saw Floor Jansen in full opera mode singing the Giacomo Puccini piece? The man you see in that video appeared to be totally mesmerized by Floor’s vocals didn’t he?
MARK HARWOOD: Yeah, it’s great and that clip was actually a major impetus for the film! The level of ability on display, the fact that she was really still recovering from a major sickness; there was so much going on that I just found completely fascinating.
“I never cared about the opinion of others; as soon as I climb on the stage, I’m someone else.” Floor Jansen
ROCK AT NIGHT: Floor mentioned that it’s common in the Netherlands that children learn to play an instrument. For young people growing up, do you think there’s a difference between the Europeans and Americans on how they learn music? Are we in America depriving our young people musically?
MARK HARWOOD: It’s hard for me to say since I haven’t gone through the European system, but it certainly seems that there’s a different emphasis or priority on education in Europe as compared to the US. There are a number of countries in Europe where higher education is heavily subsidized or even free, and that enables people to really follow their passions, even when those aren’t necessarily going to result in a ton of revenue. That certainly affects arts funding in the US, certainly in public education. There was actually a whole section of the film that went into that in more detail – I think I ended up putting it in as one of the bonus features actually. And in fact, I’ve had some great conversations since then with other musicians like Par Sundstrom from Sabaton on the topic as well. I find the whole thing fascinating and would love to do a larger piece on it still.
“In school, I was immediately in the school choir and school bands and I did all those shows where you could win prizes. So I was on stage when I was like eleven or twelve and I loved it.” Anneke van Giersbergen
ROCK AT NIGHT: Some of these metal goddesses started off as band nerds didn’t they?
MARK HARWOOD: Yep. There’s a great performance clip in the film where you can see a very young Charlotte Wessels performing with some schoolmates, and it looks like it was filmed in a school auditorium or practice room. It’s one of my favorite clips because you can see both how early she started and how good she was even then.
“I have sold my heart to metal a very long time ago and I will defend it forever.” Charlotte Wessels
Charlotte Wessels Of Delain
ROCK AT NIGHT: What seemed to be more the norm with at least the majority of the ladies in the film is that they weren’t popular in school were they?
MARK HARWOOD: I can’t speak definitively on that as I didn’t get into it with all of them, but that was the impression that I got.
“Singing and performing was far far away from me because I was super shy, the teased kid. Just the thought of being in the spotlight was back in the day really something I didn’t want.” Floor Jansen
ROCK AT NIGHT: According to Simone Simons, she was encouraged to get voice lessons at the age of fourteen following a school musical. Charlotte had vocal lessons for two years. Anneke van Giersbergen took vocal lessons, beginning at age fourteen and continued for fourteen years. From watching the documentary, it became apparent that these women put a lot of effort into developing the voice that would become their powerful instrument.
MARK HARWOOD: Exactly, and I think that’s one of the things that tends to define metal as a genre. There tends to be a huge emphasis on musicianship in Metal, although this is generally seen more with the instrumentalists, and particularly on guitar, but there are also some amazing vocalists. The time that these women spent honing their craft is really just part of that tradition.
ROCK AT NIGHT: What do you think is different about the energy that these women emote as opposed to what we’re typically used to seeing in the states? There’s certainly a higher, dramatic energy in the metal that comes from these women. The aggression of metal, coupled with the elegance and stunning vocals of these women makes for more of an epic concert experience don’t you think?
MARK HARWOOD: This actually comes up in the film a few times. One of the things that I found really interesting was how few of the artists felt their music was aggressive. Many spoke of the drama and feeling of the music, but typically not so much about aggression, and I think that comes across in the performances. On the other side of that though, I think the women are just as capable as the men when it comes to aggression. The first time I saw Arch Enemy perform was opening for Iron Maiden with Angela on vocals and she was so dynamic and aggressive on stage I thought she was going to kill and eat everyone in the arena. Alissa has certainly upheld that standard when she took over. But personally I like the contrast between the heavy and the melodic, whether it comes visually, sonically, or whatever.
“Its [metal] a bit more intricate than the stuff you hear on the Top 40. That appealed to me. I could properly drive into a song or in a band; because they all had stories and they had something to say also about politics, about themselves, about their feelings, about social issues.”Anneke van Giersbergen
ROCK AT NIGHT: Classical music, along with elements of epic movie scores; blend very well with symphonic metal. The beginning of the symphonic metal genre saw the emergence of bands like Therion and then later bands like Within Temptation and Nightwish who inspired large growth into what we have today. Do you think that the appeal of this genre will continue to grow in light of the fact that the women behind the mic add such a powerful element in their own right with their stunning vocals? Or do you think symphonic metal will eventually succumb to other genre takeovers like we’ve seen here in the states?
MARK HARWOOD: I don’t know. It could be argued that the symphonic metal genre has stagnated and peaked already. Nightwish is the biggest of the symphonic bands and much bigger in Europe than they are ever likely to be in the states. I also haven’t heard any symphonic bands really breaking new ground; most follow the same model that was established years ago by After Forever and Nightwish. The one band that seemed to be pushing forward was ReVamp, but they’re gone now. Delain is out in their own space as well, but they’ve never really been classically symphonic. I’m sure there are other bands doing interesting things but it’s hard to keep up with everything. Are there any you’ve heard that I should check out?
“Classical music in general correlates amazingly well with metal; especially because of the intricacies and how melodic it is and how it tells a story; the way it comes back to sections. I think it’s the beginning of heavy metal.” Kobra Paige
ROCK AT NIGHT: After watching Soaring Highs And Brutal Lows, it would seem that all of these women are very humble and grateful for what they have. I got the feeling that all of the women interviewed were very normal and down to earth. What are your thoughts on that and did you get the same impression?
MARK HARWOOD: All of the artists I spoke with are very much down-to-earth, very humble, very ‘real’ people. One of the biggest compliments I got was after the film premiere while chatting with a guy who runs a print magazine and he said “I’ve known all of these women for years, have interviewed them all many times, and you got it right. You managed to nail who they actually are.”
“I have done dishes, but I have done dishes in the most fancy restaurant of the Netherlands. I have done data entry for a year; it made me brain dead. It was basically pressing enter and falling asleep.” Charlotte Wessels
“I wanna be able to live a happy life, doing something that makes me happy.” I don’t need to live in a big house, or drive a fancy car, or have a car at all. I don’t need expensive clothing. I actually hate materialistic things; I have no interest in whatsoever.” Alissa White-Gluz
ROCK AT NIGHT: The women in Soaring Highs And Brutal Lows didn’t seem to like the term “female fronted metal band”, with good reason; especially since, in many cases, the rest of the band is male. They credited their male counterparts as being a part of what defined the band’s sound rather than just the gender behind the mic. Did you get a sense that there’s a bit of an identity crisis within the music industry regarding bands when there’s a female behind the mic?
MARK HARWOOD: Yeah, I had a lot of conversations about this topic both with the singers, with other artists, with fans and a whole bunch of people. And there’s not really a single answer to it. The term female-fronted metal is clearly sexist; as many people pointed out, no, one talks about male-fronted metal. So from that perspective, it’s clearly wrong. Some people use the term to refer to a certain type of metal – usually similar to Nightwish or Epica. But it’s not a great fit for either of those bands, both of whom also feature male singers and doesn’t say anything about the music. Epica in fact, goes out of their way to say they’re just a metal band, not female-fronted. And then there are some people who just enjoy female vocalists, regardless of specific genre, for whom the term is vaguely useful. I don’t know if I’d call it a crisis within the industry; you don’t hear about ‘female fronted jazz” for instance, but perhaps among the fans?
ROCK AT NIGHT: After talking with each frontwoman, can you give us a short synopsis of what you took away from each conversation?
MARK HARWOOD: This is a little tough because I spoke with many of them several times, and on different topics.
Floor Jansen- I really enjoyed speaking with Floor. She speaks very openly, without pretense, and says what she thinks which I think can be off-putting for some people, but the Dutch are known for that. She’s also very dedicated to her craft – both singing and performing.
“Like in any other business, nothing happens without a reason. Nothing is just pure luck and coincidence. That means that everything that happens is driven by something or by someone and you’ll need a bit of luck and talent; you need to be lucky enough to be there at the right moment at the right place like we were with After Forever.” Floor Jansen
Marcela Bovio- Marcela was great. She’s in a different phase of her career than many of the others I spoke with but has great perspective. She also comes from a completely different scene than everyone else, so it was fascinating to hear her experiences.
“There’s a lot more hard work involved than anyone would ever think and no one is going to lift one finger for you if you haven’t done a massive amount of work on your own. There are no free passes.” Marcela Bovio
Kobra Paige- Kobra is great. She’s gone through a lot since we first spoke but is really dedicated to the band and making things work. I saw them play a free show at tiny venue south of LA, and saw them again opening for Kamelot at a huge venue in the Netherlands and they give it all every time.
“The scary thing is you can’t disappear in this industry; especially when you’re growing. It’s a very vulnerable place to be. You can’t just take a break. First, it’s like you build up your reputation and your name and then, maybe when you’re thirty; or at least a decade into your career, you start making enough to survive. You need to stay and ride it and work it as much as you can.” The thing about it is that it’s a labor of love because first of all, this isn’t a job. I absolutely love what I’m doing, so you don’t mind working all the time. But the thing is, you are working all the time.” Kobra Paige
Doro Pesch- What can you say about Doro – she’s a legend, and deservedly so. She’s super nice and extremely humble in person. She lives for the fans, and is really a fan herself, even after so many years. Every time I’ve seen her she’s been sick with a cold or flu, but the only sign of it is a giant stack of tissues onstage or wherever. She’s great to see live and I really don’t understand why she’s not a bigger draw in North America.
“My drug was always music; always, always. I would do anything for that. It’s my ultimate high.” Doro Pesch
Simone Simons- Simone is also super nice. She’s got her own interests, which may not be as ‘metal’ as some people would like, but the fact that she does her own thing regardless is VERY metal. She’s also very funny and has a wicked sense of humor.
“I can burp like a man.” Simone Simons
Anneke van Giersbergen- Is a really warm, kind, person who loves singing. She moves effortlessly between genres and has very diverse tastes. She really lights up a room, or a stage, or whatever and does so naturally. I hope she gets the chance to perform in North America more often because she’s fantastic.
“Music is energy. Whatever you give comes back to you in life, but also in music and on stage.” Anneke van Giersbergen
Charlotte Wessels- Charlotte is really smart. REALLY smart. She understands the issues we discussed in the film very well, and has put a lot of thought into them both personally and philosophically. We’ve spoken a few times and I feel like I learn things every time.
“I have my cats and I have a roof over my head, I’m fine.” Charlotte Wessels
Alissa White-Gluz- Alissa is very outspoken and also really sharp. She has very strong opinions and again, that probably puts some people off, but I think it’s great. The commentary track she did for the film is the BEST thing ever, so if you haven’t watched the film with it yet, do it now.
“I’ve had to work for many years just to not be seen as something that should be naked by now.” Alissa White-Gluz
ROCK AT NIGHT: In interviewing these women, whom did you find were some of the biggest musical influences for each of them?
MARK HARWOOD: There’s a section at the start of the film that covers this. Most of them were influenced by early 90s metal; Doro much more of the classics. Anneke in particular had a lot of super diverse influences from the super heavy to the super melodic/poppy.
ROCK AT NIGHT: Floor said at the end of the film, “If you were a woman, you would never ask it.” Can you tell us what the question was? Ha ha.
MARK HARWOOD: Heh, funny story about that one. Floor was one of the first to agree to appear in the film and the first artist I interviewed. But because of that, there was no history she could look at to see if was going to do some elaborate bait and switch, or ask all sorts of weird personal questions, etc. So I prepped the list of questions in advance and sent it to her for review, and I put a lot of stuff in there to provide transitions and emotional shifts. Anyway, that answer was to one of those type of questions. I won’t give away what the actual question was, but you can ask her ;).
ROCK AT NIGHT: In closing Mark, can you tell everyone how they can get a copy of Soaring Highs And Brutal Lows: The Voices of Women In Metal?
MARK HARWOOD: The simplest way is to go to the website, www.womeninmetaldoc.com. You can order the region-free Blu-ray disc there, or purchase a streaming copy. We’re also looking to partner with distributors in various regions – Europe and South America primarily, because the postage from the US is ridiculous. If anyone from those regions is interested in distribution, they can contact us thru the website.
Also, we definitely would like to do a sequel, so if there’s particular topics for interview or bands/genres you think we should cover, let us know! We’re also looking to do screenings of the film as part of festivals, or even just one-offs as an event to help local scenes. And of course, if anyone wants to help finance the sequel, we’re open to that too. 🙂
Special thanks go to Mark Harwood for taking time out to talk with Rock At Night and thanks Mark for bringing us such a great documentary with compelling insight into the lives of women in metal.
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