I have a particularly special relationship with music. My parents taught it to me the way I’ve learned Spanish and French at school—by breaking down every genre and artist, replaying certain songs over and over again until I knew them by memory, and teaching me the historical and musical context of different songs. So many of my fondest childhood memories are associated with music. I remember loving George Harrison and Nina Simone as a toddler, hearing “This Must Be The Place” by Talking Heads for the first time as we pulled into our garage after a long day, and spending hours pulling records by The Beach Boys and Elliott Smith from our nearly twelve-foot-tall CD shelf. And for most of my life, my dad made mixes for car rides, fusing songs we heard on the radio with older, sometimes more obscure songs he felt were essential for us to know. As we grew older and adopted our own preferences, the mixes grew more curated—but my father was truly responsible for my early music education.
A few weeks before I left for college, my father and I were naturally very sentimental. We ended up talking about my younger self versus the person I am now. Beyond the obvious shifts in maturity, knowledge, appearance, and experience, he told me that he could sense exactly what kind of music I would like. My dad said that when I was younger, I particularly liked Debbie Harry, Erykah Badu, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Joni Mitchell, and Kim Gordon, and that I sought comfort in powerful frontwomen and solo artists. I’m not sure if the feminine power sat with me or if I just had a preference for these artists, but it never changed. Since getting to college, I’ve really noticed my connection to these artists—how much I really owe to these women, and all I’ve begun to learn about myself in the process.
When I sit with my music, I find myself always going back to Patti Smith. I’ve said for years that Just Kids is the book that made me fall in love with reading again. When I was fifteen, I forced myself to stay inside on a cold Sunday in March and commit to reading the book. It’s hard to imagine that I made myself read it because I ended up struggling to put it down. As a struggling freshman, I was inspired by both her precociousness and her sureness of herself. Of course, I naturally went to her discography, and began familiarizing myself with each of her records; with the song and Just Kids ingrained in my mind, I read the rest of her books and poetry and came across more music and her photography. At this point, Patti Smith seemed superhuman to me. All I could think was what can’t she do? As an interdisciplinary artist myself, I saw something comforting in her never settling on any one creative path. And at the same time, I admired her acceptance of her femininity and her rejection of expectations. I admired her so much I wrote a college essay about her. I told Patti herself about all this when I had the opportunity to meet her at a book signing last year—and when she responded, clearly appreciative, I broke down.
In a similar way, Fiona Apple has been incredibly important me. Her song “Shadowboxer” was my entire sophomore year of high school. Actually, Fiona Apple was all of high school and still is my young adulthood. Walking through the hallways with my earbuds at maximum volume, I felt understood during the time I felt most misunderstood. I absorbed her trauma and youth, and then went back to the music—“Shadowboxer,” more specifically. I don’t think I’ve ever felt more of someone else’s experiences sonically. The words “Oh, it’s so evil, my love / The way you’ve no reverence to my concern” hit me like a rock. I remember getting off the subway and stopping in the middle of the street when I first heard that line. Never in my life have words so quickly shaken me up and resonated with me. Something about her urgency to tell and her refusal to be silenced made her feel more human to me. I’d always felt a connection to Fiona Apple, but now I felt like I knew her. When Fetch The Bolt Cutters arrived this past April, it felt like stepping outside. I can’t recall ever staying up all night in anticipation of an album release before Bolt Cutters, but that whole night was spent listening to it over and over again. After my fifth listen, I collapsed onto my bed, and with bloodshot eyes and trembling fingers, I was understood again. At four in the morning (during a pandemic, no less), I knew I wasn’t going to run out of my apartment to the streets screaming in celebration of feeling seen again, but I fell asleep to the sound of Fiona and a restored comfort in my femininity. In the same way that Fiona soundtracked my time in high school, she soundtracked quarantine and my first semester away at college. If Fiona Apple has given me anything beyond another voice singing to women or words to piece together my own experience, she exists as an artist who is for every stage of my life.
When I really got into Patti Smith and Fiona Apple specifically, I realized all my dad had said was true. Whether it was consciously so or not, women artists molded my being, teaching me what it is to be a female artist. To be a female artist is to share honestly and elegantly, and to create is not just for the masses but for oneself. As I’ve grown, I’ve watched my art mature too. The photographs I create and the stories I write have become more for me. And the female musicians I’ve looked up to are the ones who give me the means to keep creating.
By Colette Bernheim