The first time I ever heard Montreal-based, all-female alternative rock band The Empty Yellers perform I was at a ‘Been Raped Never Reported’ fundraising event organized by reporter Sue Montgomery.
In 2014, Montgomery (along with Antonia Zerbisias) had co-created the #BeenRapedNeverReported hashtag, which went viral worldwide when the two used it to tweet support for the women who alleged they were assaulted by former CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi. The co-creators revealed they had both been raped years before, but had never reported the assaults.
As with most fundraisers, people often gather to support the cause or the organizers, spend the evening talking and socializing, and – most often than not – the entertainment remains background noise. Not in this case.
When The Empty Yellers took the stage and lead singer Celina Wolfe started belting out the very first notes of Still Drunk in her unmistakable gravelly vocals reminiscent of powerhouses like Janis Joplin and Aretha Franklin, I stopped everything I was doing and remained transfixed on the performance. By the time they performed their version of James Brown’s This is a Man’s World, with a confidence and world weariness that belies their young years, I was sold.
My immediate thought that night was: “If these women are locals, how in the world have I never heard of them before?”
Two years later, and with an upcoming EP launch in the works, I expect that will change, because this talented foursome deserves more recognition, more media coverage, and way more fans.
Although barely out of their teens (they’ll all be 20 by the end of this year) the four band members carry themselves with the self-assurance and professionalism of musicians who have been doing this for a while. And it’s because they have.
Comprised of Celina Wolfe on lead vocals, Camille Beaudoin on lead guitar, Esme Cavanaugh on bass and back-up vocals, and Marie Isler on drums, The Empty Yellers compose and play mostly original music, with the occasional cover that they completely make their own. Influenced by a mixture of rock and soul musicians, notably Led Zeppelin, the Black Keys, and Etta James, they exude confidence on stage and easily prove female musicians can rock just as hard as the boys can.
As good as Celina’s voice is, this band is a complete package. Everyone’s carrying their weight here. The powerful drums, the extended guitar solos, the masterful bass playing, the extended vocal runs, the song-writing, they all add up to something really solid and uniquely theirs.
With an upcoming gig at St. Henri’s Bar de Courcelle on April 20 and with their EP launch on May 6 at Petit Campus, there was never a better time for a Q & A with the group. It’s time we all got to know these talented ladies a little better.
Are you all from Montreal? And if so, from where exactly?
Camille: Half of us are from Montreal (Celina from NDG, Marie from Westmount). Esmé was born in Toronto but has lived here for 13 years, and Camille grew up in Vancouver and Toronto and has lived here for 5 years.
How old are you?
Esmé: We will all be 20 by the end of this year, except for Marie who will be 19. Growing up sucks balls.
Why The Empty Yellers? What inspired your name?
Esmé: The name is a play on words. It’s meant to sound like MTL-ers (Montrealers). We wanted our name to reflect the huge love we have for our hometown.
Why Hydro Bill as the name for your EP?
Celina: The name Hydro Bill actually comes from one of our inside jokes; if anyone tries to put us down or discourage us we tell ourselves: “One day, they’ll be asking us to pay their Hydro bill.”
What made you get into music? When did you come together as a band?
Celina: Music was a way of finding myself for me. Writing helps me process how I feel and connect with other people who are maybe going through something similar.
Marie: None of us can remember not being into music, it seems like the lifestyle chose us. I was jamming with my father on pots and pans even before I got my first drum kit at the age of 7.
Camille: I bought myself my first guitar when I was 13 after discovering Led Zeppelin and ACDC. I’ve always loved to write music and jam out, since I was a little girl.
Esmé: My dad taught me to play guitar and I studied classical music through high school and CEGEP. Playing the bass in a rock band is my favorite gig so far.
Celina: The Empty Yellers were born in my basement apartment when we were 17. I was in a different band and we were looking for a bassist when Esmé came along (and pretended to play the bass). Esmé told her best friend Camille to come to band practice where she picked up my guitar and seeing as how she played A LOT better than I did we invited her to join the band immediately. We had four different drummers before we found Marie and became an all-girl band completely by accident. Marie was the best drummer we auditioned and the fact that we all became best friends afterwards proves that this is our fate.
What do you consider your best asset as a band? In other words, what makes you work as a group?
Camille: We all really love each other and we are all very committed to the connection we have as musicians and best friends. That means that if conflicts arise, we communicate in a calm and compassionate way instead of repressing our feelings or having explosive fights. I don’t know if we could live and work together if we didn’t put in all the effort we do into maintaining our relationship.
How would you describe your new EP in a few words? Musical influences?
Esmé: Our style is a blend of soul and classic rock. Working with our producer Glen Robinson allowed us to find a balance between a modern sound and the vintage rock and roll that we hold dear to our hearts. All of our individual musical influences and backgrounds create a unique sound that is inspired by Led Zeppelin just as much as Amy Winehouse, Erykah Badu, or the BeeGees.
What did your parents think or say when you told them you wanted to focus on music and tour as an all-girls group?
Celina: My dad has helped out with the band since Day One. He drives us and our equipment to most of our gigs and even drove us to Toronto for a show once! Although my mom would probably prefer to see me studying, she admires what we’re doing with the band.
Esmé: My dad is the best, he recognizes that we’ve quit school to start our own business which requires marketing plans, hours of rehearsal, meetings with business executives, essay-like grant applications, budgeting plans and sales tactics. My mom can’t resist suggesting I go back to school every week or so, but she loves the music enough to overlook the sex, drugs, and rock and roll.
Camille: My parents have always been so proud of us, they love music too much to be scared of me being a musician. When I left McGill my mom was a little bit concerned because she was excited for me to have a degree, but essentially my parents did the same thing when they were around my age. They left university to become circus performers, so at the end of the day they understand that I need to follow my passion right now.
Marie: My parents took it hard at first, mostly because they think very highly of education and having a secure lifestyle. But with time they learned to appreciate how much work is required in what we do, and saw it less as a sort of rebellious episode by their teenage daughter. My mom often tells me now that she understands my decision and she doesn’t think I should be doing anything else than rockin’ it with the ladies.
What’s it like being an all-female band? Do you experience/have you experienced sexism in the industry, or has it made no difference at all being female musicians? Are people surprised to see such young women rock so hard and be so damn good as musicians?
Camille: All-girl bands, especially in traditionally masculine genres, are usually put together by a puppet master as a marketing gimmick or intentionally formed as a statement about women in the music industry. Our biggest struggle has been these preconceptions that influence our audience and fellow musicians before they’ve even heard us play. As a result we feel the need to be even better, even more genuine, even more skilled in order to prove that we are just as talented and passionate as the next band.
Esmé: Our style of music (classic rock/soul) also appeals to an older male demographic, some of whom are often surprised at our skill and sometimes say things that are well intentioned but more than a little condescending. One guy generously told us that he “didn’t even think of us as women, but as musicians”. These incidents only make us more committed to exposing real rock and roll girls to the general public until there isn’t an obvious difference between women and musicians.
What are your ultimate goals? After this EP/next year/in five years from now?
Marie: Releasing this EP will hopefully give us more exposure and allow us to reach a wider audience. We’ll be playing local festivals this summer and continuing to play pubs and venues around Montreal. In the next year we will be continuing to write new music so that sometime soon we can release more tracks and evolve as a band. If we are lucky enough to become well known, I think that we want to be a role model for young girls, in the sense that we want to inspire them to be their own person and to carry their womanhood with pride, and to help ‘even’ the score in terms of gender in the music industry.
Favourite francophone artist?
Esmé: Our love for the music of the ’70s naturally extends to Quebec’s own Harmonium. It really means a lot to know that musicians from French Canada just like us managed to be such a major part of the folk rock movement and are still widely remembered and listened to today. It gives us confidence that we can make our mark on the international stage as Montrealers and that there is still a market for the soul satisfying music we love to play. More recently, Belgian artist Stromae has inspired many a living-room dance party.
If you could have a Quebec artist (English or French) as a musical guest on your album, who would it be?
Celina: Working hard to be involved in Montreal’s up and coming music scene has allowed us to meet so many wonderful musicians who are so amazing at what they do and often not very well known. A legend on the pub scene, Shane Murphy is one of the most entertaining and talented musicians around town and we would love to work with him on an album one day.
What’s the first thing that comes to mind when I say “Celine Dion”?
Esmé: Celine Dion was perhaps the most successful Québécois artist of her day at an amazingly young age. Despite rising to fame in a time that was extremely difficult for female professionals, she never allowed herself to get screwed over or lose sight of her principles. Although her genre of music is not quite our cup of tea, we can only hope to be as successful and dignified in our careers as Ms. Dion has been. She put Quebec on the map, and we hope to keep that momentum.
Dream festival to play?
Camille: We would love to play Osheaga sometime in the near future! Many of our favourite bands come from all over the world to play right in our backyard!
Finally, how would you want to be described?
Marie: I think it would be most satisfying to be recognized as a group of women that don’t follow the stereotypes that are often imposed on all-girl bands, and that our identity isn’t based on the fact that we’re all girls. Mostly, we want to be known as a powerful and unapologetic unity that writes kick-ass music!
Take a listen to Still Drunk!