The Frontwomen: How female musicians, bands are dominating Columbia music scene

In the early 1990s, singer-songwriter Danielle Howle was headed onstage for soundcheck. A crewmember came up to her, she remembered, and asked whose girlfriend she was, since that must be the only reason the South Carolinian would be on such a stage.

Three decades and dozens of albums later, Howle is one of the most respected musicians in the state. A misogynistic comment like the one she got from that sound guy would not happen today. Not to her. “It could have been a joke, but I don’t think so,” she recalled.

Paisley Marie is an up-and-coming musician making waves in Columbia with her bands, The Birdwalkers and Homemade Haircuts. But whenever she jams with a new guy or works sound at a show, she’s reminded she’s one of few women trying to break into the music scene in Columbia.

“I dealt with some sexual harassment from a sound guy at a venue and he got fired for it,” the Columbia native said. “But just seeing people’s reactions to me having to speak out about that, including my own friends’ reactions, was very just jarring to try to think, ‘Is this something I should just get over?'”

HOWLE concert 3

Danielle Howle performs with guitarist Josh Roberts and Finnegan Belle at the Christmas on the Mount Concert on Sunday, Dec. 3, 2023 at Mt. Tabor Lutheran Church in West Columbia. Perry McLeod/Special to the Post & Courier

Behind-the-scenes power plays

Women in the music industry have been outnumbered by their male counterparts for years, according to a report from the University of Southern California’s School of Journalism and Communications. And while the number of women-fronted acts and female solo artists in Columbia has skyrocketed in the past decades, local artists said they still deal with being labeled “a woman rapper” or “a girl band.”

“When you’re a woman, you want to be like, none of this matters, let’s just focus on the music,” Marie said of her career as a musician, sound tech and singer. “But it’s always there. And it’s hard to ignore the — whatever you want to call it — the politics of it. It’s hard to discount that entirely and focus on the music when it follows you everywhere.”

Despite the hurdles women face in music — and most other industries that exist — the Columbia music scene has swelled with an influx of women-led bands and solo artists. It’s helped expand the genres being explored in town, too.

TiffanyJ has been a working musician in Columbia for 20 years, the past decade as a solo artist. The R&B artist knows what it means to operate in a male-dominated field — her day job is in computer programming.

tiffanyJ 3

TiffanyJ, a Columbia-based R&B artist, performs at the 2023 Jubilee Festival. (Provided photo by Dennis Davis/DRD Photography)

She’s had to apply the same “business woman exterior” she uses in her tech work to meetings with record producers, bookers and other behind-the-scenes professionals in the music industry.

“If you don’t have a sureness, a confidence, if you don’t approach the music industry as if you know what you’re doing, men will walk all over you,” TiffanyJ said. “Or, people will walk all over you.”

The report from USC’s Annenberg School revealed less than 5 percent of producers in 2022 were women, despite representing 30 percent of the Billboard’s Hot 100 listings for that year.

In Columbia, Archer Avenue Studios’ Kenny McWilliams doesn’t know of any professional women producers.

The dearth of behind-the-scenes femininity isn’t something he generally takes note of, but every session the producer has with an artist or band at his studio requires a different approach.

“Each project is so unique, and if I’m not in tune with that (and) those people that are involved, then I’ve already failed my job. And that’s before I even hit record,” McWilliams said. “So I don’t think if it’s so much based on gender as just, what is that person like?”

tiffanyJ 2

TiffanyJ performs Soulbird Sessions: Live in Columbia, SC in 2023. (Provided photo by Ty Williams/MPOV Photography)

TiffanyJ, who released a live album this year and headlined the annual Jubilee Festival, said the number of women musicians is growing, but a need for women instrumentalists — bassists, drummers, keyboardists — still exists. 

“When it comes to women instrumentalists, we see them, but we don’t see nearly as many women as we do males,” she said. “But I think women do a great job of supporting each other and rooting for each other, regardless of the scale.”

‘Find your tribe’

Marie formed her rock band, The Birdwalkers, because she was seeking an entirely feminine point of view in her music. The Birdwalkers features Marie on guitar, Laurel Mac on drums, Kat Gandy on bass and Madilyn McCoy on keys and acoustic guitar. All of the women perform their own music and vocals.

“Whenever we all get together, there’s so much mutual respect. And that really is such a key part, that we all just have so much respect for each other as musicians, and there’s never a doubt of anybody’s abilities or talents,” Marie said of The Birdwalkers. “Everybody’s just so good at what they do, and it really does feel special when you put it all together.”


Paisley and the Birdwalkers perform at Art Bar on Friday, Sept. 22, 2023. Perry McLeod/Special to The Post and Courier

Marie cracked the code early in her career, finding bandmates who support her as much as she does them.

For Howle, four decades as a musician have shown her the good, the bad and the ugly of this industry, but she cracked the code early, she explained.

“My experience may be a little different because I’ve been supported by such strong women … a way to ensure your survival is to find your tribe,” Howle urged. “Find your tribe and help them and just find the best people that you can find to be around.”

This post was originally published on this site