Gabbie Watts is not a fan of Valentine’s Day. The Atlanta singer-songwriter (Cuntry, Gabbie Rotts) and WABE producer has neither the time, nor the patience, for any maudlin, pre-packaged Hallmark holiday bullshit. She’s got work to do—and barriers to break. Specifically, she’s busy putting the finishing touches on the first release from Smile Girls, a new compilation series that aims to bring together female-identifying artists across the city in the hopes of offering empowerment and mentorship in a male-dominated industry that notoriously labels women as incapable or relegates them to afterthoughts. The series’ first volume, Goodbye Valentine, is out this Wednesday, and features an impressive cast of both bands and songwriters—from Total Babe and Cuntry, to Haint, Adelaide Tai, Kristen Englenz, and Amy G Dala (The Boygirlfriends). A second Smile Girls volume, Summertime Sadness, is due out this summer.
With a tape release show looming at 529, I reached out to Watts to talk about the inspiration behind Smile Girls, and why agency and representation are so critical to dismantling systemic and cultural barriers. Along the way, we touched upon a few other topics, including terrible people who can’t see beyond themselves, her favorite breakup song, and why Valentine’s Day is unquestionably the worst.
When did you start the process of putting the comp together?
I believe the first recording session was back in November. The idea came about in October, and I immediately reached out to people to hold myself accountable.
What inspired you to do it?
A big part of it was to practice recording. I’ve recorded myself and my band, but this was my first time recording other people with their own material and ideas. I had a bit of a producing role on some of the songs, but for most, I just sat back so the artists could have total control over their product and be creative with what was on hand (like a theramin and a toy piano I had lying around—good job Stone and Amy).
Of course, so much of the music industry is dominated by men—and when it comes to the technical roles in music, like engineering, those are super filled with men. Cisgender men to be more specific. This coincides with technology fields in general, so with Smile Girls, I hope that everyone who participates feels like they are part of the process and knows what’s going on on the technical side of things. It’s about empowerment, agency, and knowing what’s up with all the cables.
Also, I like all my friends and want to hang out and make cool things with them!
In your experience, what are some of the barriers to entry that need to be dismantled in order for more women and minorities to become more accepted and involved on the technical/production side of music?
GET READY FOR A RANT!
Thinking of my own personal experience, there is a lack of representation. When you don’t see or know people doing something, it’s hard to imagine yourself doing said thing. Like, I saw very few women playing rock’n’roll when I was younger, so it never crossed my mind to play guitar until I was older and sought out female performers. With technology, it’s a whole other thing because tech people aren’t forward facing. You don’t see them on stage, so representation is even harder to gauge. And lo and behold, most of those people are dudes. It sometimes feels so passive to be like, well, I never saw a women doing this, so I can’t conceive of doing it. But it does, for sure, work that way.
Then, lack of mentorship is another biggie. Knowledge passes, in general, from men to boys, as it always has. For them, it’s an afterthought (or not a thought) that women or girls would be interested in whatever they know. We have euphemisms like “women in music” and “women in tech,” which signals to me there are still fewer women in these industries, but then women are sidelined exclusively into these “women in” groups. These are great on the one hand as safe spaces, which I suppose Smile Girls is trying to be, but can also cause othering. Then, people in power (read: generally wealthy white men or just white men who think they are powerful because they have received validation from society for everything they do) don’t take women or their skills seriously. Also, some people are just sexist, racist, transphobic, homophobic, and terrible.
I speak about women because that’s my experience (explicitly, cis heterosexual white woman), but I think similar ideas affect people of color and LGBTQ folks. In summary, barriers to break are lack of representation, mentorship, empowerment, and terrible people who can’t see beyond themselves.
Understanding the technical side of recording music is such a critical way for any musician to really assume command of their own sound and aesthetic. But at the same time it can be so daunting! What are some tips you suggest for those who want to be involved with the process but don’t really know where to start?
Make a compilation featuring your friends!
And like all things in music, invest a little in some equipment. I think it’s best to get the cheapest stuff first, learn that, then sell that to a beginner and get nicer stuff. Get you some Logic, as Pro Tools is hella expensive and complicated to start on. Shoot, I made some songs years ago using my phone and Audacity. It sounded real bad, for sure, but everything you do will make you better at just understanding sound, signal flow, and all that good stuff.
I definitely own some books, but they are very dusty. I usually just look a videos online if I’m stuck. I also took a Pro Tools class at Callanwolde which was a helpful introduction. But really, you just gotta do it!
In terms of your own development, is music production something you would consider doing on a more consistent basis?
Definitely. I’ve worked in radio for all of my PROFESSIONAL life, but music is much more fun and exciting. So, Smile Girls will hopefully make me better as well as making other people better.
How did you go about selecting the artists? Was there any criteria that you set forth for yourself?
Everyone featured is someone I’ve played with or who I know from Atlanta’s music scene. Since this was my first recording project beyond myself, I figured people who would be patient with me would be best. And they had to be female identifying and be connected to Atlanta. And not too high maintenance. And just super-duper.
How did you come up with the title?
Smile Girls came from an inside joke with my bandmates. I came up with a list of silly things to say to audiences and “smile, girls!” was one. A nice little play on men always telling women to smile but coming from a band where the underlying message is “fuck you, especially men.”
For volume 1… There were various titles like “You broke my heart, but I use my brain more anyway” and “Ouch,” but I love me some whimsical rhymes so Goodbye Valentine it is!
Is there a theme that ties the compilation together?
They are all breakup songs! I figured this first comp would be done by February, and there is nothing better than trashing Valentine’s Day.
Do you have a favorite breakup song? One that’s really held up over time?
“You Oughta Know,” dear god, best song ever.
Outside of its blatant commercialization and overwhelming sappiness, what’s the worst thing about Valentine’s Day?
The merchandise. Red roses, hard pass. Teddy bears holding a heart, hard pass. Chocolate, maybe, but I have really bad acid reflux right now and can’t have ANY CHOCOLATE.
Smile Girls Vol. 1: Goodbye Valentine is out Feb. 14. Pre-orders are available here.
The Smile Girls tape release is set for Wed. Feb. 14 at 529 and will feature sets by Cuntry, Haint, the Boygirlfriends, and Adelaide Tai. Doors open at 9 p.m. Donations accepted at the door. 21+ to enter.