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The Musical Legacy of Ruth Miller
Musician and writer Nancy Dawkins walks us through Ruth Miller's extraordinary musical life after her recent passing.
Over the past two years, you may have noticed new punk bands popping up in venues all across Leicester. You would remember them because they are made up of women, a depressingly rare sight in music, and perhaps too because of the age of the band members. It is rare to see a band made up of women. Rarer are they made up of women over 30, and more irregularly over 50.
You may have found yourself attending shows with lineups full of such bands or looked around at audiences and noticed how many more women seem to be standing around you in the crowds, usually full of men in black t-shirts. An alternative music scene full of women wielding instruments, women attending gigs together, women sharing knowledge and community, women playing punk.
This is the legacy of Ruth Miller.
In 2021, aged 60, Ruth wanted to start a new band of all women. However, she found that there were very few other women, especially around her age, to play with. So, she put out a call to women of all ages and of all abilities, including women who had never played before in their lives. She would teach them herself. "The genius of punk," she told The Guardian, "is that you don’t need to have played an instrument before starting".
Ruth got her wish through her determination and direction, and much more. Not only did she form her own band, The Verinos, consisting of all women playing instruments, but she also helped create a further six bands. The workshops culminated in a gig on International Women's Day three months later, featuring five newly formed bands. Two years later, there are at least 18 bands (and counting) made up of women and non-binary people, started by those who attended Ruth's Unglamorous workshops or were directly inspired by them. Ruth's influence has been vast, and her legacy will continue even in her absence.
Having formed the punk band PO! in 1984 and Ruth's Refrigerator in 1990, Ruth's musical accolades were many before Unglamorous began. Women playing in bands had always been important to her: in 2018, on her blog, she wrote up the core principles she had when starting PO! They included "It is important that females play instruments in bands and girls shouldn’t just be the singer" and "don't get a more competent male player to cover up any female lack of ability". She went on to say that she had previously "never stuck to them".
As a female musician, I have attempted to find other women to play in my band and have faced a scene full of men and only a handful of women. The few women who play instruments often need more confidence to join a band. Martina Fazio, now of Unglamorous band Dada Women, told me that she had given up playing the guitar for many years, saying that "in my head, I could never compete with my (mostly male) guitar heroes". This is true of my generation, even more so for the generations before it, and with even the organiser of Glastonbury claiming a "pipeline issue" for women in music, it is easy to despair or to turn to male musicians instead.
Ruth refused to do either, taking it upon herself to change it, changing the lives of hundreds of women and altering Leicester's entire music scene.
Janet Berry, a member of Velvet Crisis, was one of the original Unglamorous women who attended the first workshops. She told me, "It’s very daunting as an older woman… to try anything new. But a whole new support network of women in place, doing gigs and going to gigs… makes things so much easier". This support network, the sense of community, is most impressive. "Ruth has… created a network of people", Martina Fazio told me, "a community within a community in which to feel safe and supported… She has not only empowered the women of Leicester in pursuing their passion for music, but she has also… spread the message to the entire community".
Many of the women involved in the Unglamorous project would never have had the guts to regularly attend the music venues of Leicester, never mind gigging at them. "We're creating safer spaces for people who would usually find watching a band intimidating," continued Janet, "we’re changing the gig-going demographic". And it appears to be true. Courtney Askey told me that there was a "noticeable increase in women attending gigs" during her time as venue representative for Firebug, not just at gigs featuring bands from the project but all shows.
The Unglamorous project undoubtedly has changed the lives of the women involved. Still, Ruth's influence has reverberated through the entire scene. While many of the articles about Unglamorous refer to the "older women" who attended the first workshops, the project included women of all ages, and having so many women in the scene to look up to is already influencing the next generations of music makers.
I spoke to Nuala Harvey, who attended that first International Women's Day gig. "I didn't really know anything about it, but by friends were going, and I was just suddenly struck by the fact that I'd never seen an all-woman lineup before". I saw Nuala at Ruth's memorial, and she assured me that she's still working on joining a band, on the instruction of Ruth – "every time I saw her… despite her not knowing me well, she always made a point of asking if I was in a band yet".
In August, I was honoured to play alongside Unglamorous bands Boilers, Pretty Dirty Rats, and Velvet Crisis at The Musician. As I told the audience that night, I've been playing gigs in Leicester for 14 years. I had never played on a lineup with so many women before or played to an audience containing so many women. When I started performing in this city, I was 14 years old. It was an intimidating space and, at times, genuinely scary as a young girl. Still, as I looked over that audience full of women, I knew that the next wave of teenage girls playing in the city could finally feel safe.
I also spoke to Hex Poseur, who headlined that same gig, about the importance of female role models in music. When Hex told me, "The irony is that as I grow older I feel my writing and music skills only improve, yet always feel like my time is running out", I was reminded of a quote from Ruth:
"Most bands are young, white men aged 19 to 23, and their lyrics are about their experiences. But put together women whose ages range from late 20s to early 70s, and their experience of life, their humour, their anger – these songs are absolutely brilliant".
Hex lamented that "no one seems to care about [women] after they reach 'a certain age'. It makes me feel like there's a time limit on my music". If there's one thing that Ruth has undoubtedly shown us, there is no such limit.
Speaking at her memorial at Firebug, former PO! band member Gary Gilchrist said that the care Ruth had shown to all the women in Unglamorous reflected "the years of kindness shown to me thirty years ago". In another emotional speech at the memorial, Kevin Hewick spoke of the care he had received from Ruth during the difficult period of his father's illness and death. Kevin messaged me, "Ruth was a true friend…She didn't say what you wanted to hear, she was very honest", reminding me that "Unglamorous is an amazing part of her legacy, but there's so much more".
From her John Peel session with PO!, blogging on Punk Girl Diaries, writing and performing with Ruth's Refrigerator, her work in education, raising the children who put on the beautiful and widely attended memorial for her, to the ripples her Unglamorous Music project has created across Leicester and beyond, I must agree with Kevin that "there has never been or ever will be anyone like her".
In a moving post following Ruth's death, her daughter Izzy posted that Ruth will now "never comprehend the amount of lives she has affected", followed by an open invitation to the memorial. "I will not let her fade", the post signed off.
There is no doubt that Ruth's legacy will continue to stretch further and further, impacting music in Leicester forever and making it a better place for everyone, especially for women.