As a musician, a writer and the official "music guru" for Chicago Public Radio's "This American Life," Jessica Hopper is used to being the subject of the story.
First, there was a disastrous 1992 Newsweek article about the riot grrl movement of the '90s that centered on Hopper, received phenomenal backlash from the scene and which she would rather not discuss. And then there's that story she wrote for Vice Magazine a few years ago that was edited to make it seem like she slept with the subject; the publication later apologized, admitting their decision to needlessly tinker with the piece "was an affront and discouragement to women writers."
So it makes sense, then, that after all the drama, Hopper wants to do the opposite: Inspire and encourage young girls to find their own voices through music. With her first book, "The Girls' Guide to Rocking," Hopper draws on her experiences of playing in and representing dozens of bands - as well as running a music 'zine, "Hit It or Quit It," for 14 years - in order to dish out advice about those ever-pesky questions facing 10- to 16-year-old girls trying to make it: What kind of guitars should one buy? How do you book a show? What are the steps to putting together a record?
If you've ever thought about doing it, she already has -- and she won't mind coaching you through the tough stuff.
Currently on a tour to promote the book -- which came out last month and has gotten tons of attention from a variety of outlets, including "Good Morning America" -- Hopper (who listed Joni Mitchell, Stevie Nicks and Disney's Demi Lovato as some of her favorite rockers) spoke with us before her planned stop at Washington's Comet Ping Pong Monday night about how she got started, why she thinks girls need to have a place in rock and the best part about meeting fans.
EXPRESS: When did you begin to realize your passion for music, and when did you decide you wanted to pursue a career in music?
HOPPER: The big lightbulb moment was seeing Babes in Toyland, in Minneapolis in 1991. I had been going to punk shows for about a year -- shortly after I had started high school -- but had never seen a woman holding a guitar, and when I did it was like "Wait a minute, I can do this, too." I don't ever think I thought about music as a career, per se; I worked at labels interning in high school, worked at the record store, did a fanzine, wrote for the music magazine in town, my whole life was music. Largely it still is. I just never thought to do anything else or get a job I didn't like.
EXPRESS: How, and when, did your interest in music meet your interest in journalism?
HOPPER: I just started writing when I was 15, once I decided to start doing "Hit It or Quit It." I didn't think of it as journalism; I just thought I wanted to cover these bands in a way I want to read about them -- like, write about women in bands and not have the entire lede be about how sexy she was, which bothered me tremendously. Also, when I was growing up, in the Minneapolis scene, it was just expected that you participate, rather than simply consume. My parents were journalists, I grew up in a newsroom drawing with china markers, so in my mind -- still -- journalism is what my parents do. I write.
EXPRESS: How much of an impact did the riot grrl movement have on your relationship with music?
HOPPER: Well, riot grrl put a more exact direction on my feminism. It gave me a place in the world; it gave my feelings and thoughts a reason and shape. It was incredibly validating and it shaped and continues to shape my writing and how I view and examine music and culture.
EXPRESS: How did you start writing for as many publications as you have -- such as Chicago Reader, Spin, etc. -- and how did that experience translate into deciding to write a book?
HOPPER: I mostly just write for Chicago Reader and Tribune nowadays and work for "This American Life" helping pick music for the show. As anyone who works for a print publication these days can attest, you don't get to write more than a couple hundred words at a go. My manuscript of the book was about 78,000 words, so it was a different beast altogether. Nothing prepared me so much for the book as spending the last 17 years being obsessed with music, making it, working with it. And being surrounded by inspiring, creative musicians.
EXPRESS: When did you decide to write the book, and what was your main motivation? Did you draw on your own life to write the book, and if so, how?
HOPPER: The first time I thought about writing this book, I was 16 and I was on the phone with my best friend-drummer-bandmate, wishing we had a book that explained how to do it all -- write a song, book a show, set up a PA. It was all a mystery, and it was frustrating because we wanted to do it all. My main motivation to write a girls' guide was that the most fun I have had in my life is being in a band with friends and making music and touring, and I want to encourage girls to do it, and I wanted to put all the info at their disposal, so that nothing stood in their way, so that they could pursue it however they wanted.
EXPRESS: How long did writing the book last, and how did you figure out how to organize it? What was your favorite part to write?
HOPPER: It took about 6 months, and my favorite part to write was maybe the section about equipment -- guitars in particular. I have a long, storied history with buying gear, and in all the research and talking to people and other musician friends, I grew to have a comprehensive understanding of how to buy gear, and it is really, truly a great feeling to pass that on. I recently got an e-mail from a 16-year-old girl that said she and her bandmate had gone, armed with the book, to Guitar Center, and used it to test and buy a PA. That's really the sort of thing when I was writing the book, I wished and dreamed -- that sort of stuff is the end result.
EXPRESS: Why do you think it's important for young females today to be involved in rock? Do you think there are any strong role models for them to look up to, in a world so captivated by Miley Cyrus (whose short-shorts you recently commented on to the Los Angeles Times)?
HOPPER: The great thing for girls now is that there are so many different types of role models, so many different archetypes -- it used to be just Joan Jett or Joni Mitchell, the rocker or the folkster. Now there are so many more women involved in music, in so many different ways; there is Taylor Swift who is only a few grades older than the girls in her audience and she's made Billboard chart history by being the only artist to have two albums in the year end top 10 ... and she was 16 when that happened. There are so many more women in metal, and women playing drums -- I meet so many pre-teen drummers at my book events! It's a really exciting time for me, as a woman who has been doing this for a while -- to see a paradigm shift, where we have teen girl rock stars and 13-year-old girls in bands, releasing records.
EXPRESS: What do you think is the biggest obstacle for girls who want to start a band?
HOPPER: Self-confidence and the unsolicited opinions of teenage boys who think there is only one right way to play guitar.
EXPRESS: How has the "Reading and Rocking" press tour been going? Are you surprised by the amount of attention you're receiving from mainstream audiences, such as "Good Morning America?"
HOPPER: Well, I never thought as a sullen young punk that I'd ever be doing the Martha Stewart radio show.
EXPRESS: Have a lot of young girls been coming to the book events, and how has interacting with them been?
HOPPER: Meeting young, determined girls who are playing music and are obsessed with it is pretty much the coolest thing ever. I cannot understate the awesomeness. Lots of times, it's hard not to cry. It makes me so happy. I feel like I am meeting the future of rock, and she is a 9-year-old drummer who just finished her first summer at rock camp.