It’s an all-girl supergroup like no other: Pretenders leader Chrissie Hynde, Jamaican-born singer Grace Jones, Sleater-Kinney guitarist and “Portlandia” star Carrie Brownstein, folkie Jewel, punk poet Patti Smith and 1970s icon Carly Simon. Only these women aren’t reviving Lilith Fair. They’re part of the latest trend in book publishing.
In a genre once wholly dominated by male rockers, female musicians are now finding their voices — and their book deals.
On Tuesday, Hynde’s “Reckless: My Life as a Pretender,” already sparking headlines for the singer’s controversial comments on rape, will arrive in bookstores, quickly followed by memoirs from Jones, Jewel, “Brave” singer Sara Bareilles, Brownstein, Simon and Smith. These come on the heels of books by Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, Slits guitarist Viv Albertine, Carole King, Ann and Nancy Wilson, Cyndi Lauper and Linda Ronstadt.
The rise of the female rock memoir is rooted in several factors, some market-based, others more open to interpretation. There is, publishers and writers say, generally a different way that women rockers tell stories — with more humility and vulnerability than their male counterparts. There is the shift in the book business as grunge kids raised on MTV’s “120 Minutes,” not Eric Clapton solos, find themselves in a position to make publishing deals. There are also the simple numbers, both in book sales and on the pop charts.
“This is the era of the female act, be it Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, Gaga, and maybe that has caused overall a hunger for reading about female artists,” says David Rosenthal, the former Rolling Stone editor who, as president of Blue Rider Press, is publishing Jewel’s memoir as well as upcoming books by Emmylou Harris and Sinead O’Conner.
Male rock memoirs are still dominant on the bestseller lists, whether Bob Dylan’s “Chronicles,” with more than 560,000 copies sold to date, or Keith Richards’s “Life,” at 760,000 and counting, according to Nielsen BookScan. But Smith’s 2010 book, “Just Kids,” sold more than 430,000 copies and won the National Book Award.
“It wasn’t like Patti Smith’s success gave me the green light,” says Carrie Thornton, who published Gordon’s “Girl in a Band” earlier this year. “But publishing is a business built on comp titles. That success certainly helps this make sense to the accountants.”
As a teenager in Virginia in the 1990s, Thornton looked up to Gordon and can still remember scrambling down to the local art house to see “1991: The Year Punk Broke,” the documentary filmed during Sonic Youth’s European tour with Nirvana.
Now 40 and editorial director of Harper Collins imprint Dey Street Books, she watched Richards’s 2010 biography, “Life,” earn rave reviews and rise up the bestseller lists.
“That was the gold standard, and there were just so many guys of that generation publishing their memoirs,” says Thornton. “My peers were shaking their heads and saying, ‘Where are the women? Where’s Chrissie Hynde? Where’s Stevie Nicks? Where’s Kim Gordon?’ ”
So she reached out to Gordon, whose 27-year marriage to band mate Thurston Moore was dissolving, which also meant the end for Sonic Youth.
“I hadn’t thought of doing a conventional book,” says Gordon, also an artist whose work has been shown in major art galleries. “My first idea was to make one book. One copy. And sell it in a gallery for a lot of money. But everyone was so curious about what happened.”
There also were practical considerations. Sonic Youth was done.
“I needed another means to opening up other opportunities to make money since my main source of income had also ended,” she says.
“Girl in a Band,” heartbreaking and poetic as well as deliciously dishy, explores Gordon’s relationships with Moore, Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love. The book rose as high as No. 2 on the New York Times bestseller list.
“That was a tremendous surprise in terms of sales, and a lot people perked up their ears to think, ‘Oh, that’s quite fascinating,” says Rosenthal, the publisher of Blue Rider Press. “This is a book off the mainstream, and yet there’s a real market for it.”
The success of “Girl” raised another question. Publishers know that women read more than men. Were memoirs penned by women more accessible to that core group?
It’s a complicated subject and one that can easily slip into “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus” territory. But Mary Karr, the master memoirist and author of “The Liars’ Club” and upcoming “The Art of Memoir,” believes gender does matter.
“Your femininity is sort of gauged by some kind of modesty that most male rock stars don’t suffer from,” she says. “To me, rock-and-roll is all about adolescence. Male rock stars are brimming with male bravado. Women, I see it in my poetry classes. Virtually every young woman poet comes and says, ‘I don’t know if what I’m writing is important?’ ”
“Men are all about mythmaking,” adds Viv Albertine, the punk icon and founding member of the Slits whose book “Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys” came out last November. “They’re attempting to build the myths and sustain the myths. Where I thought, I could call this book ‘Deconstruction of a Legend.’ To deconstruct what people think is a successful person, a groomed person, an attractive person. I’m going to put it to pieces and show what’s underneath.”
In Hynde’s case, her openness is startling. She recounts being raped, in her early 20s while in a drug haze, by a group of bikers in an abandoned building in Cleveland. But she blames herself as much as the rapists, a take that has angered rape victim advocates.
“You can’t [expletive] around with people, especially people who wear “I Heart Rape” and “On Your Knees” badges,” she writes.
She also downplays her own spot in music history. While Hynde’s voice and songwriting chops have generally placed her alongside such pop-punk innovators as Elvis Costello and David Byrne, she levels considerable praise on the late Pretenders guitarist James Honeyman-Scott.
“Without him,” she writes, “I’m sure I would have made only the smallest splash with my talents.”
Hynde, in an interview, said that she reads primarily fiction, not memoirs, and wasn’t aware that so many books were coming from female artists.
“I don’t care,” she said. “A good book is a good book. A good song is a good song. Let me hear it, let me read it. I’m not very gender-driven.”
Neither is Jewel, whose “Never Broken: Songs Are Only Half the Story” comes out Sept. 15. In an interview, she said that her book wasn’t really a rock memoir. It’s more about her path from an abusive childhood, through her time living in her car, struggling with agoraphobia, and, ultimately, recovery. She’s not particularly interested in being lumped in with only female writers.
“I never aspired to be a great female singer songwriter or great artist,” she says. “I aspired to be a great artist competing with the boys as much as the girls.”
Then there’s Carrie Brownstein, whose “Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl,” out next month, isn’t even being pitched as a music memoir. It’s about growing up in a dysfunctional family, discovering her passion for music and the often awkward steps leading into adulthood. She even has to face being unintentionally outed by Spin Magazine.
“Music isn’t a category we do,” says Geoffrey Kloske, the publisher of Riverhead Books. “Celebrity isn’t a category we do.”
To that end, Brownstein, known for her starring role on IFC’s “Portlandia,” is being pitched as a kind of renaissance riot grrrl. Her book tour will feature her in conversation with comedian Amy Poehler, Roots drummer Questlove and writer Dave Eggers.
Kloske views Brownstein’s memoir as a new start, not a one-shot deal.
“She’s a writer, a storyteller,” he says. “I think it’s the beginning of her life in letters.”
Which makes practical sense. Music sales are down, particularly for older artists. Hynde’s last album, 2014’s “Stockholm,” sold fewer than 40,000 copies, according to Nielsen Music. Taylor Swift sells that over a weekend.
“If I were someone who made my living as a singer-songwriter for a long time, I’d look at reality stars who have a zillion Twitter follows and I’d say, ‘I want to do something to make it a little easier for me,’ ” says Sheila Weller, author of “Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon — and the Journey of a Generation.”
“I can’t sing every night of the week. Should I do this? I don’t think the Chrissie Hyndes of the world are thinking, ‘I’ve finally found my voice.’ They always had their voice. I think they realize this is a good opportunity.”