Peachy Keen festival's female headliners discuss sexism and empowerment in NZ's music industry

It's a weird time for the New Zealand music industry. 

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the live entertainment scene has been devastating, but Aotearoa is simultaneously one of the only places in the world where artists can sell-out arena shows. 

Meanwhile, a spotlight has been shone on the glaring lack of diversity in the line-ups of some of our biggest festivals, and disturbing allegations of sexual harassment, sexism and misconduct have bubbled to the surface. 

It's kind of a weird time to be a woman, too - a hot take, I know. There's a global shakedown happening, not just through the #MeToo movement, but with a round of fresh scrutiny on female representation and why walking home from a mate's house in the dark continues to be a life-threatening undertaking. 

Amid the tumult, our local female musicians are still composing, choreographing, and finding new ways to connect with their fans. For many of them, Peachy Keen offers an opportunity to do just that - it's a female-dominated music event the likes of which has scarcely been seen in a major festival in New Zealand. 

Boh Runga from Stellar, Paige, Chelsea Jade and Ash Wallace from the pop duo Foley have all signed on to play the festival along with several other impressive wahine. They also all agreed to join me for a conversation about all of this, because while Peachy Keen's line-up shouldn't really be a big deal - it definitely is. 

The festival doesn't actually make a song and dance - excuse the pun - of its predominately female billing, but it's impossible to ignore how rare it is to see all these women's names in the same place, and all printed in the same sized font. 

"The thing I find with line-ups that's so baffling is It's so hard to book an all-male line-up, you have to be trying really hard to dodge all the women," Ash from Foley tells Newshub. 

Meanwhile, Paige points out that "it would be nice to have it not be a surprise that it's a 'female festival'" - or that we should even have to call it that". 

"They don't call Homegrown a male festival," she adds. "And it has been, for years." 

Being asked to play a big show is one thing, but even getting in the door of a recording studio without having to dodge sexist dismissals can be a struggle. 

"You have to prove yourself before you get a chance as the woman in the room. You kind of start from a few steps back," Ash says.  

"Whereas a lot of men come into a space and it's kind of assumed that they're really good at their job and that they're supposed to be there." 

Ash has observed this dynamic many times over alongside her bandmate Gabe, who she says often gets the handshake while she gets the kiss on the cheek. 

"It's the assumptions people make about you - when we come into a [recording] session it's always kind of assumed that I'm just the vocalist, that I don't write anything and I don't play any instruments, I don't produce and all those kind of things, whereas we actually do things 50/50 as much as we can." 

For Chelsea Jade, who has forged a fiercely independent career, the best antidote to these ingrained power-imbalances is knowledge. 

"If you can, know as much about what you're doing as possible. Know every aspect - learn about publishing, know what it means to own your masters, learn what gear you use, how to put it together," she says. 

"The more you know, the more you can demand of other people what the lowest expectations are." 

Boh Runga, who's musical career spans nearly three decades, agrees that artists "shouldn't be beholden to anyone". 

"Anything that makes you feel uncomfortable - in your heart of hearts, you will know if something is not right. There are avenues now where you can seek help." 

It's been distressing for Boh to read allegations about people she knows, she says. 

"It's a sad situation." 

Ash points out that it should be fundamental for all people to feel safe in their workplace - even one where the environment doesn't look the same day to day and there's no HR department to go to. 

An upheaval of the problematic attitudes and practices that are fundamental to an entire industry isn't going to be a straightforward process. It will be messy, uncomfortable and emotionally draining - but undeniably vital in rounding a corner that's been off in the distance for too long. 

While events like Peachy Keen won't reverse the damage and solve the problems the Kiwi music scene must tackle, it's clearing a big space for female artists - one that they previously would have been forced to jostle amongst one another to squeeze into. 

"It's going to have a different energy," Boh promises. 

Watch the video above to hear Chelsea Jade, Paige, Boh Runga and Ash Wallace in conversation about Peachy Keen, navigating the music industry as a woman, and the first songs they ever wrote when they were kids. 

The inaugural Peachy Keen festival will be held at The Basin Reserve, Wellington on April 3.