by Deborah Carver   May 7, 2013

Deborah Carver explores the burgeoning Twin Cities women's choral scene - Prairie Fire Lady Choir, Twin Cities Women's Choir and Nona Marie's Anonymous Choir.

Whether it’s Smash, American Idol, Glee, Black Swan or even Showgirls, in popular culture female artists are so often portrayed as highly competitive, unable and unwilling to work collaboratively with other women, each one out to sabotage the others’ chances for success.  I mean, just try having a conversation about a female pop star where the word “diva” doesn’t pop up. Or, what about actresses like Anne Hathaway and Jennifer Lawrence? Have you seen a discussion about them or their work that doesn’t, somehow, become polarizing? And chances are you saw, and probably passed along, last month’s “sorority email,” dripping with all the horrible preconceptions about the cattiness that ensues when women get together.

None of this is to suggest that such sexism is necessarily reflected in the day-to-day of our local arts scene; nonetheless, it’s still true that it’s unusual for most people to see a large group of women working together cheerfully, creating new music collaboratively, harmoniously and in a very public way.

The trend came to my attention when several of my friends decided to join a new all-women’s choir. I was even more intrigued when, with families and other friends, we gathered to hear the ensemble’s a capella version of “Can’t Hardly Wait.” Their group, the Prairie Fire Lady Choir (PFLC), was formed in the break rooms of Minnesota Public Radio, when a couple of mid-career women decided to fulfill a lifelong dream of singing in a band. Along with the Replacements, the choir’s repertoire includes George Michael’s “Freedom,” Big Star’s “September Gurls” and a mashup of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” with the 1950s standard “Mr. Sandman.” And they get the songs out as publicly as they can: In their last season, they performed at Lynx games, hopped on the lightrail with their smartphones for a roving “tweet tour,” entertained at the Zombie Pub Crawl and serenaded First Avenue, a mean feat for any local band in only their second year of existence. (Several members are connected in the local music scene, including The Current’s Jacquie Fuller and Claudia Holt of the Como Avenue Jug Band, so these gigs aren’t entirely out of left field.)

Watching the Prairie Fire Lady Choir perform is a little like seeing 40 former shy girls blossom into womanhood: a mix of sweetness and sass, classic femininity with a bit of a punk edge. They’re approachable and capable, radiating the erudite side of pop. They seem like exactly what they are: the sorts of women who create a nonprofit to fulfill their teenage rock and roll fantasies. Now entering its third season, the chorus has grown in tremendous numbers. Auditions for new members were held at McNally Smith College of Music recently, on a day in March that seemed to promise spring; this year, for the first time, the audition process was truly competitive, with more than 60 candidates vying for eight open spots. (Unable to decide on just eight, the choir wound up asking 17 new members, but the auditions were still tough.) Even though the chances of actually getting into the PFLC rivaled the odds in A Chorus Line, the evening was filled with optimistic auditioners, most of whom showed up wearing at least one brightly-colored accessory in honor of the ensemble’s penchant for sunny colors. Hopefuls ranged from college-aged women to retirees, although most seemed to be solidly in their early 30s. Groups of six at a time were called in to audition: two sopranos, two altos and two tenors. If their nerves got the best of them, it didn’t show; I’m sure it didn’t hurt that they were all performing before a panel of judges so uplifting, they could give American Idol a ratings boost. 

“That was so pretty,” those listening commented, panelists smiling at each other as the groups of six sang as a mini-chorus, then individually. “Excellent!” One such group of auditioners sweetly amalgamated, in attitude and sound, from the moment they started harmonizing: “We should form our own choir!” one of them said when the song is over. “Don’t tell the others this, but you’re our favorites so far,” the judges responded. Once each group leaves, the singers receive marks from the panel -- each auditioner is judged on how well they received feedback, as well as how accurately she stayed on pitch and on her part.

Jamie Pfister, a marriage and family therapist, said she auditioned because she enjoys the feeling of community that comes from singing in a large ensemble. “I have a super crazy, intense job, and I want to join in with a group of people who aren’t in my field, where I can come and relax,” she said. “I’m not into religion, but I believe that there is a connectivity between all people, and music nicely encapsulates that connection.”

“Singing with people makes me feel more confident in myself in general,” said Jennifer Poehland, a social worker and stay-at-home mom who found out about the auditions through Facebook. “I always thought about choirs as being part of a church, and I’m not a church person, so when I found out about this one -- which is for anybody, from any walk of life, with no religious affiliation -- it made me really excited.”

The Prairie Fire Lady Choir leans toward the nightclub circuit, where their vocals are a refreshing quasi-spiritual experience in that unlikely setting. Another local group, the Twin Cities Women’s Choir (TCWC), brings their sound into more traditional choral spaces. When I catch up with them, they’re rehearsing in a south Minneapolis church early on a Saturday morning. Churches are designed for just this sort of music, the acoustics perfectly engineered for choirs to belt out their praises to best effect. So, even when the TCWC is repeating the same eight bars of “Chattanooga Choo Choo” again and again in practice, the sound is positively marvelous. They’re working hard to get every tone right, but to an outsider, even the repetition of “Dinner in the diner, nothing could be finer” sounds sassy and modern in this venue. As the group works on each piece, the director instructs them on when to crescendo, decrescendo; when to sing pretty and when to go full-on “glottal attack.”

At a previous TCWC gig at the Ted Mann Concert Hall, another traditional venue, the choir collaborated withEnsia, an environmentally-focused publication and lecture series at the University of Minnesota. They sang songs about composting and bicycles, experimenting with choral styles -- sometimes pop, sometimes pan-African (I was reminded of 2011’s critical darling tUnE-yArDs) -- but were always clear and entertaining. They finished with “What a Wonderful World,” a standard and the only tune I recognized during their set.

But even with the focus on musicality evident in their rehearsals, the Twin Cities Women’s Choir remains a non-audition choir. Founded in 1997, the chorus has more than 150 members and performs three major concerts a season,from October to May, as well as singing for several nonprofit partnership one-offs, like the performance with Ensia. They’re supported largely by member and audience contributions, and the broad selection of songs they perform runs from classical to folk, pop and jazz. In concert, they’ve collaborated with the likes of the Brass Messengers and Irish band, the HiBs. TCWC’s commitment to supporting women also includes commissioning works from women composers, so that each concert shows a range of styles and talents. They hold an annual competition for emerging women composers that invites open submissions; in addition to recognizing each composer with a prize, “our work then broadens the library available for women’s choirs to perform,” said Erica Mauter, president of the TCWC’s board of directors. Like PFLC, Twin Cities Women’s Choir is also moving toward pop music arranged by the ensemble’s members.

Between the group’s interest in drawing women from diverse backgrounds, aged 18 to 80, and the lack of auditions, there’s a frequent flow of new and old members says Mauter, who joined the choir in 2006. “The founding members keep the historical aspect alive -- we have those long-term members who carry that feeling of ‘What were we looking for when we started this group?’ But then you also get energy from new members every year,” she says.

TCWC singers only need to be able to stay on pitch and on part to join -- to an outsider even that seems daunting, but Mauter assures me it’s not that difficult with a little practice. “And the non-audition process takes the competition out of it, so it’s more fun; but we’ve also learned over the years that we’re pretty good!” she says. “The choir is a perfect expression of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.”

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Watching the Prairie Fire Lady Choir perform is like seeing 40 former shy girls blossom into womanhood: a mix of sweetness and sass, classic femininity with a bit of a punk edge --approachable and capable, radiating the erudite side of pop.

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If the Prairie Fire Lady Choir and Twin Cities Women’s Choir are easy-to-find and accessible, with publicized public concerts and sustainable fundraising strategies, then the Anonymous Choir is the cooler younger sister, deep into that segment of the local music scene where it’s still unusual to see all-women bands. Helmed by Nona Marie, lead singer for the band Dark Dark Dark, these women are not the hobbyists you’ll find in the other choirs, but rather firmly entrenched in the choir as a professional if “side project,” something a little more esoteric with a slightly larger dollop of artistic promise. That is, of course, if you can track their performances down. They’ve adopted the promotional style of a more traditional rock band, getting the word out about shows at clubs and house parties, with their music for sale on Bandcamp.

I caught them at Salon Saloon, where they sang three songs about the April show’s theme: “Failure.” They took the stage, eight young women decked out in mismatched prints, many of them with pints of beer they carried onstage. With their hair braided and an otherwise minimalist fashion sensibility, the women sang backup as Nona Marie took the lead and accompanied them on piano. Whereas other local choirs take a more communal attitude toward arranging songs and creating compositions, it’s hard to ignore the dusky star power of Anonymous’ lead singer.

In an email interview, Nona Marie wrote that she founded the choir because “It seemed like a good excuse to get people singing together. I wanted to have another outlet to sing more and work with more people.” Armed with set lists of 1970s “fringe classics” (her words), Anonymous Choir is populated by the kind of women you could have met at a south Minneapolis after-hours party any time in the past 40 years -- casual and free-spirited. This group also the most peripatetic of the Twin Cities women’s choirs I looked at: because of their size, music scene connections and the transience of being young women in their 20s, Anonymous Choir actually tours -- they gigged in the Southwest this past winter and are planning a run through the Southeast this summer. They’ve recorded a stunning, haunting album of Leonard Cohen songs and are planning another to come soon, which will feature Neil Young covers.

Nona Marie writes, “Anonymous Choir is a fun outlet for me, to just be able to sing songs that I like with a bunch of friends. Arranging and writing harmonies is a really exciting process for me, and it's great to be able to sing and perform in this kind of laid back way. Not a lot of pressure.” And it’s plain to see: each member clearly relishes the music and the chance to perform together. The Anonymous Choir runs deep with talent, too; their work covering others’ songs this way is a reminder that artwork can be emotionally resonant in reinterpretation, and without undue, dramatic anxiety about influence.

I sat in on a recent rehearsal for the Prairie Fire Lady Choir, and it evoked just that sort of laid back feeling Nona Marie mentioned. Maybe it was because of the last pelting of April snow we’d been getting, or that comfortable feeling that comes from being in the middle of a like-minded group of women, but that night the Van Nuys Community Center was filled with relaxed energy. Choir members conversationally suggested songs to practice. They agreed on “Don’t Say Nothing Bad (About My Baby),” originally by the Cookies, a ’60s girl group song with a vaguely anti-feminist message. But the appeal isn’t in the content of the song; it’s all about singing “So girl you better shut your mouth” with a group of supportive women. It’s hard not to want to join in.

The thing is, which ever scene you frequent, you’re bound to run into one of these choirs. And when you do, I bet you, too, wind up singing along at some point. Even if you’re just listening, the sounds of women’s voices rising together without a lick of competition is irresistible. Given the increasing number of women in the Twin Cities involved in such collaborative music groups on the side, it’s hard not to feel like some kind of greater harmony is happening, one that complements all the block parties, music festivals and late night shows quite nicely. Sometimes, it really is just about getting together and singing.

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Related links and events:

Twin Cities Women’s Choir will present “Divas and Desserts” May 10 and 11 at St. Mary’s Greek Orthodox Church in Minneapolis. For ticket information: http://www.twincitieswomenschoir.org/update/divas-tickets-sale-now.

Prairie Fire Lady Choir’s “Rebel Rebel - Rock for Pussy X” will be at First Avenue, May 17, 8:00 p.m. Other upcoming performances include:

  • Northern Spark, Union Depot, mezzanine of Head House, St. Paul,  June 8-9, 1 a.m.
  • Pride Parade, Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis, June 30, 11 a.m.
  • Minnesota Lynx National Anthem, Target Center, Minneapolis, August 24, 6:00 p.m.
  • Art at Rice Creek Festival, Banfill-Locke Center for the Arts, Fridley, September 8, 2:00 p.m.

Anonymous Choir is planning shows around the Twin Cities throughout the summer and fall.

Calliope Women’s Chorus is another Twin Cities-based ensemble and the second oldest women’s choir in the country (not contacted for this story).

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About the author: Deborah Carver is a writer and editor who lives in South Minneapolis. She can be found at deborahcarver.com.