There are nearly 70 female soloists, bands or band leaders performing at NMF this year. Singers, songwriters and bands like Tequila Songbirds, KALO, Annie Oakley, Chelsey Cope, Salli, Sophia Massad and more. If the schedule seems a little overwhelming, the following profiles seek to highlight can’t-miss acts featuring musically empowered females.
Some family members living in Oklahoma gave Casii Stephan a message that many young women receive. They said if she moved from her home in Minnesota to Tulsa, she would have a man in her life and be married within six months.
That was nearly four years ago. Stephan made the move but didn’t get married. She found instead a life in music that has elevated her to one of the top female vocalists in Oklahoma.
She also found a voice that empowers her and other women to be who they are instead of changing to fit someone else’s expectations.
Stephan is lead singer-songwriter with Midnight Sun, a Tulsa-based soul/pop/rock band she formed that will perform Friday night at NMF. She is one of a long list of female artists featured in the 11th annual festival who use their music to express personal feelings that may run contrary to old gender stereotypes.
“I’m not your pretty little girl on a leash no more,” is a line from her song, YoYo (embedded below). She wrote it while struggling through relationship issues with her father.
“Songwriting is kind of my way to sort through what I’m emotionally going through and put words to it, identify it and decide whether I want to keep those emotions or not,” she said.
For Stephan, the move to Oklahoma and her creation of the Midnight Sun also gave her the path to overcome a lack of self-confidence in her music. She now believes she may someday be able to make her music her full-time job. In the meantime, she works in creative marketing for a software company.
Her Sarah McLachlan- and Adele-type powerful voice belies any notion that she might have ever lacked self-confidence in her music. Her song, I Like the Way, booms with a haunting air of a James Bond movie theme. It received the Independent Music Award for Best Love Song at New York’s Lincoln Center in 2016.
Casii Stephan and the Midnight Sun will perform at 9 p.m. Friday at the Main Street Event Center.
No story about the musical voice of women to be heard at NMF would be complete without including the storytelling Americana/folk band Judith. Judith was formed in 2014 when three girlfriends from different musical backgrounds agreed to play a one-time event at The Plant Shoppe in Oklahoma City. Then, they were invited to play at a second event, and then a third, and eventually they knew they weren’t just best friends — they were a band.
Judith is an all-woman violin-violin-guitar trio (Kinsey Charles, Lynn Neill and Morgan Ward). They play songs with an underlying message of hope and encouragement. That trope has become even more personal for Charles and Neill, who are mothers of daughters and constantly contemplate what their children may take from their body of musical work as they mature.
Neill – a Yukon elementary school music teacher during the day, violinist in the band at night and a mother of 3-month-old Sadie every minute – hopes her daughter will grow up benefiting from the messages of Judith’s music.
“I think about that a lot,” Neill said. “I thought a lot about that even before she was born. What message am I leaving? When I think about it, it’s heavy.”
“I will want her to feel free to be who she is. To be a strong person.”
Self-identity is an overarching theme of Judith’s music. Even their website URL, whichoneisjudith.com, points to a question of identity. (Answer: all three of them.)
“Our first album was titled Names. Many of our songs are about identity — creating an identity for yourself and being secure about who you are and not relying on what other people said you were in the past,” Neill said.
Until recently, Charles’ 9-year-old daughter, Davie, just thought all moms spent hours in the living room strumming a guitar and writing music.
“She’s been around music since before she was even born,” said Charles, the principal songwriter for Judith and also a nurse at a stroke-rehabilitation hospital unit.
“I did an album and show when Davie was 7 months in my stomach. Music isn’t my career, but it is something I do daily. As she (Davie) has gotten older, it’s like second nature to her — ‘Yeah, mom’s in the living room writing music.’”
Charles said she knew the power of her music one day when she was about to scold Davie over some behavior. Davie diffused the moment and got a smile from her mom when she responded by singing a line from the Judith song, Scheherazade:
“Don’t you, don’t you worry about me!”
Charles said Davie is now showing her own interest in music as she has discovered that having a mom perform in a band is cool.
“The thing I like about her interest in music and my interest together with her is that it’s not strange to her that women are forming their own bands, and writing their own songs and performing in cool shows. That’s, in her mind, not weird. I want her to think that’s a possibility for her if she wants it, along with many other possibilities.”
“My hope for her is she realizes that she has a voice and it’s worth being heard,” Charles said about her No. 1 fan: her daughter.
Judith will perform at 10:15 p.m. tonight on the Sooner Theatre stage.
If the message from many women musicians at NMF is “empowerment,” then 15-year-old Ken Pomeroy is the empowered.
First things first: Ken is not a boy. She is not a Barbie, either, although she gladly takes to the stage wearing sequined vintage suits she and her stepmom found at a local thrift store, decorative cowboy boots and colorful owl earrings.
She also gladly wears the name “Ken,” which is short for McKenan, as if to say things are not what you might expect.
Pomeroy has a smooth, mature-sounding tenor to her folk songs, a remarkable sound for someone so young. She is already a success by local music standards, recently performing with notable Oklahoma musician Kyle Reid at the Folk Alliance event in Kansas City.
She writes her own music, occasionally getting tips from the well-established musical community such as John Calvin Abney and others who have come to the Pomeroy’s suburban Moore home to jam and embrace her as an equal in the music community. Like others, she has learned to write music as a medium for her voice.
“Music has been a way for me to vent. Not someone to vent to, but a way to vent out anything that I feel,” she said.
That includes personal things like her relationship with her biological mom, which led her to write Be There, which is told from the perspective of both mother and daughter and their sometimes struggling relationship.
The Norman North High School freshman is a Duke University Talent Identification Program (TIP) scholar and recipient of the Oklahoma Historical Society’s student historian award for her study of the father of Oklahoma folk music, Woody Guthrie. Naturally, she will perform at WoodyFest this summer in Okemah.
Standing in support in the wings of the Winston Gray Street Stage at 1:30 pm on Saturday will be her parents, Johnny and Wendy Pomeroy, who have encouraged their daughter every step of the way. That way began about five years ago when they bought her a ukulele. It will take her to the Oklahoma Opry stage on May 12, where she will get to sing and play with music icon Wanda Jackson.
“If Ken was a boy, it wouldn’t matter. It wouldn’t be different,” Johnny Pomeroy said. He said their support – which has included introducing their daughter to seasoned professionals, taking her to multiple private and public performances and educating her about the business of music – is not much different than parents who support a child’s team sports. Except there is another important message: Everyone in music supports each other, and that’s a valuable lesson.
“This is our soccer,” he said. “But, in soccer there is an opposing team. In baseball there are those other guys. There’s always that guy, ‘Oh, watch out for him.’ But we don’t have that. When she is performing at JJ’s and there are 50 musicians there, too, they are all for her. They would kill for her.”
Can’t make NMF? Check out MisFEST in September
In September, many of the female singer-songwriters appearing at NMF will perform at a Tulsa music festival created specifically for them. Stephan, one of the organizers of Music is She, She is Music Festival (otherwise known as MisFEST) said the all-female showcase encourages women to express themselves through music. MisFEST will be Sept. 15 at the River West Festival Park.
Stephan said the festival will include workshops on other aspects of the music business, such as sound engineering and management. MisFEST also has an important message to women, musicians or not.
“Never be afraid to be honest,” said Stephan. “Never be afraid and think that what you have is less worthy than someone else.”
(Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story understated the total number of female acts. NonDoc regrets the error.)