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Life as a Rock Writer: Jessica Hopper

Posted by inkpop on October 7, 2009

The Girls’ Guide to Rocking author talks about the hustle and flow of music writing

Jessica Hopper got an early start with her punk education. In tenth grade, she learned to play guitar and launched her fanzine, Hit It or Quit It. Her first band, Plaster, only lasted a summer and “ruined a couple of friendships in the process,” but she went on to play in some 30 bands, including Challenger. But playing guitar and bass comprises only a chunk of her musical résumé; her credits include publicist for the Gossip and At The Drive In, band manager, DJ, and Girls Rock Camp booster.Jessica Hopper

At age 16, Hopper earned her first writing paycheck by reviewing an album for a Minneapolis weekly paper. Now, 16 years later, she makes a living as a freelance writer for Spin, L.A. Weekly, The Chicago Tribune, and as a music consultant for This American Life.

A respected journalist and music-industry maven, Hopper is also known for her activist voice. Inspired by her interview with riot grrrl pioneer Kathleen Hanna during the first Bikini Kill tour in the early ’90s, Hopper helped to found the Minneapolis chapter of the feminist punk movement. In 2004, her influential Punk Planet magazine essay, “Emo: Where the Girls Aren’t,” was included in DaCapo: Best Music Writing.

Hopper recently toured the U.S. to promote the release of her first book, The Girls’ Guide to Rocking (Workman), a how-to guide covering everything you need to know to become a rock star (or at least sound like one). If you’ve ever thought about playing music but weren’t sure when or whether to get started, The Girls’ Guide to Rocking is “your permission slip,” Hopper writes. “Welcome to the gang.”Girls'GuidetoRockingCover

inkpop: What were you like as a teenager?

Jessica Hopper: Pretty much the same as I am now, but bossier. I was obsessed with music and feminism and had a real sense of “me versus the world.” I spent a lot of time in my room working on [Hit It or Quit It] and playing music by myself. When I was 15, 16, I was such a sponge when it came to music. My whole life revolved around listening to records, going to shows, making a magazine, and working at a record store. My life is pretty much the same way now — between 16 and 32, there has not been a huge jump.

Your musical references are diverse in The Girls’ Guide to Rocking — you mention everyone from Tegan and Sara to Taylor Swift to Nina Simone.

My goal was that for anybody reading the book, there’d be somebody who looks like her, whether she’s Puerto Rican, an indie rocker, gay, or whatever. I didn’t think about playing music myself until I saw examples of myself onstage, and for me that was Babes In Toyland. For other girls, they might see the young Latina girls of Girl In a Coma, and that makes them think, “I can do that, too.”

What were the easiest and most difficult aspects of writing The Girls Guide to Rocking?

The easiest was that I was so excited to do it, because it represents basically everything I’ve learned in my life. The hardest part was explaining ambiguous and complicated ideas in a simple way — they must be understood by a fourth-grader and be interesting to a twelfth-grader.

It was also difficult to get all the information I needed. A lot of female artists’ careers and the kinds of instruments they played aren’t as well documented as their male peers’. The lack of information was frustrating and depressing but drove me to document information about female musicians.

The Girls’ Guide to Rocking has been saluted by Good Morning America, Teen Vogue, and Entertainment Weekly among many other major media outlets. What’s your advice for promoting a book?

Be prepared to hustle. In the case that your book company doesn’t have a super good idea of how to make people care about your book, you’ll have to do a lot of the promotional footwork yourself.

I talked to other authors before my book came out, and they said, “You’re going to have to call everyone you’ve ever worked with in the publishing and media industry,” and it’s true. Come up with a game plan to promote, and do all the little things such as creating a fan page and a good Website. I use Twitter, MySpace, Facebook, and a blog.

Make sure that you have a decent email list, and have one at your readings and events so that people can sign up. Research sites and publications to see who’s covering similar topics to what you’re writing about and contact them. You have to know who cares about what you’re doing.

Do you think a lot of writers are scared to get started?

I have just as much a fear of failure as I do of success. Lots of times that keeps me in a space where I have a fear of something totally sucking. You have to get your ideas out of your head and onto paper in whatever way you can.

Sometimes when you put your ideas on paper, you find that all you have is two paragraphs’ worth and not an entire novella. I’ve incubated ideas in my head for years before I did anything about them. In some cases that’s good because it gives me more space to mull over my ideas. I am often my biggest obstacle, a sentiment I often hear from other female musicians who are about my age. Lots of times a lack of self-confidence is the number-one thing that gets in the way. Sometimes we don’t have that bold confidence in us. You have to fake it ’til you make it.

What’s your advice for up-and-coming writers?

Just start writing. Even though at first it can be humiliating to look over copy that you spewed, that’s the nature of creativity. That, and read a lot. Read Joan Didion; she will make everyone a better writer.

inkpop Forums Topic: Jessica Hopper writes about what she knows best: music. What do you know like the back of your hand?

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