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Talk Shop with Mandy Rowden, Founder of Girl Guitar Austin

Published Wednesday, September 30, 2020 4:00pm
Photo by Mark Maryanovich Photography

As seen in Guitar Girl Magazine Summer 2020 Issue

By Enmaria Cuminsky

Austin, TX-based singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, teacher, and founder of Girl Guitar Austin, a comprehensive rock and roll school for women, draws influences from a wide range of musicians and genres. From rockers like Tom Petty, Neil Young, and The Rolling Stones to singer-songwriters like Lisa Loeb, Lucinda Williams, and Neil Young to the classical music of Vivaldi and Chopin.

Her love of teaching doesn’t stop at Girl Guitar Austin; Rowden is also the camp musician for Lucky Star Art Camp, a regular guest clinician for Own Your Own Universe, and a songwriter for Songs for the Soul which she says, “All things I genuinely love and am deeply proud to be part of!”

Besides her countless hours devoted to teaching guitar, she is also a songwriter and touring artist playing her original music. She has released three albums to date and is currently working on her fourth.

Rowden chatted with us about Girl Guitar Austin, teaching, her musical background, her Gibson guitars, and more.

As the founder of the music school, Girl Guitar Austin, which we love, by the way, tell us about starting the music school, and why the primary focus on females?
Girl Guitar is one of the things I’m most proud of in the world! It’s a comprehensive guitar school and rock camp that focuses on women twenty-one and up in the Austin area. I’m really passionate about the learning side of things, but I’m equally proud of the community that’s been built there. I started it, almost by accident, thirteen years ago, after having moved back to Austin from New York City during the holidays and being broke enough that my cell phone got cut off. I thought that throwing together a six-week guitar class would help me get back on my feet, and when someone suggested making it just for women, I ran with it. It turns out we had so much fun nobody wanted to quit after the class was over, so we kept going—and going and going. We’ve never been “man-haters” or anything overtly political; it just turns out that playing music with women is really, really fun, and it makes for a different vibe—one that lots of people respond really well to. It’s an amazing group of people and one I’m very proud to be part of. During the COVID-19 pandemic, all classes and workshops have been switched to Zoom, and we now have participants from all over the US!

How is teaching music to others different from making your own? Have you found that teaching has changed your perspective on the music-making process?
Teaching has definitely changed how I approach my own music! For one thing, I learn so much from the daily reinforcing of fundamentals that I do with my students, but also, I get constantly inspired by them! Lots of song ideas and melodies come from conversations with my students. I often work on something I’ve asked them to do just out of solidarity, and it’s always pushing me forward.

When the pandemic hit and stay-at-home orders were issued, you had to change your structure to meet the demands of your students. How did you approach the new format, and do you see this as a new way of reaching more students?
In some ways, the pandemic has done me a huge favor! I’d never even heard of Zoom before March of this year, and now it’s the platform I use to teach all my classes, workshops, and private lessons. I currently have students in 11 different states (and one in Spain) and more coming in all the time, so I will definitely be making adjustments as we all start getting back together in person to keep my out-of-towners plugged in and rocking out. There’s a good chance I wouldn’t have thought of this on my own, and it’s been a really cool experience to share Girl Guitar’s classes with women from all over!

You also participate in workshops with Terri Hendrix of Own Your Own Universe. How is that experience?
I’ve been teaching guitar workshops at Own Your Own Universe for a few years now and really love working with Terri. It’s a great space, a great group of people, and a natural fit for my skills and my laid-back approach to teaching. I’ve looked up to Terri for a long time, so getting to work closely with her has been a lot of fun.

Share with us a little of your musical background; when you first began playing a musical instrument, what shaped your style of music, what music you grew up listening to.
I grew up playing classical piano and violin from age six and was in a pretty uptight religious environment where I was totally closed off from anything mainstream; it was all either classical or gospel. My little world took a serious pivot when I was about thirteen, and my older brother brought home a copy of Tom Petty’s Greatest Hits—it was like the whole world opened up to me. I knew somehow I wanted to play music—loud, fun, empowering music that made me happy. I didn’t abandon classical music completely, and gospel still works its way into my writing fairly regularly, but loud guitars and topics that were relevant to me took my focus after that. In high school, my friend and I decided somehow or other that we were going to join Weezer, or at least marry into it, and guitars seemed like the obvious path to making that a reality. I found a clunker and got started, and that’s been a big focus of everything after that. I’m still waiting to hear from Weezer, but I figure it’s not over yet.

From what I’ve read, you’re a multi-instrumentalist with a soft spot for folk instruments that are featured in your music. Besides guitar, what instruments do you play? Do you have a favorite?
Guitar is my favorite by far these days, but I still have a soft spot for violin/fiddle and piano, and they’re a close second and third. I play a good amount of drums and bass as well as harmonica and mandolin and dabble a bit with lap steel, banjo, and ukulele.

I know you play Gibson guitars, and as a Gibson artist, what is it about their guitars that make them your go-to?
When it came time to invest in a really good guitar, several years after high school, all I could find myself drawn to were ‘60s era Gibsons, and I ended up with a 1967 J-45. Years later, I’ve owned many, many, many Gibson guitars and still love them as much as ever. It’s the sound, it’s the aesthetic, it’s how they feel in my hands; they just do it for me, and I’ve had a lot of fun learning the brand, the history, and the instruments.

What are some of the models you play?
My go-to’s are a pretty recent J-200 and J-45, but I also own a 1980 Les Paul Custom, a 1964 F-25, a 1936 L-00, a ‘60s 12-string, a 1937 Lap Steel, a ‘60s Mandolin, and I often teach with one of their new G-45s. There are others that get traded in and out from time to time, but the above are my steadies, and they bring me tons of fun and happiness!

You’ve gotten to work with GRAMMY award-winning producer Lloyd Maines in the past, and Don Richmond produced your most recent album. Are there any other producers you’d like to work with in the future?
I’m working on a new record as we speak that Matt Smith is producing at 6 String Ranch in Austin, and needless to say, I’m quite excited for it! Beyond that, I haven’t picked out a bucket list of producers, but this makes me think I should! I’ll admit to fantasizing about working with Benmont Tench or Mike Campbell of The Heartbreakers or T Bone Burnett, but that’s down the road.

Working with Don Richmond at Howlin’ Dog Records was a really wonderful experience, and I’d make more music with him any time. Lloyd Maines played pedal steel on my first record (These Bad Habits, 2015), but that was an album I coproduced with Joe Carroll at Treehouse Productions in South Austin. I’ve been really lucky that every one of these guys have been a dream to work with. Here’s to hoping my streak continues!

What about collaborations with other instrumentalists and vocalists?
I love collaborating and hope to do tons more of it after this record. Again, I haven’t made a bucket list of people I want to work with, but maybe I will now!

You have a very unique musical sound grounded in Americana music. What drew you to this style of music, and who were some of your musical influences?
When I was in college in San Marcos, Texas, I stumbled onto two radio stations that changed my life: Austin’s KGSR and KNBT out of New Braunfels. This was the first time I’d heard Lucinda Williams, Kelly Willis, Neil Young, and Willie Nelson. I loved the realness of the production with the earnestness of the songwriting, and that it came from what seemed like “real people” rather than pop icon types. That kind of accessibility made their music really appealing to me, and I’ve been in love with it ever since.

Do you think your sound has changed a good deal since you started making music? If so, what caused it? If not, what has helped you maintain your sound?
Well, I certainly hope my sound and my skills have matured, but I still love the same stuff. I’m a lot more knowledgeable now, so I know the music I’ve studied in the intervening years has influenced me. I’m also a lot less judgmental of my work, and I like what I’m writing now better than I did back then. I play a lot more electric guitar now than I did in those early days, and that plays a part in my sound. It’s a louder show now, and I like it that way!

From my perspective, I feel there’s a close-knit music community in Austin—it seems that almost everyone I interview in Austin is connected somehow. Share with us your view of the Austin music scene.
Oh man, I could rattle about the Austin music scene for a long time; I’ve been here for fifteen years and have been playing gigs here for even a little bit longer. It’s been a really special experience, and I’ve loved getting to know and getting to play with so many wonderful people here. As Austin has grown, a lot of the scene has spread out to rural areas (or just up and left Texas altogether), and it’s been sad to see lots of folks move on; however, there’s still a bond, a familiarity, when I run into folks out on the road or on social media. Austin has a way of bringing people together, and it’s pretty special for most of us that have been through it.

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