I met Sarah Kittingham the way I have encountered some many incredible metal-loving women: online. I first became aware of her and her work because we both wrote for Hellbound, and I was immediately struck by how passionate an engaging her writing was, as well as how well-informed and intelligent her critiques are. Sarah has interned at Decibel Magazine and is a long-time contributor to BeatRoute in Calgary, AB. In addition to music journalism and photography, Sarah has made metal the crux of her academic work as well. She is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Communications from the University of Calgary, and her project examines the role of women in extreme metal. I am thrilled to have her powerful and intelligent voice as a part of Girls Don’t Like Metal.
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How did you first come to identify as a metalhead? What is your heavy metal love story?
The first time I heard Iron Maiden‘s Brave New World I was floored. Some buddies had brought it to my house and I instantly connected to it. Music had never played a large role in my life before that, as my parents listened almost exclusively to Enya and Tears for Fears, and the only band I had really cared for that they enjoyed was Pink Floyd. It got me completely hooked.
Over the next two years, I bought 11 Iron Maiden albums and would etch lyrics and the band logo into all my possessions: bags, pants, school binders. When high school hit, my friends and I became interested in the punk scene, and that eventually segued into the hardcore/punk/math metal/grind sound. Every Friday, I’d go to A&B Sound and buy everything: Meshuggah, Converge, Dillinger Escape Plan, Orchid, A Day in Black and White, Buried Inside, Clutch. My life became consumed by it.
One of my favorite metal memories as a teenager was driving to school in my girlfriend’s mini-van with our mix tapes (the CD player was broken, and we’d be damned if we didn’t have music) all screaming along to Amon Amarth’s “For the Stabwounds in our Backs.” I still have those moments all the time. Seeing the At the Gates reunion in Seattle in 2008 was mind blowing; so was seeing Electric Wizard in the front row at Maryland Deathfest in May, and Pig Destroyer at the Noctis Metal Festival weekend a few weeks ago. I fall deeper in love with metal constantly.
When and how did you know that you wanted to make heavy metal your career?
In high school, I decided music writing was my passion. I had a column in the school paper called “Unknown Bands You Should Know,” which featured the likes of Pig Destroyer, Immortal Technique, Explosions in the Sky, Dredg and everyone else who floated my boat in the early to mid 2000s. My girlfriends and I went to local shows every weekend for years.
I worked at music shops for two years to save money after high school ended, and then spent eight months back-packing through Europe and seeing all the metal festivals. When I went to Roadburn, a whole new world opened up. I had never felt music the way I did at that festival. Neurosis, Sunn O))), Blue Cheer, Big Business opening for the Melvins, Acid King, Russian Circles… Then I went to the notorious 2007 version of Hellfest. Neurosis played there as well; when their set began the sky opened up and an intense thunderstorm ensued. Only around 50 of us remained in the mud pit while everyone else hid under these massive tents. Their projections included wolves running across the landscape. I just remember being covered in mud and screaming. I looked up: Steve Von Till unleashed one of those unearthly howls and jerked his neck forward. His forehead hit the mike, it caved in, and blood just poured down his face. It was the most intense concert I’ve ever attended in my entire life, and induced this unreal elation. I knew I had to work in heavy metal so I feel that all the time.
There is a lot of debate in journalism over the value of internships. I have never done one; you interned at the much-respected Decibel Magazine. What was this experience like and do you think it significantly helped your career?
Working at Decibel was a lot of fun and a very valuable learning experience. I was (and am) very young; it helped me realize the importance of experience and context and also made me realize how much more time (in years) I had to put into my career before people will really take me seriously.
It’s difficult to articulate, but in my mind journalism is not a career in the sense that you’ll make a living off it unless you’re utterly insane or always in the right place at the right time. I’ve been pretty lucky thus far, and working at Decibel put me in the right place at the right time. I gained a ton of connections, friends and memories, and looks great on my resume. On top of that, I was able to move to Philadelphia for a few months, spend every other weekend in New York City, go to Maryland DeathFest for the first time and spent all my free time at a craft brewery. I was able to watch Eyehategod while sitting on the stage of a church basement, dance to Bobby Liebling’s triumphant return to Pentagram, sing along with 100 hipsters to the Neutral Milk Hotel tribute band Neutral Uke Hotel and have my skin crawl while at the Cake Shop when Bastard Noise played. Sure, I had to work three jobs for a year to afford it, and apply for several scholarships, but the ton of work I put in equaled an experience I’ll never forget. I’m thankful for it and would recommend anyone else apply. An internship is only valuable if you pour yourself into it.
Tell us about your experiences at BeatRoute Magazine. How does writing for a general music magazine differ from writing for an all-metal mag, like Decibel or UNrestrained (which you also have experience with)?
BeatRoute is my baby. I’ve been there since I was 17 years old, and am likely a lifer. That being said, it’s an uphill battle in many ways. We are a small publication, and have to fight for everything because we operate largely on volunteers and cater to an indie audience. Therein lies the difference between a music magazine and a metal magazine: the audience doesn’t always have the context. Therefore, when I write for BeatRoute, I write with the assumption at least half our readership has never heard of the band I am writing about. That, coupled with very brief word counts, makes BeatRoute a perpetual learning experience that I sweat and bleed for willingly. It makes for hilarious and interesting attempts at articles, to be sure, and is both rewarding and enraging.
It’s a struggle to constantly write articles that appeal to both rabid fanboys/girls and people who might not like metal to care about it. In comparison, when writing for Decibel and UNRESTRAINED! I didn’t have to try as hard to juggle those factors. It had its own challenges, because metal fans are incredibly inquisitive and fiercely protect their love, so obviously I was writing for that audience. I love doing both types of writing, but they have their own unique challenges.
You are one of those multi-talented people who is both an excellent photographer and a stellar writer. How important is having both skills when it comes to your career in music journalism?
For my career, it’s vital. That’s from both a selfish and professional standpoint. Personally, I know plenty of journalists who can’t capture a moment to save their lives, yet they are very successful. However, as a music journalist, I find it very useful because capturing that moment which incites the feeling I get from metal is so rewarding. Very little feels better than standing four feet from your musical idols while headbanging and screaming and photographing. As for writing… I love writing. It’s very enjoyable.
You are also working on a graduate degree, bringing heavy metal into academics. What is your project about?
My project is called “Extreme Conditions Demand Extreme Responses: The Rise of Women in Black Metal, Death Metal, Doom Metal, and Grindcore.” It focuses on the rise of women since 2000 in extreme metal, and is inspired by what I saw as a huge gap in heavy metal scholarship. When I started reading the graduate work on heavy metal, I saw a very gender-biased representation of metal. Everyone talked at length about sexism, the gender imbalance and how women are limited in their capacity to express themselves and their sexuality. Yes, I agree that treatment of gender is problematic, but at least in my experience the treatment of women has changed fairly dramatically in the past decade. More and more, I am seeing women in bands, as fans and as pillars within the metal community, and data obtained from Metal Archives correlates with that observation. Therefore, I am trying to create a project that suggests women’s role is changing for the better.
Do you find that studying heavy metal is still a bit of a taboo subject, or have you found easy acceptance in academia?
It certainly can be considered taboo. I’ve had a few sniggers and the like when people ask about my topic, and had to be selective about my advisor, but overall people are very supportive and interested in it. The less you apologize for your research, the more receptive people are to it.
Do you find (as an academic, a journalist or from the metal community in general) you face additional challenges because you are a woman?
I wonder how to answer this question accurately. Basically, I think that the male metal fan I meet on the street or at a concert certainly doesn’t assume I know metal, and if I indicate that I love it, they have made comments about a boyfriend getting me into it or they make condescending inquires or simply ignore me.
Often, I find that women in the metal scene are oddly confrontational and presumptuous, which I postulate might be caused by mistreatment or an imagined competitiveness. I find that annoying, but it doesn’t create challenges for me. The good people are the good people, and they are easy to pick out and thankfully numerous. As a good friend put it, everyone has to work hard to “give less fucks.”
Stereotypes are something literally everyone has to smash through. In my experience, I’ve found that professionally people are very egalitarian and impressed when I do my job well, and equally unimpressed when I do it poorly. I try to not care what assumptions someone I don’t know makes about me based on my appearance and demeanor. Likewise, I’ve talked to several female musicians who say they’ve heard some utterly idiotic comments about their gender from both males and females, and that disappoints me, but I’ve also heard many women say they are impressed by the change they’ve seen in the past decade. So it’s a mixed bag.
If you’re a woman who knows what she is talking about and is passionate in academia, journalism, or photography, I believe you have similar advantages as a man with equal talents. Things aren’t equal for female musicians, sound engineers, producers, stage managers, and club owners, unfortunately.
What advice would you give someone who wanted to follow a similar career path?
Love what you do. Support your local music scene. Go to shows. Listen to all the music you can get your hands on. If you find a band or a subgenre you like, listen to the bands who created it. Work hard. Pursue every opportunity. Respect your peers. Respect your enemies. Travel as much as you can afford to. Make friends who care about the music you do, and who disagree with you frequently. Read. Resolve conflicts immediately when they arise. Admit your mistakes, work on your weaknesses and write about every single genre you can. Don’t be that writer who hates everything and uses their writing as a platform for their hate. Make relationships with local musicians, promoters, artists, writers and photographers, and work hard to maintain them. Do favours for people. When people do favors for you, be gracious and thankful. Have fun and always enjoy yourself.