Interview with Guitar Gabby

photo by Jawan Scott

We jumped on Zoom with Guitar Gabby from Guitar Gabby and the Txlips! This Atlanta native started in 2016 by playing under and managing a backing band for former Crime Mob member Diamond, and then forged her own musical project. Her primary mission is amplifying the voices and carving a space for black women, girls, and non-binary people in the music industry. Her strong background in environmental and music law as well as unique and powerful writing voice enable several endeavors outside of music, including being the Board Chair for Girls Rock Asheville, writing for Guitar World magazine, contributing to She Shreds magazine, and holding the position of Diversity Editor at Guitar Girl Magazine.

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So, we can tell you like green! What about this color makes it your favorite?

Green has just always been my thing. I’ve always been attracted to very bright colors, very neon colors. Growing up, my nails were always orange and pink and green. And then when I realized I could get a guitar in the same color, that’s when I lost it and was like, “oh my god!”. It was easy for me to make my brand centered around something I already liked, which makes it easier to market because it’s not forced.

What made you choose tulips for your band name?

So initially it was called “2 Lips,” which was centered around feminine energy and pussy power, like this is for the girls, by the girls. We never have our own space, especially in the industry. We never have our own space to just be musicians together and not have to be around all the guys trying to invalidate you, and sexism, and all that shit. Then I realized you can’t market that because it’s extremely direct, so I changed the name to Tulips like the flower. Then I put the X in there because to me, to be a woman is so many different things.

To be a female-identifying rockstar can be a lot of different things and look a lot of different ways, and I didn’t want anyone to not feel included. So the X stands for no boundaries, because feminine energy does not have boundaries and we run basically everything in the world. So that’s how that came about.

Something really cool about The TxLips is that it functions as a collective instead of a four-piece set in stone. What made you decide to go this route?

I initially had the same members, and then I experienced what every band experiences, which is disagreement that turns into arguments, and then you start missing gigs because your drummer doesn’t want to do stuff. It became a lot, and I decided “Why do I have to forfeit my gigs and my touring and all of the opportunities that have begun being presented to me, and why do I have to let those things go?” I could just switch out musicians, the way many artists do. I think people struggle to understand that it’s a collective and not a regular band, even though band is in the name, because the way that I market it kind of gives the idea that we’re a group, but not in the traditional sense.

I think people think I have musicians in the sense that a solo artist would, like Beyonce or Megan Thee Stallion. This is the exact same thing, and it creates an opportunity for me to not miss out or forfeit things and creates a space for people to participate when they want to. In addition to all the hats that females and women in the world have to wear, a lot of times we put our passions and the things that we like to do on the back burner because we have to do everything for the guys. Why should I have to miss out on gigs and opportunities, and why should you have to miss out on something that you’re very passionate about and very good at? So creating this space for black women in particular to come and exist and not have to worry about anything, just to be here and listen to music and vibe out. And inspire girls that are watching us, that’s more important to me than anything else.

photo by Jawan Scott

Even through a pandemic, last year proved to be a pretty busy year for you, having released two records between your solo work and the band within months of each other.  How is writing music different when you write independently versus as part of a collective?

That’s always been an interesting thing, because the way that we work is I write all the music and lyrics and all of that. Then I teach my musicians, because I’m a super Type-A, organized personality, so I have charts and recordings and full masters and all that stuff. So when I hire or subcontract certain musicians to play certain gigs, I might tell them, “Hey this is the song, this is the key, the tempo.” But I am fully open to creative freedom. I love creative freedom, I love when people can come together and try something and mess up and figure it out. We do that onstage, we do that in the studio.

My only thing is, I create the boundaries, like this is the tempo, this is the key, these are the chords of the song, this is the structure. That’s up to me, but everything else, like how you play the chords, is up to you. One of my bassists, she’s very funky, but the other one, she does not play like a funk bassist at all. But it still sounds good and it’s still the same song. I open up that space for us in the studio and onstage to just exist and be. Even with the songwriting process over the years, I’ve learned how to write for different types of musicians I might have versus writing for how I play.

I write for my voice, I write for my style, and I can write outside of that. But when you play with a collective, you have to write those boundaries and learn how to create music for people so they can interpret it the way they interpret it, and still give me what I need, if that makes sense.

You’re the board chair for Girls Rock Asheville, which strives to help young girls start their rock and roll journey. How did yours begin?

Mine started when I was struggling in middle school. I had always been listening to rock and roll and screamo, at the time I was really into scream and punk music. My mom started having me play piano, and I didn’t really care much for that. I started playing clarinet and the oboe, and that’s when my music journey started.

I had an amazing teacher, the only teacher I really liked in middle school. His name was Mr. Jennings, he was my band teacher. I just remember the amount of time he would take with me, to make sure I understood how to read music, understand music theory, interpret the world around me through the lens of music. He was very good at teaching all of the students about how music is a connecting piece of music to someone you may never ever meet. Like, how you may relay the message to someone who might not care for rock and roll but they like it when you do it.

How they relay that message is extremely important, and to do that you have to do something that’s very, very important that my dad taught me, which is called harness your gift. So, I started playing clarinet and oboe, and learning the Lord of the Rings soundtrack on clarinet. That was a really cool experience. Then I started playing guitar. My mom bought me my first guitar, and I just taught myself to play through listening to things and transferring over what I learned from playing clarinet. I’ve always been so hungry to learn and understand what I’m doing in life, and not just doing it. Anyone can memorize doing something, but I believe the output you put into the world is much greater.

It was a really difficult journey because I didn’t see any other black kids, and I definitely didn’t see any other black girls playing guitar. I always got made fun of for being a weirdo or nerdy and playing clarinet and all that stuff. I didn’t know how to identify with the skin I’m in and embrace that. Guitar really helped me to open up my mind and figure out how to make a place within an industry that’s not catered to me, but is created out of my history and my culture. It was a rough journey, but I’m really thankful for every part of it because I do think that it made me stronger today. Being a board chair of a camp, I take that role very seriously because we as adults in the music industry we need to make sure we’re creating a space that kids feel like they’re included, especially from a young age. That really dictates the kind of humans they become when they grow up.

I watched your unboxing video for your new PRS and was really moved by the story you chose to share about your very first PRS over a decade ago. How does it feel now to have this guitar in your hands?

Every time I look at that guitar it’s so surreal. They sent me an acoustic one that’s green also. Every time I look at a guitar it reminds me of that moment. I’m getting emotional thinking about it. It reminds me of that moment. It reminds me of the feeling that I felt in that space where someone that I didn’t know gave me something that I couldn’t get for myself. That’s the reason why education is extremely important to me in the camp space, especially with kids of color.

Growing up in America, we’re not always given the same opportunities to imagine playing guitar, as a thirteen-year-old black girl, we’re not given the same opportunities and magazines and stuff. Every time I look at a guitar, I’m thankful and I’m humbled by my journey. I try to be very intentional about making sure that, as I receive and I’m being blessed, I’m turning around and giving to someone else. Because I was that kid that someone gave a guitar to. I’ve still never met this couple in person, but anytime I’m doing something on Facebook or have a show, they’re always there to support.

It’s a very humbling opportunity. Years later to be endorsed with PRS, it comes full circle and it’s a beautiful thing. I hope to continue doing that for someone else.

You have a strong background in law, and believe it’s important for artists to be well-versed in the business side of things. If you had to choose just one tidbit of knowledge to share, what would it be?

Ownership. I think that people don’t fully understand ownership in the music industry. I think that it’s because we live in an age where social media is making people believe that they can get what they want, when they want, right now, without any consequences, repercussions, attachments, that kind of thing. I think ownership is most important because that’s what’s going to dictate the longevity of your success.

If you don’t own anything, when you’re no longer relevant ten years from now, fifteen years from now in the industry when you phase out and the new wave of music and generations comes in, what are people gonna be streaming? If they’re streaming your music and you don’t own it, then you can’t go backwards on that. I think ownership is extremely important, and a lot of my legal work is consulting people and working with clients that need help with creating contracts and all of that stuff. The main thing is understanding what I’m doing for you and trying to show you, and not just, Oh I’ll pay someone to write this contract for me. I mean I’ll write it, but you need to understand it before I show it to someone else.

photo by Jawan Scott

You’ve said before that your work in law stemmed from your belief in educating others. How have you and how can others work to make this sort of information more accessible to more people?

Social media. We have social media now, everyone is on social media. It’s about meeting people where they’re at, whatever that looks like. People are always on social media, so I try to do videos or things explaining things to people and walking them through it.

Reading is also very important, I feel like since everyone has smartphones nowadays picking up a literal book is a foreign concept. I do think that that’s very important, and there are a lot of people that still learn from picking up a good old book, dusting it off, highlighting, annotating, all that kind of stuff. I think it’s about figuring out how to meet people where they’re at, and figuring out how to accommodate it.

You’ve talked about being passionate about diversity and inclusion, but acknowledge there’s a huge gap within the music industry when it comes to being representative of these ideas. Could you share with us more of your thoughts on the current state of the music industry?

I definitely think it’s changing. The intentions behind the change are questionable. I think everything really started to change after George Floyd was murdered, and there was a lot of pressure from musicians and artists, and especially the black community. We were curating all of these genres and ideas and all this stuff and feeding into the music industry that’s making a ton of money off our creativity and our culture, but when it comes time to stand up for us, or to have morals, then all of the sudden people disappear.

I think things are starting to change, but I think some companies are doing it because they don’t want to lose out on business. So they’re doing a whole, “We have a black friend!”. You know, that thing. There are a lot of companies that are doing it because they don’t want their marketing to be impacted, from a branding standpoint. And there are some companies that are genuinely like, “Wow, we didn’t realize. It took us awhile, but we really, really messed up, and we’re gonna do everything we can to fix it, and we’re going to do that by working with people. Not using people, working with people who are of the communities that we need to start building a relationship with and representing.”

I do think that PRS is one of those companies. I’ve had an experience on both sides when it comes to endorsement companies, specifically guitar endorsement companies. The responses I got from one company were just not, it was very tokenizing and nonchalant, and I don’t think that they really actually genuinely cared. When I would bring stuff like this up, like diversity and inclusion, the conversations were great. But when it came time to actually set things in stone, they still haven’t responded, and they vanished.

It’s been a blessing to switch to PRS, and be with a company that values my branding skills, and how I can get your products out there to other girls that look like me, but they also value my growth as a person and as a musician, and they do feed into the relationship. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship, and I do think that’s the best kind of relationship that’s built under this umbrella of diversity and inclusion.

Judging from your Instagram, you have a great sense of style! What’s your favorite accessory and why?

Recently… I’m from Atlanta, so I like to mix my rock and roll. I’m a rockstar all day long, but I’m also from Atlanta and I love the trap side of me. So, I was thinking recently that I should get a chain that says “Guitar Gabby.” A company made me this chain, it’s all iced out and everything. That’s pretty cool. I’ve had a lot of fun figuring out how I can incorporate it into different looks that I have, from something super soft to something extremely edgy. I can be super tomboy, like today I’m feeling tomboyish, laid back. That’s been one of my favorite accessories to experiment with. And any boots. Any pair of boots, I will rock them. I love boots, I wear boots year-round. I mean combat boots, but I do have cowboy boots and I will wear them. I actually used to train horses, I love horses.

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