In our first introduction to Penelope, she has a red plaid shirt tied around her waist and she stands on her white-sneaker-clad-tiptoes to peer over a fence and just beyond the fence is the sea.
“Call me when you get the chance,” she sings. Her face, staring simply at the camera, is void of makeup, and the beachy, girl-next-door vibes of the video matches her music: relaxed.
It is a far cry from the overly sexualized females and norms for feminine beauty that normally dominate the music industry. Penelope is a self-described “tomboy,” who previously triumphed in the world of sports. But, after a medical injury forced her to retire from playing Division I soccer for Stanford University, she decided to challenge traditional ideas of femininity through her other passion: music.
The emerging singer songwriter recently released her debut EP Catch Me When I Fall, which features a song by the same name and a song titled "What a Love", as well a music video for "Catch Me When I Fall" directed by Gab3.
I had a chance to catch up with the 21-year-old native New Yorker and ask her a few questions about her budding career.
You write that some of your idols are artists that challenge traditional norms of femininity such as Avril Lavigne, Michelle Branch, and Stevie Nicks. Can you explain how you try to emulate these artists in your own work?
I think that something special about these three artists is that they are amazing songwriters. For example, Stevie Nicks’ songwriting and vocal talent speak for themselves. She does not have to do anything extremely over the top to get people’s attention because as soon as she opens her mouth, she lures you in with her incredible voice and poetic language. I feel like women are told to use sex appeal to draw in fans. For me, it is about my music and how my music can appeal to a wide audience.
What "traditional norms" are you trying to push back against?
I would not classify myself as traditionally feminine. I have been a tomboy since I was born and still today do not know my way around makeup. I have always hated this idea that there is an image of what a woman “should” look like, or act like, and I feel like I have always pushed back on that through just being myself. Sometimes, that means embracing traditional notions of femininity, and sometimes it does not. But either way, I have always worked to convey to people that it is MY choice, not society’s. That is something Avril Lavigne did in her early days as well as Michelle Branch. They were unapologetically themselves and they wrote damn good songs, so that is why I love them.
What are some of the challenges you face in trying to break feminine norms?
My parents raised me to be confident and to believe in myself no matter what. Most times, that is a blessing. I am able to reach for the stars and believe that if I truly work hard, I will attain my desired goals. Sometimes though, this confidences gets me into trouble. If I am in a room with a bunch of people, or in class perhaps, I have no issue with speaking or sharing my thoughts. I like to lead and share my opinion in a group.
But I think some people hold tight to this idea that a woman is supposed to be passive and sweet, not loud and tenacious, leading them to label someone like me as bossy or aggressive.
I like to be in control of my work, especially my music, and I constantly have to think about whether people I work with will see that and admire that vision and dedication or if they will be turned off by it and feel bossed around. I do not think a man ever has to think about that.
What are challenges you face as a female musician more generally? Can you think of a particular time or instance you felt discriminated against?
As a white woman in this industry, I know I have privileges that minority females do not and that I face fewer challenges because of that. But I do think that generally, across the board, the music industry has traditionally struggled to take female musicians seriously. Just look at the speech the former president of the Recording Academy, Neil Portnow, gave at the Grammy’s last year in which he responded to pushback on the lack of female nominees by saying, “Women need to step up”.
Portnow's implication that there are fewer women in the music industry because women are less talented or less driven is not only untrue, it is dangerous, because it portrays this fallacy of female ineptness. Like many things, music for so long has been dominated by white males from top positions at radio stations or record labels to producers and engineers. As of now, I have worked with predominantly male counterparts because those were my only options. I hope that as I grow, I am able to be more in control of who I work with and focus on working with an all female team.
Aside from the obvious power difference, I think something I always have to deal with is this pressure to change my image into that of a more traditional female pop artist. It is like the verse in P!nk’s song “Don’t Let Me Get Me” when she says: LA told me / you’d be a pop star / all you have to change / is everything you are / tired of being comparted / to damn britney spears / she’s so pretty / that just ain’t me. I feel like it is really hard to be successful in pop, regardless of talent, if you do not cater to the appearances and sounds of those pop queens that have come before. It is really hard for a woman to be authentic to her true self if her true self does not fit the mold.
How does your experience as a female athlete translate to your new career as a singer-songwriter?
I think a lot of the skills and lessons I learned as a female-athlete have definitely transferred over to my new career. There are countless lessons I learned from playing sport that changed my life but I think the biggest would have to be work ethic. People like to think that being an artist let alone a songwriter is an easy job. Trust me, it is not. I feel so fortunate to be able to pursue what I love for a living, but it takes a lot of time, energy, and dedication. It is early mornings and late nights, constant travel to different places, and it requires intensive care for your mental and physical health. It parallels my time as a soccer player greatly and I feel so grateful for my past experiences as I go through these new ones. I just flew into LA after visiting my family in Australia and had four intense days of all-day studio sessions and video shoots. With jet lag and exhaustion kicking in, I thought back to a time where I did a similar travel trip for soccer and had to play in important games right away. It helps to ease my mind and remind me that I can do this because I’ve done these things before.
One other important lesson I learned would be that you are nothing without support. I always played team sports and relied heavily on my teammates. Music is very similar to sport in that you have this alternate version of a coach and a team through positions like manager, PR, booking etc. but also through your friends and family. I would be absolutely nowhere without my “team” because it is extremely hard and nearly impossible to do this all on your own.
Do you have any experiences or stories that stick out to you from your time as a soccer player where you felt that your experience was different because you were a woman?
Definitely. I have played sports for as long as I can remember and in my younger years, was often the only girl playing. I remember one time, at a parent teacher conference in lower school (K-4th grade), a teacher told my parents that it was great that I liked sports, but soon the boys I played with would become bigger and stronger than me and therefore they should start to encourage me to stop playing with them. I think my mom just laughed. A constant experience throughout my life though is this reaction of shock by male peers when playing or practicing with them. For example, nowadays, when I play recreational sports like pick up basketball with guys, they are shocked at the fact that I am athletic. This is obviously rooted in the idea of what a traditional girl is supposed to be like. Although they do not always say it, they are almost always thinking “wow she’s good!!! ...for a girl”.
What message do you hope listeners get from your music? What impact do you hope your music will have?
I really hope that listeners feel touched or comforted by my music in some way. My favorite songs are those that evoke memories and genuine emotion. I think it is so amazing when someone is able to eloquently describe what you are going through or what you may be feeling without even knowing your situation. Honest and true music is what I aim for. I see song writing as a therapeutic exercise similar to journaling and everything I write comes from a place of honest emotion. If I can write my feelings down and add a melody in a way that will reach a wide array of people deeply and warmly, then I will have achieved my goal.
What is next for you after you finish your senior year?
I am not really sure! I have spent this whole summer concentrating on my music and it has definitely paid off. Right now, I am focused on the upcoming weeks and months and trying to live in the moment. But I also never want to close myself off to any of life’s experiences. I love American History and have studied that for the past few years, making me incredibly passionate about public policy and effective civil rights legislation. So for now, music is my focus, but I hope to find a way to have those passions intersect down the line.
Amanda is a journalist currently working at CNN, but previously worked at the Hartford Courant, MSNBC, the Republican-American, WNYU 89.1 F.M., Prague.tv, The PragueCast, and Scholastic News. She holds a B.A. in Journalism and a B.S. in Media, Culture & Communications from NYU. When she is not chasing down a story, Amanda is an avid traveler, a dancer, and a lover of all things outdoors. Visit her website for more.