Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Interview with Sheila Burgel


(This feature originally appeared in issue #57 of Shindig! Magazine. To read the full interview click over the jump.)


DJ Sheila Burgel talks about the enduring appeal of '60s girl-pop.

One point missed by many commentators on Prince's recent death was how much he championed female singers and musicians. A point not missed by DJ Sheila Burgel who dedicated part of her Sophisticated Boom Boom show on WFMU to highlight some of Prince's lesser known girl-pop moments. It was an affecting and insightful tribute, put together by someone who knows a thing or two about female-fronted music.

“When I first heard British singer Maxine Darren’s “How Can I Hide It From My Heart?” off the first Here Come the Girls compilation in 1995,” says Sheila explaining her eureka moment. “That shrill vocal! Those melodies! That bizarre arrangement! It completely floored me. Soon after the gates to girl-pop heaven opened, Francoise Hardy, France Gall, Sandie Shaw, the Cookies, Billie Davis, Twinkle, the Exciters, Dorothy Berry poured in….and my life was forever changed.”

Sophisticated Boom Boom features an eclectic mix of predominately female-fronted sounds and airs on WFMU out of New Jersey each Friday afternoon. When asked for a mission statement for the show Sheila says it's “restoring gender equality with the toughest, dreamiest, sweetest, sassiest, most infectious, hook-filled, girl-fronted pop from yesterday and today, and from all over the world!” Don't be surprised to hear '60s beat, yé- , Brill Building sounds and Japanese Pinky records alongside shoegaze, metal and gritty R&B. “Melody. Hooks. Magic,” says Burgel explaining what holds it all together, ”which is why I can love the Shangri Las, Alan Parsons Project, Janelle Monae, Megadeth, Lou Christie, Big Maybelle, Madonna, Fleetwood Mac, the Orlons, Slowdive, and so many more. It’s what they all have in common.”

WFMU is a beacon of music-led FM broadcasting, whose ad-free stance
has gained the station a worldwide audience. Its commitment to specialist knowledge and passion also gives its presenters the chance to share their vision with that audience. “With Sophisticated Boom Boom and all that I do, I am showing that female-fronted pop music is as valid, worthy, important, and enjoyable as many of the (mainly male) acts that are so fawned over by the rock establishment. Long ago, the rock critics somehow decided that Led Zeppelin are extremely important and worthy of our respect and that the Shangri Las are not, and I have a problem with that judgement.”

Aside from the radio show Sheila can be found DJing every third Friday at Our Wicked Lady Club in Brooklyn. Europeans will also get a chance to hear her club selections as she undertakes a two-week European DJ tour in August with dates in Helsinki, Copenhagen, London, Paris, and Montenegro.

Having put together the Nippon Girls and Love Hit Me compilations on Ace Records, Sheila's quest to bring us the best in rare records shows no sign of letting up. “I just took on an enormous compilation project producing four volumes of '60s girl-pop. The access I get to photos, master tapes, and recording information is just unbelievable. And I get to select and sequence the tracks, write the liner notes, and art direct, so it’s a dream job, really.”


Sophisticated Boom Boom airs each Friday 3pm – 6pm (EST) on WFMU with shows archived at www.wfmu.org

Nippon Girls Vol 1 & 2 and Love Hit Me: Decca Girls 1962-66 are available from Ace Records.

For more on Sheila Burgel visit www.chachacharming.com 


How did your love of music come about? And what made you want to collect it on vinyl?

As a colicky baby, I fell asleep to Barry Gibb & Barbra Streisand’s Guilty LP. And I rarely remember a time in my childhood when my dad wasn’t playing his collection of contemporary pop, jazz, classical, and Brazilian records. He hand-built much of his stereo system, which was powered by the enormous speakers, and I have the most wonderful memories of Donna Summer, the Bee Gees, and Brian Ferry wafting through the entire house. I was fortunate to have parents who thought nothing of taking their 5-year-old kid to see Michael Jackson on his “Victory” tour and Madonna at Radio City Music Hall for her “Virgin” tour. I was completely and utterly obsessed by pop music and it was 100% supported by my family. But my vinyl collecting didn’t officially start until I was 17—when I moved to London from NYC and began hanging out with a bunch of record collectors who welcomed me into their dazzling world of 60s girl-pop. The moment I laid eyes on my friend’s collection of France Gall EPs, I caught the collecting bug. The sound, the sleeves (especially French EP sleeves), the physicality of the record, and growing up with vinyl all contributed to my desire to collect. That was exactly 20 years ago.

In your high-school years you played in a couple of bands, how do you rate yourself as a guitarist? Is there anything you miss about being in a band?

My first band was called Pretty Shitty (we later changed the name to Wednesday) and then I formed a second band called Raggedy Ann. We cut one split 7” and had another track included on one of the Yo Yo compilations out of Olympia, Washington, but my band days ended at age 17—when I moved to London. Oddly, when I returned from London, I decided that I wanted to be a professional metal guitar player, so I enrolled in music school, and practised metal riffs 10 hours a day. But I eventually dropped that dream due to various reasons, and haven’t really played since. So I went from a 8/10 guitarist to a 2/10 guitarist. There are so many things I miss about being in a band, and often wonder if I should take up music again at some point. I especially miss the creativity + being in the studio.

The compilations you've put together have been real labours of love, what did you find most rewarding about putting them together? Also what was most frustrating?

The Nippon Girls compilations were particularly thrilling to work on because I was given total control of the track selection, sequencing, and design. My favourite part is picking the tracks and sequencing (which is why DJing is such a joy for me). Writing the liner notes is always the most painful part of these projects. I’ve always had to work extremely hard at writing; it’s never come easy to me, and I am a verrrrrrrrrry slow, fussy, self-critical writer.

The Nippon Girls compilations were particularly well received. Are there any other countries you'd like to give similar treatment?

The Nippon Girls compilations stemmed from the wealth of top-quality 60s girl-pop songs that Japan had to offer. Aside from the UK, France, Spain, Brazil, Italy, and the US (all of which have plenty of great compilations), I can’t think of many other countries that can compete in the 60s girl-pop realm on that level quality-wise. I’ve heard some great material from China, Singapore, Thailand, Sweden, and others, but to me there's not enough really great original material (cos I’m not the biggest fan of covers) to warrant a killer compilation. That said, I hope someone out there proves me wrong!

You present Sophisticated Boom Boom on WFMU. It's a station that stands alone as almost the last bastion of free-form FM radio. Best and worse things about working for the station? Favourite other shows?

Best things about WFMU: 1. TOTAL MUSICAL FREEDOM. I get to play + say whatever I like (aside from curses)! 2. I was given a show with zero radio experience 3. Sharing my records, enthusiasm, love + personal stories with the world, 4. Being a part of the WFMU community—I found my people!—and the unbelievable amount of knowledge + love of music in WFMU land.

Worst things about WFMU: 1. The weather alert + emergency broadcast system, 2. I already had a terrible record-collecting habit before I jointed WFMU. My habit is now 50x worse. 3. the station’s financial woes, 4. the schedule changes 2x per year and there’s never any guarantee that you’ll stay on the schedule. Keeps us DJs on our toes big time!

Favourite other shows: the Todd-O-Phonic Todd show, Michael Shelley, Surface Noise with Joe McGasko, This is the Modern World with Trouble.

Your love of pop comes across really well on the show, and with a refreshing streak of anti-snobbery that a lot of UK presenters don't have. If pushed for a mission statement for Sophisticated Boom Boom what would it be?

Thanks for saying that! With Sophisticated Boom Boom and all that I do, I am showing that female-fronted pop music is as valid, worthy, important, and enjoyable as many of the (mainly male) acts that are so fawned over by the rock establishment. Long ago, the rock critics somehow decided that Led Zeppelin are extremely important and worthy of our respect and that the Shangri Las are not, and I have a problem with that judgement. Thankfully things have been changing, but whenever you get those best albums/ bands/ songs of all-time lists, and rock n’ roll hall of fame nominations, you realize that music made by men still carries much more weight. And I don’t think that kind of gender imbalance serves anyone. So let’s see….my mission statement for Sophisticated Boom Boom is “Restoring gender equality with the toughest, dreamiest, sweetest, sassiest, most infectious, hook-filled, girl-fronted pop from yesterday and today, and from all over the world!”

John Peel always said he imagined his listeners as people who lived in isolated places where there wasn't easy access to the music he played, who do you imagine your listeners to be?

In a fancy apartment in London sipping champagne, living in their parents basement at age 50 surrounded by far too many records, parents in the Swedish countryside listening with their kids, in an office building in Jersey City, stuck in traffic on the Los Angeles freeway. I imagine that all types tune into Sophisticated Boom Boom and WFMU in general. We’re lucky to have a comments board that lets you know where a lot of listeners are tuning in from, so I can say that I definitely have listeners from London sipping champagne during my show :)

Your radio show predominately features female-fronted pop from the '50s right up to the present, with the '60s high watermark perhaps best represented. Was there a eureka moment when you first fell in love with music from this era?

When I first heard British singer Maxine Darren’s “How Can I Hide It From My Heart?” off the first Here Come the Girls compilation in 1995. That shrill vocal! Those melodies! That bizarre arrangement! It completely floored me. Soon after the gates to girl-pop heaven opened, Francoise Hardy, France Gall, Sandie Shaw, the Cookies, Billie Davis, Twinkle, the Exciters, Dorothy Berry poured in….and my life was forever changed.

Does it frustrate you when, even now in 2016, female singers are still routinely referred to as puppets by people who should know better?

Yes and no. This is a viewpoint that has been perpetuated for many many years, so naturally it’s going to take some time to shake it off. Change has always been slow. And I think this goes to the very core of a major issue—society’s discomfort with the feminine. For us to honour and respect Stevie Nicks or Madonna or Beyonce in the same way that we honour and respect the Rolling Stones or Nirvana requires quite a big societal shift. Mick Jagger or Elvis’ use of sexuality in performance is celebrated, but for Madonna or Beyonce it’s often used to belittle their art. There are a gazillion scientific studies that prove the existence of gender bias (hence writer J.K. Rowling deciding to mask her gender in order to be taken seriously) and so given this depressing reality, I feel it’s important to do what I can to bring more balance. Because ultimately I think gender equality benefits both women and men. Right now we’re still at the stage where in order to compete with men in the creative fields, women have to act/ play/ write in a certain way to be accepted. Whereas I’m striving for a time when women can be exactly who they are/ want to be and be accepted.

Your eclectic tastes come over well on the show, '60s beat and R&B sits next to shoegaze, Brit-pop and even heavy metal. Regardless of genre, what are the qualities that make for good music for you?

Melody. Hooks. Magic. Which is why I can love the Shangri Las, Alan Parsons Project, Janelle Monae, Megadeth, Lou Christie, Big Maybelle, Madonna, Fleetwood Mac, the Orlons, Slowdive, and so many more. It’s what they all have in common.

Any recent musical finds you'd recommend?

Juniore from Paris, Beverly from Brooklyn (their new album “The Blue Swell” is dream-pop heaven!), Glass from London, and the Pom Poms from Los Angeles.

In your global search for vinyl where are the best places for crate-digging?

The Allentown 45 & 78 Record Show in Allentown, Pennsylvania (takes place twice a year) http://www.surroundsoundproductions.com/ and Josey Records in Dallas, Texas. These days I do most of my buying at record fairs, direct from dealers, and on Discogs.

You DJ every third Friday at Our Wicked Lady in Brooklyn. What are your favourite other clubs/cities to DJ in?

The Save Your Soul party in Baltimore, MD, the Soulelujah party in Boston, MA, Midnight Rambler at the Joule Hotel, Dallas, TX, the Big Shake! party in Helsinki, Finland, the Stag-O-Lee night in London.

What projects are you currently working on?

I just took on an enormous compilation project producing 4-volumes of 60s girl-pop. The access I get to photos, master tapes, and recording information is just unbelievable. And I get to select all the tracks, sequence the tracks, write the liner notes, and art direct, so it’s a dream job, really. I also just confirmed a 2-week European DJ tour that’s taking me to Helsinki, Copenhagen, London, Paris, and Montenegro in August.