Womens Day ’23 – Kelly Brightwell

What does it feel like to be a female songwriter over 50?

I’m turning 52 in a few weeks, so the topic of age and creativity is top of mind… On the one hand, it’s an amazing vantage point. So many of my musical heroes are older female songwriters and musicians – Patty Griffin, Bonnie Raitt, Lucinda Williams. These women have evolved and shapeshifted over the years and deepened their artistry, making relevant and timeless contributions to the world of music. So I’ve always had this sense that a woman can continue to have a thriving creative life and performing career past the age of 50.

The benefits of being older include spending years honing my craft and creating a body of work that I feel proud of. I’ve put in a lot of time practicing my instrument, writing and re-writing and winnowing my words so I can convey precisely what I mean to say in my songs. I have listened to a lifetime of talented artists, attended their concerts, studied their catalog, and incorporated that inspiration into my own style. And I have discovered my own voice and learned to use it — instead of being tossed away by nerves and constantly comparing myself to other artists. Over time, though, I’ve struggled with injuries like repetitive stress and overuse, due to the way I physically approached music making.

I was self-taught for many years, so had to undo bad habits, learn proper techniques and get better at managing stress in my daily life. These issues really took the sails out of my earlier efforts at a musical career and forced me to take a step back and re-evaluate my dreams and goals. Like many women in my generation, I got married and had a child later in life. I wanted to combine being a parent and a musician as I had seen other women do, bringing their kids on the road and making it part of their family journey. But raising an autistic child often requires a different approach, which makes a significant demand on one’s inner resources. My daughter needed me more and more at home while other kids her age were becoming more independent and I chose to be there for her.

While some parents are able to give more time to their creative pursuits as their kids grow, I continue to have my hands full of parenting and the day-to-day concerns of making a living for my family. There is also a kind of invisibility that happens to women over 50 in general. I know we live in a culture that fetishizes youth, commodifies beauty and judges women by their perceived desirability. As a feminist, I’ve tried to live my life outside of those confines! So it’s shocking to arrive in mid-life and find that these ideals still exist – stronger now, in some ways, due to the screen and image-based platforms provided by the internet. In the music world, I notice that there are fewer older women that show up in the song circles. And those of us that do are no longer willing to be ornaments for someone else’s performance: we have our own work and dreams to attend to.

All of which brings me back to the question of what it’s like to be a female songwriter over 50: It’s challenging, of course, due to the physical nature of the work and the ways of the world we have inherited. But it’s powerful because I have a lifetime of practice and experience to draw upon. It’s freeing, because I am no longer bound by society’s expectations for what it means to live a woman’s life or inhabit a female body.

And it leaves a creative legacy for our children and generations to come about valuing your talents, working toward what is most important and dreaming about what is possible.

Womens Day ’23 – Kelly Brightwell