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  • Zoë Schulz

Debbie Knox-Hewson on Drumming, Queerness and Navigating an Industry Dominated by Men

© Shot by Zoë Schulz (@studiozo_)

Queer icon, Debbie Knox-Hewson, talks touring, identity and what it takes to make it in the music industry.

From touring with Katy Perry, playing in Charlie XCX’s band, starring in her own Netflix docuseries, ‘I’m with the Band: Nasty Cherry’, and playing on just about every major stage imaginable – Glastonbury, Coachella, and Athens’s very own Colosseum included - Debbie Knox-Hewson has a career most musicians dream about. Playing in the big- league world of drumming, she called me whilst mid-tour from a dreamy beach in Thailand to chat about her relationship to queerness, navigating an industry often dominated by men, and carving out spaces of joy.

Born in London, Debbie had a somewhat unusual start to life when at a young age, her parents decided to up and move to the small Greek island of Skopelos to run a rock’n’roll themed restaurant. You might have spotted Debbie sitting on a stool watching the bands play, strumming along with sticks on a tin, or when given half the chance, taking control of the venue’s playlist, which she jokingly explains was not always the best idea as her favourite move was to put Zombie by The Cranberries on repeat.

Despite the beautiful weather and emergence in music, it was a lonely way to grow up, Debbie admits. As one of the only English kids on the island, she spent a lot of time by herself, exploring and nurturing her imagination, which she realises she then later put into her music. It wasn’t until her early twenties that she realised drumming could actually be a viable career and decided to go all in. To begin with, she admits expecting not to be taken seriously in an industry dominated by men. Signing off emails under the name “D,” her tactic was to hide her gender until she showed up for an audition and could prove herself.

“When I first started, I felt like every gig I was on, someone would be like, ‘Oh, it’s an all

girl band - young girls, they don’t know what they’re doing,’ and I used to practise so

hard with the motivation to prove them wrong.”

© Shot by Zoë Schulz (@studiozo_)

It was around this time Debbie started to see the chaotic side of her career path; she would have four gigs in a row booked, then nothing. Plus, you’re competing for gigs with your peers and friends, she explains, and none of your careers are linear. “At twenty- one, I was going on world tours, and I think that’s when I first started comparing myself to others. I wish I spent less time thinking about what gigs I wasn’t getting or what other people were doing.”

Competing against other drummers for gigs can create a culture of comparison when instead it’s a community that can inspire and spark each other’s creativity – particularly when there are already so few women drummers, Debbie adds. “Any drummer I’ve ever watched, in some way, has influenced and inspired me. Everyone plays in a unique way, and it’s always a joy to see how someone else approaches it as an instrument and an outlet.”

This chaotic, non-linear pathway is something Debbie sees artists across the industry struggle with. On top of this, it’s challenging to make money through your work whilst keeping your artistic vision intact and having creative control. “Music is most successful when it’s authentic, exciting, creative and new,” she adds – but those elements don’t always go hand in hand.

In any other business, if you have a recipe that’s working, you keep doing that but Debbie explains, that with music, you usually find success because you’ve created a unique lane. “If you’re a young artist making exciting, interesting music and then you get picked up by management, they tend to tell you: ‘Keep doing what you’re doing, we love it. But can you also be more like this artist, and we think you’d write well with this artist.’ And it is a lot to navigate and still hold onto authenticity. You often have to stumble through and learn from your mistakes, but at the same time, you don’t get much of a second chance in the music industry.”

© Shot by Zoë Schulz (@studiozo_)

The best advice for this, Debbie shares, is knowing who you are as an artist, holding onto that and having your own definitions for success. There’s a misconception that once you’re signed or have a manager, they’ll tell you who you’ll be as an artist, but it just doesn’t work that way.

“When you don’t really know what you want to say, what the vision is or what success looks like, you’ll just join someone else’s definition of success and creative vision, and then it just won’t work because you can’t keep that up forever. Your only goal isn’t to find a manager or a record label because none of it means anything if you don’t know what it is you’re trying to say.”

It’s this authenticity that Debbie has seen become instrumental in the rise of LGBTQ+ artists finding success in recent years. She’s proud to see so many more LGBTQ+ icons actually belonging to the community and wants to see more Pride events platform queer artists.

“If you’re an LGBTQ+ artist that doesn’t feel like there’s a space for you. That probably means there really, really is a space for you because that means other people are feeling the same way.”

As a queer artist, Debbie knows her experience in the industry has been lucky, mostly navigating it without discrimination, but this also comes down to the privileges she holds. Despite this, it hasn’t been without inappropriate comments and questions that she knows her straight counterparts don’t have to put up with.

This is why Debbie explains that this shift we’ve seen in more visibility of LGBTQ+ artists needs to continue – as well as better representation in the industry off the stage too. “If you’re an LGBTQ+ artist that doesn’t feel like there’s a space for you. That probably means there really, really is a space for you because that means other people are feeling the same way. So, try and carve it out. Find community and a team around you support your vision, who you are and the unique vision you bring.”

© Shot by Zoë Schulz (@studiozo_)

In an industry – or world – that can often feel chaotic, finding community can be a lifeline. This is something Debbie has discovered more recently – admitting she didn’t always have an LGBTQ+ community around her, but now she couldn’t see it any other way.

“I feel like my journey within the LGBTQ+ community is just beginning honestly, and I’m 30, so that’s quite wild. I’ve always been gay but existed outside of a community somewhat alone. That changed when I moved to Brighton, and I made new friends; I’ve now been able to immerse myself in an LGBTQ+ community, and it’s been joyous to have the value that adds to my life.”

Navigating an industry that can lure you in with limitless parties has taught her that moments of joy can look different for everyone; find what it means to you and hold onto that.

“Keep the joy in what you do. If after the intense adrenaline rush of a gig, the most joyous thing for you would be to get an early night so that you can wake up, practice, and stay connected to this thing you love doing – then do that. If you can do both, great, but I always bring it back to not sacrificing the moments when it’s just me and my drums. It’s carving out an intentional space for that. Because that’s the thing that brought me joy before I started gigging, just the hours alone with my drums; it’s such a personal relationship, and I always try to honour that no matter the success I find.”

It’s easy for drummers to fade into the background. They’re often at the back of the stage, unable to interact with the audience and although they’re literally providing the beat that every other musician on stage needs, your attention is easily grabbed elsewhere by the show. That is unless you are as magnetic as Debbie. There’s a warm kindness about Debbie that draws you in and a spark that comes alive when she’s on stage. Not only has she been able to hold onto the joy of her instrument amongst the chaos, but she shares this joy with anyone lucky enough to see her live.

Follow Debbie on Instagram and check out her website.


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