Decked out in cowboy boots and beaded necklaces, longtime Denver songwriter Jen Korte sips on a cocktail in her back yard and talks about her latest solo music project, the experimental, hip-hop-inspired Lady Gang — a far stretch from her Americana-infused rock band, Jen Korte & the Loss, which she started back in 2005.
“I named it Lady Gang because it’s me and my gang of instruments. I have a loop station, bass machine, guitar, bass and vocals,” she says. “I finally feel empowered by my instruments to stand alone. But I can also use it in collaboration, and I’ve been trying really hard to hire more women and do more things with women.”
Korte has been performing in Denver for more than a decade, and in that time, she’s been frustrated by the way that women and people of color have lacked the support that white men receive in the music scene — a trend that she sees as shifting.
“I feel like [support] is getting there,” she says. “Denver is getting there.”
Even so, the Denver acts that have found national success — the Lumineers, the Fray, Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, the Flobots, the Yawpers, Trev Rich and most recently Brent Cowles — are all driven by men.
“You don’t see any female-fronted bands making these huge breaks that male-fronted bands are making,” she notes. “So what does that mean? Is it the music? Is it the marketability? What is it?”
For her, finding a fix comes down to economics. “The only thing changing that is women hiring women,” she says. “Be the representation you want to see. And I’m trying to do that and to encourage my female peers to do the same. Write the emails they want to write and insert themselves into the places they want to be without that fear of ‘No.’”
Korte notes that sexism is pervasive throughout the scene, pointing to a blistering May day when she was preparing for a gig, loading her gear into a venue and carrying a heavy amp up two flights of stairs.
Some guy, in a gravelly voice, said, “Oh, man, we should have brought some chicks to carry up our gear for us.”
Korte was flummoxed. “It’s like, really? We’re still dealing with this? … He did end up apologizing: ‘I’m sorry, I’m not that guy.’ But you are that guy.”
To avoid such interactions, Korte makes sure to tell sound engineers exactly what she needs and how she wants to sound; she’s gained technical expertise to ensure that she’s in control.
“It opens a whole different door of not having to fight to be in that space,” she says.
The local scene, Korte notes, is more supportive than when she first showed up, in part because artists like her have driven a dialogue about gender equity in the music scene, and festivals like Titwrench and the now-defunct Ladyfest Out West have shone a light on gender disparities in the industry.
“And it’s with any movement or change: If the conversation hadn’t started, we would still be in the same place,” Korte says.
Transforming from a straightforward folk rocker into Lady Gang didn’t come easy. It started with Korte working in what she calls her “mad scientist laboratory,” where she hunkered down and learned to use looping pedals to produce beats.
Sitting inside her garage/laboratory, Korte talks about how Lady Gang is the byproduct of the musical and technical know-how she’s developed over the years on stages and in studios. “It was a culmination of years of learning all of these skills,” she explains. “I could finally apply them to something different, to morph into something different.”
The garage is full of guitars, a three-pedal loop, an amp and sundry other gadgets; Korte starts playing and singing “Simple Truths” for me, a billowing song off her upcoming EP, At the Keep, which is set for an August release.
While the music she plays sounds highly produced — a mix of vocals, guitar melodies and other sounds looped through pedals — none of it is pre-recorded. The sounds that EDM artists create using software in a studio and then perform with the touch of a space bar in a live concert, she plays live, singing along in a raspy voice.
“If anything is off-point, it could train-wreck really quickly,” she says.
Mastering the technical language is critical for her sound, and the project gives her a chance to test her own technological limits.
But her music is more than just noodling with gadgets. After playing “Simple Truths,” Korte plays another song, this one about her Puerto Rican heritage. She wrote it after Hurricane Irma hit the island in 2017.
With a simple strumming pattern, this song is stripped down; she doesn’t play it out too often, because it’s painful to explore her personal connection to the devastation. The vocals recall Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin, and her guitar playing evokes the swirl of the hurricane.
When asked what it feels like to be a creator, she laughs: “It feels like the most important thing in the world and the most narcissistic, petty shit at the same time. How do you measure your own worth when you keep putting it out into the world, hoping the world will validate you? At some point, you have to validate yourself.”
While Korte built a strong reputation with the Loss, validating herself as a solo artist using hip-hop tropes has been a challenge.
“How do you reintroduce yourself with a whole new sound to a community that knows you already?” she asks.
Like many artists who loathe being boxed in to limiting categories, she feels that genre is “a fluid term.” Still, Lady Gang embraces hip-hop, inspired by the hip-hop shows and open mics Korte frequents as well as her Texas childhood, during which she and her brother binged on A Tribe Called Quest, Westside Connection and “all the ’90s hip-hop.”
“I finally am comfortable with letting that influence what I’m doing,” she says. Nonetheless, “it can be a scary territory, I think sometimes, to enter hip-hop as a woman. I see a lot of the women in that community struggle to be heard.”
And hip-hop as a whole in Denver has struggled to find a foothold — at least for emerging artists.
“It’s interesting, because hip-hop is number one — over country, rock, everything,” Korte notes, “and people are still scared of it. That’s what it is: People are still scared of hip-hop. And I don’t understand why, because everybody also really loves hip-hop. I do think there should be more of a space. I don’t know what will change that, honestly. I think there are spaces for it, and it’s partially the venue and partially the artist’s job to put themselves in those spaces.”
Korte constantly references the music community and how she sees herself within it. One of the songs on the new EP, “Prefaces,” addresses this exact issue. “The lyrics are, ‘You’re in this world but you can’t get by/You try to escape but your hands are tied/What can I do but cry for you?/What can I do but cry for you?’ It ends with saying, ‘Just keep saying you’ll be there for me, and I’m here for you, and I don’t know what that means in my privilege or who I am as a person, but just tell me how you need me to be there, and I’ll be there.’ It’s a deep topic, and no one has really asked me about it. It’s a scary thing to say out loud,” says Korte.
“There are definitely doors that I can open because I understand that I can open [those doors] because of who I am,” she continues, talking about her own privilege. “I don’t know if it’s because of my ethnicity or my working relationships, but I am aware of that, and I’m trying to use that in a good way, in a healthy way. I’m trying to be aware of making more diverse bills, inviting more women of color, women in general — but specifically women of color, because they are very underrepresented.”
Catch Lady Gang as part of Live From the Blue Room, at 8 p.m. Wednesday, June 13, on 104.7 LPFM, Comcast TV channels 57/881HD, CenturyLink channels 8009/8509HD and on the Westword Facebook page; and at Civic Center Eats, from 2 to 4 p.m., on June 14, in Civic Center Park.
Lady Gang, Westword Music Showcase, 2:45 p.m. Saturday, June 23, 100% de Agave, 975 Lincoln Street, westwordshowcase.com.