As Interviewed by Zoe Czarnecki, March 12, 2013
Christa Hillhouse: In Her Own Words
My name is Christa Hillhouse. I was born November 28, 1961 in Fort Smith, Arkansas.
My dad was a professional musician. He played Top 40 in hotels and lounge, so there were always instruments around the house. He had a hollow body six string that I used to love to play, but he noticed that I only played mostly the top four strings. And I was always playing bass lines instead of chords. So when I was 15, he bought me a bass for a birthday present. A Fender, a little Fender. I can’t remember – it was called a Bassmaster or something. It was a little short scale. And so you know, I was naturally drawn to it. I played drums for a while in around 7th and 8th grade, but I got into bass when I was 15.
I remember my first little thing to play was I went to play with him [musician friend] in his house, and I had this tiny little amp and this tiny little, almost like a stereo speaker. And he had this Marshall stack, and you couldn’t hear me at all, you know? That kind of schooled me pretty quick about guys and their egos and being drowned out and not listened to and stuff like that. So one of the first things I did when I turned, I think about 16 and a half or 17 – my mom helped me buy a really nice new bass. It was a full-size regular bass, and I got an Ampeg SVT that I still have. It’s a ‘72, and I bought it in probably ‘77 – when I was about 16; my mom helped me buy it – with an 810 cabinet and the whole deal. And I remember I wheeled that thing in to jam with that guy once, and that was it. That was the end of our ever playing together, because I just drowned him out.
I joined my first band when I was 17 and played in Oklahoma City. I left high school right around that time too. It was Oklahoma; it was the ‘70s – not a lot of opportunities to really play. There was a black woman in my band that played acoustic guitar, and everyone would ask her if she was Joan Armatrading. I don’t know if you know who Joan Armatrading is, but back in the day she was just a black woman who played acoustic guitar, and it was such a rarity. And we got kicked out of clubs sometimes for playing jazz, even though we didn’t play jazz – just because there was a black person in the band. Oklahoma, yeah, you know, it depends on where you live like how progressive people are and how people are treated. Back then, just having a black person in the band, people thought we were playing jazz. It was a little strange.
But there was still something a little bit different. I knew I was gay back then, I just didn’t see anyone like me – ever! ‘Cause there really wasn’t. I mean, it was really homophobic back then. It’s almost hard to imagine, because it wasn’t that long ago, how different everything was. Seeing women musicians was even difficult. Like Bonnie Rait, was, “Whoah, she plays electric; she plays slide,” and Nancy Wilson, “Wow, she can play lead.” You just didn’t see it in popular music at all. So as much as I looked up to those women, I always felt a little different than them. I don’t know if I thought, “they’re straight and I’m gay.” I really didn’t put that in my head. But it still seemed kind of something far away.
The gay community in Oklahoma City in the ‘70s was very tight-knit. It was really a dangerous time. I was one of those people that, when I realized I was gay, I started going out to the gay bars and the clubs just to be around people like me. But it was really hard. I saw a lot of violence and women getting beat up. I’ve seen a lot of horrific violence from the police and from rednecks that would come in just to harass people.
Then there was a woman named Cris Williamson who had a record called “Changer and the Changed.” Cris Williamson came through Tulsa in like 1980, it was a big deal. Because I’d never even heard of any openly gay performer ever being in Oklahoma. I’d never seen any openly gay performer ever. I mean Elton John, I don’t even think he’d done his Rolling Stone interview saying he was bisexual yet (which obviously he wasn’t bisexual). No one was out. There were no role models. Billie Jean King wasn’t out.
So when Cris Williamson came to Tulsa in 1980, I think probably pretty much most all the lesbians in the whole state went to that show. It was just packed. And it was amazing to be around – all the sudden I was around all these women. I felt safe. I looked on stage, and there were all these women playing. June Millington played. It was the first time I ever saw a woman play like – she played this black Les Paul and had this long hair like everybody did in the 70s. She was really cool. It was just amazing. It was life-changing. You know, when she came through, I found out later, she got threatened by the KKK. I made friends with her since, and we’ve talked about it. I’ve told her the whole story about when I went to her show, and she was like, “Yeah, that’s why we got in our bus and left right after the show, because we were literally kind of afraid, because we’d gotten all these threats.”
I had a girlfriend at the time who had a young son. She wanted to leave because her parents were trying to take custody of her kid, because she was gay – which they could have done easily in Oklahoma, back then. I mean, there were all these cases back then where all these women were losing their kids just because they were gay. I remember one case in particular where a convicted murderer got custody of his child from the lesbian mother because she was a lesbian. I mean it was insane. Back then, in certain states, women lost their kids if you could prove they were gay. So I took my girlfriend, or the woman I was dating, or whatever, with me; we took the kid, and we moved to San Francisco. And that’s when I started playing.
So we would get a lot of gigs opening for a national act. And a lot of times, ‘cause the egos or whatever, the national act would kinda come in like they owned the place, have an attitude. Then, if they were all dudes, and like we’re chicks, they’d give us a little – you could just tell – they’d look at us like ... [mumbles]. It’s like they wouldn't take us seriously. I think they were intimidated, personally. I’ve always kind of looked at it like that. To me, if somebody comes at you with an attitude, it’s like: “Ooh, I pushed your buttons just by standing here. Like, I’m not even doing anything. I’m just standing here with my mouth closed and I’m pushing your buttons. So you must be really insecure.”
There were a few incidents where we got treated kinda badly. Like at soundcheck, say, if the headliner goes way over on their soundcheck and just really drags ass and takes their time – they can see you standing there waiting to do your soundcheck, and maybe you’re not going to get a soundcheck because they’re taking way too long, or they show up late or whatever – which is just disrespectful, and they know it, and you can feel that attitude coming. Then we would just literally like blow ‘em off the stage. I can’t remember the name of the band, but once these guys were total jerks to us, and we put on such a great show that when we were done, in between bands – and the place was sold out – we put on such a great show that between us and them, everybody left.
You look around and you think there’s nothing that you can’t do. And I think because I was raised by a single mom, I had some of that in me. Where I just felt like I’m just going to do what I have to do. I didn’t feel inferior because I was female, because I was raised by a single mom. And I always kind of looked at it, being a woman, and even being gay, as being an asset, because it made me stand-out.
Feminism really just means that you believe in equality between the genders. And I, of course, believe that I can – I’m not saying that I can do anything. Everybody’s got talents and skills. And I don’t think that anyone’s gender should dictate obstacles for achieving what they want to do if they have a certain skill. One of my best friends is a firefighter. And she’s an awesome firefighter. Now she’s got seniority. And all the men she works with – she has proven herself – they all want to work with her because they trust her, and they feel safe with her, and that she’s just as good if not better than a lot of the male firefighters. To me, being a feminist is saying, “Hey, whatever this person’s skill is, if they’re a woman, being a woman shouldn’t get in the way if they’ve got the skill.” And so for me, I’ve always been a feminist. Like I said, being raised by a single mother, especially I think being back in the ‘70s, and seeing when they were trying to pass the ERA. and living through all that, and seeing women treated differently than men in a way that was belittling and like talked down to – I’m definitely a feminist. There are so many brilliant women. And now we see that there’s millions of examples of brilliant women now. But it wasn’t always that way. And I think that women’s liberation is where the word “feminist” came from, and because of the women’s movement – the women’s rights movement – we see so many accomplishments that women have made. Woman president to come, as there should be.
I just had the feeling like I could do anything if I set my mind to it. And I knew there’d be obstacles, but at the same time I never felt like I couldn’t do something because I’m a woman. And to me that’s all feminism means. Being a feminist means, “Wow, I can be a professional bass player if I want.” Carole Kay is one of my heroes as a bass player, [but] I wasn’t super familiar with her when I started playing. Nevertheless, I never felt like, because I didn’t see any women bass players, I couldn’t be one. I had to infiltrate the music industry, I think, being a gay person and being a woman – I mean, I had to fight for that right in a way.
Regarding the break-up of 4 Non Blondes
Kurt Cobain had recently killed himself and I just felt like, with Linda [Perry], it’s like, she’s like my little sister. And I just felt like, “If you’re not happy, then what’s the point of doing this?” ‘Cause I really don’t think there’s any point. You gotta... I think you should follow your heart in everything that you do, and if you’re not happy – you know, and we were making stupid money back then for gigs – but at the same time, if you’re not happy, like what’s the point? You’re just going to stay together to make money and do another tour? I’ve always been kind of reckless in that way, like, “Screw that. I don’t wanna do that!”