The duo orchestrating the ladies of Seattle's music scene

Elizabeth O'Keefe and Erin Ashley have a plan to keep Seattle's music scene -- especially the female half -- on its A-game.
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From left to right, Erin Ashley, Gaetana Gravallese (SWIM Member and front woman of Each & All), Gloria Gaynor and Elizabeth O'Keefe.

Elizabeth O'Keefe and Erin Ashley have a plan to keep Seattle's music scene -- especially the female half -- on its A-game.

Seattle Women In Music, the organization founded by Elizabeth O’Keefe and Erin Ashley, focuses on building strong partnerships within the music community, especially among women. Really, the organization is a microcosm of the relationship between its founders, who met at a CD release party (where GEMS, Vox Mod and Gold Wolf Galaxy were playing) and who would come to start the organization that has put on concert series, introduced local musicians to each other to form bands, and more.

“We have a private Facebook discussion forum,” says O’Keefe, “where women professionals come to discuss issues, find resources, seek out advice and generally lean on each other for support” Early on, she notes, they also held networking sessions and development seminars and the she and Ashley have discussed creating an online community of their own.

For now though, it’s just Facebook. “My dream is to one day convert all that to a mobile app. as we are all tethered to our phones, but that’s in the not so distant future.”

Since the duo founded SWIM in December 2013, the project has flourished. O’Keefe, who got her start in the scene doing free promotion for friends, managed a local record label (Critical Sun Recordings) before transitioning into artist management, working with contemporary solo pianist Joseph Rojo. Ashley has worked with Chroma Sound studios in Ballard and Light in the Attic Records.

“I was a sophomore in high school in New Orleans when my dad flew me out to see Pearl Jam in Seattle for their Yield tour,” Ashley says. “We had a side view of the stage and I remember seeing a girl walking from the tour bus area to backstage with a headset and a clipboard. It was then that I realized I could work in music without playing an instrument.”

We asked O’Keefe and Ashley about SWIM, the shows they’ve put on, the people they’ve worked with and what’s coming up next .

What was the impetus to start Seattle Women In Music?

Elizabeth O’Keefe: I feel very strongly that when you bring a group of like-minded people together they have the power to do really great things; and even the smallest of those things can have a ripple effect throughout the group and the impact is multiplied. ...

Eventually Erin and I met, and we started talking about the need to have a place where women at all career levels could turn to each other and ask for help, seek each other out for collaboration and just offer each other support. What started off as a bit of an experiment has continued to amaze me at how well it works.

Unlike so many other forums and industry networking groups, we don't allow show promotion; that takes away most of the static that we're otherwise inundated with on a daily basis and allows people to develop relationships at a more organic level. We even had Mary Lambert come in a couple times and request help with locating key members of her team. I believe the connection to her current drummer Heather Thomas, came out of one of those posts. When things like that happen, it reinforces the notion that we're on the right track!

However, I want to be clear that this endeavor has never been intended to be about "men vs. women". It's simply about creating a strong foundation among this group of professionals to help fortify the rest of the music community in Seattle.  

SWIM is primarily the two of you. What would you say your leadership styles are like? How do they differ/compliment one another?

EO: Both Erin and I are very driven and motivated, but in going about our day-to-day lives we approach our business with empathy and compassion. I think I tend to be a bit more of a risk taker, whereas Erin is more thoughtful in her execution. I'm a former Foreign Service kid, so I was constantly put into new, sometimes uncertain situations growing up, and that taught me to accept risk in business and extend myself, albeit after checking behind me for armed bandits (kidding!). It's a very good mix, the two of us. Erin asks very insightful questions and is not afraid to tell me when she isn't in agreement with me. That's something I fully respect and wish more people would do. None of us can read minds; open communication is imperative in any working relationship. 

Who are some of your current collaborators?

Erin Ashley: College Club Seattle granted us full access to their waterfront facilities for a music video shoot, which in turn helped promote a “SWIM Presents” benefit concert. The video was filmed and edited by concert photographer Michael Profitt. MacKenzie Anthony, artist manager for Ayron Jones and the Way and Funky 2 Death, is a champion for SWIM and helped facilitate the production of both the video and the concert by corralling the talent of Ayron Jones, Whitney Monge, and Naomi Wachira. These contributions of time, artistry, and resources helped raise money and awareness for Mary’s Place, a local shelter for homeless women and children.

Comedienne and singer Julie Mains hosts HerStory, our intimate showcase of music and first-person storytelling. Our last HerStory concert featured Adra Boo of Fly Moon Royalty. Adra performed a cappella songs interspersed with personal anecdotes prompted by questions from Julie. At one point in the show, Adra did an impersonation of herself at seven years old singing and dancing to Prince’s “Darling Nikki”. It was a remarkable concert experience that was met with an enthusiastic audience because it was so unique! Our next HerStory concert will feature the stories and songs of Gretta Harley.

Just last week, the Pacific Northwest Chapter of the Recording Academy extended an exclusive invitation for SWIM to participate in a Q&A session with Gloria Gaynor. Events like these are typically reserved for members of the Recording Academy; needless to say, we were thrilled with the opportunity to glean wisdom and inspiration from the Queen of Disco!

During one of my first conversations with Elizabeth, we both agreed that if put your passion out into the world, the world would respond in kind. We’ve been overwhelmed by the men and women who’ve encouraged our passion for SWIM and its mission by contributing their own, whether it be photography, performance, networking, journalism.

Who, in pop culture, do you think are good examples for women out there and who are masquerading as good examples? 

EA: I love this question because it’s forced me to acknowledge, evaluate, and fine-tune my own ideals. So, forgive me if I come across as self-righteous when I answer your question with another question, because this is what I’ve landed on: Who am I to define the appropriate usage of another woman’s body, talent, mind, image, etcetera by labeling it as a good example or simply a masquerade of a good example? If I identify a pop culture icon as a “good example” for women, then am I not holding that icon to my own subjective code of gender expectations?

It’s difficult to discern the difference between a masquerade and a polished press release and it’s unfair to hold a celebrity to an unattainable and inflexible ideal. Katy Perry got a lot of flak for saying, “…People see me as a role model…I'd like to be seen as an inspiration. Because a role model, I think, will fail you.” The fact that her words were met with criticism just illustrates my point. When you’re under that level of elevated scrutiny, you can’t win.

The other problem with labeling specific women as a “good examples” while denouncing others prohibits any room for growth. Remember the harsh judgment that was cast upon Angelina Jolie in 2001 when she wore a vial of blood around her neck? Now she’s being honored at Buckingham Palace and the same people sitting at home who previously cast judgment are nodding their heads in admiration.

The world, and in this case, pop culture, is rife with mixed messages for women: be sexy, but don’t be sexual; be confident, but renounce your confidence if praised; work hard, but chalk it up to luck. Rather than typecast Miley Cyrus, Lorde, Taylor Swift, Grimes, etcetera…I prefer to sit back and watch these powerful women just do their thing by testing boundaries, developing their characters and finding comfort in their own skin while the rest of the world just reacts. Differences of opinion are what make the world go ‘round and you can’t please everyone, so you might as well be you, unabashedly.

What important advancements do you think women have made in the music industry in the last few years, both nationally and locally?

EO: I've often said that musicians are modern day oral historians, capturing a snapshot image of our current culture and memorializing it for eternity. With advancements in social media, women have found their voice. I don't consider myself a huge Top 40 Pop fan, but I do pay attention to what some of these younger female artists like Rihanna and Katy Perry are tweeting/Instagramming/Facebooking as I look at that as being a reflection on where we are headed as a society. I view it as color commentary in a way; what is on their minds and what perspective can they share from their position in the music industry.

I have a firm appreciation for those artists (male or female) who understand the need to interact with their fans on a more personal level. Social media allows for that to happen in a relatively safe and inexpensive manner, while letting the artist reach out and express appreciation for those who lift them to that level of notoriety. 

Locally, I see more collaboration with female artists. Macklemore is a great example of someone who came in and elevated local women to national levels. Mary Lambert and Hollis Wong-Wear would likely not have attained this level of notoriety they have now if it wasn't for his partnership. It's been really great to watch that process from the sidelines. Additionally, I'm sensing local women artists are feeling more comfortable in their own skin. There are some really great examples of women who have conquered incredible odds to make headway — Naomi Wachira instantly comes to mind as someone who is doing it the right way. She's striking out on her own and being savvy in her approach without compromising her beliefs. I completely respect that. 

As a Christian, I am continuously challenged in this industry and know how hard it can be to stay true to yourself and still aspire upwards. Women are getting smarter and braver by the day, as more realize they have a powerful voice that can be heard by the willing and receptive masses. 

What’s coming up next for SWIM?

EA: We're really excited about the next installment of our HerStory concert series: SWIM Present HerStory as told by Gretta Harley, hosted by Julie Mains; think "Behind the Music" meets "Inside the Actor's Studio". That's on Friday November, 14th at Rendezvous and it's open to the public!

In addition to our concert showcases, we invite women in all stages of their professional music careers to join SWIM and gain access to our networking events, educational seminars and our collaborative online and in-person community. Membership questions can be directed to me at!


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About the Authors & Contributors

Jake Uitti

Jake Uitti

Jake Uitti is the co-founder and Managing Editor of The Monarch Review. He plays in the band, The Great Um, and works at The Pub at Third Place.