June Millington is an Aries warrior—one who survived the tumult of an indifferent, or outright antagonistic, music industry in the ’70s with her groundbreaking, all-female band, Fanny.
“Rock and roll isn’t for wimps,” she says.
But far from being knocked down by an episodic career of good and not-so-good plot elements, she continues to rock like a demon today. In fact, Millington—whose commitment to empowering and educating female musicians prompted her to establish (with Anne Hackler) the Institute for Musical Arts in Ashfield, Massachusetts, in 1986—recently rejuvenated Fanny’s legacy.
Last year, she recorded Fanny Walked the Earth [Blue Élan] with her Fanny cohorts, sister Jean Millington (bass) and Brie Darling (drums) at the IMA studio complex. The record is not only a tribute to three inspiring classic-rock veterans—it’s also a brilliant document of how the life experiences of great musicians, when funneled through a youthful mindset and unwavering passion, can deliver music for the ages.
What was it like recording a Fanny record after 40 years with your sister and Brie?
It was like going down a slide. “Wheee!” It was transformative all over again, and we just couldn’t let go of it. We had the chops, the attitude, and the creative energy, but you’ve got to go back to our high-school band, the Svelts, or you don’t have Fanny Walked the Earth. Our internal feel—especially the groove thing and vocals—had been dialed in when we were 16 years old. It was like just walking into the same skeleton and muscles with a slightly different wisdom-filled self.
How does the Svelts era manage to inform your musicality to this day?
When you’re 16, and you play “Walking the Dog,” and everybody rushes to the dance floor, you know you’re doing the right thing. It just translated, and it carried over into 2017, and the recording of Fanny Walked the Earth.
What gear did you bring to the IMA sessions for Fanny Walked the Earth?
Well, there was my ’57 Les Paul Standard that I got from [Steppenwolf guitarist] Kent Henry in 1971. Skunk Baxter did the mods, back when he was a guitar tech. I also used a 1958 Les Paul Special, a Fender Jazzmaster, a Parker Fly, a Gretsch Electromatic, and a Taylor T5. The main amps were a Fender Blues DeVille 4x10, a ’62 brown-face Fender Deluxe, and a Yamaha G5 practice amp. I only used a couple of pedals that Dave [Darling, album producer] brought—like a Seymour Duncan boost, a Mu-Tron III, and a Line 6 M5—because I’ve really given up on them. I feel like if it doesn’t come out of my fingers, I just can’t be bothered.
I love the intro to “Storm-Crossed,” where this vibey feedback sets up a gritty, but funky lick.
You know, I probably jammed, or shared a stage, with everyone who is considered classic rock now. So controlling feedback is second nature to me, because all of us were experimenting with taking it all to the edge and beyond. That was the place you wanted to go. It was the holy grail.
I also dug the stinging, yet simultaneously fat and slinky lead tone on “When We Need Her.”
That was the Yamaha amp cranked up until it was practically barfing, but I was playing these controlled licks—like Jesse Ed Davis. By the way, I thought my original solo on that track was one of the best things I had ever done, but no one will hear it. Dave and Brie decided it was too soft rock, which actually upset me quite a bit. As far as I was concerned, it was a gritty solo as conceptualized by a woman, and that’s the statement I wanted to make.
Speaking of statements, how do you conceptualize your licks?
Somebody told me once that Laura Nyro said to her producer, “I want it to sound like mist rising over a lake in the morning.” I’ll never forget that, because that’s exactly how I feel music. I visualize things and go off to the galaxy’s limit. I just let myself be led. I don’t ask questions. I just go. But my licks often come out of the lineage of hearing Jimi at the Fillmore West. I was standing right in front of him. In fact, this kid and I were fighting for position, because the only way you could learn back then was to stand in front of the guitar player and absorb everything they did. I later found out that kid was Carlos Santana [laughs].
You see, the live stuff really informed me. I didn’t learn the sh*t off the records. I learned it from watching guitar players, or going to a club where somebody great was playing so I could ask them questions, or seeing if people would jam with me. All of that is like a hologram now, and the sounds are swirling in front of me. I can hear it, I can feel it, and I can see these guys. They were all guys, because very few women I knew at the time could play well—although I thought the lead guitar player in Birtha [Shele Pinizzotto] was unbelievable. So I can just go fishing, draw a lick in, and make it mine. It’s like going shopping.
From your perspective on playing back in the classic-rock era, do you feel today’s guitarists are missing the plot on anything?
I don’t think people are experimenting so much with sound now. I feel like guitarists aren’t taking the time to really get into the circuitry of each guitar and each amp they’re playing. I’ve always liked that fearless attitude of finding out what a guitar and an amp can do together, and a lot of my time is still spent doing exactly that. You’ll never find out about all the tonal characteristics available to you unless you experiment with everything. You’re the one who pulls it together, and creates that magical thing that happens—which is sound, melody, and the unexpected. You’ve got the technology, but you have to be the maestro.
Fanny is revered as one of the touchstones for female rockers, but, commercially, it seemed the band struggled for Top 40 acceptance. What’s your take on that?
We were held to a different standard, because we were young women. The number one job I had was to prove we could play like guys. I had to stay on top of the wave all the time, because it was assumed the girls couldn’t play. Unfortunately, once we did that, I got bored with it. I wanted to be asked about my sound. My influences. My technique. But, no, it was always, “What does it feel like to be a girl guitar player?” Are you kidding me? I realized it was going to be one-dimensional forever, and I’m too creative and too smart to be locked into that position. It was like being in prison, and we knew it. All four of us were really interested in finding the strength in ourselves, and expressing ourselves lyrically in eloquent and intelligent ways—not that our songs didn’t have the sex component in them. Listen to “Soul Child.” But they also had a sort of fierceness before I even got turned on to feminism.
On top of that, the better the band got, the more we expected we would have success. I mean, our version of “Hey Bulldog” should have been at the top of the charts. It wasn’t. We just couldn’t get over that hump, because society wasn’t going to give it to us. We put it together from every standpoint, and we couldn’t get it. The band was getting tired. It was like, “What do we have to do for these people?”
But that experience didn’t appear to tank your creativity, or your love for music.
I’m a wild Aries, and we create out of chaos [laughs]. But I see music in everything I do. It’s a highway to communication, and the highest love—everything you can think of that’s the best part of being in this dimension on this planet. That’s what I serve.