6 Best female singer-songwriters from the 1970s
These legendary singer-songwriters helped form music as we know it today, and continue to inspire so many with their soulful melodies
In the 1970s, women found themselves turning to the newly arriving authentic female voices in music to guide them; to learn about themselves, about love, and how to find their place in a world that seemed to have made up its mind about who they were already. To celebrate the arrival of Vertigo Releasing’s latest film I Am Woman, we take a look at just a few of the extraordinary female singer-songwriters who took the 1970s by storm.
Joni Mitchell’s influence transcends her own generation. Her earnest songwriting and artistry continue to be a source of inspiration for many, who acknowledge her position as a pioneer of female expression in music.
After reaching prominence in the late 1960s, the 1971 album Blue was Joni’s portrayal of her truthful self, telling the stories of her experiences in life and in love with a previously unseen rawness. It was this honesty and freedom of expression that really resonated with women.
Speaking of Mitchell’s work during a time when most music was created by men, musician Björk revealed how, “Joni created her own musical universe with female emotion, energy, wisdom, courage and imaginations. I found that very liberating.” Blue was later chosen by the New York Times as one of the 25 albums that represented “turning points and pinnacles in 20th-century popular music”.
Carole King wrote or co-wrote over 118 hits between 1955 and 1999, including “A Natural Woman” for the iconic Aretha Franklin, making her the most successful female songwriter in the second half of the 20th century. However, King initially found herself less recognised than her husband and writing partner at the time, Gerry Goffin.
Trailblazing in an industry where she had become the first woman in popular music to be credited for composing, arranging and conducting an album, King wrote in her 2012 memoir, “I had no trouble valuing Gerry, but I didn’t know how to value myself”.
However, as the 1970s arrived, so did Carole King in full bloom. Now pursuing a solo career, 1971 saw the release of her album Tapestry. The album was monumental, not only commercially—King became the first woman to win Song of the Year at The Grammys—but symbolically. Carole King redefined songwriting for women, penning emotional, intimate lyrics from a female perspective that women related to and felt empowered by.
After all, as the lyrics to her song—and now title of the Broadway and West End musical about her life—"Beautiful” states, “You’re gonna find, yes you will, that you’re beautiful as you feel”.
Helen Reddy was responsible for the song-turned-power anthem, “I Am Woman”, which became the unofficial theme for the women’s movement through the 1970s. Reddy penned the song after becoming tired of the sexism she was facing in her career, as well as being unable to find meaningful music to sing that reflected herself and her views at the time.
So as it didn’t exist, Reddy created it herself. Compelled to write something that would reach women everywhere with messages of strength and self-love, the song became a force, one that is still influencing to this day.
But Reddy’s story doesn’t start and end with “I Am Woman”. A single mum who arrived in America from Australia to pursue a dream in an industry dominated by men, Helen Reddy’s journey embodies drive, strength and perseverance—an embodiment of the very traits lyricised in her most famous song.
Still in the 1970s but putting in the work on this side of the pond, Joan Armatrading became the first black British female artist to achieve international acclaim. Arriving in the UK from Saint Kitts aged seven, Armatrading taught herself to play the guitar and started writing music when she was 14.
She describes her songwriting style as free and unencumbered, a way of expressing herself. Joan’s place as a female pioneer in music continued as she became the first UK female artist to be nominated for a Grammy in the blues category, going on to receive two further nominations. With a career now spanning five decades, this titan of music remains unapologetically herself. An artist who is confident with who she is and what she wants to create, Armatrading famously keeps her private life to herself and lets her music do the talking.
Carly Simon was another artist responsible for helping usher in a new era for female singer-songwriters. Instigating a string of hits throughout the 1970s, Simon’s first single had label staff worried it would be too emotionally complex for a debut. “That’s The Way I’ve Always Thought It Should Be”, reflecting on conventional marriage and fear of an unhappy life, catapulted Carly into the limelight as listeners reacted so poignantly to the song.
She went on to be a prominent female figure throughout the 1970s, arguably most identifiable for her 1971 song “You’re So Vain”. A critical depiction of a self-absorbed lover, the subject of whom partially remains a mystery, Simon released one of the great songs that ignited 1970s female empowerment through music. Sometimes you just have to tell it how it is.
An icon in the world of rock and roll, and the only female to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice, Stevie Nicks changed the game. Fighting to change the perspective of women in the male-dominated rock scene, Nicks became a leading female figure within the industry.
Maintaining complete ownership of her femininity and identity as an artist, Stevie proved she could hold her own as not only a performer, but as a creative force instrumental to her band’s success. Her songwriting is fearless and honest, showing you can be vulnerable and strong at the same time, and during the 1970s Stevie Nicks stamped a place for herself in the musical landscape that holds firm to this day.
I Am Woman is out in cinemas and on digital platforms in the UK and Ireland on October 9
Read more: 9 Fabulous films about female friendship
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