June Millington knows all about invisibility — as a woman in rock music, she’s been wrestling with it for 60 years.
Lately she’s winning. For starters, Millington, a singer, songwriter, guitarist, record producer, and educator, has a new album on the way. In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, she was part of Fanny, the first all-female rock band to release an album on a major label — the subject of a new documentary film, “Fanny: The Right to Rock.”
She also cofounded the Institute for the Musical Arts, a nonprofit organization now located in the Western Massachusetts town of Goshen that holds rock camps for teen girls. Throughout her pioneering career, Millington has worked to make women visible in music, and not just as novelties or sex objects, but on their own terms.
“You’ve got to be persistent,” Millington, 73, says. “I mean, that is the lesson of my life: You’ve just got to keep doing it.”
And she has, ever since her junior high school variety show in 1962. That was the year after Millington and her family moved from the Philippines to Sacramento, Calif., where she was shocked to learn that her new classmates knew little, and cared less, about where she was from. Feeling overlooked at school, she and a younger sister, Jean, put together an act and performed in public for the first time at the variety show.
“We stepped out of that room, out of that invisibility, and became instantly visible,” Millington says. “It was like magic.”
That performance is also effectively the starting point for Millington’s new album, due early in 2022. She’s calling the LP “Snapshots” because it encompasses the scope of her life. There’s a song she wrote all the way back in her Fanny days, in 1971. Another tune examines the cultural messages about women and femininity that she would have heard as a shy, biracial teen who was just discovering that playing music could make her peers take notice. She wrote that one, “Girls Don’t Dream (The Big Lie),” in a burst of creativity that yielded three new songs in four days in the wake of the Capitol insurrection. Another of those songs, the slow-burning “Too Close to the Bone,” relates to that other big lie, with lyrics addressing her dissatisfaction with the now former occupant of the White House.
When inspiration struck, “I felt like the top of my head was going to blow off,” Millington says. “I had no agenda, I had no idea what I was going to write. It just super exploded and was like lava.”
Fortunately for Millington, she didn’t have to wait to record the songs. The IMA complex in Goshen includes a recording studio in a converted barn, and Millington happened to have a band at the ready. Her nephew, Lee Madeloni, plays bass and drums and was sheltering at IMA during part of the pandemic. At the time, Madeloni’s father was there, too: guitarist Earl Slick, who has played with David Bowie and John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Slick ended up contributing to three songs on “Snapshots.”
“She’s a really good songwriter. Really good,” Slick says. Though he didn’t meet Millington (or Jean Millington, to whom he was married) until after Fanny had split, he knew of the group in its prime, and he recalls being impressed. “I didn’t look at them as a novelty, I just looked at them as a band with girls that could play their butts off,” Slick says.
Millington was diagnosed with breast cancer around the turn of the year, and finished recording most of the basic tracks for “Snapshots” before starting chemotherapy this past winter (she’s currently in fine health). The album is her first solo LP since 1988, part of a career discography that began with Fanny’s self-titled album in 1970.
Fanny was an outgrowth of an earlier group, a hard-gigging band called the Svelts that the Millington sisters started following their variety show triumph. While the band members finished high school, they mostly gigged on weekends to start, reveling in their ability to get audiences moving to the hits of the day. Yet for all the fun of making music together, playing in an all-woman band wasn’t always easy. Millington remembers one show in Canada, in Edmonton, that didn’t go as expected.
“People who came to the club totally expected a topless band, because the last all-girl band had been topless,” she says. “And they were just so freaked out that we had our tops on and could play.”
By 1969, the Svelts had evolved into Fanny, and the band attracted the attention of Reprise with a short but dazzling set at the Troubadour in Los Angeles. Fanny released its first album the following year, and hit the road. They backed Barbra Streisand on her 1971 album “Barbra Joan Streisand,” played “The Tonight Show” and “The Dick Cavett Show,” and opened for acts including the Kinks and Jethro Tull. All the while, the band members did their best to fend off casual sexism and backhanded compliments — “Not bad for chicks,” was a frequent line — that rendered their ability as musicians invisible.
“We just tried to arm ourselves the best we could, which was to get better and better,” Millington says. “And quite frankly, by the time we opened up for big acts, we were just as good as they were.”
Fanny released four subsequent albums, and reached the Top 40 with the singles “Charity Ball” in 1971 and “Butter Boy” in 1974. Millington, though, had left the band after Fanny’s 1973 album, “Mother’s Pride,” which Todd Rundgren produced. She was burned out by internal tension, disappointing commercial fortunes, and the pressure she felt for the band to essentially serve as a stand-in for all women — a different form of invisibility.
“We were putting out a lot of light, but it didn’t come back at us,” Millington says. “It was like going through thorny bushes with our arms in front of our eyes, just trying to get through, you know, that’s what it felt like to us.”
All that light has started to reflect back in recent years. In 2018, a latter-day version of the band calling itself Fanny Walked the Earth released a self-titled album that included contributions from some of the musicians who count Fanny as an influence, including members of the Bangles.
“They were just badass, and really inspiring to me at the time,” Bangles guitarist Vicki Peterson says of discovering Fanny as a preteen. “I’d already been writing some songs, but I didn’t have a band yet, and it made what I suspected true: You can get together with some friends, and your sister, and make music.”
Fanny Walked the Earth began recording around the same time Montreal filmmaker Bobbi Jo Hart first learned of the original Fanny, and reached out to Millington about doing a documentary. The resulting film, “Fanny: The Right to Rock,” traces the rise and fall of the group through interviews with most of the band members, Rundgren, Bonnie Raitt, and others in Fanny’s orbit back then, along with high-profile fans like Peterson, Def Leppard’s Joe Elliott, and the Runaways’ Cherie Curie. The documentary had its Massachusetts premiere in October with a screening at the Boston Women’s Film Festival, followed by Millington playing a few songs and answering audience questions.
“Having the documentary come out definitely put the spotlight on critical parts of our lives,” Millington says.
Parts of their lives, but not all. Millington likes to say that she’s currently in her third life. If Fanny was the first, women’s music was the second. Millington was a key part of the queer-friendly, feminist movement that took shape in the mid-’70s as an alternative to the mainstream music industry. She played guitar on folk singer Cris Williamson’s 1975 album, “The Changer and the Changed,” a touchstone of women’s music, and produced albums for Williamson and other artists including Holly Near. She also released a handful of solo albums through her own Fabulous Records and founded the Institute for the Musical Arts with her partner, Ann Hackler, in 1987 in Northern California.
“I’m the only one who lived through rock ’n’ roll and women’s music and helped found IMA, so I’m the living repository of all those experiences,” Millington says.
The IMA represents Millington’s third life, and in many ways it’s her most fulfilling. Though she and Hackler didn’t start the organization with teens in mind, empowering young women through the rock camps has become a central focus of the IMA since it moved to Western Massachusetts in 2001.
“June is my No. 1 teacher,” says singer-songwriter Sonya Kitchell, who attended the first IMA rock camp in 2002, when she was 13. “I feel like I owe a lot of who I turned out to be as a musician to her, and the space that she and her partner Ann created.”
The camps include workshops on songwriting and musicianship, along with instruction in the rock ‘n’ roll “foremothers” taught by guests like Christine Ohlman, the longtime vocalist for the “Saturday Night Live” Band and a member of the IMA advisory board. For Millington, it’s important that young women are able to feel a sense of representation that simply didn’t exist when she was a teen.
“We’re providing a safe space for the younger girls and providing them with the stories they need, and providing them with their own experiences,” Millington says. “To be in an all-girl band — or any band at all — is a big deal. It’s so powerful.”
Follow Eric R. Danton on Twitter @erdanton.