When I arrive at Leicester train station, I identify 61-year-old Ruth Miller by the purple punk-girl beanie that she promised she would wear. On the drive to a café, she tells me how busy the past few weeks have been, with TV crews—including three from Germany—descending on the city to document the birth of a new music scene: punk rock written and performed by middle-aged women. There are now 12 all-women punk bands in Leicester, comprised of 51 performers. The bands all began in a workshop run by Miller as part of her Unglamorous Music project.
In May 2021, while emerging from the final Covid lockdown, Nottinghamshire-born Miller, who had spent 27 years as a primary school teacher, re-evaluated her life: “I began to think that in my youth I’d had a lot of fun. And as an older woman there didn’t seem to be an awful lot of fun. It seemed to be a lot of drudgery and doing things for other people and massive to-do lists that you never got through,” she says. A skilled guitarist and songwriter who was in two punk bands during her teens and early twenties—including one that did a studio session for BBC Radio 1 and was awarded NME’s single of the week—she decided she wanted to recapture that joy and form a band with other middle-aged women. But Miller realised that many women faced a barrier to getting involved: they couldn’t play an instrument.
While many men have some informal experience of playing the guitar or drums as teenagers, most women her age never touched the instruments needed to play punk rock. “I had this brainwave, which was, ‘Well, if I wrote some really simple songs, I could teach non-player, beginner women to start playing bass and drums and form a band that way.’” She developed her Unglamorous Music approach by which, instead of formal tuition, participants are encouraged to learn and experiment as they go: “You’ve really got to lay it on the line that it’s not about getting things right. I think we’re programmed to be afraid of making mistakes.”
The music Miller’s students produced amazed her. “I hadn’t realised what rich ideas they would bring from their lives, because they’ve all lived these interesting, sometimes difficult, sometimes funny, sometimes tragic existences,” she says. The songs they write are very different from those “a band of 19-year-old lads [who] wouldn’t have that experience” might make. Many of the women express anger through their songs—some bands, such as Velvet Crisis, use shouty, sweary lyrics—but for others “in the way that they play, the passion and anger and the -terror come through musically… it has this wry wisdom to it.”
Miller is keen to stress that Unglamorous Music is not a community project: “Because I come from the music industry, I come from people who make records and do gigs, not just gigs for their friends, but they do gigs for people who like cool bands and that’s what I wanted it to be.” The workshops are funded by Miller and the other participants, as well as through gigs—such as their debut International Women’s Day performance—and Kickstarter campaigns. Running the workshops is hard; a friend of Miller walks into the café while we chat and asks her if she ever takes a day off. But it’s worth it to see the crowd’s response to her band, The Verinos. “They just loved watching the interactions between the band members.”
For Miller, writing and performing punk rock is a rejection of the expectations of her as a middle-aged woman, just as her first foray into music allowed her to express sadness and frustration as a teenager. “You’re not really too old,” she says. “You just have to find the right audience.”