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Olivia Records Musicians Keep a Lesbian Feminist Legacy Alive

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Teresa Trull and Barbara Higbie in Boston in 1986.  (Courtesy of the artists)

If Hollywood ever decides to delve into the messy saga of Olivia Records, Barbara Higbie and Teresa Trull’s first encounter would set the scene nicely.

They weren’t founding members of the lesbian feminist collective that crystalized the emerging women’s music movement in the mid-1970s. But their musical partnership embodied the creative frisson and roiling politics that made Olivia a proving ground for artists and arguments that continue to resonate today.

The two women met when they were both booked for performances at the 1982 Gay Rodeo. “Joan Rivers was the grand marshal,” says Higbie, who reunites with Trull and several other Olivia comrades March 18 at Freight & Salvage in Berkeley. “I was playing fiddle with Robin Flower and Nancy Vogel in a bluegrass band, and Teresa got a ride home in the van with the band.”

Higbie had soaked up West African rhythms after spending several years of her childhood in Ghana. She was a budding star on bluegrass-meets-jazz Windham Hill Records scene when she met Trull, who came up hardscrabble in Durham, North Carolina and was steeped in R&B and gospel. Though reared in different musical worlds­, their musical partnership instantly caught fire. After a few jam sessions, their first on-stage encounter took place at Great American Music Hall as part of a fundraiser, “and we got a standing ovation in the middle of the first song,” Higbie recalls. “The energy was there.”

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Trull had already recorded several albums for Olivia, which had been launched in Washington D.C. as a 10-woman collective including Meg Christian, Ginny Berson, Judy Dlugacz and Cris Williamson, whose landmark 1975 album The Changer and the Changed established the label and the women’s music movement as a commercial and political force.

While she’d come out as a lesbian, Trull quickly found that her creative ambitions clashed with Olivia’s prevailing separatist ethos. Joining the collective in Los Angeles, where Olivia had relocated, she quickly delivered some of label’s most stirring anthems, including “Don’t Say Sister (Until You Mean It)” and “Woman-Loving Women,” songs she’d written as a teenager. Olivia included the latter single on the 1977 compilation Lesbian Concentrate, a musical broadside against Anita Bryant’s ultimately successful anti-gay “Save Our Children” campaign to repeal Miami-Dade County, Florida’s anti-discrimination ordinance. (The album also featured Trull’s convincing version of Ma Rainey’s “Prove It On Me Blues.”)

“There was one distributor in Boston who wouldn’t say the album’s name,” Trull says. “He just called it ‘Concentrate.’ People forget you couldn’t say the word ‘lesbian.’ Women were losing jobs, losing kids in custody disputes. Now those laws are coming back. All the rights of gay people can be taken away.”

Her knack for crafting catchy songs infused with jazz and funk grooves distinguished Trull’s second album, 1980’s Let It Be Known, which featured appearances by accomplished players like pianist Julie Homi, percussionist Sheila E., vocalist Linda Tillery and trumpeter Ellen Seeling and saxophonist Jean Fineberg, co-leaders of the New York fusion band Deuce.

But trouble was brewing.

Trull’s prolific songwriting partnership with her East Oakland neighbor, jazz guitarist Ray Obiedo, met resistance from the collective when she included two of their songs on the album the first time a man contributed to an Olivia project. As a budding producer, Trull was more interested in working with skilled technicians in the studio, whatever their gender.

The Olivia collective “was still of the thought that you would use women in absolutely every possible place, and if you couldn’t, you wouldn’t do it,” says Trull, whose love of horses led her to move from Oakland to New Zealand in 2005. “I wanted to make a technically competitive record that could be played and listened to anywhere.”

In a fascinating side story, the collective came under attack for embracing sound engineer Sandy Stone, a trans woman who had informed Olivia members about her identity before joining. Though the collective defended Stone’s role at the label, a threatened boycott led her to leave Olivia in 1978. Returning to Santa Cruz, Stone started graduate studies at UCSC under Donna Haraway and built the critical theory framework for trans studies with her 1987 essay “The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto” (among many other accomplishments).

Teresa Trull and Barbara Higbie in 1984. (Courtesy of the artists)

Separately, Higbie’s experience offered a case study in the power of Olivia’s sisterhood. Right around that fateful first encounter with Trull, Windham Hill released Tideline, an extraordinary duo project featuring Higbie on piano and Darol Anger on fiddle. They went on to co-lead a jazz-infused quintet with rising stars Mike Marshall on guitar and mandolin, Andy Narell on steel drums and bassist Todd Phillips.

The gigs with the guys paid better, “but women’s music gave me the will to keep doing it, and were a 100 times more fun,” she says. “The music business is tough for anybody, but to be a woman instrumentalist in the 1980s meant a lot of hazing. I cried a lot with the guys. I was not valued for my contribution, that’s for sure.”

When Trull and Higbie recorded their first album together, 1983’s Unexpected, Trull had left the collective. She produced the project for Olivia’s spinoff label Second Wave. Critically hailed, the album turned them into one of the most popular acts in women’s music, even as the movement’s success was rewriting the music business’ old rules.

In the late ’80s, the women’s music scene was finding a much wider audience as lesbian artists such as Indigo Girls, k.d. lang and Melissa Etheridge (whose demo had been rejected by Olivia) found mainstream success. By the 1990s advent of the riot grrrl movement and Lilith Fair tour and festival, Olivia largely left the music business behind while transitioning into a thriving lesbian and LGBTQ+ travel company.

Higbie and Trull recently returned from Olivia’s celebration of the label’s 50th anniversary with two sold-out week-long Caribbean cruises. Just about every woman associated with the label was booked, along with players who came up in the label’s wake “with wall-to-wall shows, music and comedians,” Higbie says.

Barbara Higbie and Teresa Trull at Freight & Salvage. (Courtesy of the artists)

“There were history panels, people talking about all different aspects of the movement, radical feminism, all the trans issues,” Higbie continues. “Linda Tillery was the breakout star. She was in a wheelchair, and she just blew everybody away and brought the house down again and again.”

It was Trull’s first gigs in five years, and not just because of the pandemic. She started following her equestrian passion years ago, to the point where she’s better known in some circles for her extraordinary work with horses, particularly bringing to life the 17th-century French equestrian Le Carrousel du Roi ballet recreated by UC Berkeley musicologist Kate van Orden, presented at Walnut Creek’s Heather Farm Park in 2000.

She wasn’t sure what to expect on the cruise, but ended up thrilled to play and hang with so many old friends, joining in a Cris Williamson performance of The Changer and the Changed. But after all these years, there’s still nothing like revisiting the songs she and Higbie have made their own.

“I’d say at least 80 percent of what we do we only do together,” Trull says. “I’m not a great guitar player. I’m a musical guitar player. But Barbara is an amazing musician, and there’s something that happens when we’re on stage together that ends up being our favorite combination.”

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Barbara Higbie, Teresa Trull and friends perform at Freight & Salvage in Berkeley on March 18.

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