Last week, Family Portrait featured Holly Near and her involvement in a SisterSpace fundraising concert held last week to raise money for the Virginia Giordano Memorial Fund. It was supposed to be a split column featuring Holly and another powerhouse from the music scene, producer Nona Gandelman. I quickly realized that half a page each wouldn’t do for these dynamic women, so this week is a continuation on a theme, featuring the accomplished Ms. G. 

Gandelman started her company, Maven Productions, in 1995. Since then she has produced and promoted hundreds of concerts, theatrical productions, music festivals, and events. Her concert and client list goes on for pages and boasts a roster of stars including BB King, Etta James, Queen Latifah, Emmylou Harris, Joan Baez, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Taj Mahal, Blues Traveler, Paula Poundstone, and Ani DiFranco, who participated in last week’s fundraising concert. She also lists artists and authors such as Allen Ginsberg, Harriet Lerner, Cleo Parker Robinson, Phillip Glass, and Claudio Naranjo as clients. 

In 1999, after producing a lecture tour for world-renowned primatologist Dr. Jane Goodall, she began a 10-year tenure as Communications and Marketing Vice President at the Jane Goodall Institute.

You were friends with Virginia, how did you meet?

We were both asked to teach a class on producing concerts at the Women’s National Music Festival and hit it right off. We had so much in common, we were both very excitable, we talked with our hands, we were of the same stature, she was my Italian sister and my East coast counterpart. A New Yorker through and through, very tough and ballsy. We’d both been at it for some time, I started as a talent manager and booking agent in the 70’s and Virginia was working with Sweet Honey and was also in the events/entertainment industry. A funny story, I invited her to my 60th birthday at a beautiful lakeside campsite in the Rockies. She flew in and she’d never been camping before, so we put up her tent and zipped her in at the end of the night and about an hour later I heard her little voice, “Nona? Nona. I can’t do this.” She was terrified of sleeping in the tent so we ended up having her sleep in a car where she felt more secure. Another time she came to visit me in New Mexico and I told her that she needed to come snowshoeing with us. I put layers of clothes on her, took her up to the trails at 9,000 feet and took some pictures of her. She took about 20 steps on the trail and said, “Okay, I get it. Let’s go home.” She was a total city girl. Working for Jane Goodall I used to go to the United Nations a lot and I’d always sneak away and visit with Virginia. We’d stay up all night listening to records and talking. 

Where were you born?

I’m from Connecticut but I used to steal into Manhattan all the time when I was a kid. I’d go by myself, then later I went to school in the South, and grad school up in Cambridge, and then in the early 70’s I went to Colorado to ski and loved it. I thought maybe I’d stay there for a year. It’s been over 40 years and I’m still there.

How did you get in the music business?

It wasn’t something I planned. I had some friends who were in an all female rock band. They were getting totally ripped off by club owners and agents and I don’t know where it came from but I went in and negotiated a new deal for them. It turned out that I was really good at that sort of thing and they asked me to manage them. After that another band asked for my help and I soon started a booking agency. I did a little of everything and I haven’t left the music and entertainment world since. 

What did you think you were going to do?

I have a Masters in education and I wanted to be a teacher, but I wouldn’t have lasted an hour in the school system. I’m too out of the box, I don’t color inside the lines very easily. I still love to teach though. I was a tennis pro too, so I did some coaching for a while, and then the music thing happened and it was such fun to be in that world. Drugs, sex and rock and roll, it was pretty exciting. 

So we always hear about rock stars having crazy riders, is that fact or folklore?

Oh, fact! There was an artist, Michael Hedges, he died young so you probably don’t know him but he was one of the greatest guitarists of… ever. But a real character, very new agey. I had to squeeze carrot juice and then get it to him within 30 minutes of it being squeezed. I’ve had people who wanted M&M’s with the red ones removed. You just need to accommodate people so they can feel comfortable. I haven’t had anything too crazy, but when I first started out and dealt with a lot of rock and roll bands I learned quickly not to enter a room without knocking. Everything that you hear about what goes on, with the groupies etc., is all true. I also worked with a famous blues musician and he’d get so drunk I’d have to have his arm around me as I walked him to the stage and draped him over the mic and strapped his guitar on. Somehow he would start to play and it worked out. I did a lot of work with Etta James too. She used to get mean when she was on stage, she’d curse out me and the whole crew and then after she’d call me and say, “Oh Nona, I’m so sorry baby, I just don’t feel right.” I’d commiserate and then she’d say, “You know I don’t think I can go on Friday” and I’d think, “Aaaaah! Are you kidding me! I have 1,000 people coming to the show!”

That’s wild. 

I did a lot of shows with Roseanne Barr, in fact I was doing a Women’s Festival and I lost my headliner so I called and asked if she would come and fill in and she said yes. She brought her whole family, her sister and her kids, and had a great time. 

You’ve built a trust. 

Well, a lot of promoters treat the performers as a commodity to see how much they can get out of them, where they could pad the budget or cut corners, but Virginia and I always treated the artists with respect. It’s why the fund and the concert came together because everyone wanted to be involved and to honor her. 

I’m guessing there’s a lot of misogyny that you had to deal with being a woman in the business.

Oh yeah, I was always competing against big time male producers, the guys who were promoting the Rolling Stones on down. It’s a tough business, and Virginia and I both had to be tough. Of course if I got passionately angry at someone it would be, “Well, what a bitch.” The stereotypes you’re thinking of, it was all that. I couldn’t raise my voice without getting backlash. I don’t know how I did it, but I was so addicted to it, I kept going. On the other hand, I would do shows with Holly and Chris Williamson and Lucie Blue Tremblay, and we’d have standing room only in a 2,000 seat theater and I was under a lot of pressure to restrict the shows to women only and I just couldn’t do it. I wanted to promote the women artists to everyone. Why not? I wanted their music to open all hearts and minds. I had fabulous support from the media, we’d get features, front page coverage. That’s good for everybody, and Virginia felt the same. I did have a few men tell me that they couldn’t find a men’s room to use because they were filled with women.

I’m with you 100%, the men need to hear the messages too. What’s a memorable moment that pops to mind? 

Getting Joan Baez to play the Boulder Theater. She resisted because it was smaller than where I’d usually book her but she finally did it and it was like going to church. It was so moving that afterward she said she’d never experienced something so powerful at a show. 

Switching gears, I want to know about working with Jane Goodall.

Don’t ask me how it happened that I ended up working with someone who inspired me and was one of the people I most respected in this world. It’s been 20 years now. You know I was with her on 9/11 in NY. I actually saw one of the planes hit the tower, that’s how close I was. Jane and her assistant Mary and I were stranded there for a week with ash falling down and empty streets. I was also with her during the Columbine shootings in Colorado in 1999. 

Wow, that’s tough. Did you get to have any contact with the chimps?

Yes, I went with her to Gombe in Africa with a crew from Animal Planet to make a movie about Jane. They are wild chimpanzees, so you have to stay away from them because they can pick up human diseases, but when we were filming, I was watching a chimp named Fifi at the water and suddenly the guide was whispering to me because her son, a chimp named Freud was right behind me about 15 feet away! And they’d come to the house. Jane told me, “Whenever I return to Gombe, they know that I’m here” and damn if that didn’t happen. The house had bars on the windows, no glass and the first morning, there was Gremlin hanging there with her twins. They somehow knew she was around and came to visit. I have a billion stories about Jane. 

I’m sure. I want to read your life story. What was next?

I started working with more authors along the way because I knew the music business was going corporate and it was a transition. I was on the phone once representing Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés, who is one of the biggest selling authors in the country. She overheard my conversation and when I hung up she said, “I’d like to give you some feedback, can you listen to it” and I said sure. And she pointed out my tone on the phone and said that I needed to start refining my language and approach. And I realized that I hadn’t been aware of how staccato and rough I’d become. So I had to learn to soften my language, still be honest and straight forward but not so blunt. It’s a skill. Working for the Goodall Institute was the first corporate job I’d ever had, I’d always worked for myself as a guerrilla promoter and suddenly I was the VP of Communications and Marketing with a staff of 6. I’d listen to people on the phone and try to use similar speak. I learned that people can hear you better sometimes when you’re a little softer. 

There’s your book title, “From gorilla/guerrilla to chimpanzees.”

[Laughs] Yeah!

What was a harrowing moment?

I started working with Ani when she was a puppy. She was a little singer with a big guitar and she banged the hell out of that thing. The first show we did was at an art gallery with people sitting on the floor. That didn’t last long; she was soon doing bigger shows. One of them was a solo show that had sold out in less than a week and I had a bare bones crew. The audience was all women at this point, and they were very excited. I introduced Ani and stood off to stage left and watched, and then, to my horror, on the second song, it seemed the entire orchestra section got up and rushed the stage. I did not have security at the stage like I do now. People started to climb on the stage. Ani kept playing — did not miss a beat.

The only thing I could do was step out, look as tough as I could and tell them to get down. I wagged my finger and everyone quickly jumped back down and retreated to their seats. I think my age scared them — like a mad mother. From that time on for the next 20 years I’ve worked with Ani, I always have plenty of security.

A proud moment?

I was co owner of a management and booking agency for several years. One day my business partner asked me if I could help out a friend of his from college. She was a musician and needed a booking. I asked Tulagi’s in Boulder if they would book her, but they didn’t know who she was, and passed. So I asked them if they would give me the venue on a Monday night, no charge, and promised to fill it. They thought I was crazy; nobody does a Monday night concert with an unknown musician. The show sold out so fast I think we added another. We opened the doors an hour early and the line to get in was up the street and around the block. The owner of the venue was amazed. I was not surprised. The new unheard of artist was Cris Williamson, and this show I produced for her was my first “women’s music” production and the beginning of my long career as a producer.

That’s great! Closing thoughts about SisterSpace and the concert?

What I love about the concert and places like SisterSpace is the fact that you have young performers with a whole different beat and language and perspectives with the whole world in front of them. The event had such a cross-section of women’s music it was incredible and reflective of what you’ll find at the festival once it’s allowed to open again.

What’s the importance of “Women’s Music” and the role it played in our history?

I want to say community. The shows I produced allowed the women’s community to come together to socialize and enjoy pre concert drinks and food, and then be treated to a fantastic evening of music they could deeply relate to.  I have gotten lots of feedback about this aspect of my work. These shows were sometimes the only time in a year a large number of gay women could gather in public and schmooze. Some people met their current partners at the shows; some reunited with a friend they hadn’t seen for a while; so many told me the social and community aspect was a lifesaver for them when they were younger. Some people didn’t know a lot of others, so this was a great place to make new friends. It was a joy to me  to help provide this and also to help expand the audience for such an array of talented women. And this is what Virginia did also.

There’s still time to contribute to the fundraiser. A signed guitar from Ani DiFranco will be up for auction soon. Go to www.sisterspace.org for more details.