Female-led music that inspires me
I’m an artist of the written word, and I adore music. It inspires my writing and helps me time travel for stories I set in the past. Lyrics are poetry set to music with a universal quality to help us feel less alone in the world.
My favorite songs come from talented singer-songwriters who share their work with the world. In prep for this post, I started listing female singer-songwriters with works I enjoy and soon had a huge list of over 40 talented ladies. It was too big of an undertaking, so I tried to cut the list down to my top 15, but I ended up with a top 30 instead (with many honorable mentions).
30 female singer-songwriters I admire (in alphabetical order)
These ladies are all amazing, so it’s impossible for me to rank them from favorite to least favorite. As a writer, I pay special attention to the lyrics, so all of these ladies wrote lyrics and sang the songs I mentioned. Here are my top 30 inspiring female music artists listed alphabetically by first names.
Alanis burst onto the music scene in the mid-1990s with her F-bomb-dropping angry anthem, “You Oughta Know,” co-written with Glen Ballard. It was nice to hear an angry break-up song for once instead of a sad one.
Cause the joke that you laid in the bed that was me
And I’m not gonna fade as soon as you close your eyes
And you know it
And every time I scratch my nails
Down someone else’s back I hope you feel it
Well, can you feel it?
Another great song is “Joining You,” also co-written with Ballard.
And you were mind-boggling, you were intense
You were uncomfortable in your own skin
You were thirsty, but mostly you were beautiful
I was thrilled to get to see Alanis in concert along with Garbage and Liz Phair in 2021. I recorded her performances of “Head Over Feet” and “Ironic.” And I recorded “I’m Only Happy When It Rains” and “Stupid Girl” by Garbage while I was there too. (Lead singer Shirley Manson is in my honorable mentions.)
Amy Lee of Evanescence can handle a ballad, as proven by the group’s song, “My Immortal,” which was co-written with Ben Moody. The song’s haunting lyrics and Lee’s piano playing took my breath away when I saw the band perform live in 2004.
You used to captivate me by your resonating lightNow, I’m bound by the life you left behind Your face it haunts my once pleasant dreams Your voice it chased away all the sanity in meThese wounds won’t seem to heal, this pain is just too realThere’s just too much that time cannot erase
So don’t cry to me, if you loved meYou would be here with me You want me, come find me Make up your mindYou never call me when you’re soberYou only want it ’cause it’s over, it’s over
Anna Nalick gained some popularity when her music was featured in season two of Grey’s Anatomy, which is how I discovered it. Her song “Breathe (2 AM)” is one I put on my wedding soundtrack because I think it is just so beautiful.
‘Cause you can’t jump the track, we’re like cars on a cableAnd life’s like an hourglass glued to the table No one can find the rewind button, girl So cradle your head in your hands And breathe, just breathe Oh, breathe, just breathe
I really love her performance of, “Shine” as well, but she didn’t write that one, so instead I’ll feature “In My Head.”
You are a god and whatever I want you to beAnd I wonder if truly you are Nearly as beautiful as I believeIn my headYour voice You’ve got all that I need And this make-believe will get me through Another lonely night
Annie Lennox penned and performed hits with the band Eurythmics with Dave Stewart, with whom she co-wrote “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This).” The techno song had so much appeal it was later covered by shock rock group Marilyn Manson with great success.
Sweet dreams are made of thisWho am I to disagree I travel the world and the seven seas Everybody’s looking for somethingSome of them want to use youSome of them want to get used by you Some of them want to abuse you Some of them want to be abused
As a solo artist, Lennox released “Walking on Broken Glass.”
You were the sweetest thing that I ever knewBut I don’t care for sugar honey if I can’t have you Since you’ve abandoned me My whole life has crashed Won’t you pick the pieces up ‘Cause it feels just like I’m walking on broken glass
Avril’s about three years younger than me, and when this punk-rock skater girl hit the music scene in 2002, I was impressed and really loved her music (and have continued to love it as she’s grown older). I don’t think there are any of her songs I don’t like, but keeping with my theme of featuring lyrics from two songs per lady, I’ll start with “Complicated,” which was co-written with David Alspach, Graham Edwards, and Lauren Christy.
Why’d you have to go and make things so complicated?I see the way you’re acting like you’re somebody else Gets me frustrated Life’s like this, you And you fall, and you crawl, and you break And you take what you get, and you turn it into Honesty and promise me I’m never gonna find you faking
And “I’m With You,” also co-written with Alspach, Edwards, and Christy, is on my top 10 list of favorite songs.
It’s a damn cold nightTrying to figure out this life Won’t you take me by the hand? Take me somewhere new I don’t know who you are But I, I’m with you I’m with you
Talk about some brokenhearted songwriting, and Christina Perri will come to mind. Her song, “Jar of Hearts,” co-written with Drew Lawrence and Barrett Yeretsian, was featured on So You Think You Can Dance which helped get it on the map. Its hauntingly beautiful piano music and soul-crushing lyrics took my breath away when I first heard the song on the radio and it’s on my list of favorite songs.
Who do you think you are?Runnin’ ’round leaving scars Collecting your jar of hearts Tearing love apartYou’re gonna catch a coldFrom the ice inside your soul So don’t come back for me Who do you think you are?
Another memorable song is “Arms,” co-written with David Hodges.
How many times will let you me change my mind and turn aroundI can’t decide if I’ll let you save my life or if I’ll drownI hope that you see right through my wallsI hope that you catch me, ’cause I’m already falling I’ll never let a love get so close You put your arms around me and I’m homeThe world is coming down on meAnd I can’t find a reason to be loved
Dido Armstrong has a distinctive voice, and her song “Thank You,” co-written with Paul Herman, was sampled in rapper Emimen’s song “Stan” which helped give Dido some attention from people who might otherwise not have heard her talent.
I drank too much last night, got bills to payMy head just feels in pain I missed the bus and there’ll be hell today I’m late for work again And even if I’m there, they’ll all imply That I might not last the day And then you call me And it’s not so bad, it’s not so bad
I will go down with this ship
And I won’t put my hands up and surrender
There will be no white flag above my door
I’m in love and always will be
I will go down with this ship
And I won’t put my hands up and surrender
There will be no white flag above my door
I’m in love and always will be
Dolly is a country artist, but she defies genres as far as I’m concerned. Her sweet love song, “I Will Always Love You,” has been covered by other artists, most notably Whitney Houston, but Dolly’s grassroots version is the sweetest.
If I should stayWell I would only be in your way And so I’ll go, and yet I know I’ll think of you each step of the wayAnd I will always love youI will always love you
Tumble out of bedAnd stumble to the kitchen Pour myself a cup of ambition And yawn and stretch and try to come to lifeJump in the showerAnd the blood starts pumpin’ Out on the streets, the traffic starts jumpin’ For folks like me on the job from 9 to 5
Angry-girl music with a bluesy vibe came with Fiona Apple in the late 1990s. Her soulful voice and lyrics helped me through a lot of shit as a teen. Her song, “Criminal,” was like nothing I’d heard before.
What I need is a good defense
‘Cause I’m feelin’ like a criminal
And I need to be redeemed
To the one I’ve sinned against
Because he’s all I ever knew of love
And “Sleep to Dream,” is my favorite of her songs.
I tell you how I feel but you don’t careI say tell me the truth but you don’t dare You say love is a hell you cannot bear And I say give me mine back and then go there for all I careI got my feet on the ground and I don’t go to sleep to dreamYou got your head in the clouds, you’re not at all what you seem
Lead singer for Florence + The Machine, Welch is an indie-rock queen with a voice to match. Her song, “Shake It Out,” co-written with Paul Epworth and Tom Hull, is amazing.
Regrets collect like old friendsHere to relive your darkest moments I can see no way, I can see no way And all of the ghouls come out to playAnd every demon wants his pound of fleshBut I like to keep some things to myself I like to keep my issues drawn It’s always darkest before the dawn
“Sweet Nothing,” is another great tune of hers, co-written with Calvin Harris and Hull.
It isn’t easy for me to let it go‘Cause I’ve swallowed every single word And every whisper, every sigh eats away this heart of mine And there is a hollow in me now (Me now)So I’ll put my faith in something unknownI’m living on such sweet nothing But I’m tired of hope with nothing to hold I’m living on such sweet nothing
I love Hailee as an actress, and she first showed off her chops in the second Pitch Perfect movie and continued in the third. Many of her first songs were written by others, but she truly shined when she started penning her own, including “Wrong Direction,” co-written with Elizabeth Boland, Skyler Stonestreet, and Stephen Kozmeniuk.
On my tip-toesBut I still couldn’t reach your ego Guess I was crazy to give you my body, my mind Don’t know what I was thinkin’ ’til now Everyone thinks that you’re somebody else You even convinced yourselfCouldn’t even see you through the smokeLookin’ back, I probably should have known
“Your Name Hurts,” is another great breakup song co-written with Kozmeniuk, Boland, Caroline Pennell, and Janee Bennet.
We’re a half-written story without any endingYou left me to figure it out Filled me with ecstasy, left with the best of me But where’s the rest of me now?Honestly, I don’t regret youI just wish I never met you
And when somebody knows you wellWell, there’s no comfort like that And when somebody needs you Well, there’s no drug like thatSo keep me, keep me in your bed all day, all dayNothing heals me like you do Nothing heals me like you do
I still remember the intrigue I had when I first heard her song “Walk This World,” another F-bomb-dropping song of the mid-90s with some ambiguity and sexually suggestive lyrics.
And I’m sucked in by the wonderAnd I’m fucked up by the lies And I dig a hole to lie in And I build some wings to fly And I think that I could love you ’cause You know how to be free I want you to come walk this world with me
Ingrid started out releasing her indie pop on MySpace and found some major success when her song “The Way I Am,” was featured in an Old Navy commercial. It’s a simple and beautiful love song with fun music to match.
If you were falling
Then I would catch you
You need a light
I’d find a match
‘Cause I love the way you say good morning
And you take me the way I am
And “Keep Breathing” is an anthem of mine.
The storm is coming but I don’t mindPeople are dying, I close my blinds All that I know is I’m breathing nowI want to change the world, and instead I sleepI want to believe in more than you and me But all that I know is I’m breathing All I can do is keep breathing
No one can sing or yodel quite like Jewel. Her song, “You Were Meant for Me,” co-written with Steve Poltz, was one frequently played in my teenage bedroom.
Dreams last for so long
Even after you’re gone
And I know that you love me
And soon you will see
You were meant for me
And I was meant for you
And “Foolish Games” had a different vibe to it but still expressed pain in a way I hadn’t heard before.
Excuse me, think I’ve mistaken you for somebody elseSomebody who gave a damn, somebody more like myselfThese foolish games are tearing meYou’re tearing me, you’re tearing me apart And your thoughtless words are breaking my heart You’re breaking my heart
Joni Mitchell is in a class all her own when it comes to folk music. I adore her Christmas love song, “River.”
It’s coming on ChristmasThey’re cutting down trees They’re putting up reindeer And singing songs of joy and peace Oh, I wish I had a river I could skate away on
And I adore “The Circle Game.”
And the seasons, they go round and roundAnd the painted ponies go up and down We’re captive on the carousel of time We can’t return, we can only look Behind, from where we came And go round and round and round, in the circle game
Julia Michaels is pretty badass with her own releases, but she also writes a ton of material for or with other artists, including Hailee Steinfeld and Taylor Swift. I adore her song “Issues,” co-written with Benjamin Levin, Tor Erik Hermansen, Mikkel Storleer Eriksen and Justin Tranter.
‘Cause I got issues, but you got ’em too
So give ’em all to me, and I’ll give mine to you
Bask in the glory of all our problems
‘Cause we got the kind of love it takes to solve ’em
Yeah, I got issues
And one of them is how bad I need ya
Another great one that’s on my soundtrack for When Does Life Begin? (along with “Issues”) is “What A Time,” co-written with Tranter, Casey Barth, and Riley Knapp, and released as a duet with Niall Horan. It really captures the feelings of the relationship between my characters Lydia and Jason.
I think of that night in the park, it was getting darkAnd we stayed up for hours What a time, what a time, what a time You clinged to my body like you wanted it forever What a time, what a time, what a time For you and I What a time, what a time For you and I
The first winner of American Idol is more than just a woman who can sing; her talent extends to songwriting as well. “Behind These Hazel Eyes,” co-written with Max Martin and Lukasz Gottwald, gave me some Avril Lavigne vibes when I first heard the opening music. It’s interesting because Lavigne was one of the writers for another Clarkson release I like, “Breakaway.”
I told you everythingOpened up and let you in You made me feel alright for once in my life Now all that’s left of me Is what I pretend to be So together, but so broken up inside
Because of youI never stray too far from the sidewalk Because of you I learned to play on the safe side, so I don’t get hurt Because of you I find it hard to trust not only me, but everyone around me Because of you I am afraid
Lady Gaga is a performer and songwriter who likes to push the envelope with her catchy dance-beat songs, which I like as well, but she really shines with her ballads. She co-wrote the hit song, “Shallow” with Mark Ronson, Andrew Wyatt, and Anthony Rossomando for the remake of the movie A Star Is Born, in which she starred in one of the lead roles.
I’m fallingIn all the good times, I find myself longing for change And in the bad times, I fear myselfI’m off the deep end, watch as I dive inI’ll never meet the ground Crash through the surface, where they can’t hurt us We’re far from the shallow now
Another notable one is “Million Reasons,” co-written with Ronson and Hillary Lindsey.
I bow down to prayI try to make the worst seem better Lord, show me the way To cut through all his worn-out leather I’ve got a hundred million reasons to walk away But baby, I just need one good one to stay
All it took was hearing Lisa Loeb’s song “Stay (I Missed You)” play at the end of the movie Reality Bites to get me hooked on her music, and I soon knew the song by heart.
And so I, I turned the radio on I turned the radio upAnd this woman was singing my song Lover’s in love and the other’s run away Lover is crying ’cause the other won’t stay Some of us hover when we weep for the other Who was dying since the day they were born
Well, well this is not that I think that I’m throwing but I’m thrown
Once I bought her CD, I fell in love with another of her songs, “Do You Sleep?” and played it on repeat when I was a teen.
I saw you as you walked across my room
You looked out the window, you looked at the moon
And you sat on the corner of my bed
And you smoked with the ghost in the back of my head
Now I don’t know and I don’t care
If I ever will see you again
I don’t know and I don’t care
If I ever will be there
I discovered Megan Davies on the Coffeehouse channel on satellite radio during a free trial, and I’m so glad I did. Her song, “Bad Poetry,” co-written with Bonnie Baker and Karen Kosowshi, has become one of my favorites.
We’re not gonna follow
Cause that ain’t our style, no
We find the beauty in the broken
Take another toke and write some bad poetry
We don’t need to pretty up
When we got the good stuff
Just be sittin’ on a couch
You and me hangin’ out, writing bad poetry
Another good original from her is “Walk Away,” co-written with Ben Goldsmith.
You know what, I’ll survive
Take it in stride
Feeling my pride
Pound it in ground
with each step I rise
Standing on your weeds like
Keep my eyes dry
Natalie Merchant started off as lead singer for the band 10,000 Maniacs and later set out on her own. I love her song, “Carnival,” and listened to it a lot when I first started writing my original novel drafts as a teen.
Well, I’ve walked these streetsIn a carnival, of sights to see All the cheap thrill seekers vendors and the dealers They crowded around meHave I been blind have I been lostInside myself and my own mind Hypnotized, mesmerized by what my eyes have seen?
I also love her song, “Wonder.”
Doctors have come from distant cities just to see meStand over my bed, disbelieving what they’re seeing They say I must be one of the wonders, God’s own creation And as far as they see, they can offer no explanationNewspapers ask intimate questions, want confessionsThey reach into my head to steal the glory of my story They say I must be one of the wonders, God’s own creation And as far as they see, they can offer no explanation
Pink is as badass and unapologetic as they come, and I love her voice. “Don’t Let Me Get Me,” co-written with Dallas Austin, is fast-paced and super catchy.
So doctor, doctor, won’t you please prescribe me something?
A day in the life of someone else
Don’t let me get me
Oh, I’m a hazard to myself, yeah
Don’t let me get me
I’m my own worst enemy
“Who Knew,” co-written with Max Martin and Lukasz Gottwald, has a slower pace and lyrics that are just as meaningful.
When someone said count your blessings now
‘Fore they’re long gone
I guess I just didn’t know how
I was all wrong
They knew better, still, you said forever
And ever, who knew?
Sara writes love and heartbreak songs and also has a sitcom on the Peacock/Netflix network called Girls5eva and composed the soundtrack for the film Waitress. “Gravity” holds a special place in my heart because I’ve felt the emotions expressed in the song.
You hold me without touchYou keep me without chains I never wanted anything so much than to drown in your love And not feel your reignSet me free, leave me beI don’t want to fall another moment into your gravity
All I have, all I needHe’s the air I would kill to breatheHolds my love in his hands Still, I’m searching for something Out of breath, I am left hoping someday I’ll breathe again I’ll breathe again
Sarah founded the popular Lilith Fair to celebrate female artists and write beautiful lyrics. I especially love “Possession,” which captured my heart when I first heard it on MTV in 1993 as a 12-year-old.
Listen as the wind blows
From across the great divide
Voices trapped in yearning
Memories trapped in time
The night is my companion
And solitude my guide
Would I spend forever here
And not be satisfied
And later there was “Building a Mystery,” co-written with Pierre Marchland.
You live in a churchWhere you sleep with voodoo dolls And you won’t give up the search For the ghosts in the halls You wear sandals in the snow And a smile that won’t wash away Can you look out the window Without your shadow getting in the way?
Sheryl Crow is one of the recent badass inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Her music has a folksy-American-Southern Rock vibe to it and shows up on soundtracks for my novels When Does Life Begin? and Caroline’s Lighthouse.
“I Shall Believe,” co-written with William “Bill” Bottrell.
Even if it’s a lieSay it will be alright And I shall believeI’m broken in twoAnd I know you’re on to me That I only come home When I’m so all alone But I do believe
“My Favorite Mistake,” co-written with Jeff Trott.
Did you know when you go it’s the perfect endingTo the bad day I was just beginning When you go, all I know is you’re my favorite mistakeYour friends are sorry for meThey watch you pretend to adore me But I am no fool to this game
Oh, Sia Furler. She’s a gifted singer-songwriter known for wearing huge wigs to hide her face during performances. She’s an example of success for someone on the autism spectrum, and I respect her greatly. Check out the lyrics below, and don’t miss “Elastic Heart” and “Numb” for some other great songs.
Her haunting song, “Breathe Me,” co-written with Dan Carey is on the soundtrack for my novels Jordan’s Sister and When Does Life Begin? and is just beautiful from the lyrics to the music.
Hurt myself again todayAnd, the worst part is there’s no one else to blameBe my friend, hold meWrap me up, enfold me I am small and needy Warm me up and breathe me
I’m gonna fly like a bird through the nightFeel my tears as they dry I’m gonna swing from the chandelier From the chandelierBut I’m holding on for dear lifeWon’t look down, won’t open my eyes
Sophie B. Hawkins
Known for having music videos banned on MTV for erotic content back in the early 90s, Sophie B. Hawkins has sensual lyrics and lullaby-like compositions. “Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover” I first heard in the background of an episode of Beverly Hills, 90210.
But I really fell in love with her song, “Lose Your Way.”
I have no confidenceAnd I can’t see why I should But I could do most anything for you And you know I would
I try too hard And then I give up way too easily I’m the runner-up inside of you And you’re the winner inside of me
“As I Lay Me Down” probably played a hundred times in my teenage bedroom.
As I lay me down to sleepThis I pray That you will hold me dear Though I’m far away I’ll whisper your name into the sky And I will wake up happy
There’s no one quite like Stevie. She had a successful solo career and wrote many of the hits for Fleetwood Mac. She’s currently on tour at 75 and just as badass as ever. My favorite song of all time is “Landslide” penned by Nicks. I love her deep, raspy voice and was blessed to see Fleetwood Mac in concert in 2015 and recorded their performance of “Landslide.”
Oh, mirror in the skyWhat is love? Can the child within my heart rise above? Can I sail through the changin’ ocean tides? Can I handle the seasons of my life?
And you can’t go wrong with “Leather and Lace,” which Stevie released as a duet with Don Henley.
Is love so fragile and the heart so hollow?Shatter with words, impossible to follow You’re saying I’m fragile, I try not to be I search only for something I can’t see I have my own life And I am stronger than you know
Taylor’s known for more than just her singing and songwriting talent. She’s an intelligent businesswoman who’s broken the internet more than once. From her Eras tour ticket sales causing Ticketmaster to crash to all the trending articles about her love life through the years, she’s probably the most famous pop star in 2023 as I write this post.
My favorite song of hers is “The Man,” co-written with Joel Little, which has smart lyrics like:
I’m so sick of running as fast as I canWondering if I’d get there quicker If I was a man And I’m so sick of them coming at me again ‘Cause if I was a man Then I’d be the man
And there’s “Anti-Hero” co-written with Jack Antonoff, with its brilliant (and controversial) lyrics:
I’ll stare directly at the sun but never in the mirrorIt must be exhausting always rooting for the anti-heroSometimes I feel like everybody is a sexy babyAnd I’m a monster on the hill Too big to hang out, slowly lurching toward your favorite city Pierced through the heart, but never killed
She started out as a teenage country artist before transitioning to pop. I’m not a country music fan, especially if there’s a lot of twang, but some of Taylor’s songs from her second album cross genres pretty well, like “Love Story” and “You Belong with Me.” I pretty much like all of her pop songs except “Shake It Off.”
Tracy’s name has been in the press lately as she won a CMA award for song of the year in 2023 when a male country singer, Luke Combs, covered her song (and my favorite) “Fast Car” 35 years after its release. She’s the first Black woman to win that particular award.
You got a fast car
Is it fast enough so we can fly away?
We gotta make a decision
Leave tonight or live and die this way
Another notable song is “Give Me One Reason.”
Give me one reason to stay hereAnd I’ll turn right back around Said I don’t want to leave you lonely You got to make me change my mind
There are so many wonderful songwriters that didn’t quite make my top 30. Here they are, also in alphabetical order by their first names. I also want to shout out to Diane Warren, who has written multiple hit songs for other artists but isn’t a performer.
Abra Moore, Adele, Aimee Mann, Alicia Keys, Alison Sudol, Amy Stroup, Amy Winehouse, Anna Clendening , Ann Wilson, Beyonce, Billie Eilish, Billie Myers, Brynn Elliott, Camila Cabello, Carly Rae Jepsen, Chantal Kreviazuk, Chrissie Hynde, Christine McVie, Colbie Caillat, Courtney Love, Demi Lovato, Des’ree, Dolores O’Riordan, Ellie Goulding, Fergie, Grace Slick, Grace VanderWaal, Gwen Stefani, Halsey, Hayley Williams, Hollyn, Hope Sandoval, Jann Arden, Joan Jett, Joy Oladokun, Julia Stone, Juliana Hatfield, June Carter (Cash), Kate Bush, Katy Perry, Kesha, Lana Del Ray, Lea Andreone, Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, Liz Phair, Lizzo, Lorde, Loretta Lynn, Macy Gray, Madonna, Mandy Moore, Mariah Carey , Meghan Trainor, Melissa Etheridge, Meredith Brooks, Michelle Branch, Missy Higgins, Natasha Bedingfield, Nelly Furtado, Olivia Rodrigo, Pat Benatar, Patty Griffin, Paula Cole , Rachel Platten, Ruth B., Sabrina Carpenter, Selena Gomez, Shania Twain, Shawn Colvin, Shirley Manson, Sigrid, Taylor Momsen, Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins, Tori Amos, Tove Lo, and Vanessa Carlton.
Is there someone I missed?
Is there a female singer-songwriter you love who’s not included in my post? Let me know in the comments so I can check out some more music. Soon, I’ll have my list ready for my favorite male singer-songwriters!
Thanks for reading,
Brandi Easterling Collins
All song lyrics belong to their respective copyright holders.
Featured Image by Freepik