With the industry’s gender dynamic at breaking point, Girlschool’s 100 per cent female-fronted festival wants to empower girls with guitars – its founder tells us why
Like many girls in male-dominated scenes, there was a point where Anna Bulbrook was just happy to be one of the gang. “I spent the last eight or nine years touring in an alternative rock band with a bunch of guys,” she says. “At first, I was just so happy to be out there doing it. But after a few years, I started to realise how few other women artists I'd see at radio festivals or out on the road, and I missed that connection.” Now, the musician and multi-instrumentalist – currently of LA band The Bulls, but also known for playing with bands with longer names like Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros and the Airborne Toxic Event – is redressing the balance with her music and arts collective dedicated to celebrating female voices. It’s called Girlschool.
Beginning with a weekly, female-fronted residency, Girlschool has fast built up momentum as its own ecosystem within LA's sprawling musical underground. Bulbrook was in part inspired to form the collective after visiting the Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls, a music summer camp for 8 to 17-year-olds that aims to break down gender stereotypes.
“Have you ever seen an 11-year-old fearlessly get on stage with a bass she picked up for the first time a couple of days before and sing a song that she just wrote in front of a group of supportive peers?” says Bulbrook of her time at the inclusive camp. “Because those experiences will change your DNA.” This weekend, Girlschool will host its first festival, with all proceeds going to the Rock 'n' Roll Camp. Welcoming and involving music lovers of any gender identity, the festival will feature performances from bands like Kim and the Created, Gothic Tropic and legends Veruca Salt, as well as a Friday night roundtable led by female leaders in music.
Girlschool's first festival, and the discussions it hopes to open up, comes at a time when the industry is facing fresh scrutiny for its harmful gender biases. Ahead of the event, we caught up with Bulbrook to discuss the LA music scene, the empowerment that comes with working with other women, and why being a “woman in music” should be about more than being the Debbie Harry you want to see in the world.
How did you come up with the idea for Girlschool?
Anna Bulbrook: I have spent the last eight or nine years touring in an alternative rock band with a bunch of guys. I started to wonder: ‘Why aren't there more women artists graduating from their local scenes to the next level? We supposedly "handled" this back in the 90s!’ So when my solo project, the Bulls, was putting together a residency at the Satellite this past August, I thought, hey, why not make this thing feature the female artists I think are completely qualified to leap into bigger arenas?
Why is it important that Girlschool's first weekend-long festival is 100 per cent female-fronted?
Anna Bulbrook: I really believe that there is a certain magic that happens when you get a bunch of brilliant, talented, and dynamic women aligned on something. We can create more momentum together than we do apart. All we at Girlschool want is to shine a light on the talent that we see all around, while creating a little nest for a real and supportive community to develop. That's the real stuff that will allow us to eventually bring about genuine change in the future. Also, selfishly, I just want to be working alongside women whom I admire and who inspire me. There's nothing more satisfying.
In a recent Dazed interview with Jenny Lee Lindberg (Warpaint), she talks about making the jump from working within an all-girl dynamic in the band to leading an all-male band. She said, “Collaborating with women is super-empowering but also really hard. So much communication is required”. What are your experiences of collaborating with women versus working within male and female-mixed bands?
Anna Bulbrook: Interesting. I think I semi-expected that to be true, because it’s a stereotype that exists. But I have found collaborating with women on writing music for the Bulls, or working with my crackerjack team at Girlschool, to actually be a far more free and direct process than some of my recent collaborations with men. Men have their own dynamics, egos, emotions, and politics as well. Everyone does! Making art is emotional, whatever gender you are, and bands are emotionally supercharged environments.
“Why aren't there more women artists graduating from their local scenes to the next level? We supposedly “handled” this back in the 90s!’” – Anna Bulbrook
When I was growing up, I found female-fronted acts from before I was born – the Slits, the Au-Pairs, X-Ray Spex, Blondie – way more inspiring than contemporary acts. Why is it important for young girls to feel they have (female) contemporaries they can look up to, rather than just nostalgia for what’s come before?
Anna Bulbrook: The most powerful lesson I’ve had to learn, and I re-learn it all the time, is that there are no rules. To anything. No rules for how to be you, what that should look like, how you should go about becoming you. I love the idea that there is no one way to be a woman in music (or in the world), or any other gender for that matter. You don't have to re-enact past tropes. As someone who doesn't play a traditional rock instrument, I didn't have a lot of "female rock violin" icons to look up to – and I'm glad. I just got to be me and make it up as I went. If any of the artists participating in Girlschool inspires a young girl (or any young human, honestly) to be more confidently herself, whatever that means, then we have completely and totally succeeded.
I guess since I came of age in the 90s/early 2000s, I had Dolores O'Riordan and Alanis Morrissette to look up to. And Liz Phair. Fiona Apple. But then there's Blondie and Siouxsie Sioux. There's Nico. There's Bjork. I could list amazing artists all day... But I also love pop, and I am not afraid to love Madonna or Britney Spears (yes, I have a place in my heart for her, too).
How would you describe the Los Angeles music scene at the moment? The city is always mined for its rock 'n' roll 'cool capital' historically, but what is special about it in 2016?
Anna Bulbrook: LA is a city that always says “Yes!” even if it doesn't always mean it. But LA is very open-minded. Since there is no particularly dominant scene going on right now, just a ton of talented and motivated musicians and bands in various loose scenes floating around, I think there is a huge opportunity to move in and create one.
As highlighted by the recent coming-to-light of the sexual misconduct of Life or Death PR Heathcliff Berru, the music industry environment has the potential to be not only sexist against women, but also actively hostile and damaging. What can individuals in the industry do to disrupt a sexist system, and protect female musicians?
Anna Bulbrook: I think that music should be a safe space for everyone. Period. So I think standing up for what’s right – whether it’s standing up for yourself or someone else – is a good place to start. I also think creating intentionally positive pathways or environments for music, which is what we are trying to do with Girlschool, is another answer. And by the way, these pathways don't have to be "female-themed" to be positive, either. There are myriad ways we can increase consciousness in our art form and the industry that surrounds it, and to make the world a more safe and free space for everyone.
I say: if the world doesn't reach its arms out to you, then make your own, better one! And after a while, your new world will maybe grow to become the real one.
Girlschool's Field Day weekend takes place today, Friday 29 - Sunday 31, at the Bootleg theatre in Los Angeles. For more information, click here.