Who Says Girls Can't Rock?

Introducing GIRLSCHOOL, a music and arts collective celebrating female voices.

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It began with Blink-182 and Sixpence None the Richer. On the brink of adolescence, I developed a steady appetite for mix tapes, LPs, and b-sides along with an addiction to emo and post-hardcore music. I consumed it as much as possible, compulsively hoarding mp3s on the hard drive of my family's computer (much to my father's  dismay). My weekends were spent at record shops, VFW halls, and in my BFFs' bedrooms where we'd paint our nails and scream along to our favorite songs as if our lives depended on it.  Music was everything: community, catharsis, an excuse to hang. It defined who I was and who I wanted to become. 

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As I grew up, I began to realize that the music scene, despite my love for it, could be a very lonely place for women (even more so for WOC). My naive assumption that it was inherently inclusive began to disintegrate. Every rock venue, festival, and music magazine had something glaringly in common: they were all spaces dominated by men. 

Music lovers Anna Bulbrook (a musician in bands like The Bulls, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, and Airborne Toxic Event), Adrien Young, and Jasmine Lywen-Dill noticed it too and responded by founding GIRLSCHOOL, a music and arts collective dedicated to celebrating female artists, leaders, and voices. The collective's creation was a direct response to how few women Bulbrook saw onstage at shows and festivals. As a recovering emo kid from suburban PA, I was super excited  to talk with the founding mothers of GIRLSCHOOL about their inaugural Field Day Weekend Festival, their experiences in the music scene, and the undeniable magic of being in community with other women. 

Spoiler alert: GIRLSCHOOL rocks! 

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Dianca London: So before I start gushing about how cool GIRLSCHOOL is, could you tell me a bit about how you all got into music? 

Adrien Young: I got my first guitar when I was 10 years old and have been jamming out ever since. Having also been involved in other male-dominated industries (skateboarding and snowboarding), I can say that my experiences have been mostly positive, but the magic really happens when you have a band of supportive women around you. I met Anna after hearing of her GIRLSCHOOL residency [at The Satellite] this fall. We became friends and now I am fortunate to be part of this collective of amazing women (and a few men) making more magic happen!

Anna Bulbrook: I've been playing music forever! I started playing violin when I was four, and am a classically trained. I took it pretty seriously all the way until I was 21. One of the things that I learned in classical music is that it's not as gender-divided as rock. A lot of the time, women were in the front leading the orchestra. When you get to the professional level in classical music, there are tons of women. It's at least 50/50 — and the women were leading because they were just better. Maybe twenty years ago, they started auditioning people for orchestras behind screens [because] orchestras were led by older European gentlemen and were primarily male. In the process of doing blind auditions orchestras instantly became 50/50 men and women. So for the most part, the classical music world has kind of handled that issue and I never really confronted it as a kid.

When I moved to California after college, I broke up with being a classical violinist, and had to just kind of destroy that identity. I ended up joining a band. Since then, I've been in a band called Airborne Toxic Event for almost ten years, and also made a record playing strings with a band called Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. More recently, I've started my own solo project, The Bulls, where I sing and play the guitar and write everything — and really drive the boat which is fun and new for me. 

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DL: How did your experience as a woman change once you started performing in a band? 

AB: The social dynamics of a band are extremely interesting and really intense. I learned a lot about the inner workings of groups of boys when women are aren't around, and I kind of feel like I got a graduate degree in speaking "boy." But then after many years, I was like, Hang on; I'm lonely. Why aren't there more women? I really missed the company of other women, and once I started seeking it out I realized what I had been missing. 

DL: That really brings to mind the whole "boys club" stigma that the music industry is infamously known for, especially rock. What was it like for you, Jasmine? 

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Jasmine Lywen-Dill:  A lot of my family is into music. My dad's a drummer and my grandpa was a professional violinist. When I was in college at Boston University, I studied journalism to try to be a music journalist — but then I realized that I wanted to get into management. Right after college, I joined a management company. I was there for three years, and that's how I met Anna because one of our main bands was Edward Sharpe. When we started managing Anna's band, The Bulls, I worked on their website and we just got closer. Later, she threw this residency at a venue in LA called The Satellite, which is where she started GIRLSCHOOL, and that's when I started to connect with her about what she was doing. 

DL: That sounds like total serendipity! It's really great how GIRLSCHOOL has grown so quickly since its debut 2015. What was the first residency like? 

AB: LA venues have this tradition where bands take over every Monday night for a month, and you play for free and you put together a bill of all your friends, etc. And as we were going into it, I thought, Wouldn't it be insane after being the lone woman around all of the time to have 100% female-led projects instead of just getting all of our regular friends' bands to play? So it started as a dare. And I had just spoken on a panel for Rock'n'Roll Camp for Girls LA, and it had changed my brain to be in a room with so many really brilliant nine-year-olds asking me who my feminist rock icons were. It was mind-altering to be with other women in music and speak to the kids. I had had this really incredible experience and I was inspired. And after that first residency, GIRLSCHOOL took on a life of its own.

JL: And to touch on what Anna was saying before about generally being the only women, that's also the experience that I've had in management. Being one out of two women in my company — and just generally at the meetings that we'd go to — I was mostly surrounded by men. At first I was just excited to be there, and it was awesome, but then eventually I had the same thoughts as Anna. I want more, I want to know the women in my industry — and that's why I was drawn to GIRLSCHOOL. Because I can totally devote myself to this collective.

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AB: We're building our own alternative universe! 

DL: That's so rad! 

AB: And this is what was exciting to me about the residency: while it started as a dare, I realized that the quality of all of these artists was really high. So it became this forum for excellence by just celebrating the wonderful talent that already exists. Also, it's just fun. All we do now is meet up with smart women and make cool things happen [laughs]!

DL: I feel like there's something really magical that happens when women take control in planning festivals and events. There's just something about the way that we occupy space in relation to each other that doesn't happen when men are in charge.   

AB: Women think differently, and when we align and collaborate it's a really special and unique process. I'm doing this because I haven't gotten to experience it enough before. And I'm realizing now that I have it, how much I was missing it, and I'm retroactively sad for myself that I didn't have it for eight or nine years.

JL: We've also had the most incredible women just reach out to us and we haven't even thrown the first official festival yet! I feel like the benefit for us is the community that we've now accessed wanting to help us. I've never seen that with anything that I've worked on before, and maybe that's because it's a community of women who want to support each other. 

DL: So in regards to the festival, what else do you have planned aside from showcasing an epic bill of all female and female-fronted performers? 

AB: It kicks off on the 29th with a panel discussion with women in the music industry. We're trying to provide a sample of successful women all across the industry to show that you don't have to play music to love music or be in music — because across the music industry there aren't so many of us, and I want to see that change. We've also added DJ sets by Chloe [Chaidez] from Kitten and Kate Nash... 

JL: And a stunning art show from Hannah [Hooper] of Grouplove. She makes giant, giant artwork! 

AB: Oh, and all the proceeds from ticket sales will go to Rock Camp for Girls, which is the happiest place on earth for women! That's who we are doing this whole festival for. 

DL: I've always wished that I went to Rock Camp when I was younger. So many of my friends have volunteered as counselors and instructors and I've heard nothing but super empowering stories about their experiences there. 

AB: When you have a nine-year-old look you in the eye and talk to you about feminism and ask you questions about what it's like to be a woman further down the road, it really makes you think. In fact, it inspired me to participate and create and not just sit back and be just a random person in a band. I mean, I love playing music, and music is really meaningful to me, but I want other people to feel empowered to do what they want to do in life, whatever it is!

JL: We want the next generation to know that there's a place for them and to not have to feel like they can't go for it just because they're a girl. 

AY: Your community is already here to support you! Do your thing, whatever it is, and explore everything you want to. We have your back.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Dianca London loves rock 'n' roll, so put another dime in the jukebox, baby.  

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