Girlschool Is Making Space for Women in Music and Beyond

Carrie Brownstein, Shirley Manson, Mereba, and others join founder Anna Bulbrook for a festival to empower women and girls

If you’ve ever looked at a music festival line-up and been bummed to see nothing but male musicians featured (which, somehow really is still a thing), you’ll understand what inspired Anna Bulbrook to found Girlschool.

Bulbrook is a musician herself—she’s known for her band, The Airborne Toxic Event, and for providing violin accompaniment to Beyoncé, Kanye West, Edward Sharpe, and others—but she wasn’t always an activist for representation.

Girlschool founder Anna Bulbrook

Photograph by Charlotte Patmore, courtesy of Girlschool

“Tour life is like submarine life: your world shrinks to the size of the bubble that contains you. Sure, I’d notice that I was one of the only women on stage at the alternative radio festival, or one of the few at a major international festivals, but that’s just how it was. I didn’t metabolize how truly odd that is until I had a foundational, perspective-shifting experience,” she says. “was invited to speak at a social justice program that empowers girls through loud music, called Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls. It was the first time I’d ever been in a very intentional, very conscious, women-led environment centered around empowering one another—and young girls—through music. All of a sudden, I couldn’t un-see the glaring fact that I was the sole woman around in most of my professional life, not just on-stage, but also behind the scenes and on the business side.”

That experience inspired the launch of Girlschool, the festival and year-round grant-making and networking program for women in the field. With the festival now in its fourth iteration, Bulbrook and her collaborators acknowledge that figuring out the best way to use the platform they’ve created has been a work in progress, and an opportunity to learn.

Mecca Vazie Andrews

Photograph by Charlotte Patmore, courtesy of Girlschool

“When I look back at Girlschool in 2016, I am simultaneously proud of the artists on our very first lineup—I still stand by all of those women—and embarrassed at how narrow my view was. I came from the indie/alternative rock world, which is mostly white, cis-gender men,” she says. “So in the process of wanting Girlschool to be an intentional and welcoming space, a space that we hold to ever higher standards, both artistically and as an intentional community, I’ve had to really take responsibility for my own limitations, and my own circumscribed point of view.”

Checking those biases and looking beyond her own community is something Bulbrook prioritized in developing the programming for this year’s festival.

“There is a whole lot more to creating an intentional, forward-looking community around music than gluing a bunch of ‘all-female acts’ together on a lineup, or using people from different groups as props. It takes a lot of of care, and it takes a lot of listening, and it takes being willing to ask questions or make mistakes to get to the right place. But I think a lot of people are talking to each other more now, and are coming to these same realizations. Witnessing that makes me so hopeful.”

Writer Whitney Bell and activist Ashlee Marie Preston

Photograph by Charlotte Patmore, courtesy of Girlschool

The lineup that came out of that process is an impressive one. Highlights include performances by Shirley Manson of Garbage performing with a string quartet and choir of other Girlschool artists; Faarow; Kristin Kontrol of Dum Dum Girls, who will be presenting a debut work with some artistic surprises; Jay SomMereba; and a keynote speaking engagement by Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney and Portlandia fame.

New this year will be a series of literary readings, which Bulbrook describes as “the best poetry stage I could possibly imagine.” The authors, including Morgan Parker, Muriel Leung, and Monica Sok, were curated by Kima Jones, founder of Jack Jones Literary Arts, a company focused on promoting writings that share narratives of women of color. Also expect a collection of art and visual installations, DJ sets, and panel discussions on topics like turning online activism into IRL action and working for diversity in the entertainment industry. Proceeds from festival tickets ($22 to $60) go to the local creative writing and mentorship charity WriteGirl.

The Bird and the Bee

Photograph by Charlotte Patmore, courtesy of Girlschool

The goal of Girlschool—to speak up for underrepresented women across creative fields—seems poignant coming just days after the second Women’s March and amid the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, but Bulbrook is already looking ahead to what happens if the media attention moves away from its current focus on these issues.

“I’m so heartened to see this huge cultural moment happen,” Bulbrook says. “Symbols have real power, and movements that are largely symbolic can inspire, or ignite change. But I don’t think any moment or zeitgeist or hashtag is a solution to thousands of years of ingrained bias or injustice, in and of itself. I think it’s actually dangerous to think that because our voices are raised in concert right now, lasting change is happening. If we really want to change the world, and I’m not being cute by saying that, then we need to make sure that we’re all individually doing things to move us there.”

She adds: “I hope Girlschool continues to be a positive, forward-moving space where women-identified artists, leaders, and voices can shine more brightly, because everyone’s light reflects on everyone else. I want us to create opportunities and solutions, to bring real people together in space and in heart, and to draw people in to celebrate the incredible talent that we know is here farther and wider than any of us can do on our own.”

Girlschool 2018, Bootleg Theater, 2220 Beverly Blvd., Westlake; Fri.-Sun., Feb. 2-4.

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