Anna Bulbrook: On GIRLSCHOOL’s mission of empowerment

Anna Bulbrook

Buzz Bands LA caught up with Anna Bulbrook of the Bulls parked on the side of the road in Silver Lake while running around making final preparations for the Field Day Weekend festival at Bootleg this Friday, Saturday and Sunday. She had just picked up three guitars donated by Fender for their raffle benefiting Rock n’ Roll Camp for Girls L.A., a program for girls ages 8 to 18 geared towards letting them rock out in a nurturing environment. Bulbrook’s visits to the camp inspired her, in part leading towards the founding of GIRLSCHOOL, a collective with a mission to empower female musicians and female voices in the music industry.

After a successful residency in August at the Satellite featuring five Mondays of all female-fronted bands, Bulbrook — whose “day job” is violist/keyboardist/vocalist in the otherwise-male rock band the Airborne Toxic Event — felt a similarly curated festival was the next step. She has assembled some great local acts, from on-the-cusp bands like Kim & the Created, Miya Folick, Gothic Tropic and Riothorse Royale, to established acts Veruca Salt and Dead Sara. As a bonus, there will be a panel discussion on Friday night featuring leading women in the music industry to share ideas and converse about women, music, and the annoying lack of females on big festival lineups, when clearly there are lots of talented females on the music circuit. As evidence, the festival will let let the performances speak for themselves.

||| Lineup and set times here. Tickets: Three day-passes and single-day tickets.

Our conversation:

Is this your first time taking on the dual role of organizer and artist? It’s a crazy position where you have to switch off one brain and turn on the other.

Anna Bulbrook: It’s my first time playing these two roles on this scale. The residency felt that way, but because it was a normal show at a venue that constantly does those types of shows, and it didn’t have the additional moving pieces of being a benefit and having a panel discussion and having 20 bands in three days.

Are you enjoying being behind the scenes and putting it all together?

Yeah! No one put a gun to my head and said hey you have to make GIRLSCHOOL happen. It came out of a desire to do it and after we did the test run in August with the residency, it really took a life of its own. It’s been nothing but fun and inspiring. I get to work on the GIRLSCHOOL side with two amazing formidable women, Jasmine and Adrien. On the booking side Kyle at the Bootleg has been my partner. He and Daniel at the Bootleg have been killing it. So I’m not alone, but it has definitely grown kind of beyond what we had dreamed up to begin with.

What was the kernel of it? How did it start?

When the residency wrapped up in August, I felt so much positivity from the artists and so much love from everyone and I felt I wanted to do it again and people were interested in doing it again. The residency was an idea I had and I put it together with the people who were managing the Bulls at the time. From there I was fantasizing about this festival and I started working on it with Kyle and then these two girls Jasmine and Adrien just started showing up. Talk about force multipliers, they’re insane, they’re amazing. So we were able to do a lot more. As we started talking about it we went from seeing what we could do for a day to two days to, screw it, let’s add Friday, let’s add a second stage too. We could have kept going with adding bands but we wanted to bite off something we could chew, make sure the bands could all get soundchecks and have a good experience because everyone is volunteering. I’m hoping that it’s great.

With regard to the panel, were they all people you knew or admired?

Some of them are people I’ve worked with or know from being in a band for 10 years, having them place music, or play music on the radio. And then in GIRLSCHOOL fashion, other people were recommended by people involved, or just reached out to us, or came through this network of successful women in the music industry that has spontaneously arisen. It’s incredible that people I admire are willing to do this or reaching out to me about it, or suggesting friends or people they admire.

On one level, I feel like I’m a female musician and I know we exist, but on another level I play alternative music festivals, I’ll be one of two or three female musicians in 20 bands.

There clearly are women behind the scenes of the music industry — publicists, writers, bookers, radio DJs, agents, editors — and yet there still seems to be a lack of female presence on stage. Why aren’t they pushing the women forward?

I think some of that is because rock in particular is pretty gendered still. One of the reasons I love GIRLSCHOOL is because at the local level there are so many incredible female artists and bandleaders and songwriters and performers. … Every project at the residency was really high quality, and I was blown away by that. But then once you get beyond the local level, the bands that graduate tend to be male-fronted bands. As someone who is a woman on stage as a “sideman” for my job, I can’t answer the question as to why it’s so, but I have noticed that it is so, and I would like to be able to be part of creating critical mass to push more women out beyond the local level.

Some of it has to do with radio programming. I watched an interview with Alanis Morissette from the 1990s where a radio programmer told her that there’s one slot for a female vocalist on alternative radio, and I was dying when I watched it. I’ve had multiple people tell me radio programmers have two spots for female vocalists … and that’s 25 years later. On one level, I feel like I’m a female musician and I know we exist, but on another level I play alternative music festivals, I’ll be one of two or three female musicians in 20 bands.

In pop it might be different, but in rock it’s pretty gendered. It boggles my mind because I come from the classical music world, especially when you’re young, women far outstrip men. At least when I was in youth orchestra, there were far more women than men. The orchestra was still conducted by an older gentlemen, but I didn’t see the gender divide, it didn’t seem like a man’s world, it felt pretty girlie actually. So it surprised me when I got into rock how alone I was. So, now, how do we make it so that female musicians can choose the life they want to choose and have an equal chance at success on a fair playing field?

I got over my own fears about being stigmatized, because what it came down to was that they were all great musicians and performers, not just “women.”

Some female musicians say they don’t want to be called “female musician” they just want to be called “musician,” but, at this stage, the “female” label is still necessary to raise the point and get them opportunities.

Yeah. When I had the idea initially I felt cautious about doing a female-themed thing. When you say something is “about women” or celebrating women, it can stigmatize what you’re doing, but I found that once I got them on stage and they were so good, I got over my own fears about being stigmatized, because what it came down to was that they were all great musicians and performers, not just “women.” These are just awesome women that are talented. That’s the curatorial thread for my events. I feel proud to be in the lineup. Yes we are screaming, “we’re women” but the main point is that these are awesome bands who create awesome music and I can’t wait to see every band.

Are you ready yet to envision the future of GIRLSCHOOL? Do you have some idea of where this is going?

We have so many ideas of where this is going to go. We have so many ideas. It was impossible to talk about the event without also envisioning the future. We have a list going of a million plans that came up in the process of creating this festival. That’s another reason I’m excited by the panel. Here’s an opportunity for women in leading positions of the music industry to come together and share stories and examples of how you can be a successful woman in music aside from being a player. It’s also a chance to have an informal visioning process for what actual positive changes do we really want to see. I know that’s idealistic, but if we can brainstorm together, that can help inform GIRLSCHOOL’s mission and genuinely move the needle and hopefully make a measurable positive change.

You’re donating proceeds to Rock n’ Roll Camp for Girls L.A. How were you inspired by the experience of visiting the camp?

I went twice. Once I was on a panel, and another time I went with the Bulls to perform for the girls during lunch and answer questions. Both times I was just completely blown away by how these young confident fearless women were supporting each other while they took wild risks on stage. I was trained from age four to perform on stage, and I still found it terrifying. And I didn’t feel an overwhelming amount of love and support when I got up in front of my peers.

But here I am watching girls from age 8 to 18 in this totally idyllic environment using music as a way to take risks and learn and create this happy confident loving environment, through music. At the same time they’re talking about feminism, body issues, how to be a community member, what is friendship. It’s awesome, that sets you up to succeed in life. And if music is the gateway to that, I couldn’t be prouder to be a musician and part of that loving environment. The boys in the Bulls were blown away as well. We all felt it. It was such a positive environment focused on growth and happy music making as the means for that.

Which is why it’s so important to keep the arts in schools and after-school programs. All these things you mentioned that kids can get out of it. Becoming confident and taking risks through creative expression, learning to be an individual through music and other arts is so important. You can’t get that from a good score on a math test.

I think one of the scariest things to do is take a risk in front of another person. Whether it’s writing a lyric or picking up an instrument in front of another person, or even getting up on stage and saying a line in a school play, those things are hard for people to do and they’re so rewarding when you do them. Anything that facilitates kids, especially girls, to feel empowered to take risks and make mistakes but know it’s OK, it’s the most beautiful method ever. That’s why those girls blew my mind.