Backed by Dream Wife, Wolf Alice, and a team of dedicated volunteers, this positive-action initiative is planting a seed of change in the music world, says El Hunt
Let’s be real – if the Brownies offered a badge in shredding the hell out of an electric guitar, the world would be a better, and altogether more entertaining, place.
As it stands, though, there’s very little out there in terms of education around rock music for young girls and women. Aside from a few badly-stocked school music departments containing busted drum kits, the pickings for kids interested in starting up bands are slim to start with, and for girls that imbalance is even worse. It’s an issue that begins with a severe lack of representation at the highest reaches of the music industry, and ends with a shortage of educational programs in place to change the tide of gender inequality.
Look at music as a whole, and women, and non-binary and/or trans folks remain poorly represented. We’ve all seen the repeated failures to book female headliners by majority of festivals (another Foo Fighters headline set, anyone?) and according to the US non-profit Women Audio Mission, just five percent of producers and engineers are women. At PRS, a massive UK-based society which protects musicians’ performing rights and helps to collect royalties, an overwhelming majority of their members are men. If young girls can’t see role models to emulate – if kids growing up don’t see people they identify with tearing up stages – the problem only continues. It’s the reason why positive action projects are so vital when it comes to empowering young people.
“You can’t hear what you can’t see,” reasons Estella Adeyeri, speaking halfway through a hectic week where she’s helping to run Girls Rock London. As well as volunteering with the project, she also plays in the British punk band Big Joanie. Just one piece of a global puzzle of international camps with close ties – there are over 80 different members of the Girls Rock Camp Alliance worldwide – GRL was first set up to provide a place for women, girls, and trans and/or non-binary folk to have a riot making music together. It’s proved a powerful and inspiring project.
It’s also a place where attendees are free to make mistakes and experiment. “We have a saying at women’s camp which is ‘duff notes are buff notes,” another volunteer Kate Whitaker quips. “We try and get the young people to think about how you learn by making mistakes and it’s really nice to have loads of people who are in the music industry saying, ‘Yeah, that’s how I learnt too.’ You don’t learn unless you make a mistake first. it’s very much about getting away from that…”
“Apologetic culture,” finishes Girls Rock London founder Linda Buratto, who also plays guitar for Kate Nash.
“’Sorry I did it wrong,’” Kate adds. “It’s like, no! You rock!”
Now in its third year, Girls Rock London currently runs two different camps – one aimed at adults and another tailored towards younger people. Speaking about memorable campers who have attended in the past, the team cite countless examples of people dramatically changing their lives thanks to being inspired by the project.
One woman, the team tell me, turned up with a bold statement. “‘If I enjoy this, this is what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna quit my job, I’ve written the resignation letter’” Kate remembers her saying. Fast-forward to the end of the week, and true to her promise, she quit her job back in Germany, and moved to London the next day to pursue music.
A 63-year old attendee from last year’s camp had only ever sung in choirs before coming to Girls Rock. These days, she performs spoken word poetry, and now volunteers at the camp herself passing on the confidence she’s gained. “There are older women who’ve said, ‘If I don’t do this now, I’m worried I’ll never do it,’ or, ‘I’ve wanted to do this, but never felt confident until now.’” Kate adds. “I think it’s still really important that everyone learns that they have a right to be on stage, if that’s what they want to do. There shouldn’t be this arbitrary time limit that the industry seems to impose.”
As well as teaching young girls and women the basics of playing instruments, forming bands and writing songs together, many of the workshops taught over the course of a week at Girls Rock London are geared towards passing on the skills involved in every aspect of being in a band, from merch design to photoshoots. There’s also a huge focus on increasing attendees’ self-esteem, and helping them to speak up and take up space in a male dominated industry.
“Girls sometimes feel they don’t have permission to be loud” – Kate Whittaker, Girls Rock
“There’s so many people that come on our camp who’ve been told that they can’t do something,” Kate says. “When they’re younger they’ve been told, ‘Oh you can’t do this’ or they’ve been told, ‘because you’re or a girl’ or, ‘because whatever’ they don’t feel that permission to be loud or to make sound or put themselves in front of other people. Music is the medium, I guess, but ultimately, it’s what you get out of it.”
“There are workshops throughout the Girls Camp about taking out space, body positivity, looking at the way women are represented in the media, and kind of being able to see through that. Also, it’s about looking at how we interact with each other and encouraging them to break down stereotypes of women being cliquey or bitchy. I think all of those things really help to culminate at the end of the week, with having young people feeling like they can actually express themselves more and feel more comfortable and confident in who they are.”
“The music industry is a really inflated, cartoonish version of society,” Naomi Jackson, a founding member of Omnii – a London-based collective for women and trans and/or non-binary producers and engineers – tells me. Omnii teamed up with Girls Rock London for the first time this summer, running workshops on production and creating sonic wizardry with sound pads at the week-long camp. “When I’ve worked as an engineer before, I’ve had people come in and say, ‘Where’s the engineer?’ ‘Me!’” Naomi says with a weary laugh.
“It happens in the studio, too, and in bands. Sound engineers – men – would always approach the boys in the band. People always expect the token girl drummer, never somebody doing something techie at the front with sound pads, synths, production. It’s important. Synthesisers were primarily pioneered by women because men didn’t take them seriously. Now, all of a sudden everyone likes synths, and it’s a man thing, all those EDM guys, frat boys!” she remarks.
“It’s so inspiring to be around young people who come in at the start of the week very nervous and anxious,” Naomi adds. “You see them at the end of the week just rocking out, and it’s sick. Having no pressure is really inspiring. I’ve written so much [music] myself since I left.”
Clearly, the excitement of Girls Rock London is infectious. “It’s interesting because during camp, during lunch time, we have artists coming in, we have female and non-binary, trans artists that play in front of our campers,” Linda tells me. “Every time, every single artist has come in, they say ‘We wish this was there when we were starting.’”
“When I was a teenager, the Derby music scene was indie bands playing pubs,” agrees Naomi. “There wasn’t a lot of stuff at school for us to go and do; my music department was compiled out of guitars with no backs and keyboards that didn’t work. In major cities there’s probably always been more, but I definitely didn’t have access to that. I think if I had access to something like Girls Rock, it would’ve been the dream.”
Ellie Rowsell from Wolf Alice got stuck into Girls Rock London last summer, performing for attendees, and taking part in a Q&A. This year, Dream Wife are also getting on board; they’re inviting women in bands to apply to be their support acts on tour. Shirley Mason of Garbage, meanwhile, acts as a patron for the organisation, and came to women’s camp in 2017 to give a motivational talk on the first night. “I was in tears!” Linda says.
“It really has meant a lot to have people like that giving us a shout out,” Kate adds, “spreading the word and lending support whatever ways they can. Dream Wife donated a bunch of merchandise sales to us from one of their recent tours. That’s really helped us to keep these camps going, and apply for more official routes of funding. Now we’re hoping to expand. Not only will we have the camps running once a year, but we’ll have a year-round programme working with young people and training them in music, band sessions, offering them recording sessions… just getting them even more of an insight to that kind of the music world. We’ve been really lucky I think, for what people are willing to give to us.”
GRL are also looking at branching out even further along these lines, with new stand-alone workshops set to start up running all year round. “It’s not going to be just like, ‘this is how you play an a-cord!” says Linda. “It’s going to be like, this is how you go out and you can get pissed off about the sound guy. You can go out and do this, and you’ll have a support system around you.”
The ethos of Girls Rock London is all about working to undo years of under-representation across all areas of the music industry. The team’s ultimate goal is to arm women and trans and/or non-binary people with all of the tools to set out alone, be on stage, or behind the scenes.
“The more that we can get women, trans/non-binary folk and young people into those things as well, it helps to create a more inclusive industry for everyone,” Kate points out. “A seed is planted,” Estella adds. “The industry is moving forward, slowly but surely. It’s like being attacked from the bottom and the top, which is very cool to see, I think.”