Anna Bulbrook on Her Female-Led Music Festival GIRLSCHOOL

This Weekend in Los Angeles

Jan 31, 2018 Photography by Charlotte Patmore
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Last weekend’s Grammy ceremony, where only one woman received a televised award, Lorde refused to perform, and Recording Academy President declared women need to “step up” if they want to be recognized, only served to underscore a familiar narrative. Music is a boy’s club. It isn’t enough to ask female and female identifying artists to “try harder, do gooder.” In a broken system where everything from radio play to festival lineups is male-centric, they’re already fighting a losing battle.

It’s a paradigm that Anna Bulbrook is working to shift from within her local Los Angeles scene. Two years ago, Bulbrook formed GIRLSCHOOL. Having performed as part of The Airborne Toxic Event, fronting The Bulls, and serving as a session violinist for everyone from Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes to Beyoncé, she describes the event as the reaction to not simply not being surrounded by enough women. More a chance to showcase local artists than thumb their noses at men (instead they’re lovingly refers to them as “mister sisters.”) GIRLSCHOOL, now in its third year, has transformed from a weekend of music to a creative hub.

“GIRLSCHOOL is really sourcing people who are amazing and I trust and then letting them do what they’re amazing at,” Bulbrook says over tea. “And serving as the hub to make sure it lines up together and floats. The ultimate collaboration.”

The festival’s third edition, happening this weekend at Los Angeles’ Bootleg Theater, features Jay Som, Kristin Kontrol (with an all kid band), and a keynote conversation with Carrie Brownstein. But as Bulbrook explains, they’ve only started to tap into GIRLSCHOOL’s full potential.

Laura Studarus: When did you realize you needed a female-driven creative platform?

Anna Bulbrook: The first few years of being in a band, you’re really experiencing the drama of making it. And touring is so insane, it really upends your life. You’re doing your best to survive in all these crazy different circumstances and maintain some semblance of normality. Find a leaf of salad to eat somewhere. Figure out how to brush your teeth. And also, figure out, in a deeper way, how to perform night after night. It’s the best job in the world but it’s completely bananas and it’s very dramatic. After a few years of that I was able to calm down. I realized “Oh my god, I’m alone all the time. There’s not a lot of people who look like me.” We’d play a festival and I would know who the other women who would be there might possibly be. Especially in the alternative radio world.

When did GIRLSCHOOL take form?

I was getting the urge to write music so I started writing music for my solo project. I visited Rock 'n' Roll Camp For Girls and I spoke on a panel there. I had never been in a room of all women around music. It really reprogramed my brain immediately. Suddenly it was like sitting down to a huge meal when you’re starving. You’re so starving you don’t know it, and someone brings you a plate of food and you can’t eat it fast enough. How have I lived without it? What have I been doing this whole time? My response to that was when I released my solo project and did a residency was to tiptoe into this. I thought, we’ll make it women led. We’ll see if we can do five Mondays at [LA club] The Satellite. In the process of doing that I just found all this music that was happening locally that was so high quality it blew my mind. And instead of programing a boring shoegaze festival we programed this very multi-genre festival. Everyone who participated in it felt really incredible just being in that intentional environment. It meant a lot to all of us who participated in it.

How would you describe the specifics of GIRLSCHOOL’s goal?

GIRLSCHOOL’s mission is to support women-identified artists, voices and leaders. So far we’ve done that through programing music festivals and having talks at panels. But I really feel like as we’ve established ourselves, we’re able to grow into the mission a little bit more and expand the definition of what that is beyond just bands and popular music. It expanded to include, as we started learning about ourselves and what was needed and envisioning where we wanted to be we started adding more talks and panels and workshops. On a whim, we decided to add a panel to the first festival. We kicked it off with that huge panel. After that the feedback from the first festival was bizarre. It was, ‘more panels.’ Everyone was like ‘this is amazing, we want more.’ Our humble goal every year is to make it one better. Then of course in my brain I try to shoot for the moon and then we end up one better. It’s always a beautiful step forward.

What’s the one better this year?

I think this year the one better, some of it this year—last year I was really proud of the variety we had and how we were able to get a lot more specific in that instead of just having one catch-all panel of women in the music industry talking about what that experience is like in a very general way. Instead we were able to hyper focus on issues and give different communities a space to say whatever they want to say. I think that was ultimately really effective. I think this year we’re going to do that but even a little more.

How can we make it so if you’re interested in learning, you can come and attend the three things that are scheduled that day rather than having to choose one of the six? I think we’re also so young that we’re in this really beautiful space where we have a bit of a presence and a bit of a voice and some respect. But we also are able to tinker until the formula is perfect and we can take it to a more national stage. I feel very lucky that we’ve had this organic growth period to do that.

Where has been the steepest learning curve?

Once you step into a space where you’re combining business with social good, you really do need to understand the social good you’re trying to create, and you really do need to be hard on yourself and make sure you’re living up to what you’re trying to do. I think feminism is really trendy right now. I think there’s a lot of businesses that are jumping on this bandwagon of wanting to use feminism as a marketing tool. But I think if you’re really trying to create change and combine creating this community with this incredible movement with creating a business that also supports all the members of the community in this radical act of making money for women, it’s radical to say I want to do a business, I want it to have a social good, I want it to have a positive impact, and oh—by the way—I want it to make money for women in addition to having some charitable work and giving back to girls. I think it’s possible.

As GIRLSCHOOL has got rolling for me, it’s been both an excuse to meet with women I admire, people I admire, a reason to connect, a reason to get people under one roof together and create experiences that are in the moment in the room. Share people’s work. I’ve witnessed a lot of beautiful, creative partnerships come out of it that we have nothing to do with other than the initial impetus of getting everything under the one roof. Growing up, it felt like an uncomfortable place, hanging out in a bunch of different worlds and feeling in-between. Now to me it feels like the ultimate strength.

GIRLSCHOOL is happening this weekend in Los Angeles. Check out their website for tickets and more information.



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