Not Too Cool for ‘Girl School’: L.A. Festival Celebrates Female Rockers

Anna Bulbrook was tired of seeing mostly men in the alternative rock world, so she created a festival to give women a voice.
Anna Bulbrook performing with The Bulls on Jan. 29 at the Bootleg. (Photo: Martin Fredrick)
Jan 31, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

The audience at the Bootleg Theater on Friday night looked much like the mass of hipsters who gather at any other Los Angeles rock show. Hundreds of 20- and 30-somethings sipped plastic cups of draft beer and head-banged in unison as rock band Dead Sara played to the sold-out venue. The rowdy crowd devolved into a sweaty mosh pit for the final number of the night, with men and women alike happily pushing into one another as they shouted along to the lyrics to “Weatherman” with singer Emily Armstrong.

“Thanks to Girl School for having us,” bassist Chris Null said just before the band left the stage, reminding the packed room that they weren’t enjoying a typical rock show but an event that celebrates female voices.

And that’s just what Anna Bulbrook, Girl School’s founder, wanted fans to take away from the event: “that the music was awesome and it happens to be made by a bunch of women,” as she told TakePart in an interview this week.

Twenty female-fronted bands and female artists took part in the three-day festival, with performances from dance-rock group Kitten, a guitars-only set from 1990s legends Veruca Salt, and an alt-rock performance from Bulbrook’s own band, The Bulls.

“I call this the vitamin gummy approach to feminism,” Bulbrook said of creating an event stacked with a lineup of talented female musicians. “You make something that looks delicious, tastes delicious, but it also just happens to be really good for you.” It’s also good for the next generation of female musicians.

Emily Armstrong of Dead Sara.
(Photo: Martin Fredrick)

All of the proceeds from the festival will go to the Rock N’ Roll Camp for Girls in Los Angeles. The camp aims to empower girls ages 8–17 through music “in a world that doesn’t always give girls permission, space or the tools to do so,” according to its website.

“It’s incredible,” Bulbrook said of the camp, which she visited over the summer. She was blown away by the camaraderie between the girls of all ages at the camp, and the risks they were able to take in such a supportive environment—from writing personal lyrics to getting up on stage and performing in front of a crowd.

“It’s just the happiest place on earth, where all these beautiful life lessons are taught to girls,” Bulbrook said. “And the context is the most fun. It’s rock and roll.”

Spending time at the camp inspired Bulbrook to take Girl School to the next level. The concept started out as an all-female concert series when The Bulls played a summer residency at Los Angeles’ the Satellite. Every Monday in August of last year, the band invited solely female-driven projects to play alongside them. This three-day Girl School event expands on that concept, featuring a mini art show and kicking off with a panel of music industry leaders.

“I just wanted to create something that would provide a bit more of a springboard [for the musicians],” Bulbrook said. “Outside of the local scene, I feel like it’s hard for female artists and female voices to move to the next level.”

While women such as Adele and Rihanna dominate pop album charts, rock can be less friendly to female artists.

“In the alternative rock world, there are very few female voices,” said Bulbrook, who is also a member of the otherwise all-male band the Airborne Toxic Event and has played with male-led bands including Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes and Vampire Weekend. “There are also very few female side members in bands,” she added, noting that during festivals with the Airborne Toxic Event she’d see maybe one or two women among dozens of male musicians.

This year’s festival lineups fall in line with Bulbrook’s experience. The 2016 Coachella lineup features the highest percentage of female-fronted or co-fronted groups in its 17-year history—but they still only make up about 28 percent of the acts, and all of the headliners are male-dominated bands. The 2016 lineups for other festivals, like Tennessee’s Bonarroo, Washington’s Sasquatch, and New York’s Governor’s Ball also feature predominantly male artists.

“People would think I was a girlfriend, or they would think I was the singer.” Bulbrook said, noting that as a classical violinist who began playing at the age of four, she has the most professional music training of any of the members of the Airborne Toxic Event.

“I’ve been in the position where I was sort of asked to dress a little more provocatively to get a label executive to consider us more seriously,” Bulbrook added.

Bulbrook is far from the first female musician to have experienced sexism in the music industry. Musicians from Missy Elliott to Björk to Alice Glass have spoken openly about missing out on songwriting and producing credits, as people are quick to assume they only provide the vocals. Artists including Grimes and Lauren Mayberry of Chvrches have lamented being overly sexualized as female artists, from threats of sexual violence to aggressive catcalls from the audience.

While one fan did shout “take it off” during Dead Sara’s performance—in all fairness, Armstrong did mention she was sweating in her sweater—female musicians found themselves in a welcoming environment at Girl School. During practically every set, band members or concertgoers would inevitably mention the “good vibes” and celebratory mood.