Girls Rock Louisville: It's about more than the music

Jun 19, 2017 at 2:13 pm
Girls Rock campers, organizers and volunteers take the stage during the final song of the camp's showcase at Headliners.
Girls Rock campers, organizers and volunteers take the stage during the final song of the camp's showcase at Headliners.

If you’re plugged into the scene in Louisville, you’ve no doubt heard the name “Girls Rock.” If you’re like me, maybe you have a vague notion of some rock-and-roll, girl-power summer camp.

But last week, LEO dug deeper, watching as the campers first got dropped off last Monday morning, checking in on the bands midweek, and heading down to Headliners Music Hall on Friday night to see the campers brand new bands that were formed during the camp perform in a showcase.

Cat hats, capes, guitars

Monday morning at Western Middle School, I was asked to just watch and take notes.

It makes sense. The kids are already in a strange place with strange people. They don’t need a microphone shoved in their faces. It also points to something I noticed throughout the week in various different forms. While rock is the headliner, just as important in this camp is the attention paid to the emotional health and development of the kids. In addition to learning how to play bass, wailing on an ax or repairing audio cables, they also were taking workshops in consent, body autonomy, racial diversity, gender identity and a host of other subjects geared towards making healthy, whole kids, ready for the ongoing shit storm the patriarchy throws at women and girls.

But all the intersectional feminism aside, camp drop-off on Monday is actually a pretty familiar sight. Anxious kids show up with their parents, and look around, unsure of the terrain.

Some of the kids are a little less shy. A couple were wearing cat ears, possibly due to a viewing at some point of some iteration of “Josie and the Pussy Cats.” I saw a cape or two as well.

A lot of kids come in with instruments slung over their shoulders. Some of smaller kids are dwarfed by electric guitars that are almost as big as they are.

I sat and checked out the 43-page volunteer handbook, and realized for the first time just how much joy the adults are taking from the whole endeavor. The handbook is a thing of beauty. It’s got that too-often-Xeroxed look, with handwritten page numbers and hand-drawn illustration throughout. Little amps shoot lightening bolts, and hand-drawn hands hold aloft the punk rock symbol.

But there is nothing haphazard about it. The aesthetic is a near-perfect encapsulation of the handmade, rock flier look that used to cover every telephone poll on Bardstown Road. The contents are just as meticulous, going into detail on a range of topics, including self care for exhausted volunteers, how to deal with bullies and how to handle pronouns. Girls Rock take great pains to make sure that people who identify outside gender norms feel welcome at the camp.

It’s a primer that, frankly, a lot of adults could really use.

Girls Rock Louisville Executive Director Carrie Neumayer assembled the book, writing and designing it, but, like everything else at Girls Rock, it was a group effort, with different people contributing based on their areas of expertise.

Neumayer is a local musician and artist who started the camp in 2014, and it joined the international Girls Rock Camp Alliance in 2016. She has continued to grow the Louisville chapter of Girls Rock program, adding events and fundraisers throughout the year, all of which culminate with this week-long camp and showcase. Neumayer is quick to praise the volunteers and teachers, never centering on her own importance, although she is clearly the nerve center and brain of the entire operation.

“You have all these people that are just pushing themselves as far as they can, because that’s what we’re asking our campers to do, so you have these people that are just giving and giving and giving,  and I swear there are days when I’m in here where it’s amazing to just — you forget that anything else exists,” said Neumayer.

Girls Rock Louisville - photo by Kathryn Harrington
photo by Kathryn Harrington
Girls Rock Louisville

‘Some of this doesn’t even get talked about in school’

As the campers signed in, they were instructed to head to the cafeteria to work on their zines. These zines travel with them all week, and they continue writing on them, creating a cross between a yearbook, a diary and an old-school, handmade music zine.

Along with blank paper, crayons, markers and whatnot, there are a plethora of amazing coloring pages, many of which feature famous women of music. I saw Tina Turner sitting next to Cat Power, as well as a bunch of artists I don’t recognize, which I guess is kind of the point. It’s a smooth way to teach and entertain.

The kid were starting to disperse into little clumps as they broke the ice, encouraged by the large number of volunteers on hand.

Those volunteers are a mix of middle-aged moms and members of bands from the Louisville scene. All in all, it takes 80 adults to make this camp happen, and every single one of them is working for free. Of course, not all of those volunteers are present at any one time, but on Monday there are about 30 musicians and counselors in the house, and about 40 kids. It’s a testament to how much good you can accomplish with kids when the adults aren’t shackled to an insanely-large kid-to-adult ratio, like one adult to 20 kids.

Most of these women are here because they want to give these kids something they didn’t have. DJ and musician Meg Samples is one of the drum teachers, and she spoke about not having other women to play with, or to look up to as rock role models. “I’m from a really tiny town in Eastern Kentucky. I played with a lot of guys, which is great. I still play with a lot of men, but it would have been really cool to find other female musicians. I didn’t really know any outside of band and orchestra.”

In some ways, having these women come together is just as important as helping out with the kids. Lauren Whitcomb is a volunteer who has played music on and off her whole life. “I was talking to my friend about this last night. It’s so beautiful to have all these women come together … everybody is so supportive of everyone, and it’s so beautiful, and I genuinely feel that.”

Whitcomb also talked about some of the reasons the women volunteer, reasons that have nothing to do with rock, music is just the venue. “We’ve got this nice balance of music, and then all the stuff that doesn’t get talked about in today’s climate, and some of this doesn’t even get talked about in school.”

All of that stuff basically amount to teaching intersectional feminism. Girls Rock is not scared to say that F word.

As check-in time came to a close, the kids were invited to the gym, where an ad-hoc band had set up. The adults rip into the camp song.

The high-volume chorus is a call to rock, and it’s included in the volunteer handbook, along with chords.

E                        D Makin’ friends, makin’ NOISE!

A                        E Takin’ up space, hear our voice!

G                      A    E Our place is in the revolution

G                     A     E Our place is in the revolution!

Anonymous Rock, one of the band's that formed during this year's Girls Rock Louisville camp (photo by Kathryn Harrington) - photo by Kathryn Harrington
photo by Kathryn Harrington
Anonymous Rock, one of the band's that formed during this year's Girls Rock Louisville camp (photo by Kathryn Harrington)

Lunch with the Pencil Shavings and Rock Anonymous

It was lunch when I returned midweek to check in with the camp. I spotted an open spot at a table, and tried to find some kids willing to talk to the press.

Each kid had a band at that point, a band name and an instrument, as well as several days of rock tutorials and songwriting under their belts.

“I’m here from LEO Weekly to write an article. Does anyone walk to talk to me?”

I got frightened looks from a couple of kids, but a ginger-headed 10-year-old in cat ears said, “Sure,” with a casual nonchalance that would make any cool kid jealous.

Her name is Alexis Bell, from Chauncey Elementary School. She’s one of the kids who strutted in with no worries on day one, all cat ears and attitude. She’s here because her parents’ friend had suggested the camp.

“She said, ‘I think you’d really enjoy this. It’s where you can get in a band, and you’re gonna play an instrument,’ and I thought it was really cool and exciting, and it is really cool and exciting, and here I am.”

Alexis is learning the drums, which she had never touched before Monday.

“I’m starting fresh, and apparently I’m good at it, because they say I am.”

Alexis is in a band called Anonymous Rock, and like all the other bands, they are composing a song together.

“It’s about how words don’t hurt you,” Alexis said. “It’s about not letting people say mean stuff, and just kind of brush them off.”

That is a recurring theme through a lot of the girls’ original songs. Not letting people hurt you. Not conforming. Being your self.

Alexis had been talking about a mile a minute, but when she slowed down to take a bite of food, the other kids at the table started to chime in, a little less timid now that they had seen their friend successfully navigate interaction with the press.

Zaria Mosby is a guitarist, a 12-year-old from Johnson Middle School. Unlike many of the kids who had a parent or an adult friend suggest the camp, Zaria found the camp herself.

“I heard about it in one of those summer activities booklets, and I thought it sounded really awesome, so I filled out the application online,” Zaria said.

Although she is a self-starter who seems to make her own decisions, one of the reasons she wanted to attend camp was the way girls are assigned bands.

“[I was excited] that you were getting put into bands, you were putting on a real showcase, and like, making new friends,” Zaria said. “‘Cause I don’t do that easily.”

Zaria was in The Pencil Shavings, and their song “Rise Above,” was about taking yourself off the beaten path and being yourself.

She and Alexis tried to explain what it feels like to actually play music, struggling to find the right words.

“It makes me feel pretty relaxed, especially when I start actually getting into it and I don’t mess up. I just feel like I’m free … you just kind of I kind of like, fall asleep,” Alexis said. “It’s just like you get into it. It’s like you’re inside of the music.”

Zaria explained it a different way: “It’s like you’re in a whole other place.”

Anonymous Rock performing during the showcase at Headliners (photo by Kathryn Harrington)
Anonymous Rock performing during the showcase at Headliners (photo by Kathryn Harrington)

Headlining at Headliners

On Friday night, there was a line outside of Headliners, a mix of scensters coming to support all of the women rockers who had helped throw the camp, proud grandparents and the hipsters who have kids.

I saw a 2-year-old in a blue-jean vest with hand-sewn patches, riding on her dad’s shoulders. He’s a burly guy with a punk rock look and gnarly beard. It’s easy to imagine this kid as a camper eight years from now.

I spoke with Amy Steiger, who attended the showcase to see one of the campers.

“I had a relative in the performance. My brother’s kid was performer, and we were there just to support and because I went last year, and it was really fun and really inspiring ... It’s just so moving and exciting to me to see them just, unabashedly joyful and having a great time, and being so powerful, without any kind of inhibitions,” said Steiger adding, “I find it really moving, and I wish I had that when I was a younger kid.

The bright sun outside gave way to the murky interior of Headliners. The lights were low, the brick walls were adorned with band posters, the lurid red neon of a Budweiser sign lurched out of the gloom.

It’s crazy to think that, for most of these kids, this was their very first time in what must be an alien word — the grown-ups-only rock club. It’s their first time, and they have to get up and play.

At first, the kids all seemed pretty chill. They were excited for sure, all decked out in crazy makeup and hair, handmade band T-shirts, capes, cat ears and glitter. But they didn’t seem nervous.

But as the audience began to fill in, you could see the terrified, deer-in-the-headlights look creep onto a lot of faces. It’s like it just occurred to them that they have to get up in front of hundreds of strangers and perform.

Neumayer took the stage and thanked everyone involved. It was amazing how many companies, business and nonprofits put up goods, services and energy to make this camp work. And for every dude-owned donation, there are four women-owned businesses making sure this camp happens.

Back at camp, you could feel the air around the counselors and music teachers charged with electricity. Maybe guys like me think this camp is cool in a kind of theoretical yay grrl power kind of way, but you can tell that all the women who donated time and talent did so because, at some point in their lives, they needed some woman to give them the gift of rock and self confidence, and sometimes those women weren’t there.

These women are here, at camp and in the audiences at Headliners, to try to reach out to every tween-age and teenage girl they possibly can. These girls won’t grow up without the role models they need.

The kids nerves were reaching a fever pitch when the first band took the stage.

A band called The Box Tails had the unenviable job of being first, but, after a brief moment of hesitation, and the feedback whine of a guitar and an amp, the drummer hit her sticks together in time yelling: “One, two, three, four!”

The air lifted, as all the girls see that they can do it — they can rock socks right off, and the air fills with that particular ear-splitting, tornado siren scream of tween-age girls losing their damn minds.

Later on, fresh from the stage, breathless and crazed, with endorphins pumping through them, Zaria and Alexis talked about the experience.

Zaria explained the nervousness and the energy.

“I was extremely nervous. I was ready to just vomit and die. I saw them all, like forty billion thousand, and nine million,” she said, adding, however, that once the music hit, “It’s like, adrenaline is everything. I had so much anxiety before, [but now] I’m so hyped I could run a freakin’ marathon, like nonstop.”

Alexis described what it felt like before she hit the back beat and got her band rolling. She normally talks a mile a minute, and now she talked about a mile a second.

“I was really nervous at first, but once I got into it, I just kept doing it,” she said. “It’s really cool and it’s like really nervous and once you’re into it you can’t stop. It’s really fun. I breathed really hard and then I hit the drums and let it out, and I just started going.”

As each band got its chance, you could see each kid getting that same shock of energy, having that moment that they will remember the rest of their lives.

Finally, the whole camp, all the kids, all the teachers, get back on stage to sing the camp’s song one more time in unison. They sing the verses, the chorus, and the raucous final exclamation.

Fists in the air! Fists in the air Girls Rock Girls Rock Yeah Yeah Yeah!