Welcome to Girlschool, the Festival and Community Bringing Equality Center Stage

Artists Anna Bulbrook and Francisca Valenzuela discuss the triumphs and challenges of making non-male space in the music industry. Get ready for Girlschool 2018 this weekend with Noisey's exclusive playlist.

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Feb 2 2018, 10:00pm

“It’s not punk rock, but there's value in the radical idea of creating opportunities and creating actual jobs for women,” says Girlschool founder and musician Anna Bulbrook. “The goal isn't just to create a symbol. It's to create an actual business that can grow those opportunities.”

Then again, it’s hard to imagine anything more punk rock than Girlschool, a three-day music and ideas festival in LA this weekend celebrating women-identifying and non-binary folks in music and creative fields. The event features a stacked lineup that includes a keynote from Sleater Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein and poet Morgan Parker; an orchestral solo set from Shirley Manson; and performances from Kristin Kontrol with Best Coast, Jay Som, Desi Mo, Mereba, Leikeli47, Amber Coffman, and more than a dozen other rising acts from across the rap, rock, pop, and electronic worlds—plus a few very special surprise guests.

Now in its third year, the festival-cum-international-community of Girlschool was spurred by Bulbrook’s own experience as the perennial odd-woman-out as a member of The Airborne Toxic Event and an accompanying violinist for artists like Kanye West, Edward Sharpe, and Beyonce.

“I don't even think I knew to long for this kind of community,” Bulbrook explains. “Until one day I had one of those perspective-shifting experiences that got me there, when I was invited to teach at Rock n Roll Camp for Girls. I’ve played music on a professional track since I was 4, and it was the first time I had ever been in an all-women environment centered around making music.”

Today, Girlschool has two sold-out years until its belt, evolving from cathartic gathering to a multi-pronged platform for visibility and action. Alongside music, the event features talks and panels that include “Hashtags Into Action: How To Turn Social Media Activism Into Real Change,” a songwriting workshop with MUNA, and a reading curated by Jack Jones Literary Arts, a company spotlighting the writing and narratives of women of color.

“We have to use these festivals and other programs to reinforce the message of transformation, and lead through example,” says Chilean star Francisca Valenzuela, who speaks on Sunday's panel on immigration, identity, and creativity. Valenzuela is a Girlschool veteran and collaborator, and well-versed in its mission—she also helms Ruidosa, a Latinx festival and activism collective by and for non-male artists in Chile and Mexico, formed in part as a response to her feelings of isolation and inadequacy even as her acclaim grew.

“We have to stick to creating these initiatives and collaborate, because it speaks to this moment,” she says.

We gave Bulbrook and Valenzuela a call to discuss this year’s Girlschool, the challenges of organizing, and the ongoing work of bringing girls to the front.

Noisey: What motivated you to begin organizing and launching your respective festivals?
Anna Bulbrook: The more I go down the rabbit hole of Girlschool, the more I see how powerful it is. You just have peers people who look like you, feel like you, share some aspect of your of life. You are having someone to look up to who you can relate to in some way. I feel like that's a game changer. I know in my career there weren't a lot of cool “rock violinists” to look up to. It wasn't something that when I was a kid, I had a dream one day—it did not cross my mind that that was something I could do.

Francisca Valenzuela: For me, it was two things. One is that, from afar, I admired so many movements that were about the female collective, and I hadn’t had that opportunity at all, especially being in Latin America. And also, as Anna said, growing up in the rock ‘n’ roll environment, I was totally, totally oblivious to the fact that it wasn't friendly to women. And I felt very alone in many processes, that were I to stick up in any fashion, I would be shut down. I wished for the opportunity to discuss these issues with peers and a community, to understand and learn things. I hadn't been exposed to that, because at least in Chile, information was a valuable thing. You wouldn't share anything. Whoever had the information and was a little bit ahead was zealous to protect it. And I was frustrated that no one was collaborating and sharing and demystifying the processes, whether professional or creative. And suddenly we all kind of grew up a little bit, and we got the more confident and started to understand our visions of projects, and we began to have these random casual conversations about working. So it was really a motivation to be able to also have that information passed on as a tool. I think there's this idea that you're so special and you have to protect the mystique of being a musician, and also be desirable, and all the things that seem so difficult to upkeep, especially if you are a fucking independent musician starting up wherever.

I'm curious about diving deeper into that—what is it, beyond a gender label, that makes women and others feel alone in these situations? And what is it that makes us feel connected?Bulbrook: Some of it is because when you are in a band, the nature of your work is pretty siloed, and you kind of live in a submarine—you record in a submarine, you tour in a submarine. Your world really narrows, and that bubble that can change you. The only time you really interact with other bands or other people in your community is at music festivals, which are by nature super hectic. Sometimes you're only there for press and your set. And I think the way music is marketed, the way genres are marketed—all this stuff really plays into this, there's no one solution. And then from there, I think to actually create a situation where people have to come together, you really have to craft and get intentional with that kind of community. It's not intrinsic to the way the world works.

Valenzuela: Looking back, I think the aloneness for me—in terms of gender perception and how the construction of gender is in the Latin music industry—was a combination of feeling inadequate, constantly, in all spaces. Even with my band when we were touring. It was a feeling that anything I would bring forward, whether personal or professional, was subject to a standard that was unlivable. It was like, I'm hysterical, I'm too emotional, I'm too vulnerable. There were certain cultural archetypes constantly being pushed down my throat.
I internalized that in a certain way, and began to believe that that was true. I would meet up with labels and stuff, and felt that either, I was demanding and I didn't listen, or I didn't know enough, and I was lacking. It was this constant need for approval that I didn't notice had to do with gender. I was catering constantly to wanting to be desired, wanting people to like me, wanting to be pretty, wanting to be smart. How do I put all these things together? I constantly had that, alone in my head, boiling up.

It was only when I began to surround myself with other males and females who were like “Fuck this, it’s not just in your head,” that I realized it was a construction. I began to connect with myself and other females having the same experience, and observe that I can take away the taboo of these things—that there isn't a factor of an external system that propels certain things. It was a liberation.

Bulbrook: I think I was protected from a lot of the extreme scrutiny, because, you know, I’m a side man. And there’s not even really a word for me. But it's like, God forbid you be a woman stepping to the front and claiming attention, because once you do that, you open yourself up to this crazy, like, What color is Hillary Clinton's pantsuit today? It’s scrutiny that would never happen if you were a man claiming that space. Men are taught to take up space and that that's OK. I think when women do it, it’s beautiful and empowering, but culturally, people see that as a kind of open season on you as a person, where anything about you is up for grabs for public disgust. Bias is so insidious. It gets in there in all of these incredible ways. Sometimes you don't even notice it's happening to you. You just don't believe in yourself, and over-deliver as a lifestyle. But because I wasn’t stepping the front, I also didn’t have to navigate a lot of the scrutiny.

Valenzuela: For me, I began to think, wow, I'm feeling these things, and I have the privilege of my health and my success, my intelligence, and a community of friends and family that cares. So what must it be like for the rest? What about for the girl who really is struggling, or doesn't have the example of people to protect or encourage her? What is that like for the person who is not in the fucking capital city like Santiago, and is in a rural town, and has no example, no language, and no toolkit? So then it became this idea of, how cool it is that we're in a position where we can do things that can contribute and instill change. Because the power of empathy and listening and talking—even this conversation right now—it's energizing and transformative.

Bulbrook: It's exciting to think that we have the power, through where we’ve gotten as kind of statistical unicorns right now, to create space for people who are younger than us to inherit many more and different opportunities. And also shaped like the look and feel and inclusivity of opportunity. So it's not just a bunch of white ladies talking to each other. We are beholden to our sisters of color, and people of all different creeds and different abilities, to really shape this next wave of opportunities in a way that is bigger than us and bigger than just their own personal perspectives.

How has your respective work with inclusion and festivals evolved, and what have you learned from that?
Valenzuela: There's been a lot of evolution in terms of the ability and the learning and the capacity to put together things. I expected there to be a lot more pushback. I was very open to the blind spots as well. I always am aware that with the initial conversations and programming, there are going to be many things missing, and the idea is to grow and strengthen and keep diversifying, and find those weaker areas where I might not be informed, or I may not know, so I shut up and pass the microphone.

This community and authenticity is there, and I think it's really growing. That it’s international, for me, has been very important, because Latin America is very divided. Even though it’s a strong and visible region of the world, amongst each country, there's not much cultural transaction. Everything comes Colonial. You have the American kind of Shaddock on top of everyone everything goes down and then everything goes from the ground that it's against gravity you have to really really make an effort to kind of connect the communities and make a network and I think that Toppin for us Mexico Spain Argentina what we're thinking and ourselves that was a different kind of counterpart there and it's interesting to. It's really been valuable in that sense and that makes me very very excited that it has this clear message and brand and people are making it their own. And we're also I think one of the biggest challenges for us aside from logically making it sustainable and not having personally on my invest my whole career in the real stuff is trying to be consequential for us in South America and the like. There's a lot of issue with round sponsor us which ones don't know what kind of association we have what communities are being represented or not. So I think there's a lot of work especially with Indigenous communities and labor unions and all the things that are very strong. So that's been kind of I think a broad view of what's been going on.

Bulbrook: When you make something like this up, each year it’s about what we can address and rectify for next time. The first time we did the festival, we realized, Hey, this looks pretty pale. You have to start being self-critical and introspective in that way, and thinking, OK, if I'm going to do something that this meaning, what does that really mean? How does that really translate into reality, and how do you actually do that the right way? There's not a place where it stops. I look back at the first Girlschool, and while I stand by all those artists, I'm embarrassed about my narrowness of view. But that's where I was at the time, and I'm really, really, really proud of this year's lineup. In the last two years, we've learned so much, and have discovered Girlschool to be this intentional place where other people get to shine and share their stories and speak. I really, really value the talks and panels, and the perspectives and different voices. I feel very humbled by the project. And it really made me have to look at myself and expand my world and extend my view and be better, and genuinely take those things on personally. It's reflected in our organization and our work in our community.

What was the process of curating Girlschool this year, given the current climate of social outcry—and particularly with so much of it happening on the Internet?
Bulbrook: None of these issues are new, and I think it's cool that there's all this conversation happening, but I think it's dangerous to think that because there's conversation happening, that change is happening. I think we have to make sure that conversation turns into actual action. That can take so many different forms. My form is Girlschool and trying to keep a positive and community-oriented space about creating opportunities. But it can be anything can be anything you can think of—just fucking do it. I can’t help but feel hopeful.

Valenzuela: There’s this cultural context of this moment where it feels like everybody is in hysterics, and it's code red all the time. I think it's important to take steps and actually do things to move things forward. The most relaxed and calm that I feel is when I've actually done something towards the end that I'm seeking, and it's much more than I feel if I've just posted “Hey I'm pissed off about this” on social media. But raising awareness is really important, information is really important. I'm really excited about the Annenberg study that was released, because now we're going to have more and more data which will help us uncover where we can do better, and show people the truth about where we are with everything in the music industry.

It was incredible I was basically an approach about multiculturalism in Europe to speak about creativity and immigration I think topics that have challenged culturalism is really interesting and I think relevant not only in terms of I think the element of diversity but I think because there's a great conversation happening in the U.S. particularly about kind of getting the ostrich head out of the sand out of the U.S. soil and looking outside of the U.S.. And there is a newfound curiosity to other. Parts of the world other cultures are plaguey cultures that have been here. And haven't been heard and to have the opportunity to for those things and be enriched by those things and also speak to the power of hard for storytelling and creativity as a tool against oppression and transformation. It's also I think something so beautiful and so valuable and so exciting. It's like this day and age in a world full of noise and artificial life and things that we're all part of which is great and it's the way it is wonderful. It is very subversive to be truthful and it is very subversive to just kind of the innocence of things as they are. And I think it's also a great aspect of kind of their vocation of art and music and culture as a tool against oppression and a tool for change.

What advice do you have for people who want to keep these communities going beyond the events, or people who are feeling isolated? What about for folks who don’t identify as female or non-binary who want to support the conversation?
Bulbrook: One: You are not alone. If you are having a thought about playing music, or you want to do this or that, there are other people who are, like you or close enough. And if you look hard enough, and put it out there hard enough, you'll find them. The power of community is incredible. And also just telling people your dreams is amazing. Then get out there, and you'll find other people who vibrate on your way to it.
Two: I think around anything that is sort of feminist or womanist in theme, it has to be representative. We completely miss the point if we're not inclusive, representative, and making space not just for our own narratives, but for those of others.
And three: I think that there is a stage and a very big space for men in all of this. And a lot of those in positions of power have an opportunity to be allies by asking women questions, validating them, and hiring them, and maybe taking a look at things like why they think a woman candidate for something isn't as qualified, or why they just don't quite trust the female candidate.
I think a lot of people don't want to speak up because it's a time for listening. But it also feels like there’s some fear around the idea of speaking up, because people didn't know what to say. And I think the first thing you say is, “Hey, can I ask you a question? How can I help?” It's so powerful and so beautiful. And if you believe that women can do things, just asking that question and genuinely believing women, and not applying your own experience or explaining women's experience back to them, but just like really listening—opening up to that is the first step from there. It’s not too late.

Valenzuela: I think conversation is key. I think empathy is key. I think listening is key. Humor is key. Action and self-awareness and self-criticism.

Bulbrook: This is the heart of Girlschool style—let's make it fucking fun and awesome.

Valenzuela: And I think not being so serious and so afraid, man. At least in the Latin community, it's severe. Our colonial Catholic tradition is real. I think the idea of not taking anything necessarily as sacred, and really being aware that anything can be talked about or discussed if it's in a respectful, honest fashion is key. I That disposition is why societies have been able to grow, because you have that genuine willingness to be okay with being wrong, or making mistakes. There is no perfection in this work for me.

Girlschool goes down Feb. 2 - 4 at LA's Bootleg Theater. Get tickets and more info here.

Listen to Noisey's Girlschool 2018 playlist on Spoitfy and Apple Music.

Andrea Domanick is Noisey's West Coast editor. Follow her and her adventures at Girlschool on Twitter.