Portrait of a Girlboss: Anna Bulbrook of GIRLSCHOOL
From 2006 on, viola-keyboard-tambourine wunderwoman Anna Bulbrook of the Airborne Toxic Event was busy living it up as a darling of the alt-rock world—festival gigs at Coachella and Lollapalooza, European tours, appearances on Leno, Letterman and Kimmel. But after ten years on the circuit, Anna began to notice something; she kept seeing the same handful of women performers over and over again. “It would be like, me and Nikki [Monninger] from Silversun Pickups,” she said. “It was really bumming me out.” Then, last summer, after playing a showcase at the girls’ music-education program Rock n’ Roll Camp for Girls Los Angeles, something clicked: “I just had this revelatory experience of being in this all-female environment where there was all this really happy, really loving music-making going on. In a rush, I realized what I’d been missing for 10 years.”
Coming off that moment, Anna decided to start GIRLSCHOOL, a music-and-arts collective aimed at expanding opportunity for women and girls. Her first order of business was taking the Satellite residency she’d secured for The Bulls, her other band of whom she is the frontwoman, and filling the slots with all female-fronted acts. From there, she went on to organize the Girlschool Field Day Weekend this past January, a three-day festival event at the Bootleg Theatre featuring acts like Dead Sara, Kate Nash and members of Veruca Salt, plus a panel from accomplished women in the music industry. GIRLSCHOOL has also since partnered up with Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls, where they run a series on historically underappreciated female musicians called GIRLSCHOOL X SPOTLIGHT and have done video interviews with artists like Grimes, Lauren Mayberry of CHVRCHES and Alison Mosshart of The Kills.
We recently met with Anna in her Echo Park studio and talked about how she built momentum off a moment of inspiration, everything that led her up to that point, the launch of GIRLSCHOOL merch as a cultural calling card, and what’s in store for the future.
One of the first things you did with GIRLSCHOOL was dedicate The Bulls’ residency at The Satellite to an all-female-fronted lineup. What was your thought process behind that?
I was planning it and I was like, “You know what? I don’t want to do another shoegaze festival. Ugh. Big eye roll.” [laughs]. So I came up with the idea to do an all-female-fronted theme. And I’m ashamed of this now, but at the time I told myself, “Well, if I can’t find enough quality bands that are female-fronted, I’ll abandon the idea.” Because I wasn’t willing to sacrifice quality. And then of course it turned out that there were so many incredible bands! The breadth of different sounds was really cool. Every night felt like a revelation. Everyone was so happy to be a part of it and it really took on a lot of meaning for all of us.
During that time, Jasmine [Lywen-Dill] was working on the management side for the Bulls and Adrien [Young] started coming to the shows and they were both like, “Let me know if you’re doing this again.” So, of course, I got the bug to do it again as a festival and I linked up with Kyle [Wilkerson] at the Bootleg and he was willing to give me an entire weekend to totally take this risk on the Girlschool Field Day Weekend. And so at that point, Jasmine and Adrien officially came on board and helped make that festival what it was.
What’s in store for GIRLSCHOOL this year?
I want to do festivals in different cities, which is what we’re working on now. And we’ll continue our content partnership with Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls, so we curate music for them, write an online editorial series, and do on-camera interviews. Most recently we sat down with Bethany Cosentino of Best Coast. It’s cool—we get to ask them interesting, non-sexist questions!
We’ll be doing the festival here in L.A. again in January. I hope that people think that’s a given, that it will be an every-year thing. I think the developmental work we’ve put in this year took me totally by surprise, and I’m hoping to do some more educational stuff in the fall as well.
And we’ve officially launched the GIRLSCHOOL merch store as of today! My dream is to have the GIRLSCHOOL gear symbolize our call for quality work by interesting women supporting other women. And have it symbolize, you know, fun.
There is a growing cultural conversation going on across a lot of different industries in terms of gender inequality, the pay gap, etc. As a professional musician, do you see that reflected in the music world?
I think in pop, there are plenty of women who are put forward as the sort of singer-pop-diva and that’s a trope. It happens again and again and again. And that comes with its own group of expectations—body image, how you comport yourself, what your music sounds like. There’s a lot of that, and it’s very specific.
And then in the alternative scene—it’s like crickets. I have a friend who works in radio programming tell me there’s this notion that there are essentially two slots for female voices on alternative radio. And one of them is for Lorde [laughs]. And then I saw a video of Alanis Morrisette in the ‘90s doing an interview and a radio programmer had told here there was one slot on alternative radio for a female artist. And the ‘90s were supposed to be the heydey of women in alternative rock! Like, the Cranberries! Sneaker Pimps! Hole! There was this magical moment for women in alternative rock, but you know, I guess it didn’t make enough of a difference. It’s unacceptable that the radio landscape hasn’t noticeably changed. The fact that there’s a 200% increase, but that just means there’s two slots instead of one now, is pretty mind-blowing.
So I look at all of this and I think “How can I create opportunities for women to move past the local level?” There are all these barriers to entry, and women don’t graduate in the same way, because there aren’t the same opportunities. It’s very skewed. I’m trying to come up with ways to create a critical mass, a scene. Galvanizing is really important. If you’re all doing something together, you have a lot more momentum. And you meet each other and you create this social economy of people helping each other. So it’s not as lonely. And it’s really fun. I mean, when you have this excuse to just meet and talk to these smart women all day long? That’s one of the number one payoffs of doing this project. Just the volume of brilliant women I get to meet and work with.
How is starting up a collective different from starting up a band? How are you handling the more brass-tacks, administrative side of stuff?
Having been on the artistic side of things for 10 years, it’s actually been really fun. I mean, I have all these skills that don’t get utilized when you’re shaking a tambourine on stage in leather shorts [laughs]. And this organizing and writing—these are things that I can do for a thousand hours if it’s for GIRLSCHOOL.
What’s it been like dealing with dudes as far as GIRLSCHOOL goes? Do they get it?
I have found that with the lion’s share of people, they’re so excited about it. Especially at the festival; the audience was very mixed and everyone was welcome. There were boys on stage in the bands and everyone was just happy to be part of something that felt like a big community hug and felt like it had meaning.
Kyle from the Bootleg was so excited. He was like, “I’ve been hoping someone would come to me and want to do this!” And yeah, there were some people who were maybe less excited, who made Lilith Fair jokes, but once they saw it, it was undeniable. The artists were so good.
What advice would you give to young women looking to break into the music industry? Or start their own collective or organization?
GIRLSCHOOL for me felt like the most obvious idea on the planet. I just feel like the lucky person who stumbled onto it at the right time and in the right way for it to take hold. So I would say if there’s an idea that occurs to you or there’s something you want to see or you notice something that’s missing, think about how you can make it and then just don’t stop working until you figure out how to do it. And make mistakes and try again. Look for people to work with to help you. I mean, the festival would never have happened the way it did without Jasmine and Adrien. The right people will come to you and will find you if you put your idea out there. It ripples outwards.
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