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

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, 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 notice throughout the week, in various different forms. While rock is the headliner, just as important in this camp is the attention paid 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 get 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 show up in cats’ ears, possibly due to a viewing at some point of some iteration of “Josie and the Pussy Cats.” I see a cape or two as well.

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

I sit and check out the 43-page volunteer handbook, and realize 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, 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 got started the Louisville chapter of Girls Rock several years back, and has been growing the program, adding events and fundraisers throughout the year, all of which culminate with this week long camp and showcase.  She’s quick to praise the volunteers and teachers, never centering her own importance, though 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 its amazing to just — you forget that anything else exists,” said Neumayer.

Girls Rock Louisville (photo by Kathryn Harrington)

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

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

Along with blank paper, crayons, markers and what not, there are a plethora of amazing coloring pages, many of which feature famous women of music. I see 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 are starting to disperse into little clumps as they break 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 insanely large kid-to-adult ration, 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 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.”

But 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,” Whitcomb said.

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

As check-in time comes to a close, the kids are invited to the gym, where an ad-hoc band has 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)

Lunch with the Pencil Shavings and Rock Anonymous

It’s lunch when I show back up midweek to check in with the camp. I find an open spot at a table, and try to find some kids willing to talk to the press.

Each kid has a band at this point, a band name and an instrument, as well as several days of rock tutorials and songwriting under their belt.

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

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

Her name is Alex 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 a friend of her parents’ 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.”

Alex 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.”

Bell 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,” Alex 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.

Bell has been talking about a mile a minute, but when she slows down to take a bite of food, the other kids at the table start to chime in, a little less timid now that they’ve seen their friend successfully navigate interaction with the press.

Zaria Mosby is another drummer, 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.

Despite being 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,” Zara said. “‘Cause I don’t do that easily.”

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

She and Alex try to explain what it feels like to actually play music, and they struggle 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,” Alex 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)

Headlining at Headliners

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

I see 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 down the road.

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 performing, 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 a younger kid.”

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

It’s crazy to think that for most of these kids, this is 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 seem pretty chill. They’re excited for sure, all decked out in crazy makeup and hair, hand-made band T-shirts, capes, cat ears and glitter. But they don’t seem nervous.

Although as the audience fills in, you can 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 gets up on stage, and thanks everyone involved. It’s amazing how many companies, business and non-profits 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 are reaching a fever pitch when the first band takes the stage.

A band called The Box Tails have 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 hits her sticks together in time yelling: “One, two, three, four!”

The air lifts, 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 Alex talk 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 non stop.”

Alex 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 was talking 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 gets their chance, you can 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 onstage, to sing the camps 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!

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