It’s the first day of Girls Rock Camp, and the amps are ready.
At least one looks old enough to have been used by Janis Joplin. Some of the equipment is donated, some on loan—amps, keyboards, flaming electric guitars. But they feel new. Brand new, to the young fingers about to stroke them, beat them, mash the music out of them. They are the real thing: electric emotion, plugged up and plugged in. A direct line to the girl power.
But when the girls in question arrive at Vine Middle School, they don’t exactly look rocked out. Fifteen of them, aged 9 to 15, sit on a classroom floor. Many hug their knees and pick at their clothes: Old Navy striped T-shirts, electric blue webbed tights.
Johnica, a 9-year-old in a reasonably conservative navy polka-dot dress who wears her sleek, straight hair adorned with a big purple fabric flower, sways back and forth a little with nerves. But she smiles eagerly when asked to get to know her neighbor. She knows how to play the ukulele. It’s not usually a rock instrument. The girls compare notes about their favorite Converse sneakers and Netflix binges, waiting for five more potential friends to arrive.
Arianna, a returning camper, learned to play bass last year in a camp band called the Bias Breakers. Speaking barely above a whisper, Arianna says it built her confidence. “It really helped me find my inner girl power—different ways to express myself and be stronger,” she says.
Unlike Arianna, at least half of these tweens have never played an instrument. Even fewer have picked up the one they’ll play this week: electric guitar, bass, keyboard, or drums. A handful will be vocalists. Most know only one or two other girls. But by the end of the week, they will be playing a rock club in a band with some combination of these strangers.
Along the way, they’ll write a song, design a logo, screen-print band T-shirts, deconstruct their clothes with scissors, draw cartoons of female rockers for a coloring book, make a zine, dance or sing along with at least five professional bands, and learn to use their stage platform to fight injustice.
In a week. Even attempting such a thing seems rebellious.
Some arrive late and can’t even bring themselves to say their names. Perhaps surprisingly, the camp has not attracted lots of big personalities ready to dominate the stage. About half are very shy. Those brave enough are asked to explain why they came.
Reagan: “Me and my friends love music, and we were singing on the bus, and some friends paid us. And we were like, hey, let’s play in a band! And I have a guitar, but I can’t really play it.”
Roma: “I want to be more confident.”
Rory: “My dad has been in a bunch of rock bands since I was born, and it really inspired me.”
Many girls have dads who play an instrument. No one mentions a mother who does. The camp is filling in that role-model gap. The coaches are women who almost all play in bands, skewing punk. These black-clad ladies with tattoos and nose rings, who wail on guitars and scream at the mic, will speak gently and with infinite patience to the stragglers. To the few so shy or resistant that they rebel against even rock ‘n’ roll.
“Having the courage to put yourself out there is the important thing,” says camp director Elizabeth Wright, who plays drums in a garage psych band called Psychic Baos.
The camp exists largely because of Wright’s dedication to social activism, although she’s just one of about 20 mostly-female volunteers. Camp is a project of Knowhow, a nonprofit Wright developed to teach students about social justice in their communities and to reflect on it through art and music.
”I thought Knox would be a great place for young people to work with artists and musicians and social activists to learn how to respond to social issues with art and music,” she says. “I think Knoxville is unique in its support of music and women being involved in the scene.”
Other cities, including Nashville and Asheville, have their own Girls Rock camps, many belonging to the international Girls Rock Camp Alliance. Although she and female rockers had led occasional Saturday girls-rock workshops since about 2007, last year marked the first full week of camp.
Wright explains to the girls, “As much as it is about music, it’s about forming a community and being there for each other. We’re going to learn how to talk for ourselves and express what we need, and respect what other people need.”
Because this is a camp for girls by women, the methodology doesn’t really have much of a punk, in-your-face ethos. The camp maintains a “shout-out wall” for praising each other and a “chill-out tent” for time alone. The girls decorate “affirmation envelopes” to hold positive reminders of what builds their pride. (“I am awesome!”) Almost the first order of business is learning how to insert your provided ear plugs (because hearing loss = not awesome). Instead of rules, campers and staff vote on “group agreements”:
“Perfection is the enemy of greatness.”
“Move up: If you talk a lot, move into listening. If you don’t talk much, move into talking.”
But there’s not much talking anyway when the moment of truth comes halfway through the first morning. The girls are about to find out which instrument they’ll learn. On their applications, they could make a specific request. But if too many people want the same thing (read: vocals), they might get something else. And some, like Johnica, weren’t sure.
The girls are all practically vibrating as they are handed envelopes. All rip in at once. Inside are plastic bracelets, color-coded to instruments.
Johnica, who hoped for vocals or guitar, pumps her fist as she glimpses her yellow bracelets. Turns out, she was confused.
She didn’t get vocals. She got drums.
Johnica puts her earplugs in.
First drumming practice: No snares. No cymbals. Not even sticks.
The girls rub their bellies while patting their heads.
Two hands, different jobs. Same time. Change it up, slap the beat, thighs as drums. Add stomps, sing pop-TART, pop-TART. Johnica marches, nods head side to side, a loose dance.
The rhythm of a girl’s speech (and her life) is not regular like this. It’s a burst here, a long pause, an unpredictable clatter quickandanother. Surprise is fun in a song, but only to an extent. There has to be a structure to tear apart, rhythm to break out of.
When they first sit behind the drum kits, Johnica and Lisbeth are hesitant.
“Just hit things,” says drum instructor Jess Pittman. “You just want to make noise. Don’t be timid. Make it loud.”
Johnica later demonstrates a wide-eyed, freaked-out stare to sum up her feelings about this. “When I started I was thinking, ‘Everybody’s looking at me.’ Then I thought, ‘This is fun, and if everyone is looking at me and judging me, then I don’t care.’ I’m pretty excited now that I’m getting the hang of it.”
Everyone has challenges today. In the guitar and bass rooms, it’s nothing but tuning. Tiny Fiona’s guitar bangs against her knees. Just holding it up is wearing her out. Two of the vocalists spend most of the day trying to avoid singing. And bass player Ashlyn is already worried that she’ll only have her instrument for a week.
That’s a big concern for camp leaders, too. Tuition is set on a sliding scale based on household income. About a fifth of the girls were on a full scholarship this year, made possible with a grant from Peyton Manning’s Peyback Foundation, says coordinator Carley Dorsey. She knows many of these families have higher priorities for their money than an electric guitar.
So the big goal for this second year of the camp is to find a practice space for the bands. That way, a full set of donated instruments could be available for band practices year-round.
Camp coordinator Emily Robinson knows that barrier. She was around 16 when she played in her first punk band. “A friend gave me a bass and a ride—otherwise there’s no way I would’ve played music,” she says.
Robinson now tours in black-metal band Argentinum Astrum with her husband Andy Kohler, whom she met in the band. Previously she spent six years with the popular country rock band the Tenderhooks. She lives at The Poison Lawn, an underground venue for metal and punk music (Facebook self-description: “WHAT WE DO IS SECRET.”)
Robinson is teaching camp technology workshops on booking and promoting concerts and making your own merchandise. “Recording and understanding your gear is very gendered, and I really hope to demystify a lot of that,” she says.
Gear is the only realm where Robinson has encountered sexism in the music business. “Sound guys treat me differently, like I’ve never seen a guitar before,” she says. On a recent tour stop in Chicago, the venue staff wouldn’t let her near the equipment because they didn’t believe she was part of the band.
Wright says she has had similar experiences. But generally, Wright has found Knoxville’s music scene unusually open to women. She says the Pilot Light has been especially supportive. Compared with other cities, Wright says, “I see a lot more women on stage and bonding together here.”
However, she acknowledges that girls in rock face difficulties, especially being sexualized. “And being tokenized is a huge challenge, like being asked to be in a band just because you’re a girl, or people acting like you’re amazing just because you’re playing music,” she says.
Robinson is struck by something. “I’ve never played in a band with another woman,” she says.
It’s time for the second big reveal of the day: Who is in my band? The girls are herded into five groups, roughly by age. Johnica, Reagan, Willow and Ashlyn (ages 9-11) sit on the floor with their first assignment: Pick a name.
Immediately Ashlyn, who has very long, black curly hair and a toothy smile that is slow to emerge, says she has chosen one. Band coach Susan Bauer Lee explains it has to be a democratic process. Heather Robinson, the other band coach (and Emily Robinson’s sister), asks them to think about what they all have in common.
Willow, the long-haired, confident singer who flashes her braces with her smile, declares: “We hate spiders!”
Somehow that doesn’t seem enough. So they share their musical tastes, which are wildly different. Ashlyn likes Mexican pop, Willow goes for Zeppelin. Reagan, the guitarist, asks, “Have you heard of, like, the Rolling Stones? They’re rock but not heavy metal. It’s hard to describe.”
They can’t agree on a favorite color or animal, so they write down adjectives that describe them. Most like the word “daring.” Ashlyn isn’t sure what it means.
Ashlyn says she also isn’t sure she wants to be in a band when she grows up. She wants to be a doctor, too, and doesn’t want to become a bad person by betraying this band. The coaches insist she can do it all without being a bad person.
Back to names.
Reagan: The Artsy Owls. “We’re girls, so that’s like the majestic part of the owls, but we’re also nice and sweet.”
Johnica: The Mysterious Four.
Willow: Daring to Be Colorfully Deep in Sneakers. She attempts to explain, “If we all like daring and we all enjoy the comfort of Converse—” before her voice is drowned in groans.
Finally, through the chaos, the name the Daring Blue emerges, then morphs into the Daring Hues.
Meanwhile, some of the older girls have dubbed themselves the Pizza Slayers and are halfway through writing a song called “Welcome to the Dork Side.” This group is a true democracy, voting on each line.
“Okay, so our main thing is being dorks?” asks singer Sofia.
Evelin, the drummer, is a good rhymer. She throws out the line “Walking around the mall pretending to be cool.” Sofia shouts, “I do that!”
Rory, the guitarist, who sings her thoughts all week like she’s in a rock opera, belts, “We are socially awkward!”
When you wake up
You see things differently
Other people are sleeping
And you are thinking
Why does it have to be me
—“Out of the Box,” Chill Teen Vibes (Chill TV)
By Wednesday morning the girls are starting to feel more confident. They are also realizing they need to focus. When asked to reflect on her progress, Johnica writes in giant letters, “PREPARED AND WORRIED!”
An interesting counter-rhythm emerges in the communal vibe. Ashlyn wants to add a new group agreement: “No talking to the competish.”
A first-time bassist, Ashlyn surprised everyone Tuesday by composing a bass line so catchy that the older bass players learned it from her. She and her bandmates think they’ve heard it slip into other bands’ songs, and they want it to be theirs. But the camp leaders want the showcase on Saturday to be supportive, not competitive.
That’s when the flaw in the “group agreement” system emerges: When the girls vote on whether “it’s not a competition,” Ashlyn won’t agree.
They try to talk it out. Vocal coach Crystal Braeuner points out that bands often play each others’ songs together at festivals, and Heather Robinson says the women running the camp all know each other through collaboration.
Johnica: “I think the reason for Girls Rock Camp is to build people’s confidence, and if it was a competition it would make you feel bad and maybe you’d quit.”
Fiona: “Competition spreads people apart, and then you lose friends. And I don’t like losing friends.”
Finally, they move on—without another vote. No one wants to compromise on this. Some might argue that being a woman is all about compromise: compromising your dreams in a bad way, or compromising among your desires (job, family, artistic calling) in a creative way. Being in a band requires compromise.
But it’s tougher to teach a girl to recognize the things she can’t, or shouldn’t, compromise. Maybe that’s where the rock comes in.
The Chill TV band is forced to compromise something important when they realize that Roma, the guitarist, won’t be in town for the Saturday showcase. No one else will do. But they don’t want to give up guitar. So they laboriously count out how many beats are in every section of their song, and Roma records the guitar part to a click track like a metronome. They will play with Recorded Roma. This would be challenging even for experienced musicians. Recorded Roma can’t speed up, slow down, or respond to any glitches in the performance.
Live Roma, a black girl with hair pulled tightly back who amounts to a camp elder, is proud when she completes the recording with all the timing correct. This is a new skill, although she has been playing guitar for close to a decade. Roma wants to be a professional singer/songwriter. She has made money busking and recently played First Friday at the Basement Community Art Studio.
Even girls with less experience are getting the bang of it.
“We’re really loud,” Johnica warns before drumming instruction. “You’ll need your earplugs.” Hers are already in.
Sometimes when Johnica misses the beat, she has to stop and restart, and it makes her want to hide in the chill-out tent—only that would be too embarrassing.
But today Johnica learns how to play double time, hitting different beats with each stick, crossing her arms. She looks up, and it’s like the sun rising. She’s had a revelation. She’s loud. No, she’s loud. Her sticks are a foot above her head. She’s highandlowandhighandlowand slambamcrossover cymbalshshshYesss. She is stomping the bass drum pedal so hard that her knee pumps above her waist with every beat.
Now Johnica’s ready to match Ashlyn’s killer bass hook for the Daring Hues song. The lyrics, entirely written by Willow, are a rejection of the messages in Disney princess movies that probably enthralled the same girls five years ago. (Read: Half their lives ago.) “You shouldn’t need a shoe to love me,” Willow sings, hopping on every bass-drum beat.
I’m not a beauty-obsessed sleeper
Apple skin gets stuck in my braces
But hey, this isn’t a fairy tale
But that’s just me!
By Friday morning, the shout-out wall proclaims “The Daring Hues are working together like they’ve done this for years!”
Johnica is so frenetic on the drums that she gives herself a splinter. “You have rock ’n’ roll hands now,” band coach Heather Robinson tells her.
Today the band photos will be taken, and Johnica has dressed in rainbow leg warmers, a rainbow tutu with rainbow suspenders—and a for-real-tough black leather jacket. The Daring Hues try to look uncharacteristically mean for their picture. They cross their arms and frown or, in Ashlyn’s case, throw punches that block the view of her bandmates. Although Ashlyn still goes her own way, she has gelled musically with her band. And Johnica loans her a spare tutu.
The Pizza Slayers, whose lead singer, Sofia, was at first unwilling to sing even in front of her band coaches, has now performed for the other campers. The band completely scrapped “Welcome to the Dork Side.”
“It haunted me in my dreams,” Sofia says. “I wanted something meaningful, because I didn’t think being lazy and a dork was important enough.” The new song is called “Just Join Together.”
You’ve gotta be you
Cause that’s all cool—yeah
Don’t ever let anyone tell you who you are
You are your own star
Being yourself seems to be the common thread in all the songs. The Treble$ are the only band to write a relationship song, which has a melodic verse broken by the screamed punk chorus “I’m done with you!”
As the day unfolds, that anthem starts to ring too true. It’s an emotional roller coaster. Johnica is one of many to take a trip to the chill-out tent. Friends start arguing. After living in each other’s pockets all week, everyone is tired and freaked out about not seeing these new soulmates any more.
The Treble$ are demanding a lot of themselves and each other, perhaps forgetting the group agreement about perfection. You could cut the tension in their practice room with a knife. Lead singer Ani stalks out red-eyed. But the band asks for time to work it out, emerging arm in arm. “Not many adults are able to do that,” observes Dorsey, one of their band coaches.
Camp throws no punches. You will leave with a gut understanding that communication is as important to a band as the music.
Music Is the Message
Camp also pushed the girls to think hard about the message they want to communicate to their audience.
“Just getting up on stage is political as a woman,” camp leader Kaitlin Malick reminds the girls.
The social activism track is new this year. Girls who chose it found themselves playing a skewed game of soccer: One team had more players and made up all the rules. The other had to attempt to win anyway. Right off, one girl wanted to quit. Even the winners didn’t enjoy it, Wright says. “The girls decided it didn’t feel good to be mean to other people, so it hurts everyone in some way,” she says.
Does it remind them of sexism? Interestingly, no. It ignites their indignation about how it feels to be young, with adults making all the rules. Roma brings up Black Lives Matter.
Another day, the girls dress up as women from history who used music as a platform for reform. After watching a video clip of Billie Holiday singing her classic song about lynching, “Strange Fruit,” Roma says, “Why can’t we make songs like that now? It’s not a thing.”
She pauses, then adds, “I’m gonna do it.”
The girls have already been at Open Chord Music in West Knoxville for three hours, doing sound checks and extra rehearsals, when the audience starts to arrive. But the campers aren’t waiting backstage. They are galloping through the club squealing. Heightening the effect is the sugar rush from the “Girls Rock” cake they ate in the green room, sitting in each other’s laps. They’ve scrawled their signatures in giant letters on the pristine white walls. No one seems to know or care if that was allowed.
Many of the girls wear shirts they screen-printed with their bands’ names. Others amped up their stage look. Rory has a retro-1940s roll in her hair, which is dyed the same aqua as her electric guitar (possible coincidence). Sofia is wearing makeup for the first time this week, her cherry lips visible to the back of the club.
Johnica is wearing her earplugs. She bounces up and down and fiddles with her drumsticks, which are now scrawled with eight signatures (half friends, half musicians who performed at camp).
When Johnica’s parents, Ben and Lorena Hubbard, arrive, she swoops in. Her dad says she’s already asking for a drum set for Christmas. Her family learned about the camp from Another Roadside Attraction, a Roanoke, Va., band that plays funky Appalachian cabaret music. Johnica encountered the duo at a WDVX performance during a time when she was being bullied at school. Afterward she wrote the band a letter, beginning a correspondence. As luck would have it, the band played the Blue Plate Special earlier on Saturday, so they were able to come full circle by joining Johnica’s audience.
Some parents say the week has already triggered changes in their girls. “I feel like she had the opportunity not only to be led but to lead, and that’s new for her,” says Zaviera’s mom, Patricia Presley, who is herself a burlesque performer (stage name: Catalina Mystique).
At least one of the bands was already booked to play at halftime during the Hard Knox Rollergirls derby the following weekend. Zaviera, the drummer for the Treble$, wasn’t interested at first. But her mom says, “She just came and told me she’s going to do it.”
Some camp leaders say they are changed as much as the campers. Wright had played bass and guitar in punk bands for years, but last year she picked up drums.
“I think the camp experience kind of empowered me to feel capable of doing that,” she says. “You see young girls who’ve never picked up an instrument before and within one week they’ve written a song, played in a band and performed in front of a lot of people. So you feel like, ‘I can do anything.’”
It’s 4 p.m. Open Chord has big windows that let in the sun. But the atmosphere is still all Nightclub, not Cute Little School Concert, as the crowd slowly swells to 50 or 60. The bands will perform in order of age, youngest to oldest.
Johnica and Fiona emerge from beneath a plastic tablecloth where they were hiding to cool their nerves. Most girls admit to little or no stage fright—with one big exception.
The tiniest drummer has shut herself in the green room alone. Four adults are trying to talk her out. The camp’s usual approach is to make sure everyone is comfortable, allowed to do things in their own time. But now it’s time for her band, the Golden Fires, to light up the stage. Finally, the drummer agrees to come out, but not to play. Band coach Pittman fills in on the drums, wearing the kind of fixed smile that you hang over your face when you are miserable. This is the first time a girl has been too nervous to perform at the showcase.
The Daring Hues are up next, and Willow begins with a joke: “What is a skeleton’s favorite instrument? A trom-BONE!” It’s a quick reminder: These are (roughly) 9-year-olds. But then they launch into the drum and bass intro with the gusto of young-adult angst. When the instruments drop out at the end of the chorus, all the campers sing along with Willow like fans at a big rock concert: “But that’s just me!”
The members of Chill TV dedicate their song to the absent Roma. Recorded Roma sounds deceptively Live, and the band keeps time. Kay, once disappointed to be playing keyboard, tears it up on the ivories. Then she raps her way through the bridge.
Ani’s voice is lush when The Trebel$ take the stage. But like many of the older girls, she looks skeptical when told she sounded great. (Her face twists: “It was okay.”) Some know they did better in rehearsals. But they are getting their last chance of the week to remember that group agreement about perfection.
In a way, the short five days of camp echo the arc of being a teenager: Starting nervous. Posing. Scared but excited to try new things. Over time, growing self-assurance and friendships. Eventually, putting yourself out there in the spotlight. Showing off what you can do, understanding that there may be rotten tomatoes—but confident that there will be more applause.
Johnica, not quite a teen yet, sums it up more simply.
“It felt great!” she says, already running after her friends. “I wanna do it again!”
Do You KnowHow?
KnowHow is the non-profit, founded by Elizabeth Wright, that runs Girls Rock camp. But it has undertaken several other grassroots youth projects as well. KnowHow joined with the Great Schools Partnership to lead after-school community projects last year at Vine Middle and Lonsdale and Norwood elementary schools. For example, students at Norwood learned about food justice and cooking, and painted murals during a week-long project about local community gardens.
KnowHow helped Vine Middle School students explore East Knoxville history. They looked at maps of their neighborhoods before and after urban renewal, heard from Civil Rights-era community leaders, drew their own maps of their communities, and documented how people live there with disposable cameras. Their pictures and essays were gathered in a book and they held a signing. They also invited community members to help paint a mural commemorating East Knoxville leaders at the Dr. Walter Hardy Park amphitheater. Wright says KnowHow hopes to partner with the county health department to expand on that work this year with more community art engagement, such as student performances at the amphitheater.
Girls Rock Camp is run with grants and donations, not only of money but also instruments and equipment. It is also seeking a space for the girls’ bands to practice during the year. Emily and Heather Robinson, sisters who are among the camp coordinators, say the organization will also raise money for the camp by selling screen-printed T-shirts from its website, as well as coloring books of women in rock, drawn by this year’s campers. Information on those items will be available on the camp website, knoxvillegirlsrockcamp.com. For photos from this year’s camp and videos of the band performances, visit the Knoxville Girls Rock Camp page on Facebook.
S. Heather Duncan has won numerous awards for her feature writing and coverage of the environment, government, education, business and local history during her 15-year reporting career. Originally from Western North Carolina, Heather has worked for Radio Free Europe, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London, and several daily newspapers. Heather spent almost a dozen years at The Telegraph in Macon, Ga., where she spent most of her time covering the environment or writing project-investigations that provoked changes such as new laws related to day care and the protection of environmentally-sensitive lands. You can reach Heather at firstname.lastname@example.org
Share this Post