The Girls of Summer
Does Austin need a girls-only rock & roll camp?
"Can I play your drums?"
The rolling of eyes. An exasperated look.
Sitting cross-legged on the floor watching a group of teenage girls write songs about being teenage girls, I'm struck with a memory of my 13-year-old self going over to a neighbor's house to play drums in his garage. He always gave me a hard time, so, naturally, it made me want to do it more. He eventually moved away, and that was that, but I never forgot the feeling that came with pounding on those things. As a shaggy-haired girl, roughly the same age I was, counts off into a song with her drumsticks, she has nothing but confidence. It's summer, and the world is hers. No one is rolling her eyes here.
This is Austin's inaugural all-girl rock camp, held for two weeks in the fresh-smelling halls of the Eastside's Lone Star School of Music. For many of the young ladies attending, it's salvation via distortion, a chance to be around other females wanting to learn an instrument while being taught by women who know their stuff. At least that was Emily Marks' idea.
A classically trained guitarist, the 30-year-old moved to Austin from Memphis, Tenn., a couple of years ago to pursue her master's at UT. In Tennessee, she taught both boys and girls but always thought the same thing: "Stop taking lessons from these guys with ponytails, and come take lessons with me!"
"Of course I loved being around boys, but all they told me was that girls suck at guitar," she says. "So I devoured every girl guitarist out there. I think all five of them at that time included Joan Jett, Lita Ford, Jane Wiedlin, Nancy Wilson from Heart, and Bonnie Raitt."
She's continued teaching guitar here in Austin, and as a former "T" for Tennesseean, she's naturally upheld her reverence for the region's native greats like Memphis Minnie and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. That was something Marks wanted to bring to her own camp, inspired by Portland, Ore.'s original Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls, which started in 2001. That camp has become so popular that now NYC and Chicago have schools, with smaller factions popping up across the country. A recent documentary on the Portland school, Girls Rock!, debuted last month.
Locally, Marks' idea wasn't immune to skepticism. She faced resistance from competing music camps and plenty of red tape in getting started. A severe time crunch didn't help. As the deadline for this camp session loomed, she eventually gathered a group of 20 girls, ages 8-17, and, aided by donations, full and partial scholarships, and local sponsorships, converted to nonprofit.
Of course all that still prompts the questions: Does Austin or any other city, for that matter need a girls-only rock & roll camp? Won't it reinforce stereotypes of the type that motivated Marks in the first place? Or can such an endeavor evolve from statistics showing that single-sex learning environments do more good than harm? Marks' firsthand experience came from spending her sophomore year of high school in an all-girl "Bon Jovi-type band," playing bars in New York City even though she was underage.
"Looking back, even though there are bad pictures of me in white-leather fringe jackets, I still think it was the sweetest deal ever. The bad part was I had to look a certain way. All the women in the band were at least 10 years older than me, so it was hard. It was more about the image than the music. How am I supposed to act sexy at 15?
"That's why it's so important for these girls to see women who can play. I'd rather be in here teaching girls about Patti Smith and Wanda Jackson."
Monday's inaugural class is all about questions.
"When can I plug in?"
"Can I turn it up?"
"Where's my good pick?"
It's also about rules, or rather the golden rule, which is "No noodling." In one room, the youngest girls try their hardest not to, but they're also 8, so the discordant strum of guitars fills the air. Marks runs them through today's lesson: the 12-bar blues. This group has appropriately named itself the Broken Hearts, and they're singing the blues about a misbehaving puppy.
Next door, local singer-songwriter Rachel Loy and longtime Austin drummer Terri Lord tag-team a group of 11- and 12-year-old girls. In the back, taking instruction from veteran rockabilly queen Rosie Flores, is the awesomely named Kitty Liquors, a handful of teenagers. And in a cramped room with Beth Puorro, guitarist for Echoset, is SSIRJ, the first initial of each band member's name. Equally dizzying are the names of seminal bands thrown out over the week: the Clash, X, AC/DC, the Donnas, Beatles, Ramones, Fall Out Boy, Of Montreal, Def Leppard.
Former Chronicle contributor and spouse of South by Southwest partner Roland Swenson, Roseana Auten, whose daughter is 9, appreciates the camp's mission.
"The fact that it's 27 years after the Go-Go's and I still have to tell my daughter that there's something remarkable about women being in a band to me that's evidence it has to be paid attention to," points out Auten. "Women are underrepresented in rock, and it's not cool to say so, but there are plenty of men who are a little hostile to the idea of having a girls' rock camp. Are there many women in rock today who had a rock camp for girls? Probably not.
"We don't need to have it for [them] to have a career in music, but it's still something that's worth focusing on."
Petite, sandy-haired Celeste breaks rule No. 1 toward the end of the day and noodles on her bright-red guitar with startling dexterity as she stretches her voice into Kate Bush-like peals of ... something. It's quite a sight, what with the Hello Kitty sticker slapped on her axe. She's 8, after all.
Blues for Walter
Blues aren't easy to write, despite overwhelming historic evidence to the contrary. Marks plays a standard progression as the girls recite songs they've come up with: Blues for ice cream, moldy peaches (the fruit, not the band), and middle school. The band formerly known as the Kitty Liquors (there was a forced name change) rambles through a particularly catchy tune about a boy:
He's in his teens
He wears those jeans
And he reads those ... magazines
Ari, 12, loves Jeff Beck, the Beatles, and Blondie. Already a student of Marks, she received her first music tutorial from her dad's vinyl collection. She's sporting a shirt from another camp she recently took part in: Camp Half-Blood, a weeklong literary camp based on fantasy author Rick Riordan's books. She talks about Greek mythology the way some girls talk about lip gloss, lighting up when she talks about her favorites Artemis (the goddess of hunting, the moon) and Hermes (the messenger).
Rachel, also 12, is one of a few drummers in the camp, although she confides that the first time she hit the skins, really hard, was only recently. She's the drummer for SSIRJ, and as they run through different chord changes with Puorro, she's impatient to get rocking. She taps her sticks together.
"OK, one, two, three ..."
"Wait, we're not ready."
Why does she like drums?
"You get to hit on things."
What's fulfilling about that?
"You get to hit everything. Guitar is just, ya know, little things, and keyboards are here and there. Drums are everything all at once."
SSIRJ's raven-haired guitarist lets out an ungodly, lung-splitting scream and later holds up a red, calloused finger. Blood. The rites of initiation have begun.
"The girls seem really comfortable," Puorro says later. "Lunch is a half-hour. They eat as fast as they can and sprint back to the room."
Marks gathered a diverse group of women performers and lecturers for the girls, and today there's an enlightening talk from Susan Gibson, best known for penning the Dixie Chicks song "Wide Open Spaces." She traverses the dos and don'ts, ins and outs of being a songwriter for other performers. And she doesn't mince words about the marketing of women in the music biz.
"Lose 30 pounds, and stop wearing cowboy boots, and maybe," she says of her own dealings.
A good part of the day is spent practicing the song or songs the girls will perform for their showcase. Fourteen-year-old Eris, blond and loaded down with an armful of bracelets, trades Valley girl verses with bandmate Katie:
"Age: Not old enough to smoke, but I do it anyway."
And then, a chorus: "Lemme see your profile; tell me your name."
Whoa. It's an obvious lampoon of MySpace, but it's also kind of a sobering testament to their generation. Engaging with the opposite sex now includes sending him a friend request and possibly putting him in your Top 8. Such are today's travails of a teenage girl. At least you can write a song about it, put it on your MySpace page, and people around the country can hear it. The age which these girls are entering into as possible musicians is wholly different from the year most of them were born.
Later in the day there are tears and disagreements, waning attention spans and screaming. Maybe blues aren't so hard to write.
Credit in the Straight World
Sexual appeal. The phrase is written in big, green capital letters on the dry erase board by local singer Sara Hickman.
"This is the top thing on the mind of record execs," she explains. "I'm not trying to make you feel scared of the music industry but make you aware."
After lunch, Eris, sporting pink fishnets, pink nail polish, and black combat boots, recites a few lines of "Gee, Officer Krupke" from West Side Story. Asked if she wants to lead a band one day, she replies the only way an aspiring frontwoman could: "Yeah! I want people to look at me." Later, as she and the guitarist work on a ballad together, frustration and boredom finally give way to collaboration: "We need to work together on this. I don't want to overpower you."
Internal Souls run through a song with local guitarist Sarah Glynn. Bassist/singer Jacinda has a journal full of lyrics open to a page with "Finally Had Enough" written in all caps at the top of the page.
"I write the lyrics ... and she edits them," Jacinda says as she smiles at guitarist Sara and laughs.
Jacinda, Sara, and Edith, who'll all be going into the eighth grade, play in another group together called Free Spirited Losers, and drummer Elise plays in a band called No Outlet. Watching a song come together before their eyes, evolving from a loose clamor to a tight knit, gives the room a sort of electric glow.
Which brings us back to that first question: Do we need a girls' rock camp? There were some mistakes to learn from, Marks admits, and some kinks to work out like any first-time venture. But she remains optimistic about next year. She also mentions that just last week Wanda Jackson gave her blessing to name the camp after her.
"There's something so powerful about all these girls excited to pick up instruments and create their own songs ... surrounded by gifted women encouraging them to explore their creativity and pushing them to be their best.
"And no one is telling them no."
The Girls Rock Camp showcase takes place Friday, June 29, 6:30pm, at the Gibson Showroom, 3601 S. Congress Ste. G-400. Free.
1) There are ways to noodle in secret.
Top 6 Things I Learned at Camp
2) MySpace, the greatest social experiment ever and/or the downfall of the human race.
3) Teenage girls dress better than I do. I dress like a 13-year-old boy.
4) Blue October is really, really popular.
5) I kind of like that one Fall Out Boy song.
6) The words "BiPodding" and "multislacking" can have various uses.