Camp for rocker grrrls
In its second year, Girls Rock Sacramento expands to a weeklong camp for girls to plug in and rock out
It’s a hot Saturday afternoon when the members of Riddiance take the stage at Ace of Spades. Outside it’s blazing bright but inside the lights are dim, the crowd ready and the mood 100 percent rock ’n’ roll.
Haley Pierce, 14, adjusts her guitar, Shelby Kelso, 14, steadies herself behind the drums, and Haley Leming, 16, waits with her bass as Veronica Hankins, 16, steps up to the microphone. After a quick introduction from an emcee, the band launches into a post-punk riot grrrl-esque anthem with a hooky earworm of a chorus: “You can’t tell me what to say / I’m not your / not your babe.”
A few minutes later and they’re done. Just one song—but it’s executed with fevered polish and flawless delivery. The crowd erupts in cheers as the girls exchange smiles then hurry to make way for the next band, Summer Snow.
Less than a week ago these band members didn’t know each other, much less know how to play their instruments. Now, after five days in Girls Rock Sacramento, a day camp for teens, they’re seasoned rock stars.
Summer Snow finishes and local singer-songwriter Xochitl steps behind the mic. The 20-something musician can hardly contain her joy with the show.
“I’m a million years old and have played a million times,” she says. “But I loved this so much; these girls killed it.”
Go back in time 24 hours and the scene is decidedly more chaotic, with the campers working hard to prep for the spotlight. The members of Riddiance are cramming in a post-lunch practice in the multipurpose room at the Met Sacramento High School as other musicians put the finishing touches on silk-screened T-shirts. Nearby, several girls have grabbed hula hoops to blow off energy and nerves.
As the band makes its way through numerous false starts, the room swells with a girlish energy that roller-coasters between serious concentration and a gleeful sense of camaraderie forged through songwriting, missed notes and flubbed chords.
Finally, Riddiance plays the song in one take. Afterwards, a young girl balancing a hula hoop on her hips calls out to the band. “Your song is amazing,” she says. “I want more.”
That’s the same feeling Girls Rock Sacramento co-founder Emma Simpson remembers. She was 10 when she participated in her first camp in Portland, where the inaugural school launched under the name Rock ’n’ Roll Camp for Girls in 2007.
“I loved it and always wanted to do something here,” says the bassist, now 22.
Simpson found a kindred spirit in her one-time vocal coach Larisa Bryski, who had experience working with teens as the director for Skip’s Music’s annual Stairway to Stardom summer program. When Simpson asked if she was interested in launching a local Girls Rock chapter, Bryski didn’t hesitate.
“I just dropped everything I was doing,” Bryski says.
In 2016 the pair hosted two half-day sessions; one camp for preteens, the other for older girls. They finished with a show at Bryski’s studio space.
They enjoyed it so much they decided to expand to a full week. In addition to another minisession for preteens, this year’s camp brought together 22 girls, ages 12-16, for a week with coaches and volunteers to learn instruments and collaboration.
The women also received guidance on how to navigate what’s still a very male-dominated music world, with workshops on health and sexuality (the parents sign waivers), self esteem, self defense and body image.
“We want to stress empowerment,” Simpson says.
The same issues and stereotypes she faced when starting out persist today. Some of them are just annoyingly sexist: sound engineers who are surprised she can play or want to help lug her gear. Other concerns are more insistent: the real dangers a woman faces, for example, leaving a gig at night.
“Girls Rock gives young girls a place for empowerment,” Simpson says.
That empowerment, she adds, finds its strength in numbers.
“It takes so many women, a network of women,” she says.
It takes a rock ’n’ roll village: Girls Rock Sacramento is a fiscally sponsored nonprofit. Bryski and Simpson are working on obtaining independent 501(c)(3) status and would like to implement sliding-scale tuition. For now, the camp largely relies on the generosity of others. Tuition is $350 per student but doesn’t cover the entirety of operational expenses, Bryski says. To supplement, the team solicits donations and aid. The Met donated use of its space, local restaurants supplied free lunches and a volunteer squad of musicians and music-minded people led instruction.
A lot of work, but worth it. For X Spearmint’s Bella Bright, 14, and Rio Soluaga, 13, the camp’s been a totally not-boring way to make friends and try something new.
“My parents told me about the camp, they said it was run by girls and I said, ’Cool I’m in,’” Soluaga says. “Then they told me it’s just girls and I said, ’I’m definitely in.’”
Soluaga, who plays clarinet in her school’s marching band, now plays bass. Bright spent the week learning guitar.
“It’s cool, my fingers have gotten tougher,” she says, showing off the calloused pads of her fingers like trophies.
Unlike other similar camps, Girls Rock isn’t a contest. There are no judges, no prizes at the end.
This, Bryski says, is essential.
“I believe it takes a tremendous amount of pressure off of them,” she says. “They’re all so much more relaxed, it’s like, ’We’re all in this together, my girls are up front and onstage.”
Next summer Bryski and Simpson hope to expand to include workshops, simple hangout time and more campers—they’d love to grow it to 30 girls.
“The girls want more time to bond,” Bryski says. “They just want to spend more time together.”
Back in the multipurpose room, Liz Salmi watches this bonding in action and smiles. The former Luckie Strike drummer has spent the last week mentoring young drummers. She says it’s been a while since she played in a band—about 15 years, actually—and this week at camp has given her perspective.
“I wish there’d been something like this when I was [younger],” she says. “I only got the chance to play with boys, and when you’re playing with boys, you have to insert yourself into that boys’ club.”
Allie Bogetich, 14, says the camp’s given her confidence to explore making music on her own. The teen plays drums in her high school’s jazz band, now she wants to lead her own garage rock band.
“I already have a name for it—Sabertooth—and I’ve picked out the album art,” she says, pulling up a photo of a cat on her phone as evidence.
“This has been really fun,” Bogetich adds. “Chill, no pressure.”
That’s part of the magic, the organizers say.
“The girls are supportive of each other,” Bryski says. “Egos are put aside. They work out their challenges through songs.”
The next day at Ace of Spades, Girls Rock Sacramento’s 2017 season officially closes as any good camp does, with a sing-a-long. The stage fills with dozens of girls and volunteers, all holding hands, kumbaya-style, as their voices rise to fill the club.
“This is a place where we all belong,” they sing. “We rock!”