It’s Women’s History Month, and we’re picking the brains of bold, powerful women who represent our future. Today, meet the woman who started Girlschool–an all-womxn music festival and community–Anna Bulbrook.
Throughout time, we’ve counted on a small number of community leaders to push things forward, break perceptions, and bring change. And ladies, the past two years have been pivotal. We’ve seen–and struggled with, and spoken out against, and called shit out on–issues that have been pressing, and still continue to press womankind. It’s change that we want to champion throughout this month, while celebrating those who are propelling us into a far better future. So throughout March, we are focusing what matters to us most, right now: groundbreaking, culture-shifting, era-defying, and straight up goals women.
By Tiyana Grulovic
Photos by Maya Fuhr
First and foremost, a confession: Anna Bulbrook–founder of Girlschool, haver of the sharpest bangs in the biz–is a friend. The kind of friend who is humbling in her resolve, her drive, and her purpose. So this interview might be skewed from the perspective of someone who adores her. What’s not skewed, however, is the success that Anna’s female and female-identifying project has enjoyed over the past year–from a surprise performance by Fiona Apple at the latest annual festival, to an outpost at SXSW, to a million other schemes and partnerships that will put Girlschool front and center this year. To add to that, a real, live, supportive community of women–who connect over a love of music, life advice, job opportunities, exposure or, if you’re like me, a lot of motivational night walks around the Silver Lake reservoir. We caught up with Anna to discuss her life as a reformed classical musician-turned-entrepreneur, creating a pro-womxn space, and her contagious, irrational optimism.
First of all, how weird is it that I’m interviewing you?
Weirdly not that weird. I’ll have to interview you next!
You started Girlschool while you were still a musician–you’d been in bands for the better part of your professional career. How did you come up with the concept of a female-fronted festival?
Girlschool is a direct reaction to my decade in a successful male-fronted indie/alternative rock band. Now that I get to be around and support so many incredible women through music, when I think back to how few women were around for almost the entire time we toured and recorded over the last 11 years, it’s actually shocking. The first few years of my band life, I wasn’t thinking about gender or inclusivity. I was caught up in the drama of making it, of getting along with my bandmates. It was fun, and surreal, and also a survival game! But once it was calm enough for me to look around and take stock, I realized exactly how few women were around. It’s legitimately bizarre that there aren’t more women playing in, writing, producing, and performing music at a high level. Especially in the alternative radio space. So: Girlschool is this beautiful, mutually-supportive, varied dream community of women-identified artists, leaders, and do-ers that I didn’t know I was missing for the longest time.
“Girlschool is this beautiful, mutually-supportive, varied dream community of women-identified artists, leaders, and do-ers that I didn’t know I was missing for the longest time.”
How has your experience in music contributed to developing a festival?
Well, I’ve been a professionally-trained classical violinist since I was four, and have spent ten or eleven years in band life—so, I’ve definitely lived a few different lifetimes in music. Having an artist’s perspective makes me a better advocate for other artists, and 1000% makes me a better festival producer, because if you can make a space for artists to feel good and shine, that carries into everyone’s experience, including the audience. I also set the bar high for what I expect from people participating in Girlschool. I know what it’s like to be an artist but be professional at the same time, and I know what it’s like to be asked to give your best in less than ideal circumstances. And as a violinist (and now as a festival producer) I’ve worked with some really incredible, wild talents who are such beautiful, wonderful people. I’ve also worked with a few less-awesome people over the years, and life’s just too short to lift up jerks! We expect artists and audiences alike to arrive at Girlschool with nothing but mutual respect and support. Our community, its well-being and its artistry, and our end-goal of changing the world a little bit more every year are far too important to settle for anything less.
How has Girschool evolved from that first moment?
It’s grown a lot over the years, and it’s pushed me to grow with it. Like a lot of people who step into this pro-womxn space, I started this thing coming from my own experience, which was mostly with white guys, and my own community of east-LA indie rock and indie pop artists. Which is a loving, fantastic, talented group of people—but is also a pretty white, pretty genre-specific scene. As Girlschool has grown and gotten better at being Girlschool, we keep making sure that the very intentional community we are creating is also representative, intersectional, and I think as a result, also much better and more interesting curatorially. And of course, the lineup has gone from being a very DIY “some of the best of the local East Side bands” lineup to having living legends involved in the festival, like Carrie Brownstein, Fiona Apple, Shirley Manson, Karen O, and future legends Morgan Parker, Phoebe Bridgers, and Leikeli47—so there are some very concrete ways that Girlschool has grown, too.
You had Shirley Manson and Fiona Apple play together at the Bootleg at the last festival. That was so surreal to me. But you also brought together all of these unexpected pairings–Kristin Kontrol, a children’s choir, and Karen O shared a stage. How did you rally all of these incredible women together?
When I asked Kristin Kontrol to play, and she came back to me with the idea of playing with a little kid-band, all I had to do was say “Yes!” And trust her vision. And when Karen O and Best Coast agreed to join them, that was all Kristin, too. I had a bit more to do with the Fiona and Shirley love-fest, but honestly, the women who perform at Girlschool are there because they want to be. It just shows how hungry people at all levels of the music industry are for this kind of interconnected community and peer connection—not just the up-and-comers, but the veteran artists like Karen O and Bethany Cosentino, as well. It feels good to connect, and it makes a measurable difference.
You know, my band played KROQ’s Weenie Roast one year, which is the annual alternative radio show at a big amphitheater in LA, and I think the only other women who might have appeared on stage that year were Karen O and Nikki from Silversun Pickups out of 12 bands or however many bands performed that day. That’s how extreme the lack of women in alternative rock is. And this stark lack of a community—of a real, vibrant, network and an inclusive sisterhood—reaches all the way up the ladder to people like Fiona and Shirley and Karen O. Did you know neither Shirley nor Fiona had ever played with an all-women ensemble before they walked into Girlschool rehearsal, with an ensemble of 25 women in one rehearsal room? It’s just insane. But I promise you they’ve both played with all-male ensembles a million times.
The loneliness that women in music experience is universal across all levels of success.
To me, Girlschool feels more like a living community that supports each other continuously rather than just an annual event. Was that something you’ve consciously nurtured or were you surprised that it happened?
When you start something for other people (and yes, for myself, too!) you are by default in service to what the community needs and wants. Women artists in LA knew each other and collaborated before Girlschool existed, but I think having a space to bring people together on a greater scale has pushed people closer and closer to being a real scene. The social outcome of Girlschool here in LA has already far surpassed what I ever imagined, and we’re only in year 3! But yes, we do try to keep the community alive and well throughout the year, both with public events, and behind-the-scenes within the informal network that has sprung up around us.
On that note, why is it important for women to support each other? How can we all do our parts, or do them better?
Well, for one: when women connect and share stories with each other, we all do better. It’s measurable. Salaries go up. Opportunities are shared and created. The experience of walking around on the planet identified as a womxn brings some universalities that transcend any other identity differences between us. We are taught that we have to compete for limited opportunities, and that we aren’t collegial or collaborative. We are taught that we aren’t leaders. That’s such bullshit. Because when we help each other, when we lead each other, when we lead culture at large, when we set higher standards for ourselves and for the world around us, we are powerful! We can reprogram our culture and create more opportunities for us all. More is more. This has been my experience within Girlschool, anyway.
“We are taught that we have to compete for limited opportunities, and that we aren’t collegial or collaborative. We are taught that we aren’t leaders. That’s such bullshit.”
The other thing that’s really important and is often overlooked by white women stepping into this space, is that all feminist efforts must be inclusive, intersectional, and thoughtful of the experiences of others. Yes, it’s challenging to look outside yourself; it takes work and listening. It’s hard to ask questions and do your homework, and you’re 100% going to make mistakes on the way. We also live in a time where people destroy other people on social media if you make one misstep, so it can be intimidating to go there and to try to get better at relating to the world around you. But you have to challenge yourself to do better both in how you perceive and relate to other womxn, and also how you frame your own experience. White privilege is real, and while you’re not at fault for the privileges you’re born with, you do need to look around you and understand the landscape to have any hope of altering it.
I also think the project of making a more equal world needs to include men. We need everyone to be on board to succeed!
I know we’ve spent many night walks discussing your moving from music to nurturing this business. Was that jump scary for you, and why?
This jump has been a battle for me on every level, from how I write emails (goodbye, all-lower-case-artist-email-style) to how I identify with myself (hello, person with two souls) to the basic stuff of how I make money, what I do with my time, what it’s like to actually be home in the city I live in, what it’s like to will an imagined future into reality every day. It’s incredibly creative and exhilarating, when I’m not facing down this fear or that entrepreneurial emergency. But it wasn’t like one day I woke up and everything changed overnight—I’ve been pulled into this slow build for a couple of years now. So while yes, it feels crazy, it also feels inevitable and natural at the same time.
What has been the most valuable thing you’ve learned along the way?
The things that you think are your weaknesses can be your greatest strengths.
It helps to be irrationally optimistic.
Keep putting one foot in front of the other. The little strides add up.
Learning and trying new things is the most humbling and challenging thing for a recovering perfectionist—and it’s basically all I do all day long.
And yeah, making something out of nothing that doesn’t quite fit any model you’ve seen before isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s the hardest and most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.
“I hope Girlschool will be synonymous with unfuckwithable social and artistic integrity, and with extreme excellence—that happens to be created by womxn.”
What’s your vision for the future of Girlschool?
Girlschool everywhere! In different cities, with teaching programs, on tour. I’d like to see it become a system for success that can create ever higher-level professional opportunities for women-identified people to shine and grow and connect. The greatest success of Girlschool will be if we can help move our artists forward outside of Girlschool, in the mainstream. Or become the mainstream. But for now and forever, I hope Girlschool will be synonymous with unfuckwithable social and artistic integrity, and with extreme excellence—that happens to be created by womxn.