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Girlschool showcases a pop community that's 'built on women’s excellence'

On the morning of Saturday’s women’s march in Los Angeles, the heads of the music-promotion collective Girlschool met at Eightfold Coffee in Echo Park. The crowds were already overwhelming – Metro buses and trains were packed to capacity with protesters.

So they walked down Sunset Boulevard, taking in the hundreds of thousands of women, men and children all marching toward City Hall in support of women's rights.

“We were planning to go casually, but then just about 100% of people we knew were down there,” said Anna Bulbrook, Girlschool’s founder, multi-instrumentalist for the Airborne Toxic Event and frontwoman of her own band the Bulls.

“Cars were cheering the people as they walked by,” said Jasmine Lywen-Dill, Girschool’s co-lead. “It reinforced why we’re doing all this.”

Bulbrook agreed: “We have to point all of this in a positive direction that’s built on women’s excellence.”

This weekend, Girlschool’s eponymous festival will try to showcase what that excellence looks like in practice.

The fest, which happens Friday through Sunday at the Bootleg Theater in Westlake, is a bill of all-female or non-binary fronted acts, production staff, panelists and (mostly female) talent bookers. Few headliners sound alike: acts range from the harsh noise dirges of Chelsea Wolfe to the loungey electropop of the Bird and the Bee and the campy rap antagonism of Boyfriend.

Where the women’s march was diffuse in protesting the current administration, Girlschool’s festival will attempt to imagine what a female-centered music culture looks like on the ground.

Bulbrook founded the organization with Lywen-Dill a year and a half ago as their discussions on the lack of female acts on festival bills and local clubs began to escalate. Bulbrook plays in a successful, major-label rock band, but even after a decade on the road, she says she was still frequently undermined or dismissed by venue staff, and felt disappointed to always end up playing with “the same five women at every rock festival.”

Girlschool wasn’t meant to be a master plan to fix it, but as they booked local concerts and produced their first mini-fests, the need for such a local support system became more obvious and urgent.  

“People think [all-female bills] are gimmicky or that the quality is low because it’s all women. So we wanted to build an alternate social economy,” she said. “If our voices aren’t being heard in the mainstream, we wanted to find each other and help build a critical mass.”

“Women in music always have to double-prove themselves,” said Val Fleury, who DJs on Sunday. “[Girlschool] is about taking control of the narrative — you don’t want us to play your festival? We’ll just put on our own, and it’ll be even more fun.”

The lineup, on its own, is a compelling weekend of music, evoking the early days of FYF Fest – an outsider’s vision for a local subculture that arrived right on time. But as the scope of Girlschool grew, so too did the founders’ need to more directly address the social-justice issues they were alluding to in their music and format.

“I don’t think you can be in a band without a message anymore,” said Kyle Wilkerson, a talent buyer for the festival and for the Bootleg Theater (and one of Girlschool’s few male staffers).

Pearl Charles, a country-rock singer-songwriter performing Saturday, agreed that the election made it imperative for female artists to speak out. “Now more than ever, people need to open up to that energy,” she said. “It seems way more pressing now to think about what I have to say politically. We’d gotten too comfortable for too long.”

The range of talks cover the day-to-day issues of being non-male in music, with sessions on the production software Ableton, women in music media and talks from Soundgirls.org, an organizing group for female audio engineers. Garbage’s Shirley Manson will kick off the weekend with a keynote speech, and the whole fest raises funds for Rock N’ Roll Camp for Girls L.A.

But some of the more philosophical panel sessions – “Radical Aliveness,” “Intersectional Feminism in Music” – aim to broaden the scope of how music affects peoples’ lives and self-perception.

“If you see that there’s a need for something, others probably see that need too,” said Dannielle Owens-Reid, who is moderating a panel dubbed “Queer and Trans-Woman Discussion on Sexualization and Media.”

“Change has to happen on a small scale too,” said Owens-Reid, “like supporting women-owned businesses. In entertainment, women are so often pitted against each other in some way, and there isn’t any of that here.“

For the artists on the bill, playing something like Girlschool is not just novel – they see it as especially necessary in the wake of Donald Trump having been elected and sworn in as president. And not just as a salve and a weekend among friends, but as a flashpoint for organizing and finding new ways to advocate as women’s rights again are being debated on Capitol Hill.

“I’ve been struggling to figure out how I can make an impact, because things are just so unbelievable right now,” said Chelsea Wolfe, the singer-songwriter whose mix of ethereal textures and black-metal moods may prove a natural fit for this moment in music.

Wolfe attended the Oakland women’s march with her mom, and the intergenerational aspect of it helped her understand that craving for connection right now – to art, and to other women.

“More and more, music means everything to me,” she said. “This fest is important because it encourages women and non-binary people to find purpose in art. I know I could have used that when I was younger.”

For breaking music news, follow @augustbrown on Twitter.

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UPDATES:

4:15 p.m.: This article has been updated with quotes from artists scheduled to perform at Girlschool.

This article was originally published at 2 p.m.

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