Lunchtime at the Rock n’ Roll Camp for Girls Los Angeles is when campers get the chance to watch guest artists perform for inspiration.
Anna Bulbrook, multi-instrumentalist of the L.A. indie group the Bulls, visited the camp with her new band to play and answer questions. But it was Bulbrook who ended up staying for four hours to listen to girls, ages 8 to 17, get onstage for the first time and perform with a fearlessness that would make Bono quiver.
“It made me think a lot about where you start to play music,” said Bulbrook, 32, later at a bar in Silver Lake. The singer-songwriter’s dimpled smile couldn’t stay as straight as her bleached-blond hair as she spoke of the experience. “If there were more role models, just women playing instruments, it wouldn’t be a big deal, and we would never think about it.”
Bulbrook and her band’s experience at the summer camp inspired her recent move with the Bulls. The band is behind an August residency at the Satellite in Silver Lake aptly titled #GIRLSCHOOL. Any band that plays during the residency (which runs each Monday through Aug. 31) must be female-fronted.
On the first night of #GIRLSCHOOL, presented by KROQ’s Locals Only, Bulbrook recalled walking backstage and seeing the male backing musicians seemingly nervous and out of place among the numerous frontwomen preparing to perform. It was a vivid reminder of the role reversal that the event was fostering.
“I was excited to do this residency, and yet it still showed me,” said Bulbrook.
In an era when the progress of gender inclusivity wrestles with the suppression of a male-dominated past, indie music, especially rock, continues to be a genre in which the voices on terrestrial radio and headlining major festivals are resoundingly male. The Bulls’ #GIRLSCHOOL creates a celebration of female voices, from those local and national, that challenge the genre’s status quo.
Bulbrook grew up playing classical violin outside of Boston, then moved to Los Angeles at 21. Once here she was thrust into the indie-rock spotlight when her band the Airborne Toxic Event landed on alternative radio stations and festival bills off the strength of the single “Sometime Around Midnight.” While Bulbrook had discovered a unique position as the violinist of a rock ‘n’ roll band, she found a similar distinctiveness in being the sole woman in the band and in festival lineups.
“Most of the time, we’re at alternative radio festivals with Airborne, and I’ll be one of two or three women on a 20-band lineup,” Bulbrook said. “It’s kind of nice to be the unicorn, because you’re memorable. But then sometimes it sucks to be the unicorn, because you’re lonely.”
Bulbrook juggles vocals, guitar and violin in her role as frontwoman for the Bulls. Marc Sallis of the Duke Spirit is on lead guitar. Somewhere in the middle of Sallis’ history of playing in rock bands and Bulbrook’s love of everything indie, the Bulls’ brand of shoegaze rock was married in the duo’s overlapping tastes of dreamy new wave and loud guitars.
Along with bassist Adam Arcos and drummer Amy Wood, the band visited the Rock n’ Roll Camp for Girls last month in downtown L.A. Bulbrook noticed how nervous Sallis and Arcos were performing in front of the campers, and felt uplifted by the experience of encouraging more women to communicate their ideas through song.
“It was really just an amazing experience, like Disneyland for music, with a bunch of girls expressing themselves and cutting loose in this magical and powerful way,” Bulbrook said. “It inspired the '#GIRLSCHOOL’ idea in a deep way, because it was so positive.”
#GIRLSCHOOL’s final two nights will include the Bulls’ supporting acts, including synth-pop locals Lex and Cellars on Monday and indie-electro heroines White Sea and Ana Rezende of CSS on Aug. 31. The last night of the residency will also double as the album release party for the Bulls’ debut EP, “Small Problems,” which will be released Aug. 28.
Beyond the frontwomen, #GIRLSCHOOL has also spotlighted female backing musicians, including Wood, who performed three consecutively diverse sets with Pony Boy, Conway and the Bulls on Aug. 10. These performances signal the importance of the residency for Cecilia Della Peruti, who leads the Echo Park-based psych-pop band Gothic Tropic, who played the residency on Monday.
“This residency sheds light on the fact that we’re all there. We’ve been there for years,” Della Peruti said. “It’s about the female artists writing the songs, putting together the band, leading the project and being the director rather than just the keyboardist and drummer.”
Morgan Kibby, a force behind the French synth-pop group M83, is performing on Aug. 31 with her solo project, White Sea.
"#GIRLSCHOOL is a brilliant idea on a symbolic girl-power level, but on a deeper level, I love the sense of community it brings to L.A. bands,” Kibby wrote in an email. “It’s a testament to the way Anna thinks.”
Bulbrook said her years as part of Airborne Toxic Event’s songwriting process helped her hone a skill that was not necessarily encouraged during her years learning to play the violin.
“You’d be surprised how much you absorb when you’re part of someone’s songwriting process,” Bulbrook said. “I guess it never occurred to me to write songs until one day I did.”
A few years ago, she started by writing joke songs, including tunes about her parents’ cat, to get comfortable with the songwriting process.
Bulbrook’s watershed moment came when she wrote a song for a friend, an unreleased track called “Prudence,” in which she imitated the deep vocals of David Bowie.
“The key moment was when I discovered I had a low voice that I was OK with. That’s when the Bulls were born,” she said.
Working within her constraints as a vocalist, the new singer-songwriter found herself writing a melancholic lullaby with bombastic guitar chords, “Come Unwound,” which would go on to become the Bulls’ debut single in October 2014.
“Suddenly, one day, she just found her voice,” Sallis said. “It was there in that Nico, deep, very unique sound in her voice. That was the moment I said, ‘This is it. We can move forward.’”
The “Small Problems” EP finds Sallis and Bulbrook playing every instrument except the drums.
“I feel like it’s songwriting by any means necessary,” Bulbrook said. “Whatever it takes to get the song to sound great, I’m down. I’ll do it.”
Over time the band’s material has evolved from early songs with fuzzy guitars to more synth-driven numbers.
The Bulls will head back into the studio in September and October to work on their first full-length album.
The #GIRLSCHOOL residency has given her a venue to test out new material for the upcoming album.
“A chance to listen to your music through someone else’s ears and eyes is such an incredible thing,” Bulbrook said. “It’s really informative and enriching in terms of how you process your own music.”
But whether it’s turning down all-male bands she happens to love or hearing the vibrant offers of female-led bands from around the country, Bulbrook said #GIRLSCHOOL’s most potent effect is how personal the residency has become for her.
“Once we committed to doing the #GIRLSCHOOL angle, it really started to feel important to me in a deep way,” Bulbrook said. “It wasn’t just a chance for the Bulls to grow. I thought of the mission quickly, and then I realized afterward how much it meant to me.”