Feature | Girls Rock London

Girls Rock London, Wolf Alice, Ellie Rowsell, London rock camp, summer rock camp

What if you could go to school to learn how to be a rock star? A new rock camp called Girls Rock London is taking on the challenge. Making future rock stars of the capital’s girls at the same time as building their confidence, the initiative looks set to land soon in a county near you, and is gaining support from some high-profile figures

Girls Rock London: that’s the name of a new band camp that landed in London this summer – and all those involved proved the statement its name makes to be an unequivocal FACT.

It’s 10am. We’re assembling at East London’s Blue Studios – a real live working studio and rehearsal space – and in walks a horse. This isn’t a joke, and it’s not actually a horse; it’s someone wearing a rubber horse’s head. And it happens to be one of the girls signed up for this summer band camp.

School’s out, and it’s difficult to think of a better way for aspiring musicians to spend their summer holidays – particularly when it comes to girls who sometimes find it difficult to search out others like them keen on listening to, playing, writing, and performing rock music.

It’s one of those arenas that’s still not particularly school friendly, let alone girl friendly. When it comes to nourishing interests outside those expected for the gender, mainstream society isn’t always best placed to help.

That’s where Girls Rock London comes in. It’s a week-long, non-residential rock camp that’s part of a wider, global not-for-profit movement. It’s the brainchild of a group of women whose aim is to build a safe space for girls (and women – there’s an adult camp too) to learn the basics of playing instruments. Electric guitars, drums and keyboards are all on the menu alongside writing songs and performing. Above all, though, Girls Rock London is about building confidence.

Over the course of six days, the girls, aged from 11 to 16 (many of whom have no prior musical experience), will write and practice a song culminating in a live performance on the final day. They’ll receive professional tuition from a team of talented volunteers, and artists such as Wolf Alice’s Ellie Rowsell, Kate Nash and The Tuts will swing by to lend advice, give encouragement, perform and generally muck in.

TGA visits on Day Five, as the girls are putting the final touches to their compositions. This is how the day unfolds…

Girls Rock London assembly, 10am

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Enter the horse, and a crowd of other girls. I’m there with our photographer, and there are a couple of other new faces, including Wolf Alice’s Ellie Rowsell, present on this fifth day.

Assembly starts with taking a register of sorts but we’re not sat on the floor in rows like a traditional school assembly, we’re sitting in a circle on proper chairs. There are a couple of girls not there yet, but it’s no big deal. At GRL, there’s a policy of respect, and treating the girls like equals.

One of the organisers, Gez Smith, tells me that they actively try to create a space that isn’t like school.

She says, “It’s an environment that is truly safe and supported, with your peers but also where adults are treating you like a peer. Within reason. And are respecting you; listening to you. [It’s a place] where you make loads of your own choices and you have complete creative control over what you’re making. We don’t put any boundaries on their output apart from the instruments they have available to them.”

But that isn’t to say there’s no structure. In fact, every day is tightly structured with tutorials and practice sessions, as well as debriefing and sharing sessions to ensure the girls get the most they can from the six days they’re here.

Starting the day with assembly is a good way to introduce the day’s visitors, wake everybody up, drum up some enthusiasm and tell them about the day’s timetable.

It’s also key to bonding, since we’re immediately asked to pair up and make up a dance that we’ll perform two by two as we go round the circle learning and copying everybody else’s dance as we go.

Ellie looks as uncomfortable as I feel. I suspect the girls felt the same on Day One but by Day Two I guess they knew what was coming. By Day Five they’re (almost) embracing it. I’m partnered up with one of the organisers who’s relentlessly cheery and it’s infectious. I get involved, of course.

Band practice and crafting, 10.20am

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Despite the structure – there’s a hand-drawn timetable tacked to the wall showing the week’s activities – everything feels pretty loose and casual. The girls disperse once assembly finishes and I’m not entirely sure what’s going on. The timetable says something about ‘Band 5’ and ‘band photos’ but Gez reveals that the photo shoot is being moved to the afternoon.

The Tuts are also meant to be coming today but they’re now arriving later than planned. But it’s cool; everybody’s cool. There’s plenty still to be getting on with, and everybody seems to be doing something.

Girls have slinked off with their bands to rehearsal rooms with their tutors/coaches while other staff volunteers do admin or planning. Ellie’s got stuck into doing some art and crafts – she’s making a collage for them to use as a cover for a book they’re putting together. I sit down next to her and we chat.

“I was in America when I saw Girls Rock camps,” she says. “I‘d never heard of one being in England actually and so when I got home I thought I’d see if there was one in London, and this one came up. They said they were looking for volunteers and any old equipment so I said: ‘Do you need some help? I think it’s a cool idea and I’m around this summer’. So I stepped in.”

What a hero – how inspirational must it be for these girls to have what they’re doing validated by a real rock star, and one as cool as Ellie, I think.

“I remember doing music at school and you’d get into a group and go and make a song,” she adds. “They’d give you a theme and you’d go and make a song — but it wasn’t really rock. Everyone was making ballad-y pop things. I would have loved something like this: I wish they could have taken a more band-y route, rather than singer-songwriting.”

Band performance, 11.20am

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After a while, I spy Linda Buratto, guitarist for Kate Nash and frontperson for Echo Boom Generation. She’s absolutely buzzing – clearly loving the opportunity to help out and inspire – and tells me that at the moment, the girls are working on their songs but one of the bands is about ready to practice performing in front of an audience.

She leads us upstairs to one of the rehearsal rooms, and the band she’s mentoring who have called themselves The Plug. Earlier, Ellie helped one of the girls, Becky, out with her guitar so we’re all interested to see the results.

All the girls seem quite confident, and what they produce is something refreshingly raw and rhythmic with some pretty dark lyrics. It feels honest, and I can’t believe these girls have created this in just five days. Ellie jokes she wishes she’d recorded it so she can plagiarise it. At least, I think she’s joking.

Linda looks on proudly.

Break-cum-jamming session, 11.40am

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There’s a break and most of the girls actually use the time to practice some more or jam. Other girls chat and swap progress updates.

I poke my head into Studio 2 and see four girls singing together, sometimes harmonising, sometimes singing over one another, sometimes letting each other sing solo. They sing Ed Sheeran’s Take Me Into Your Loving Arms and they’re making it their own, and making some beautiful sounds.

Outside, there’s Chloe – the drummer from The Plug.

“I play piano and I thought I’d learn guitar here,” she says. “But when I got going I found I liked drums. It was hard at first because you use all your limbs but now I’m not really thinking about it – and I find that helps.”

The girls have 25 minutes with each instrument on the first day to help them decide which instrument they’d like to learn during the week. There are more girls like Chloe who have ended up learning a different instrument to the one they thought they’d prefer. Linda says most of the girls came in wanting to be vocalists.

Band performance, 12.15pm

Girls Rock London, Wolf Alice, Ellie Rowsell

Another of the bands, called BBCK – an acronym made up of the first initial of each band member’s name – is ready to show us what they’ve got.

We head upstairs again and they play us a song that’s more complicated than the last we heard and so they make more mistakes but once again we’re all impressed with the effort, talent and hard work that’s gone into creating this song.

I love the keyboard sounds and say as much. It sounds like John Carpenter meets Cliff Martinez.

Making band logos, 12.30pm

Practice has been continuing but some girls have come out of their rooms to work on their band names and logos – artwork is also something they’ll have to think about in a band. Some of them have strong ideas but they discuss them maturely and without squabbling, which impresses me.

One girl wanders over and says, “I don’t like my voice.”

Ellie responds, “As long as other people like your voice, that’s what matters.”

Ellie admits to being nervous about performing after lunch, which I think is good for the girls to hear. She’s normally on stage with her band and isn’t used to performing solo.

Ellie Rowsell performs, 1pm

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It’s lunchtime. The studios have a restaurant and everybody breaks for food, which is falafals. When we’re done, Ellie steps up to the microphone with her guitar and prepares to sing two songs.

She starts with a song she wrote when she was 18 called Heavenward. “That’s my sad song about a friend,” she says afterwards.

The second is Wolf Alice’s Bros: “That’s my more cheerful one about friends. You only need to know two chords and once have had a friend or not have ever had a friend and then you can write a song. That’s what we did. I’ve made half a career out of that anyway!”

She sticks around for a Q&A session, which you can read in full below.

Band photos, 2pm

Girls Rock London, Wolf Alice, Ellie Rowsell

After lunch, it’s time for the rearranged band photos which everyone’s looking forward to. We get some very cool shots of the bands – including Chen & The Ears and Kamio, bands we haven’t yet heard.

After this, it’s a craft session so people can finish off their band artwork ahead of the last-day party. Gez says it’s been astonishing to witness the difference in the girls from Day 1 to Day 5.

“We know they’re getting confidence from it,” she says. “I guess it’s not musical confidence that they’re really after but just a feeling that they can try something, fail, try again and work with a team to do something that might have seemed unreachable before.”

As a feminist space, Gez says that at its heart, the camp teaches that there is another way that you can be as a woman. And it teaches this within a space that is free from associations and that, crucially, isn’t a cliché.

“You can see them gradually realising this, and they start to open up,” she says. “They realise there’s no negativity here. But that doesn’t mean that they’re not allowed to say things about bad stuff in their lives. Quite a few have opened up about things that are going on with them. Just to know that they’re not judged for a week about anything to do with their appearance or anything like that [is invaluable]. We see them as individuals and we show them respect.”

Party time, 3.30pm

Last. Day. Party. A time to relax and socialise with one another. They also link up live with the sister camp in Utah via Skype – it’s also the first time they’ve ever held Girls Rock there. Each camp plans to sing their camp song to one another (which I actually learned earlier in the day).

A chance to share, 4.20pm

Everyone gets back into a circle, in the way that we started this morning, for a more structured chance to share experiences from the day’s events. This happens every day and is a great way to consolidate learning and for the girls to get updates on how their peers have been getting on.

Round up, 5pm

A final debrief takes the camp to the end of the day ahead of tomorrow’s final performances. Meanwhile, the organising team start looking ahead to next year…

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Wolf Alice’s Ellie Rowsell – Q&A

How did you find performing today?

It was really nervewracking and I don’t really like doing anything alone so I’m quite jealous of what you guys are getting up to here – because hopefully you’ll come away and keep in touch with the people you’ve met here.

I always wanted to be in a band with girls and I just couldn’t find any that played instruments or liked rock music or whatever. And with Girls Rock London and this kind of thing, hopefully you will be able to find people who are brought together by stuff like this, and hopefully you’ll be playing festivals with me in a few years’ time and I can actually hang out with some girls for once.

Who is your favourite musician or band?

I don’t know. I don’t tend to have favourites in anything but when I was younger I loved The Moldy Peaches. That’s probably where I got the ‘Oh, I can be in a band’ from, because I think they only know two chords as well. And I loved the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Karen O is a big inspiration for me. And Nirvana, I loved. I don’t have favourites, that’s a hard question.

Are a lot of your songs about personal experiences?

Yeah. And I think when I started writing music it was all personal – about friendships and boyfriends that I didn’t have and stuff like that. Now I start to read books or watch movies and if they inspire me then I take other people’s experiences and write about that. Maybe because I’ve said alI wanted to say so far. I don’t know why but that can be fun too. It’s good to seek, look elsewhere other than just yourself and your thoughts sometimes.

When did you start playing guitar?

I started playing guitar when I was about 14 but I never really nurtured it or sought to become really good or anything. I just used it as a tool to write songs. One day I would quite like to learn it properly.

How do you write songs with Wolf Alice?

We don’t have a set way but we all like writing so sometimes one of us will have written one by ourselves and then teach it to the others, or sometimes we’ll be in a rehearsal room like you guys have been doing this week, just jamming and bringing different things to the table. There’s no right way to do it. You just have fun with it.

Were you in any other bands?

No. I’d never been in a band before but I always made music on my computer and put it online or made cringey YouTube videos of myself singing and put them on the internet. And I went to open mic nights. I did that for two years but it wasn’t a band as such, it was just to practice.

You can register your interest for next year and find out all you need to know about this camp and the women’s camp by visiting the website here.

Kim Taylor-Foster

@k_imbot

Photos by Gem Hall

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