Anna Bullbrook, co-founder of GIRLSCHOOL, an ever-growing collective of musicians, advocates and music industry veterans dedicated to empowering women in the arts through peer programming, events and mentorship opportunities. The GIRLSCHOOL mastermind discusses her past life with the Airborne Toxic Event, her future with her women-focused festival and artistic collective, and why fear shouldn’t hold you back ever.
The musician Anna Bulbrook is, by her own admission, a “recovering violinist.” It took a while for the classically-trained musician — who’s been playing the violin since age 4 — to shake the idea that music was a rigid professional pursuit. Then, a chance opportunity led to her playing violin with Kanye West on, erm, the side of a mountain in Aspen. “I had a life-changing moment where I realized: ‘Oh, you can play violin like this? Oh this is super cool! Oh, music can be really fun?’” she says. “There was this really beautiful way to communicate with people and share an experience that didn’t have to be playing a violin concerto. In fact, it was a lot more accessible to a lot more people if it wasn’t a classical concerto.”
While Bulbrook still performs in orchestras — she performed in a live scoring of the movie “Moonlight” the night before we chatted over the phone — the native East Coaster has since become a fixture of Los Angeles’s ever-burgeoning indie rock scenes, performing in the likes of The Airborne Toxic Event and then Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros.
While Bulbrook says she’d been enjoying relative scheduling freedoms that the relentless album/touring cycle didn’t allow for, she had a revelation several years ago, while sitting on a panel at Rock’n’Roll Camp for Girls LA, that turned her life around. “I think I was in tears almost the entire time: It was really this all-women utopia and women taking risks, making music, being really supportive of one another, playing things that sounded terrible before it sounds good, then creating this very positive environment for risk-taking and imperfection,” she says.
"You just see girls flourish and blossom and become powerful little human beings. I felt so inspired by them, intimidated by their fearlessness and envious that they had this experience when they were so young.”
in August 2015, Bulbrook and her band, The Bulls, were in the midst of putting together a residency at the Satellite for the release of their EP “Small Problems.” She then had a radical idea: “Hey, instead of making a shoegaze festival, let’s make it all women-fronted. Wouldn’t that be cool? Let’s call it something.” That idea became GIRLSCHOOL (not to be confused with the English metal band of the same name), an ever-growing collective of musicians, advocates and music industry veterans dedicated to empowering women-identified people in the arts through peer programming, events and mentorship opportunities. “I realized there was a hunger for this kind of thing. Not just coming from me, but coming from all of my women peers making music,” Bulbrook says. “We all kind of thought, ‘Whoa: Now that this is here, I want it all the time.’”
What started as a one-off event soon sprawled into a festival in January 2016. Now in its second year, GIRLSCHOOL Festival featured performances from the likes of Chelsea Wolfe, Deap Vally and the Chilean rock star Francisca Valenzuela in Los Angeles. GIRLSCHOOL 2.0 is putting a huge focus on the minutiae of music-making, which is why a crew of all-women sound engineers, production designers and lighting designers will be on site.
“In rock music — especially alternative music — I can only speak anecdotally from my experience, and my experience is that there are almost no women around who are performing most of the time,” she says.
GIRLSCHOOL is out to, well, school these archaic notions. Bulbrook has big plans to expand GIRLSCHOOL’s year-round programming this year, too, and hopes to become involved in more festivals, talks, panels and live Q&As with artists across the cities. Not to mention her aspirations for GIRLSCHOOL’s classes to begin in other cities, as well. “I mean, it’s really growing into this behemoth,” she says cryptically. “There are other things in the fire I can’t share yet. TBA: Get excited.”
Three great pieces of advice Anna got and followed:
If you can think of it, fucking do it.
“The first one is one I say to myself and I started to adopt it as a rule when I actually started to do things that have been the most challenging and exciting things: If you can think of it, fucking do it. Boiled down to do things.”
Fear and excitement are two parts of the same thing.
“My second one is one that…as GIRLSCHOOL grows and I’m stepping into new spaces, playing violin in a band got very comfortable for me after awhile, I notice that every time I grow or take a step forward, I can feel a little fear. And so this is sort of a two parter: Fear and excitement are two parts of the same thing. And the other part of it is you know you’re doing something right in taking some risks if you’re feeling some fear. It’s positive emotion if you look at it that way. If you can transmute that into excitement, you can actually enjoy the experience of growing and being challenged a little bit more.”
Get clear with yourself first.
“Three is something I’m learning about leadership right now: Get clear with yourself and who you are and what you want and need first. And then it makes making decisions and talking to people and asking others to join you much easier.”