The Girlschool Music and Ideas Festival is the brainchild of Anna Bulbrook, violinist and member of Airborne Toxic Event and The Bulls, born after Bulbrook experimented with an all-female fronted lineup for her residency at the Satellite. Soon after, the first Girlschool festival was thrown at its current home, The Bootleg Theater in Silverlake, and the rest is history.
Now in its third year running, this year’s festival showcased the growth of Girlschool into the view of the mainstream, attracting attention with high profile special guests like Karen O and Fiona Apple. In addition, the current social climate in regards to gender politics gave this year’s festival a special significance, inspiring unavoidable politicization of the weekend’s activities. Still, the main focus was on scouring the independent scene for diverse female talent, from musicians to speakers, and bringing them to the forefront. The staggered schedule allowed the crowd to give every artist their full and much-deserved attention, and the lineup offered something for everyone to enjoy, from reggae to indie rock to rap backed by burlesque dancers. If you didn’t make it to at least one day of this innovative festival, you missed out. Thankfully, GUM was there to observe the greatest moments of Girlschool 2018.
“I’m like a closed-toe shoe person, heartwise,” said Carrie Brownstein, in regards to LA’s flip flop culture, kicking off the first day of the festival in a panel discussion led by poet Morgan Parker. What followed was a frank conversation about growing up in LA, fitting oneself into culture of one’s city, expressing one’s feelings honestly, and even a short digression into interpreting each other’s astrological signs. Parker said it best when she answered her own question about how she was feeling, saying that she was alright, but noting that “alright” pretty much blows the top off of the feelings scale in this day and age.
Desi Mo the Dogg kicked off the music portion of the festival with a heaping serving of badassery. Wearing a “Rap like a Girl” sweatshirt and space buns, Desi Mo and her two backing ladies left it all on the table, paying homage to Jay-Z’s “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” by proclaiming “Ladies is pimps too / Go and brush your shoulders off.” She even went as far to perform her single “Bitch Boy” twice, just to drive the message home.
Following this was a dose of ambient electronica in the form of Drum and Lace, a musical project from Italian composer Sofia Hultquist. Her set came complete with two dancers who interpreted the music in physical form, adding a touch of the dramatic to the already epic sound. Included in her set was her brand new single “Snakeskin,” which added a bit of lyricism to the expansive soundscape. NYC native Cuesta Loeb was next to take the stage, filling the Bootleg with her haunting combination of 90s grunge and dream pop. The excitement only increased when she pulled out a ukulele, amid roaring approval from the crowd.
A high point of the night was when Kristin Kontrol took the stage with her band the Kidz, consisting of a consortium of talented female musicians, all under the age of twelve. Just when the crowd’s collective heart was about to explode from the sheer purity of it all, the Kidz were joined on stage by LA duo Best Coast to perform a rendition of “When I’m With You,” followed by none other than Karen O, performing the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s somewhat less kid-friendly “Date with the Night.”
Marian Mereba was next to perform, melding soul with reggae beats. In “September,” she wrapped her silky voice around poetic lyrics like, “You used to turn me on, so on / ‘cause your love was a drug that I stuck in my veins.”
Wrapping up Friday night was the rapper known solely as Boyfriend, bedecked in her usual hair rollers and 1950s librarian glasses. Boyfriend’s highly entertaining set featured multiple costume changes, including a wedding dress, a raincoat and umbrella, and an apron with rubber gloves, as well as outrageously oversized props. For songs like “Jealousy,” she was joined by beautiful dancers performing burlesque as part of her “rap cabaret.” Boyfriend’s absolute commitment to never breaking character, combined with multiple killer freestyle raps, had the audience bowing down until the moment when she finished her last song “Tomorrow” by feigning death in the middle of the crowd.
Girlschool’s Saturday music lineup was kicked off by NYC duo Lesser Pieces, who performed a set of understated electronic beats injected with subliminal coolness. Following this was Pinky Pinky, a trio of baby-faced young women fresh out of high school with a grungy sound well beyond their years. They ended their set of hard-hitting garage rock with “Ram Jam,” a catchy single from their debut self titled EP, to uproarious applause.
Slowing the night back down to a more contemplative pace was solo harpist Mary Lattimore, who put a spin on the classical harp sound by making use of a looping pedal. What resulted were rich compositions with layer upon layer of detailed textures, bringing a deep hush to the attentive crowd. Twin sisters Nick and Navi brought the night back to a head with their short, but high energy set of reggae inspired dance music. Smiling and laughing their way through each song, the sisters brought pure joy to the stage, even giving the crowd a short lesson on reggae dancing.
Non-gender binary indie rocker A.W. took the stage with their band shortly thereafter, filling the room with their amiable and unassuming presence. They kicked off their set with the announcement, “We play a bunch of songs about love and anxiety,” and filled in all the spaces between songs with charming anecdotes about growing up trying to be punk while secretly listening to Britney Spears. They even claimed to have gotten inspiration for the song “Back to Me” from thoroughly dissecting Mariah Carey’s “Always Be My Baby.”
Akua performed solo with nothing but a backing track, seeming to come from a vintage looking stereo on a side table next to her. On top of an ambient soundscape, she layered her soulful voice, creating a muted, melancholic sound that left the audience quietly gazing on. Dirty Projectors’ former vocalist Amber Coffman was up next, and she showcased her unique blend of cross genre elements, including soulful singing, reggae beats, jazz organ, and electronic synth, just to name a few. The crowd went wild for her performance of “Get Free,” the Major Lazer song that featured her vocals.
Faarrow, made up of Somalian-born sisters Iman and Siham Hashi, brought playful energy and beautiful vocal harmonies to their set of hip hop influenced world pop music. Having escaped the Somali civil war as children, the sisters’ performance held all the courage and positivity of an incredibly bright future.
Headlining the second night of Girlschool was Shirley Manson, joined by a full string section in addition to the traditional rock outfit. The emotional set brought new life to some of Garbage’s greatest hits, including “What Girls Are Made Of,” “Only Happy When It Rains,” and “Cherry Lips,” made even more poignant with backing vocals from the “Girlschool Choir,” which included fellow Girlschool performers. The melding of so many beautiful female voices was enough to bring the crowd to tears, and this feeling was only amplified when surprise guest Fiona Apple appeared on stage. Wearing a hand-drawn “Kneel, Portnow” shirt, in reference to the recent scandalous comments made by president of The Recording Academy, Neil Portnow, Apple joined Manson for a cover of Lesley Gore’s classic “You Don’t Own Me.” In reaction to what was to be the biggest moment of the entire festival, the crowd cried, laughed, and sang along with combined passion.
After this triumphant ending to night two, the third night of Girlschool had plenty to live up to, but it did not disappoint. First to take the stage was Polartropica, sprinkling her brand of sonic fairy dust into the ears of lucky listeners. Her energy filled set felt like a Dance Dance Revolution fueled trip through the cosmos on the tail of a comet. Chelsea Jade followed with her special flavor of airy electronica, with The Naked and Famous’ Alisa Xayalith joining her on backup vocals.
Anonymous, mask wearing rapper Leikeli47 followed with a hard hitting set of hip hop verse. Included was her single “Attitude,” a track that sends a simple message on behalf of those who don’t feel the need to explain themselves: “So what, I got a attitude / Bitch, I got a attitude.” Filipino creator Low Leaf came next with her so called Ascension Orchestra, made up of the usual rock instruments with the addition of a flautist and herself on harp. The sound that flowed forth was symphonic, yet often atonal, with a glimpse into the otherworldly realm of Low Leaf’s mind as she riffed flow-of-consciousness-style between songs.
On the cusp of her debut full length album release, Lauren Ruth Ward graced the Bootleg stage with her usual joyous fervor. Full of energy and good humor, she joked about her tight silver pants: “These pants have become one with my body…do you understand that feeling?” and about slacking on her band hairdresser duties. Filling the whole stage with her larger than life presence, Ward blasted through crowd favorites like “Blue Collar Sex Kitten” and “Make Love to Myself,” as well as ending with a brand new, unreleased song.
Moon Honey’s set could best be described as a melding of unfettered modern art with cinematic musical composition. Dressed in beautifully outlandish costumes, the band members threw themselves around the stage with determined passion, and lead singer Jess Joy made use of her well-developed high range, swinging up and down vocal scales in rapid fashion. “Betta Fish,” the band’s first new release in four years, made a fiery appearance mid-set to the enjoyment of the crowd.
Pulling back the energy of the night was bedroom-pop artist Soccer Mommy, headed by twenty-year-old Sophie Allison, who jammed nonchalantly through a set of muted, yet defiant tunes. The ensemble teased their upcoming album, playing “Your Dog,” a track with passionate lyrics that belie its detached sound: “I don’t want to be your fucking dog that you drag around / a collar on my neck tied to a pole / leave me in the freezing cold.” Closely following was Bosco, who kept up the now muted tone of the night with her slow burning set. A mixture of silky R&B and rap, Bosco’s style had the crowd rocking softly.
Closing the jam-packed Girlschool festival was Bay Area singer-songwriter Jay Som who lulled the crowd with her brand of languid, lo-fi rock. Noting the quiet, sleepy faces in front of her, Jay Som assured the crowd, “Just a few more songs and then [snore]. That means sleep.” Undeterred by their silent onlookers, the band played through tracks like “Turn Into,” and new song “Pirouette,” before bidding the Sunday night crowd farewell and good night.
Thus, Girlschool 2018 came to a close. Full of emotional performances, insightful discussions, and talented women, the weekend left a beautiful glow on the faces of everyone who was there to bear witness, hopefully one that will spill over and light the whole city on fire. More relevant than ever in today’s world, the festival took current events in stride without forgetting them, laughed about today’s political situation without making light of it, and assured the crowd of both women and men that they are all welcome in the fight for equality and peace. Perhaps there exists no more important message than the one inherently given by Girlschool: we’re all in this together.
Pingback: Polartropica: The Art of Balance and Visibility
Pingback: The Airborne Toxic Event Return with Two Shows Late Spring 2020 – Girl Underground Music