Yesterday, 11 new bands formed in Milwaukee. While none of these new bands have yet to finish writing their first song, and some of them won’t last more than a week, each of these acts hold untold significance for the future of the music scene in the city, and beyond. Girls Rock Milwaukee is in session again.
Last year, Comet Cafe and Honeypie owner Valerie Lucks partnered with Ashley Smith of local rock band Whips (and formerly of Red Knife Lottery) to launch the inaugural Girls Rock camp in Milwaukee. The week-long camp (which also has affiliate camps in close to 40 other cities) randomly pairs girls between the ages of eight and 16, and of all experience levels, into bands with the objective of writing and playing an original song together by the end of the week. Though music is certainly a focal point, the camp’s primary objective is to “promote and empower young women to do whatever they want to with their life—whether that be music, art, or having a corporate job,” Smith says. “Our aim is to build self-confidence and self-esteem in young women through music.”
The first session had 34 campers spread throughout eight bands. This time around (August 4-8), the enrollment has grown to 66 campers, and the number of bands has increased by three. “It’s going to be a whole new ballgame because we have so many kids this year,” Smith says.
However, the co-founders won’t have to go it alone. They are joined at the camp’s UW-Milwaukee’s Zelazo Center site each day by a huge cast of volunteers, which ranges from instrument instructors and band managers, teachers to provide lessons about important female figures in music, and people to assist in button- and flyer-making. One such volunteer is Calamity Janes upright bass player Johanna Rose, who is in her second year of Girls Rock Milwaukee involvement as a bass instructor and band manager. She previously volunteered for one of the first Girls Rock camps in the country while living in Portland. She believes the Milwaukee branch is off to a great start.
“It felt like the program has been running for years,” Rose says in reference to the first session. “There’s something about having something where everyone really wants to be there that makes things run better. We’re all going to do whatever we need to do to make it work.”
Rose was inspired to offer her time and musical acumen because she feels it’s important young girls know there are no limits to the types of music they can play. She was originally led to music through orchestra, before eventually realizing she could branch into other genres.
“It wasn’t automatic for me because it wasn’t necessarily encouraged,” Rose says. “I tell girls right away that they can play in bands. It’s becoming more and more common because there are programs like this. There’s not that automatic encouragement for girls to play music. I mean, they’re allowed play singer-songwriter stuff, but there’s no a lot of ‘Oh, and you can play drums, and you can play electric bass, and play really loud music.’”
The camp encourages campers to open up musically, as well as socially.
“What I learned about young girls is that they’re so timid at first, then they just totally open up and blossom into whoever they are at camp,” Smith says. “They really have an opportunity to be who they are, and you can tell.”
Beyond expanding its enrollment this year, Girls Rock Milwaukee was also able to buy almost all musical equipment campers use through donations. Last year, they had to borrow everything from area musicians. Additionally, each day of camp, local bands with female representation—including Hello Death, Tigernite, Scarring Party, and Prognosis Negative—will drop by to perform for campers. The five-day camp culminates in a Sunday showcase, in which each new band will play its original song to the public at Turner Hall. The year’s showcase is at 2 p.m. on August 10, and all are welcome to attend for a $5 suggested donation.
If last year is any indication, the conclusion of camp doesn’t necessarily signal the end of the bands that were formed. Smith says two of the eight bands formed last year are still together. One of them, “Negative/Positive” has even played gigs at Hotel Foster, Chill On The Hill, and East Side Green Market in the last 12 months.
“It feels really good,” Smith says. “Even if I had the smallest amount of influence that could make them want to be in a band and do something that’s out of their comfort zone, it makes me feel super proud.”
The influence is coming from more sources than volunteers like Smith and Rose, or even from the daily performers. There are more women playing in Milwaukee bands than ever before, which is helping to take the local music scene to new, exciting places it was either unwilling or unable to go even as recently as five years ago. Between an increasing feminine representation in some of the city’s best bands, and Girls Rock Milwaukee instilling the empowering outlet of music in girls at an early age, it’s an exciting time.
“There are so many good bands coming out of Milwaukee with female musicians,” Smith says. “I feel like in 10 years, the music scene in Milwaukee is going to be far greater than if Girls Rock didn’t exist.”
Even if none of the 11 newly-formed bands ever play Turner Hall a second time, just knowing it’s a realistic possibility will undoubtedly manifest itself in a number of positive ways in the lives of the 66 girls preparing to take the stage this weekend.