February 2016

The Nation Reviewed

Loud, quiet, loud

By Anwen Crawford

Fledgling musicians hit Girls Rock

It’s a hot Monday morning in Canberra, and there’s a new band in town. The Screaming Moths are Trinh, 11, on vocals; Sienna, 12, guitar; Abby, 10, drums; and Tash, 12, bass. The girls are together on the floor of an old school hall – now part of the Ainslie Arts Centre – taking turns at drawing their band logo. It is generally agreed that Tash draws excellent moths, but in this band all moths are equal. Having formed just 20 minutes ago, The Screaming Moths have already articulated their first and most important band rule: no one is allowed to put themselves down. “I rock,” says Abby, turning to Sienna, “and you’re pretty good, too.”

The four members of The Screaming Moths are attending Australia’s first Girls Rock day camp. Forty-two girls aged between 10 and 17 have gathered to spend five days of their summer holiday learning how to play music and write songs together. On this first morning, the girls formed bands with others in their age range, and across the week each band will write and rehearse an original song. On Saturday afternoon they will take to the stage. There’s a lighting rack here, a mixing desk, and plenty of space for dancing.

Camp director Chiara Grassia, 24, is a local musician and zine-maker. She recently completed a degree in sociology at the Australian National University; the topic of her honours thesis was Girls Rock camps in the United States, where she has worked as a volunteer. The original Girls Rock camp, held in Portland, Oregon, in 2001, was also initiated by a young student, Misty McElroy, then a women’s studies major at Portland State University. Since then, similar camps have spread across the US and to countries including Brazil, Finland and the United Arab Emirates.

The Girls Rock ethos is self-expression: campers need no prior musical experience or knowledge to take part. An all-female team of volunteers leads the girls through morning tuition on their instruments, then afternoon workshops in songwriting, screen-printing (for that all-important band merchandise) and feminism, plus daily band practice. Each lunchtime, a “real” band plays a 20-minute set. Today it’s The Rangoons, who’ve driven from Sydney especially for the gig. Their young audience, wearing earplugs, bounce up and down in appreciation.

After lunch, The Screaming Moths have a goal for their first two-hour rehearsal: to write a song. With the help of their assigned band coach, Jacqui, 36, they are figuring out just how ambitious they can be. Sienna learnt three guitar chords this morning – the very recipe for rock ’n’ roll – but the girls decide that a single E chord will do nicely for the time being. Abby cooks up a beat, while Tash complements the guitar with an open E-string bassline. But what’s the song going to be about? What else but killer moths? “Killer moths from outer space,” Trinh sings into the microphone, searching tentatively for a melody at first, then gaining confidence. “Killer moths will eat your brains!”

At Girls Rock, no practical detail or query is too basic. Jacqui shows her charges how to turn on their amplifiers and how to use a guitar tuner. She also lets them in on a no-fail songwriting technique: make the verse soft and the chorus loud. “It’s the best trick in rock.” The girls decide to end their song with a collective scream.

Rehearsals finish, and 20 or so of the younger campers gather back at the hall for a workshop taught by singer-songwriters Courtney Barnett (a current Grammy nominee for Best New Artist) and Jen Cloher. Sitting in a circle, the girls discuss potential song topics: colours, chocolate, animals and romance. Courtney adds summer to the list, in recognition of the fact that everyone is wilting in the heat beneath the ineffectual ceiling fans. She picks up an acoustic guitar, begins to strum a progression – three chords, of course – and suggests a lyric: “It’s really hot today.” A camper hits upon a rhyme: “And all my chocolate’s melting away.” “Genius!” shouts Jen, as an approving murmur runs through the circle. Two young transcribers note the lyric down on butcher’s paper.

The song takes shape. Others throw in ideas for lyrics, and eventually there are two verses and a chorus, with due mention of animals, cupids and the weather. Courtney runs it from the top, and the whole room joins in for two full renditions. The drummers sit on the lip of the stage, tapping out a beat with their feet, and one girl hits a tambourine. “I’ve never written a song with a group before,” says Jen.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford was The Monthly’s music critic from 2013–21.

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