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Pop CultureNovember 8, 2017

Girls Rock! Camp Aotearoa is coming to blow minds and change lives


The world famous Girls Rock! Camp is coming to New Zealand. Two of the event’s organisers, Jana Whitta and Nicole Gaffney, had a chat to US-based musician and mentor Fiona Campbell about the initiative and the impact the camps have had around the world.

The first ever Girls Rock! Camp Aotearoa is taking place at MAINZ in Auckland from the 15th to the 19th of January, 2018. The week-long holiday programme for young women (this includes female, transgender, intersex and non-binary youth) will see up to 40 campers between the ages of 12-17 years form bands, learn instruments, attend workshops and write an original song to be performed at a concert for friends and family at the end of camp.

New Zealand musician Fiona Campbell (The Coolies, Vivian Girls, Chain & The Gang, Coasting…) has seen first-hand how the camps build confidence, empowerment and foster social change after mentoring at a number of events in the US. We sat down for a chat with her about women and gender minorities in music, the various Girls Rock! Camp programmes around the world she has worked at and all the amazing ways this support helps our young women/gender non-conforming and trans youth.

Girls Rock! Camp Melbourne, 2016 (Photo: Katie Dutton)

Jana: Kia ora Fiona, can you give us a quick intro about yourself?

Fiona: Well, my name’s Fiona Campbell, originally from Auckland, moved to the USA when I was 24 in 2005 and have been working in music ever since, in many different roles – as a musician, tour manager, booker, promoter, festival organizer, record label owner, teacher and DIY venue liver-in-er…

Jana: So you were a drum teacher at Girls Rock Camp, how did you first get involved?

Fiona: I think it was initially through my friend Mindy [Abovitz], who’s from NYC – she was one of my first friends when I moved to the country, and she had a solo “band” that she just played drums and sang called More Teeth. She taught at the Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls there and went on to start Tom Tom Magazine. But it wasn’t until I moved to Portland in 2012 that I got involved with the Rock Camp for Girls there. My roommate and only person I knew in Portland, Lisa Schonberg – another incredible drummer – was teaching and got me involved.

Nicole: Aw! Yeah the support and encouragement of other women in music is so important, I think that all of us can attest to that! And that’s what we hope to achieve with the Girls Rock programmes! You were our first support and encouragement to get this off the ground – I remember talking to you and Jana a couple of years back about doing this camp after you did you a Facebook post about putting one on in New Zealand, then you put me in contact with Chiara from Girls Rock! Canberra, which led me, Jana and Billie to all go over there and participate in the camp, so just wanted to say a huge thanks for that! Have you found that doing the Girls Rock! programme in the States helps in fostering a community worldwide for women/non binary and trans musicians? Kinda like a Girls Rock alumni?

Fiona: Most definitely. I met Chiara at the first Rock Camp that I participated in as a drum teacher. I had previously taught at a Girls Rock! after school programme and also done a workshop for booking your own tour for one so it was way different and full on. It was awesome being able to hang with her and hear how many different camps she was getting to visit around the USA. All of them are a little different and I knew she would pick up so much incredibly helpful information to spread around down in our part of the world. It does strike me as similar to Ladyfest where they have a structure that you can take and adjust and make it make sense to your community. It started so DIY and it’s been great to see them grow and change and update things along the way.

Nicole: What do you think are the main differences between New Zealand and the States regarding attitudes towards women playing, booking, promoting, managing etc. Is it easier in the States to be accepted into the music community?

Fiona: Hmmm, well, Americans are born to have mics in their hands, you know what I’m saying? It’s just a matter of handing them one sometimes, haha. But seriously, I think one of the challenges and why this will be so important for Kiwis is that we are a more group-oriented nation and that can be hard when it comes to making noise and taking up space, particularly on a literal platform. We fear judgement more than the average American and I also feel like we can be more judgemental than average Americans. So as much as we want women on stage more and are very accepting of it, it’s getting through the hurdles of a lifetime of judgement and opinions from other people that we take so much more to heart and implement into our actions.

I think there is more of a history in the States, and more of a framework in terms of numbers. There’s been plenty of women in music in New Zealand, but not as many just due to our population to have a broad scope of experience to comb through. I think that’s been interesting, being here and being able to ask people face-to-face about their experiences. And it’s evolved so much, there’s so many women who were active in the 90s that I used to ask about being a woman in music that I just knew were lying when they told me they felt like they weren’t treated any different. I understand where that comes from though, it’s to protect yourself and because you don’t want to stand out or make a fuss. But at least we’re talking about it now and have a better, more understanding framework for listening.

Jana: I’ve noticed that here also, it’s interesting isn’t it? I think there’s a real underlying cynicism to that, that even though someone may have experienced sexism, or sexual harassment, they just grin and bear it or are forced to live in denial in order to have a career. Living in the patriarchy amiright…

Fiona: Yes, that is an important point and a point that will stick out for New Zealanders I think. We already have such a “pull your socks up” / “harden up mate” attitude, and this bullshit idea that if you just muck in and work hard enough you’ll get what you deserve. The shit that I’ve had to put up with as a female in music (in all the roles I have played) has been insane, and often I think to myself about all the awesome musical and music support roles women could have played if it wasn’t so horrible some days to be involved. It’s dangerous and hard, but I love playing music so much at this point I’m a lifer and you’ll have to pry it from my cold dead hands. I understand why so many women give up, though – it can suck. I think if maybe I stick around and be visible though and try to encourage others to stick around then maybe there will be more women to work with and hear from and my job will suck less.

I think about all the wasted talent (not just musically but organisationally) that has been lost because some dick sound guy intimidated a woman on stage, or grabbed a promoter by the ass, or failed to stand up for them if their staff or another band treated them disrespectfully. It can be exhausting, but I think that happens in all kinds of work, but with music it’s your ego on the line and your heart you’re presenting. It sucks when it’s treated poorly in return for your efforts.

Fiona Campbell

Nicole: That attitude of not wanting to make a fuss is prevalent in our society everywhere! I feel the tide changing though, especially in new music, you can see it in Beyonce’s latest albums, and also in younger generations talking about more nuanced experiences, like the band Openside from New Zealand, the way they more openly talk about their experience being non binary. Do you think the younger generation have taken on a better understanding of intersectionality in feminism?

Fiona: OMG – meeting all the young people in New Zealand two years ago gave me so much hope! I hadn’t really been home for more than a week or two since moving to the States, and a few years ago I went back for three months and met so many new young bands and the raddest people. I was sitting late one night in the smoking section of Wine Cellar and a group of eight young people were having this intense discussion about feminism and the music scene in New Zealand. They were all so angry and I had this huge grin on my face. Someone looked over and they were like “What?!” and I just said how amazing they were and how excited I was to sit there and listen to them, the way they were speaking, the language they were using, the non-verbal expressions they had for each other. It was insane! I told them how advanced they were and how it’s so important and powerful that they were angry, they were giving me so much hope with the strategy and discourse they were planning. I’d grown up with a more “yeah what are ya gonna do, just shut up and have another drink” attitude.

Nicole: We have so much to learn from them!

Fiona: So much. It was great, and you learn so much from the younger kids at camp, it’s mind-blowing. It’s at Rock Camp where I discovered a lot of this language and attitudes that are more mainstream for younger people, but you can’t just assume everyone has access to it. We have a fucking long way to go, but the advances we’ve made are strong and I feel hopeful about things.

Jana: There are so many incredible rangatahi here in Aotearoa, and that’s what we’re trying to achieve: that our campers will one day be sitting in a bar discussing feminism and sexism in the music scene and be comfortable doing so. All this work is about taking these conversations and making them mainstream and taking action, you know? But also it’s really important to encourage young women, trans and gender nonconforming youth from all cultures and backgrounds to get involved – we think it’s really important to mobilise and support the less represented youth who feel like they may not have a safe and supportive place in their current situations, but it’s often hard to reach those people. How have you found the camps that you’ve attended have successfully created an environment for these minority youth?

Fiona: That’s the thing I love about Rock Camp the most: the musicianship is actually the least interesting part. Throwing a bunch of girls (GNC and trans youth) into a group where they have to battle ego stuff with certain roles and learn to make noise and take up space in a safe encouraging environment with the assistance of older people supporting them is so awesome. It truly is such a powerful position to put them in, handing a mic or a loud-as-fuck instrument to a kid whose voice and body has otherwise been silenced or hindered in society is incredible to watch. Everyone has so much fun, and it seems natural because bands are such a tangible expression. A lot of intense work comes out of them, the band is just the filter it seems.

Girls Rock! Camp Melbourne, 2016 (Photo: Katie Dutton)

Nicole: It’s so incredible to be able to see the journey the campers go through within one week of the Girls Rock programme in their confidence expressing themselves. It’s such a healthy and cathartic experience! And the mentors too! We go through so much growing by learning and watching the campers. One more question and then we’re gonna have to wrap up: what was your favourite / most rewarding non-musical activity at the Girls Rock Camps?

Fiona: This wasn’t my fave but it was interesting – it just came to mind before – there was an exercise where we all stood in a circle and you got to scream as loud/soft/yell in whatever way you wanted and then you squeeze the person’s hand next to you and it’s their turn. I had to admit, the hair on the back of my neck stood up and a voice ran through my head over and over saying “They’re safe, it’s OK”. I realized the only time you hear little girls loudly is usually when something is wrong. It was interesting, most of the girls were laughing and exaggerating and having fun, but I was totally surprised by the reaction I had myself. To answer your question: making shirts is always fun! And lunchtime dance parties!

Jana: Yes! They’re the best. We’re gonna have the best lunchtime performances from some incredible local talent, I can’t wait for it. I get so excited thinking about it – it’s just the best, most rewarding week, for both the campers and the mentors. Most of all, it’s super important work for our future generation!

Fiona: You kind of get the full spectrum at Rock Camp: intense experiences, hella fun times, awkwardness overload, and a shit load of new best friends. I think they have a better structure for supporting the volunteers now too because the ones I talked to who did it in the 90s just said they cried and drank a bottle of wine every night to get through it haha. One time we made a fence and a whole playground a percussion instrument, that was so fun! We “played” the fence – 20 girls for about 20mins until the business across the street came and told us to shut up haha.

Nicole: We’ll have to suss that out for next year! Fiona, thanks so so much for your incredible and extremely insightful answers, you’re a real life angel! Never stop doing everything you do coz you’re extraordinary!

Jana: Yes totally. Thanks so much for letting us pick your brain Fiona, you’re inspiring and your perspective is powerful.

Girls Rock! Camp Aotearoa is being organised by a committee of volunteers, including, music industry professionals, musicians, publicists, event organisers and social activists. You can help by donating to the Boosted campaign, or, if you’re interested in becoming a mentor or camper, you can apply here!

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