Making of a rock goddess

Warming up for a sound check at Ladies Rock Camp in W. Philadelphia are (from left) Misty Fae, Nikki Rockwell, Bridget Becker, and Chris Chacko.
Warming up for a sound check at Ladies Rock Camp in W. Philadelphia are (from left) Misty Fae, Nikki Rockwell, Bridget Becker, and Chris Chacko.
Posted: April 17, 2013

In the Studio 34 performance space in West Philadelphia, I watched a brand-new local band bask in the afterglow of its first performance. As an ardent music fan, I'd witnessed this scene hundreds of times before. But on this night, an unfamiliar feeling lurched in my stomach, an addictive combination of nerves, excitement, and fear. My band, Youth Decay, was taking the stage next. After decades of harboring a dream to rock out on stage, my moment had arrived, thanks to Ladies Rock Camp.

Now in its fourth year, Ladies Rock Camp is a weekend day camp that aims to demystify the music-making process for women 19 and older. Organized by the volunteer-based nonprofit Girls Rock Philly, this year's camp drew women aged 23 to 51 from Baltimore, Brooklyn, Pittsburgh, and all across Philadelphia - web designers, pet sitters, psychotherapists, teachers, grandmothers, business owners, and me, a 38-year-old writer and mother of two. Three days of instrument instruction; workshops on singing, songwriting, and screen-printing goods for the merch table; and general comfort-zone eradication culminated in a showcase Sunday night where the five camp bands performed songs they'd written the day before, on instruments they'd learned 48 hours before.

As volunteer roadies plugged us in and whispered encouragement, my hands trembled, and I searched for familiar faces. The crowd hushed, and I introduced my bandmates, still nervous. But then a stray bit of feedback floated through the air, and a sense of inner calm took control. The novice guitarist to my right began strumming her intro with confidence, and the bass and drums kicked in behind me. Then it was my turn to rock the keyboard, open my mouth, and hit the notes that only our band knew. Three and a half minutes later, Youth Decay made history with "Romaine Heart," a rough, but catchy, pop-punk anthem chock-full of silly gardening metaphors.

Truth be told, actually taking the stage, picking up the microphone, and singing at the top of my lungs wasn't the scariest part of Ladies Rock Camp. Far more challenging and bravery-mustering was what preceded it.

Coming out of three days of Ladies Rock Camp, my list of never-done-that-before experiences is long: I'd never tinkered with an instrument without knowing where the song was supposed to go. Never collaborated creatively with people I'd just met. Never patched verse-chorus-verse together and thrown in a bridge for good measure. Youth Decay even got ambitious and suggested I tell a knock-knock joke over some hand claps. OK, then. Never performed stand-up comedy before either.

In the makeshift back rooms of Studio 34, I stood over turntables for the first time wearing headphones, and seamlessly slid a mixer to swap one song for another, like a superslick DJ at a dance party. I wrote my first melody and my first song lyrics, then scratched them and tried again. I discovered the joy of making music without following someone else's notes. Throughout the weekend, it sometimes felt like my bandmates and I were fumbling blindly. But when no right answer exists, how could we possibly go wrong?

To start all this soul enrichment, the 21 campers first had to self-assemble five separate bands with equal parts drummer, keyboardist, bassist, and guitarist. Throw in a little bit of genre preference to make the process even more awkward (surf-punk or progressive hip-hop? Country blues or garage rock?), and what's left is an emotional minefield akin to picking kickball teams in elementary school.

But you have to quickly get over any ego damage and join forces with these freshly picked soul sisters, because now you're up for the next challenge: jamming with your new band. Sounds easy, right? I've heard amateur guitarists sit across from each other in the wee hours of the night, eking out the chords of "Seven Nation Army" or "Polyester Bride" and calling it a jam session. Good times abound when buddies and beer are involved. But take away the prerecorded song, substitute forgiving friends for virtual strangers, and you're looking down a deep, daunting well of untapped creative possibility and cacophonous mistakes.

For me, the blank slate that Ladies Rock Camp provided made the experience empowering. Girls Rock Philly program director Diane Foglizzo offered energetic encouragement, an hour-by-hour schedule, and loose structure as her 21 volunteers very gently threw us into the rock-and-roll fire, teaching us to play our instruments, and serving as band coaches. Because the learning was so hands-on and the outcome so do-it-yourself, my fellow campers risked a vulnerability that felt more like courage by camp's end.

Midway through the weekend, I fretted to my band coach that my voice sounded high-pitched and strident through the microphone with Youth Decay's earsplitting bass drum and electric guitar. "It's like I'm trying to sound like Kathleen Hanna," I complained, comparing myself to the riot-grrrl pioneer. "But without the political statement."

She gave me a big, sincere smile and said, "Just doing this is a statement."

At that point, my heart was so laid out that I believed her. And I probably always will.

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