Girls Rock! Phoenix is a nonprofit organization with a simple mission: to empower girls through music.
The organization’s biggest event of the year is a weeklong summer camp for girls, trans, and gender-nonconforming youth ages 8 to 17. During the course of a week, campers learn an instrument, join a band, write a song, and play a show. They also attend empowerment workshops that teach everything from feeling comfortable in your own skin to DIY screen printing.
The camp is staffed completely by volunteers, and New Times contributors Amy Young and Sarah Ventre are on the Girls Rock! Phoenix board. Both are journalists who write about music. Young drums for local bands French Girls and Sturdy Ladies, and Ventre is a guitar player and producer at KJZZ, Phoenix's National Public Radio affiliate.
Here, they have a conversation about what's really at the heart of camp, why it’s so important to have a space to learn music in a space that's not male-dominated, and what Girls Rock! means to them. They also discuss how Girls Rock! Phoenix came to be, and how they wish they’d had something similar as kids.
Sarah Ventre: What made you want to play drums?
Amy Young: I've always wanted to play drums, since I was little. I started playing music in fourth grade. We were supposedly given a choice of what we wanted to play. I said drums. The response I got was, "How about flute or clarinet?” I am sad now that I didn't fight harder to play drums. I chose the clarinet.
Ventre: So at what point did you feel empowered enough to say fuck the clarinet and start playing the drums?
Young: I stopped playing clarinet in high school, and then it was many years later when I finally got to the drums. I had a roommate who played guitar and sang and we talked about doing a band together. She bought me my first drum kit, and then it was on. I had a drummer friend teach me some basics.
Ventre: Do you remember what it felt like when you first played the drums?
Young: It felt incredible. Intimidating, but awesome. I listen to recordings from way back then and see how not knowing things led me to playing some interesting parts that I probably wouldn't do now, having so much more experience.
Ventre: That moment of clarity that you describe when you listen back on old recordings now and see — I really wish I'd have come to that sensibility earlier in my life. That's a thing that took me way into adulthood to feel like it was a real possibility. I played trumpet in jazz bands at ASU and was always like, even when I made the bands, I was still at the lowest level of technicality.
Young: Wait, did you play trumpet growing up or did you start in college?
Ventre: I played trumpet growing up. I started in fifth grade, and all through middle school and high school.
Young: Why did you choose trumpet?
Ventre: In elementary school, I wanted to play sax or drums and those weren't available with the school’s instrument lottery program. My mom wanted me to pick something small and easy to carry on the walk to school. Of all the instruments they had left, I chose trumpet. Then my mom told me that my grandfather had been a semi-professional trumpet player, which I never knew about him. So, I was really happy to play something that was loud and something that my grandfather had played.
And then also it became clear that there were not a lot of girls in the brass sections, and at that age I knew that I wanted to rebel in that way, and that if there weren't a lot of girls doing it, I wanted to do it. But then when I got into college, and even high school, playing with people who were able to attain a high level of technical proficiency, I remember feeling like if I couldn't do it technically really well, I wasn't doing it right.
Once, while in a jazz band in college, the director of the band pointed at me during a performance to do a solo and I panicked. I didn't know if I could do an improvisational solo. I went for it and people seemed to respond well to it. When it was over, people came up to me and told me that it was amazing.
Young: Right? It's incredible to experience that kind of personal freedom.
Ventre: It is! It's incredible. I just wish I'd known at a younger age that [the people] who would end up being some of my favorite musicians didn't end up having a strong technical foundation, weren't concerned about doing things "right," but are people who just really wanted to do the thing and just did it, just went for it.
Young: Same thing. Eventually I've been able to shake off some chains and let myself go, but I always wish I'd done that earlier. It's hard not to get hung up on those kinds of regrets, but I try not to. We can't go back in time. And at least we're pursuing our passions now!
Ventre: I still feel like I carried all this insecurity with me way after that, too. It took a long time before I would even do karaoke with other people. In my family, we felt embarrassed for people doing poor or drunken karaoke. I think I had an aversion to letting yourself go or making yourself vulnerable in that way, publicly.
Since I've been volunteering with GR and being around a bunch of kids that we inspire to just go for it, that they can pick up a guitar on day one and on day six play a show — that's been so incredibly freeing. For the first time in my life, I'm not afraid to sing in public. Even when some of you GR volunteers asked me to come jam with you, I was terrified that I'd screw up and I said, “All I know how to play is power chords,” and you said, “That's all you need to know.”
So, we did it, and being in that group environment, just playing those power chords felt amazing and empowering. We have campers, some as young as 8, who are experiencing that now — that they don't have to wait until they're 30 to let loose — that's powerful.
Young: Totally. We just said that respectively, as kids, we wanted to play bold, brassy, and loud instruments and in those days, that was still something that was primarily associated with men. Making loud and big sounds was okay for men, but a girl should still grab that flute or clarinet. That conveyed that men had the permission to take up the space in any way they like but women still needed to be the demure gender. That’s come a long way since we were kids.
Ventre: Yes, and it totally correlates with the idea that you were offered these very teeny-tiny instruments like a flute and a clarinet. They're little and they're high-pitched. I feel like knowing that you're encouraged to play something that's really loud or physically big, like a drum kit, says that you're allowed to take up a lot of physical space — that's huge for me. I didn't realize how often I felt uncomfortable, even as loud and extroverted as I am, about taking up physical space in the world.
Young: You see that with the inhibited kids at camp as you watch them come out of those shells. They're realizing they can have a presence.
Ventre: Yeah, and watching other girls watch that happen is so cool. It's a very meta experience. We’re adults who are leading things, but it's like we're also going to camp. We’re all growing together as a group.
Young: Definitely. Watching them serves as a reminder that you can still have a childlike freedom and you don't have to give that up because you're a certain age. So, since you're the person responsible for getting Girls Rock! Phoenix started, do you want to talk …
Ventre: Myself and a group. I first volunteered with Girls Rock! when I was living in D.C., which is a place with a strong punk community and DIY ethic, as well as a strong sense of counterculture ... There were amazing moments at camp constantly, like watching a tiny girl rocking out on the drums or watching one teenage girl encourage another with genuine support.
I felt strongly that when it was time for me to move back to Phoenix that I wanted to see Girls Rock exist here. I grew up in Tempe when there weren't a lot of all-ages venues in town. I thought a lot about what it would have felt like to have had this camp exist for me when I was a kid. When I moved back, there was this amazing group of women who wanted to start and grow it together, and I am grateful that it exists — for the girls of Phoenix, and for me.
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Young: It is wonderful that it exists. I always wanted to do something like this. As a kid, we didn't have a lot of extra money, and my mom didn't drive, so transportation was an issue, and I always thought I'd love to help create or be a part of a music program that found ways to include everyone. Our camp being on a sliding scale that starts at $0 is the best thing.
Ventre: It's how we met!
Young: Yes! That's been incredible — meeting new people, building new relationships. At camp, we watch the kids build new friendships and they support one another, and it's an opportunity for us to learn through them, and to foster new relationships and build a stronger community.
Ventre: When I volunteered at Chicas Rockeras, which is a Girls Rock! camp in southeast L.A., I used downtime to sit in on the guitar instruction for the older campers. I learned along with them; playing songs like "Smells Like Teen Spirit" together. At the end of the week, I thanked them for letting me join them and told them, “When I'm in this group with you, I feel strong and capable, like anything is possible. It's amazing. Thank you so much." And this 16-year-old girl looked at me and said, "You should never feel any other way."
Ventre: I remember thinking about what a tough time it can be being 16, and that she was the one reminding me that I deserve to feel that strong and fearless and capable all the time — it just made me want to carry that through post-camp, and it helped make me feel confident enough to go to Ladies Rock Camp and learn more guitar there, and to keep playing. Volunteering there was a transformative experience for me, personally.
Young: Right. It's so much more than just music instruction. Everyone goes away with different feelings or new ideas, new friends, and new or different ways to approach things — the campers and the volunteers. It's great on so many levels, so inclusive, so many personalities. It inspires a lot of positive tenets they can take into the world, and that we can, too, which ultimately help community building.
Ventre:Yes, regardless of whether or not they ever play music again once the week of camp is over.
Girls Rock! Phoenix’s summer camp runs from May 30 through June 3 at Phoenix Center for the Arts. The showcase featuring campers performing their original material, is at 2 p.m. on Sunday, June 4, at Trunk Space.