Amelia, 10, of Portland, foreground, and Bella of Vancouver, B.C., rehearse at Chop Suey in Seattle on Friday. The young guitar-drummer pair, who make up the band King, will perform Saturday at the rock club.
Girls learn to raise the roof at rock camp
Youngsters get a boost in voice and spirit
Palace Chalfa Webb screams lyrics like a true rock star, clutching the microphone with both hands, a sneer on her face and ribbons dangling from her wrists as she unleashes a caterwaul that would make Courtney Love proud.
Except Palace sings and screams about her mother’s business trip to San Francisco:
“I don’t want to go there again with my mom on a business trip. Seems it is all about her. I want to watch that city burn.”
The 9-year-old is part of a growing movement of tween and teenage girl rockers who aren’t inspired by Britney Spears, Jessica Simpson or The Pussycat Dolls, but Arcade Fire, distortion pedals and Jimi Hendrix.
The bands are not lunchroom phenomena. Many of these groups can flat-out play, appearing with Pearl Jam and at rock clubs such as Seattle’s Chop Suey and Portland’s Crystal Ballroom, landing on Neil Young’s Web site and holding their own CD release parties.
“I just pick something out of my mind that’s amusing to me that I want to get rid of, like my principal,” Palace, of Portland, says in “Girls Rock: The Movie,” a documentary that premieres at the Seattle Independent Film Festival this weekend.
It is not just about songwriting, touring and studio time. These bands are the latest to break into the male-dominated world of gritty rock ‘n’ roll.
At the heart of the effort is the movie’s subject, the Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls in Portland. Over five days, girls form punk, country, hip-hop and rock genres, learn to play, then perform before 650 people.
During rehearsals, campers and counselors talk about the challenges of being a teenage girl — peer pressure, popularity, body issues — and learn self-defense. (The camp is already sold out for this summer.)
“I just came out not feeling stronger, but feeling a lot better and more confident in myself,” said Amelia, a 10-year-old Portland girl who goes by the stage name “Am” and withholds her last name because of her age. She was inspired to pick up a guitar by Jimi Hendrix’s psychedelic rendition of the “Star-Spangled Banner.”
“I think it helped (when) I was in first and second grade, when I was really just trying to be popular, and be like someone who I really wasn’t.
In “Girls Rock: The Movie” this rawness of adolescence is often on display.
“I never thought I was unique. I never thought I was an individual,” said Laura, a death-metal fan from Oklahoma City and one of the movie’s main characters, who also only goes by her first name.
By the end of the film Laura is onstage belting out, “A woman can rock as hard as any man,” reflecting the camp’s emphasis on empowerment and a healthy self-image. The movie is peppered with startling research — the No. 1 wish of teenage girls is to lose weight and women in MTV videos are five times more likely to be wearing revealing clothing than men.
“We discovered how incredibly self-conscious and, you know, worried about their bodies and whether they were allowed to make mistakes …” some campers were, said Arne Johnson, the San Francisco-based filmmaker, who co-directed the documentary with Shane King.
Marissa Lytle may have learned even more. The Everett high-schooler missed most of her sophomore year as she battled a painful musculoskeletal disorder called reflex neurovascular dystrophy.
At Seattle Children’s Hospital & Regional Medical Center and at home the teenager’s self-esteem took a beating. She withdrew.
Then Lytle’s mother saw an item on Pearl Jam’s Web site about the Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls and found a way to bring back her daughter, an accomplished musician who plays seven instruments.
Over five days of camp, Lytle became more vocal and confident. Now 16, Lytle will play the Girls Rock Fest with Laura at Chop Suey on Saturday afternoon.
“The week at that camp really gave me my daughter back, back to her normal self,” said Lytle’s mother, Leslie Hagen. “An improved version.”
At Saturday’s concert, Amelia’s band King will join Lytle and Laura. A guitar-drummer duo, the band was reminiscent of a young, stripped-down White Stripes as members broke into “We will destroy our destination” and “Italia” at Friday’s rehearsal at Chop Suey.
Appearing at ease on stage, Amelia stared off or down while strumming her Flying V guitar, while Bella sat largely obscured by her drum kit. Yet it was obvious both girls enjoyed their short set.
Instead of concert tours, the goals at Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls camp are self-confidence and communication. Even camper band names — Care Bears on Fire, P.L.A.I.D. (People Lying Around in Dirt), Neurotic Euphoria and the Rockin’ Kitty Kats — straddle the worlds of rock ‘n’ roll and childhood.
“Everyone needs someone to get them, at least for 15 minutes,” one counselor says in the film.
Even the most popular bands of this genre don’t take themselves too seriously.
Few stars burn as brightly in the teenage girl rock world as Seattle-based Smoosh. Over the past five years, the sister-duo has earned critical acclaim, toured with Sleater-Kinney, played with Pearl Jam and appeared on ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live.”
They even made the online pages, if not the cover, of the Rolling Stone.
“Asya, 12, and drummer Chloe, 10 … aren’t even teenagers yet, but their pensive lyrics, minor chords and forlorn melodies give their music the sound of moodier artists twice their age,” Anuj Desai wrote in a posting on the magazine’s Web site in December 2004.
Now 13 and 15, the girls will play the Sasquatch! Festival at The Gorge this weekend.
“I don’t really think of it as being super successful. I don’t really think of us being famous, just as something we do for fun,” Asya said earlier this week.
Lytle echoes Asya’s comments. Rock camp offers girls a break from the insecurity and pressure that can define adolescence.
“I think that other girls worry about what people at school think of them, and this week (rock camp) is the one time a year they don’t have to worry about that,” she wrote in an e-mail.
“They just need to ‘worry’ about the music.”
HEAR THESE GIRL BANDS ROCK
Teenage and tween girl bands are not just playing in basements and garages. Seattle-based Smoosh has gained national attention and praise, playing with Death Cab for Cutie, Sleater-Kinney and Pearl Jam and others, as their latest CD “Free to Stay” received critical acclaim. Portland-based Blübird is also getting noticed, and will release a five-song EP, “We are Birds” next week. (It will be available on iTunes.)