By Justine Souchack
Anna Bulbrook is a Los Angeles-based musician and violinist, member of the Airborne Toxic Event, and founder of Girlschool. She has lent her musical talents to many high profile artists, including Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, Sia, Kanye West and Vampire Weekend.
When she’s not on the road or in the studio, Bulbrook runs Girlschool. Founded in 2016, the idea was formed in response to how few women she saw around her in the rock world and on international music festival stages. Girlschool has since grown into an empowering and interdisciplinary community of women-identified artists, leaders and voices who together only shine more brightly. A portion of the proceeds from every ticketed Girlschool event benefits a girl-positive 501c3.
Girlschool has held three annual sold-out women-led three-day music and ideas festivals in Los Angeles, and partnered with TOMS to bring a capsule festival to SXSW for the last two years. In addition, Girlschool works with different partners throughout the year to present creative, interdisciplinary women-forward experiences on the forefront of culture.
Below we catch up with Bulbrook to find out more about her background and her mission with Girlschool. For more, visit girlschoolla.com
WiMN: What was your introduction to music, and what led you to play the violin?
AB: I started playing violin when I was four for the same reason any little sister does anything: to be like my big brother. Our family “did” violin the way some families do athletics or dance or, you know, pottery. My brother and I also played some piano, did solfège, and I sang in a bunch of children’s choirs and stuff. It wasn’t until high school, when I took a year or two of jazz supplementing my classical training, that I started to break out of the classical headspace a bit. I was terrible, totally afraid to improvise or make mistakes, but it showed me another way to play the violin and planted the seed that eventually led me to be in a band.
WiMN: Tell us about some of the artists you’ve recorded and performed with over the years.
AB: I’ve been a full-time member of the indie rock band, the Airborne Toxic Event, for ten or eleven years now. (I can’t keep track!) I also played on the Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros’ first record, the making of which was a fun and crazy situation over in Laurel Canyon.
I’ve played live with artists from Kanye West to Sia to Vampire Weekend, and recorded on things like LEMONADE by Beyonce, some stuff for Vampire Weekend and Rostam, and some really fun TV shows like The OA and, you know, Storage Wars. I also write and produce music from time to time for my solo project, the Bulls.
WiMN: Can you tell us a specific story from the road or studio that stands out in your mind?
AB: Yes. One of the most formative ones was my very first gig after college. I had moved to Los Angeles and quit playing classical music, actually. I got called to fly to Aspen and play behind Kanye West on the side of a mountain—and so I went. And while I was sitting behind him, playing along to those songs, I had a revelation that sounds so simple and obvious now but was not one I was able to receive as a classical snob: that playing violin in a more pop context could be fun. And worthwhile. And, in fact, something I might be uniquely suited to.
WiMN: Tell us about Girlschool. What is the event, and how did you come up with the idea?
AB: Girlschool is an annual women-identified led music and ideas festival that I founded in response to being the only woman around all the time in the alternative rock space. After eight or so years of being one of the only women on-stage almost everywhere we went, or one of a handful at every major music festival or radio festival, there was a moment when I stopped accepting that that’s the way things needed to be. Once I noticed how weird it was that I was alone all the time, I couldn’t un-see that.
Girlschool has been a very grassroots, very organic effort to create a community that celebrates women-identified artists, leaders, and voices, and a business that supports them. We have had three sold-out festivals in LA, most recently involving artists like Shirley Manson, Karen O, and Fiona Apple, and do an annual backyard party at SXSW with TOMS. We also have a series of Idealab events that distill the best of what we do at our festivals—interdisciplinary collaboration, intellectual exploration, intersectional representation, and beautiful production design—into one-night, non-repeatable community events.
Our mission is to celebrate, connect, and lift women-identified and gender-expanded artists, leaders, and voices. It’s broad on purpose, so that we can grow however we need.
WiMN: How do you manage both your music career and planning the event?
AB: I don’t see those two things as separate. They’re two sides of the same coin for me. Sure, right now I spend more of my time working on the festival, but also, when I make music, I make it because I truly want to and because I feel inspired by the project or the person involved. I draw on my musical chops when we produce special parts of the festival, like pairing Shirley Manson with an all-women ensemble of string quartet, harp, and choir, and inviting Fiona Apple to sing with her. Even if I’m not doing the arranging myself, or music-directing the experience, I’m actively applying all parts of my experience as an artist, performer, arranger, and producer to imagine something and bring it to life alongside my incredible team and community.
WiMN: Have you ever faced discrimination in the music industry for being a woman? If so, what was that like and how did you respond?
AB: Well, your average person on the street (or at the airport) always assume I’m the singer of the Airborne Toxic Event because I’m a woman. I’m not, I’m a sideman. Also, I’ve met other artists who assume I’m someone’s girlfriend, or that I work for the band. I don’t, I’m in it. I’m also the most professionally-trained player of my instrument in the band, so I have a strong sense of security about my musicianship and chops. I know who I am as a player and artist—even when I’m faking something on an instrument I don’t play as well as the violin in front of thousands of people at a festival, for example. So when people underestimate me musically, it rolls off my back.
And there are little things that happen. I once had an executive at a label suggest that I wear a transparent skirt to a formal meeting with our then-label-head because the label head “responded to sex appeal.” The guys in my band actually stood up for me there, which meant (and still means) a lot.
WiMN: What’s next for you and Girlschool?
AB: We are working on our calendar for next year in LA. We are planning more Idealabs, and are always growing and evolving our LA festival. Also, Girlschool is collaborating with the LA Phil on a night of Yoko Ono’s music and performative works at Walt Disney Concert Hall on March 22 which, in my humble opinion, is going to be incredible. Hope you can come!