Girls Rock Campaign Boston runs day camps for both women and girls teaching instrument instruction and empowering females to rock. Based in Jamaica Plain, GRCB offers week-long programs for girls in the summer and intensive three-day sessions for women in the winter and spring. At rock camp, campers learn an instrument (guitar, bass, keys, drums, or vocals), form a band and write an original song, and perform live at a final showcase at T.T. the Bears. Modeled after the Rock ‘n Roll Camp for Girls in Portland, Oregon, GRCB was founded in 2010 and is one of several dozen female rock camps around the country. I chatted with founders Hilken Mancini, program director (who also plays in Shepherdess and the Monsieurs), and Nora Allen-Wiles, executive director, in their office in the back of Hilken’s vintage clothing shop, 40 South, in Jamaica Plain.

Interview by Kathleen Mahoney

How did you guys meet? How did you decide to start Girls Rock Campaign Boston?

Nora: We actually have a crazy meeting story! So, when I was in college, I was looking up community service based internships in Portland, Oregon. On, like, the 47th page of Idealist, I found rock camp, and I was like, this sounds like the coolest thing ever. So I emailed them and they were like, we’re actually starting up a college intern program, and we’d love for you to come out and do it. And then Hilken was out there volunteering at one of the sessions, and we were outside smoking cigarettes, and I was like where ya from? And she was like, “Jamaica Plain.” And I was like, “Woah, I’m from Somerville. Weird.” So, that’s how we met and totally bonded. And then the next year I came back and interned again, and Hilken was also back. One day we had lunch and talked about starting a rock camp in Boston…not really thinking that it would ever happen because we were both really busy. Two years later, Hilken got a call from Mary Lou Lord who was like, “I’m thinking about starting one of these rock camp things” not knowing that Hilken was involved. And then Hilken called me, not knowing I was back living in Somerville…but I was. Crazy coincidence. Three weeks later, we were planning the first summer camp for 2010. And the rest is history!

Hilken: And then we found our there was a conference [hosted by the Girls Rock Camp Alliance], and you can go, and they help you. When Portland found out that we wanted to do it, they were like, oh my God, totally awesome.

Nora: We didn’t have to reinvent the wheel.

Hilken: Boston had such an amazing amount of talented musicians. There were always women around– like Throwing Muses, this band Fuzzy I was in that was managed by Fort Apache who also managed Juliana Hatfield— but it didn’t make sense to me that it wasn’t more like Portland. When I went to Portland, it was like, oh, she’s going to tour with her, and she’s going to record her record, and I was like, we should be like that. We basically tried to make a baby Portland. And this momentum started building. So many people wanted to be involved. I had a houseful of women that summer– making genre signs, dropping off bass amps in my kitchen, coming in from the burbs with a P.A. Nora and I had no life– she’d work at Whole Foods and I’d work at 40 South– and whether it was 6 in the morning before work or at night, we were figuring out the handbook, talking to lawyers about whether we have to become a corporation or nonprofit, how do we get landyards. It was consuming us. We lived and breathed it.

Nora: I wrote our whole nonprofit application drinking beers at 2 in the morning after work.


Had you had any experience with the logistics of starting a nonprofit?

Nora: Oh God, no! I had volunteered at a lot of nonprofits, but I had never been involved in that process. There’s a support group vibe in the Alliance because we fell in love with the mission after working there but have no idea what we’re doing. The scary letters come all the time that are like, “You’ll be shut down if you don’t do X, Y, and Z,” and we’ll have had no idea we were supposed to do that!

Slam Juice was one of the ten bands who performed in the April showcase

Slam Juice was one of the ten bands who performed in the April showcase

How much of the programming is based on the Portland model?

Nora: Our summer programming is very based on Portland. It’s a model that works. One of the biggest differences is how we run the program for the ladies. Ladies Rock Camp is really different than a lot of the other programs because we do it just like the girls. A lot of the other programs don’t have the women playing games. When we were doing the first ladies’ session, Hilken was saying that she wasn’t going to do punk rock aerobics and “all that kids’ stuff,” and one of the volunteers from the girls’ camp was like, I don’t want to go then. And Hilken was like, what do you mean? And she was like, that’s why I want to go to rock camp. I want to have that same experience. So we decided to do it.

And we just led a workshop at the Alliance conference in March, and we were talking to women in the Bay Area, and they were like no, we would never have them screenprint t-shirts. So, I think that’s something that is unique to us. I think the women appreciate being taken care of and getting to act silly like kids, because it totally breaks them down. Because you don’t ever get to be in that kind of space, but being at rock camp all day for three days makes it okay to dance like a crazy person. There’s something that switches off that allows you to be totally comfortable.


How many of the lady campers have experience playing their instruments before camp? What is the range of experiences you see?

Nora: I would say that at least 75% of the women that come haven’t played a lot or at all. That ranges from, oh, “I have a guitar but only play in my room” and “I sing constantly but I never sing in front of anybody” to “I’ve always wanted to play the drums but I’ve never touched a drum kit before.” The amount of people who have played a lot are very few.


Is it common for women from rock camp to start bands after camp?

Hilken: Yeah! You learn that it’s empowering and it makes you feel good.

Nora: It demystifies what goes into writing songs and being in a band. Women are seeing that you don’t have to be intimidated. There are a bunch of bands that started at rock camp that are still playing. Women are realizing that you don’t need to have been playing for twenty years to do it.

Hilken: You can be in a band knowing three chords.


So, Girls Rock Campaign Boston started in 2010. How has it evolved since you started?

Nora: The numbers are the biggest thing. We started in 2010 with 40 girls and one session. The second year we had two sessions with 60 girls each– so it tripled in size. We’ve gotten a lot more organized, and our goals are a lot clearer– like the fact that we want to expand and we want to do it within the next year. But also the community. The community that has come out of this is phenomenal, and I think that completely changes the organization: having returning volunteers, having people hear about it…and that makes it better, because all of these people are giving their input on what could improve our programs even more.


How are you funded?

Nora: Right now, our programming is all tuition and fundraising based, which is really lucky, because a lot of other programs can’t survive without grants. We are starting to apply for grants more and more. When the February session got cancelled [due to the blizzard], we didn’t know if we could reschedule it, were like wow, you can get screwed really fast relying on program funding alone. We’ve been really lucky to be program funded completely so far.


And I know you get a lot of donations too– like instruments and food.

Nora: Yeah, so our costs are incredibly low. And Spontaneous Celebrations [the community center that hosts rock camp] is amazing and dirt cheap to rent from. And with all of our donations and being all volunteer-run, we end up spending a very small amount on supplies for the week. But we’re at a point where we keep getting the same things donated– we have too many guitars and not enough drum kits. We do need to transition to a place where we can make larger purchases. We do want to start after school programming and free programming so we’re trying to figure out how to make that possible. Part of the great thing about the community is that these women are willing to share their expertise. We’ve found out some of our volunteers are grant writers or heavily involved in fundraising, and they’ve been really helpful.


Hilken, how have you seen the Boston music scene evolve since you started playing in bands in the 90s? Are there more women playing music now?

Hilken: I don’t know because when I started, I felt kind of alone, but then I started bands with women mostly. My band Fuzzy toured with Belly and Velocity Girl. I was in that period where all of a sudden in the 90s, it was cool to be a loudmouth. Kurt Cobain, a huge rock star who was on the cover of Rolling Stone, was married to Courtney Love, a woman who didn’t look like a supermodel. Who had a big f—-n’ mouth and was scary. And before that he dated Kathleen Hanna. Our role models were awesome, crazy women who were empowered.

But then I saw the demise of that, and that was depressing. I continued to make music and then suddenly it wasn’t cool to be loud and punk rock. It became really important to be cute; Britney Spears appeared. When I continued to put records out, the Phoenix called me a warhorse. Like, “Warhorse Hilken Mancini is putting out another record.” And I was like oh my god, why am I a warhorse? You wouldn’t say that about John Felice from the Real Kids. What am I fighting? I don’t get it. So I got really f—–n’ pissed off! But after rock camp, I suddenly started getting asked to play again.


Do you think that was because of rock camp?

Hilken: Because of rock camp, I had a lot of support. More people were coming to my shows. And then suddenly people were like you can play here now– they didn’t just associate me with Fuzzy. Chris Colbourn [of Buffalo Tom and with whom Hilken put out a record in 2005] came to see me play, and he was like, woah, you have so many fans! But this is our community. We come out to see each other.

Band practice in Spontaneous Celebrations

Band practice in Spontaneous Celebrations


What has been the most rewarding part about starting GRCB?

Hilken: One of the biggest things is the community that’s come out of it. I’ve been playing rock ‘n roll in Boston for forever– since I was 18. And I played a show at the Plough and Stars right after Nora and I had announced that we’d be starting a girls rock camp in Boston. When I finished playing and walked over to the bar, I got mobbed. I was so excited because I thought it was because I had played such an amazing show, but they were like, “We heard you’re starting a girls rock camp in Boston, and we want to volunteer!” It was amazing; I’ve never been mobbed when I’ve walked off the stage before, and I was mobbed because people had heard that we were finally having one here– people had heard about the one in Portland– and so it was really funny.

Nora: The love never stops. It blows my mind. With the women, you see it immediately. It’s an instant realization of something. There’s such a community that’s come out of it, and just the fact that there’s always someone willing to help– to sweat their ass off moving drums, to drive over from Somerville to bring a bass amp– and that part I hadn’t expected. Past the original group of organizers, I didn’t expect it to be such a phenomenal bond between everybody.


The showcase for the May session of Ladies Rock Camp is at T.T. the Bears on Sunday, May 19th.

Hilken’s band Shepherdess:

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