For anyone who has taken on SXSW for the first time, there are a few things you learn pretty quickly: free things are the best, you’re not going to make it to every show you want to see, and the greatest events are happening off of Dirty Sixth.
I came to Austin determined to experience all the massive festival had to offer – and I think I did, from getting a bloody nose at a show that was shut down by the cops, to dancing at an art party with people dressed like those giant inflatable things at used care dealerships (they called themselves “Moon Puppies” and spoke their own language). My game plan was to make it to as many showcases as possible, but when I found my self at GIRLSCHOOL’s showcase, We Are One, I was pretty content to stay put there for the rest of the weekend – and that’s not just because of the free rosé and margaritas.
After two successful festivals in their hometown of Los Angeles, the GIRLSCHOOL collective took their mission of building a community of female artists – and a knack for curating amazing shows – on the road to Austin. The three day event (March 16-18), overseen by founder Anna Bulbrook and located in the backyard of the bungalow-like Toms Shoes store (who sponsored the event), felt like an oasis of energy, empowerment, and friendship.
Much like Girlschool’s latest festival this January at the Bootleg Theater — featuring acts like Chelsea Wolfe, The Bird and the Bee, and Deap Vally — the collective’s attention to detail and infallible detection for talent made for a weekend of solid music, positive vibrations, and Insta-worthy aesthetics (if that’s your thing, of course). The yard was framed by trees, Edison string lights, and art made by female and queer identifying creatives curated by international artist community, Society6, from which proceeds went to Girls Rock Camp Austin. Colorful walls and bohemian rugs were a punchy backdrop to the performances, from Kate Nash’s magnetic, lipstick-smeared opening, to Phoebe Bridgers’ haunting afternoon acoustic set, to Canadian quartet Weaves’ twangy art punk show.
Before the showcase began each evening, Toms hosted free arts and crafts and music lessons for little ones throughout the afternoon. As a result, and sort of unexpectedly, there were a lot of families (and dogs!) at the feminist art party, which was a pretty powerful thing. As he watched his baby granddaughter pick apart a succulent and put it in a friendly stranger’s hand, a grandfather looked on at teen garage pop act The Regrettes as they blazed through tracks promoting individuality and self-confidence. Mothers danced with daughters as New York’s T-Rexstasy performed playful punk songs about brunch and how much they love babies. Though I didn’t anticipate spending most of my time at SXSW around a bunch of kids, watching the wonder on their faces as they watched so many powerful and talented women share their art was a beautiful experience.
Besides exposing a bunch of toddlers to the ideas of gender equality, GIRLSCHOOL’s showcase also exposed a bunch of adults to provocative and gifted musicians. On day one, Madame Gandhi (former drummer for M.I.A.) wowed the audience with her dynamic percussion skills, delicious beats and fearless bars. “For the young men here, for the little boys here, elevate and support the women in your life,” said Gandhi before sliding into a reading from The Feminist Utopia Project titled “Fifty-Seven Visions of a Wildly Better Future.” She announced that all the proceeds from her merch sales would go to Planned Parenthood and applause echoed from the crowd. Later in the evening, indie-electronic duo Overcoats delivered a set so smooth and sparkling that they’re sure to land on several bands-to-watch roundups this year.
Day two, the final day curated by Bulbrook and company, began with a solen soundtrack by Phoebe Bridgers and closed out with and electric “rap cabaret” performance by New Orleans’ Boyfriend. Emerging before the crowd in a full wedding gown and veil, Boyfriend and her troupe of dancers (some who had been featured in Beyonce’s visual album, Lemonade) went through so many costume changes I lost count. Midway through her set, Boyfriend brought out a fire twirler, then had her armpits shaved in front of the crowd, and then had her entire ensemble throw tampons and sponges at the audience, all while rapping about female independence and freedom of sexuality with a touch of humor. She crawled through the audience, engaging everyone lucky enough to be in her path – when she shouted “don’t ask me ’bout forever baby” the crowd resounded “ask me ‘bout tomorrow!”. And just like that, “Tomorrow” became the official earworm of my South-By 2017.
Overall, GIRLSCHOOL’s showcase was the ideal SXSW experience, not just because of the free booze and comfy cushions everywhere, but because of the sense of community it cultivated in that little backyard in Austin – just like it has back home in LA, and is rumored to do later this year on the east coast.
Words and photos by Artemis Thomas-Hansard