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Girls Rock! Australia’s Chiara Grassia on Empowering Kids, One Chord at a Time

“Some of the things we’re teaching the kids, like to take pride in their own abilities, we as organisers and mentors, we’re struggling with ourselves too.”

"Some of the things we're teaching the kids, like to take pride in their own abilities, we as organisers and mentors, we're struggling with ourselves too."

Canberra-local Chiara Grassia is the director of Girls Rock! Australia, a music program open to female, trans and non-binary youths. Grounded in DIY ethics and self-love, Girls Rock! is a week long mission in which young people aged 10-17 learn to play an instrument, form a band and write a song.

After volunteering at programs throughout the U.S., Grassia brought Girls Rock! to Canberra in 2015, with Melbourne and Brisbane soon following suit. Led by Grassia and a team of mentors, the program provides teaching workshops, performances and talks from emerging female and gender-fluid musicians, including Jen Cloher, Courtney Barnett and Steph Hughes (Dick Diver).

As part of our Women of the Future series, we chatted to Grassia about creating a space for girls, non-binary and female-identifying kids, challenging self-doubt and how the mentors have reconciled with their younger selves.

You brought Girls Rock over from the U.S., is the Australian Program much different?
There are differences. I spent a few years volunteering in the States to understand how the programs run and I also wrote my honours thesis on it as well, trying to understand how these programs create a transformative space, that allows habits to shift and be dismantled, sort of socialised, gendered habits. Things to do with jealousy, like between girls, confidence in abilities, things like that. I was really interested in those aspects.

I remember one of the coordinators there in my first year in Portland, she was explaining on orientation day to all the volunteers ‘this is the world that we want to live in, it’s not the real world. It’s the world we want to create. You’re helping create a space together’ which I really loved. When I went and volunteered there the first year it was just so exciting. I loved the energy and the hopefulness about the space, I was obsessed.

The next year I actually got a grant from an organisation in Canberra to research a few more of them. So I went to a few other ones, and then I was writing my thesis and was also developing the Canberra one. The cool thing about the programs is that they’re all over the world and they’re all developed by people living in those cities, in those communities. There’s now ones in Melbourne and Brisbane, and ours are different to theirs because different communities need different things. I went to the one in Portland, and then with this grant I went to one in Austin and one in the Bay Area, and they were all completely different. They all have the same program but different energies, so it’s a week long program where girls, non-binary and trans kids form a band, write a song and learn an instrument in a week. They all follow that structure but the content is really up to them.

Did you know you wanted to bring Girls Rock to Australia when you went to the U.S.?
I read about the program when I was a teenager and just loved it, the idea stuck with me. The space was already there, I was reading about it, and I was like, this is a space for me. As well as for the kids.

I found that when I was there, the volunteers were exactly like the kids. They were us, when we were kids. And you’re also kind of weirdly, connecting with yourself. I know I had a few friends who had a lot of closure with their teenage selves as well.

Not intentionally, but after the first year I was so hooked on it, I just loved the community, and also how it made me feel. I felt like such a more confident person after being in a space that wants women to be confident and support each other. In the second year, I was like, okay, I can’t just keep coming back, I have to start it in Australia. It was that stubbornness, but also like an interest in social theory and how to make that practical.

Could you tell me about your role and how it’s developed since bringing over the program?
In the beginning it was just development, in terms of doing everything from grant writing to liaising with the venues, calling out the volunteers, to interviewing all the volunteers and making sure everyone’s on board, getting equipment — all that sort of stuff, like the really groundwork-y kinds of things.

During the week, my role is just to supervise everything and to make sure everything’s working smoothly. And also things like connecting other people who want to do it in other places, like putting all the Melbourne people in touch. The Melbourne women are so incredible. They’re doing such amazing things there. They’ve got a really amazing team and they’ve just run their second kids camp of the year but they’ve run like three or four programs this year.

GRC 2016 Courtney Barnett Jen Cloher and participants performing photo by Mia Mala McDonald
Courtney Barnett and Jen Cloher at a Girls Rock! camp.

How was Girls Rock embraced in Australia? Were there big challenges you had to overcome?
Yeah, [such as] writing grants. I think once we did it and proved that we could do it, then the government side and people who were more invested were like ‘oh this is cool’, so the second year was much easier in regards to funding. The first year it was met with a lot of support. I put a lot of feelers out, talked to my friends in the Canberra community.

Travelling through the States and going to their camps and talking to their organisers and mentors, and just tried to learn as much as possible from them. Then I was just asking everybody I knew and all the musicians I really liked, and was inspired by. There was a lot of reaching out as well. I’d definitely see people on stage and then be like ‘have you heard of Rock Camp? You would be amazing’. I don’t know if that’s annoying or not but it has worked. I think people really embraced the idea, it’s a really exciting concept and appealed to so many people. But also, I’ve been reflecting on this a little bit lately, but in the first year, I didn’t even think it was going to happen. A lot of it was like a mental block of ‘oh I can’t do this, oh it’s not going to happen’. And then it happened. It can happen. Some of the things we’re teaching the kids, like to take pride in their own abilities, we as organisers and mentors, we’re struggling with ourselves too.

But that’s what’s cool about these programs, they’re grounded in that DIY ethics. We provide instruments and teachers, but because it’s only a week, particularly in camp, a lot of these kids hadn’t played their instrument before, so you’re giving them enough to write a song. You might not be teaching really intense theory but if you’re giving them a few chords or how to just move your fingers on the guitar or come up with a drum beat, they come up with really amazing things. And also to have that space and time to explore what they want their music to sound like which, instead of just having a template of like ‘okay this is how you have to sound like, you have to be in this little formula’. We come up with some really, still really catchy, hooky songs, but especially this year, we had electronic music, so we had a lot more experimental, weirder things, which was really great.

I think it’s so important for young women especially not only to see other women on stage, but to be playing instruments on stage, because for so long it was thought that women couldn’t really shred like men could.
Totally. I think things are definitely changing, or at least you’re seeing it more in the media and there’s more of these discussions at the moment, and also I feel like this generation of kids is so switched on and so encouraging of each other. Particularly when there’s that generation gap between the mentors and the kids. We have mentors of all ages, between 18 to in their 50s, so we’re showing kids there’s different ways to be. You can be a mother and a musician. You can be whoever and still be interested in music and still play music and have that as part of your identity, you don’t have to fit a type you’ve seen before or that keeps getting represented in the media. You can be yourself.

With people like Courtney Barnett and Jen Cloher, one of the reasons it was so great to have them in the first year, they’re people who’ve built their success on being themselves and being their authentic selves. That was a thing they both talked about, they ran a workshop on Milk Records and how to start a label. One of the things they talked was that the label is this program with a bunch of your friends where you’re creating things together and you’re sharing it with each other. That’s a really cool approach to the music industry and is something we had again this year.

We had Genna from [PR company] Super Duper who came and taught a workshop about live music in the community, and she was talking about her approach to working with bands, but also how she’s seen bands, bands like Camp Cope and stuff support each other. This year we had Cable Ties come and play. And then we have a Q&A after the performances. It’s just all about making people really accessible, and breaking down those barriers.

“Some of the things we’re teaching the kids, like to take pride in their own abilities, we as organisers and mentors, we’re struggling with ourselves too.”

Can you tell me a bit about the kids? What are they like coming in compared to when they leave?
In the Canberra program we have kids from 10 to 17, and I feel like the biggest age group is around 12 to 13. We split them up in the afternoons when they have band practice and workshops, they’re in groups of 10 to 13 years olds and 14 to 17 year olds. You can feel the difference, I feel like the younger kids are a bit uninhibited, they don’t filter things as much. They come up with really abstract concepts for their band name, and then they come up with the logo, and we screen print it onto t-shirts and stuff. As well as the lyrics and music itself.

With the older group they’re definitely a little bit more aware of what they’re writing and maybe a little more self-censoring, but because they’re with each other they really encourage each other. Their lyrics are usually a bit more about emotions, and also politically-charged which is what we’ve been seeing lately. Also I can see them taking from the bands and the mentors they’re seeing throughout the week. The kids on the first day are usually really shy and reserved, and they kind of have a lot of games and activities to get them to trust each other and trust us. It allows everyone to be vulnerable and on the same page which is great because creating music and learning something new, you have to be vulnerable, it is hard. If you’re creating something or learning something new for the first time or doing something like performing in front of people from the first time, it’s really scary.

You can see the difference between the first day and the middle of the week and the end of the week. The kids really loosen up. A lot of their style changes — some people get haircuts in between or dye their hair — people are just getting to who they want to be. It’s not a school environment, it’s a very different environment, but it’s really supportive. And they’re still kids, so we really allow them space to be themselves and not be negative towards one another, particularly when it comes to appearance and things like that.

We try to focus on agency and active actions, like playing music is an active action, rather than how they look when they play music, which is something that women have to think about all the time, which sucks. Challenging those sorts of behaviours and thoughts, and again they’re things that the mentors are challenging too. I found that a lot of the kids really gravitate towards drums, that’s the most popular instrument, and also vocals. So things where they can be really loud. And also, we don’t have any acoustics, we plug in their guitars, we give them pedals, we make them be loud and they love being loud. You just see their expressions the first time a kid gets on the microphone and hears how loud they can be. It’s really exciting.