“This weekend, I am sorry for nothing. This weekend, I belong to me and the goddesses of [expletive] rock!” says musician Adra Boo, director of Seattle’s Ladies Rock Camp, to the group of campers in the small cafeteria at Puget Sound Community School, the camp’s home for the next two days. All assembled repeated after her. Camp staff have covered the walls and doors of practice rooms with images of musicians like Lizzo, Sheila E and Sister Rosetta Tharpe; the kitchen is filled with an impressive potluck spread; and first-day nerves have been danced out to Beyonce.
First up on the agenda? “A ‘Making the Band’ situation,” says Boo.
“It’s like the rose ceremony,” one camper quipped on her way in, and her comparison to “The Bachelor” isn’t inaccurate: On the first day of Ladies Rock Camp, the 36 campers, each assigned to sing or play bass, lead guitar, drums or keys, will go through speed dating-style get-to-know-you chats with each other, then fill out of forms listing details like musical preferences and the names of anyone they’ve particularly sparked with.
Camp staff will then come up with band assignments based on those questionnaires, and after two days packed with band practices, instrument lessons, workshops and even a session with the glam squad, the groups will put their new musical collaborations to the ultimate test in a Sunday night show at the Clock-Out Lounge on Beacon Hill.
In the Northwest, rock camps are ubiquitous — one was even the subject of a 2007 documentary. But this one is different: Everyone at Ladies Rock Camp is an adult.
The program branched out of Rain City Rock Camp for Girls, a rock ‘n’ roll camp launched at the Fremont Abbey Arts Center in the summer of 2009. Forty girls between the ages of 8 and 16 attended that first iteration. Now in its 11th year, RCRC has four full-time staff members and a yearly volunteer count of 300, and serves almost 250 youth through week-long summer camps in the Seattle area and is now simply known as Rain City Rock Camp.
As RCRC grew, it came with a surprising discovery: Adults wanted in on rock camp, too. “The Ladies Rock Camp was started in part because of adults wanting a similar experience that they had missed out on when they were kids,” says RCRC executive director Natalie Walker.
Ladies Rock Camp was the response, an invitation for women, transgender and nonbinary adults of any age to spend a weekend learning firsthand what it’s like to be in a rock band.
And so far, it’s loud. With the amps plugged in and band practice underway, staff and volunteers pass around prophylactic neon yellow-and-red earplugs. Kick-drum beats and simple guitar chords fill the air.
But from this soup of noise, something starts to emerge. The guitarists spent their morning learning chords, and the vocal crew worked through technique using No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak” as their scale book. Now, in the thick of this shaggy, communal jam session, distinct, disarming moments of music begin to break through the noise. What began as aural chaos is starting to sound like rock.
Growth, not perfection, is the point, and it’s audible. It’s a rare opportunity to witness the moment when someone begins to put something they’ve just learned into practice. But that’s exactly what’s happening.
A rock camp might still seem like a niche proposition to some, but a commitment to learning for learning’s sake, for adults as well as children — a camp ethos is “Practice makes progress” — is not. It’s the animating force behind any number of skill-learning programs for adults, from weekend workshops to full-blown summer camps, that cater to a broad range of interests, disciplines and skill levels.
And like Ladies Rock Camp, a number of them can be found in the Pacific Northwest, no matter what you’re into.
At Music Northwest in Seattle, adults with at least three years of experience playing an instrument can attend a chamber music workshop over two weekends in January. Throughout the region, NOLS (formerly the National Outdoor Leadership School) offers outdoor trainings and courses covering everything from wilderness first aid to mountaineering in the North Cascades, some only to people over age 23.
In Goldendale, Klickitat County, horse enthusiasts can build up equestrian skills at an annual 4-H Adult Horse Camp. At Seattle dance studio eXit Space, adults can sign up for takePAUSE, an annual performance program that coaches dancers (from beginners to professionals) through rehearsals ahead of a culminating performance.
And you can even go back to summer camp: At adults-only Camp Rahh! on Samish Island, campers have access to activities like kayaking, climbing, meditation and yoga, with a life coach on hand and dance parties in the woods. Work talk is banned, as are drugs, alcohol and technology.
Among all of these programs, Ladies Rock Camp is unique in that it caters primarily to true beginners but also offers campers a performance opportunity, operating on the idea that, as the program’s Band Coach Handbook states, “Camp miracles happen every day!”
And they do.
On Sunday night at the Clock-Out Lounge, the first moments of music that I’d heard at camp on Friday come together in songs with verses, bridges and choruses, played by band members who hadn’t known each other two days ago, in front of a sparkly curtain and an audience.
The groups sing about worm life-cycles and being underestimated at work and the overwhelming societal expectation to say “I’m fine” in the face of major stressors and worries about politics.
There are glam-rock looks and dance breaks and trendy fanny packs and granny glasses, and an adoring public representing all ages, from hipsters in their 20s to families toting little kids wearing earmuffs. The floor in front of the stage gets so crowded with people of all ages that at times it’s impossible to see who’s playing.
I have never seen so many adults hugging and high-fiving, but if you had come in off the street, it would have felt and sounded like any other rock show. You wouldn’t have known that the songs were rough drafts, or that in many cases, the women onstage had never done this before.
In a way, that shouldn’t be surprising. As the riot grrrls of the ’90s found — to say nothing of canonical punk forebears like the Clash — you can accomplish a lot with a handful of power chords and some charisma.
But simplicity and access are two different things, and women have often been left out of the music industry’s corridors of power. A study of the best-performing 600 songs released between 2012 and 2017, and conducted by the University of Southern California’s Stacy Smith, for example, found that only 12.3% of credited songwriters were women.
I hear about this divide at rock camp too, from the professional musicians on staff. Veronica Topacio, who plays in indie dream pop band La Fonda with her sister Valerie, and coached a group called Metamorphosis at Rock Camp, recalled not feeling like music was an option until she was 24, even though it’s now become her career.
Ladies Rock Camp and other adult skill-learning programs can expand adults’ understanding of what their options really are and remind grown-up brains that stasis need not set in with age. Programs like these break down mystique, fill gaps in experience and provide the relaxed, necessary assurance that failure is an option, and growth and bravery are more important than looking cool — a lesson that’s arguably just as applicable at 50 as it is at 5.
The best evidence of this comes during the showcase, when one of the bands has a sound problem mid-performance. A staffer swiftly walks onstage, assesses the situation and offers help. The band plays through the end of their song without incident.
“You just keep rockin’, ’cause someone’s got your back,” says camp director Boo of the quick onstage fix. “If you find yourself going into the deep end, we got a floatie for you…. that’s love, right there.”
If you go
The fall session of Ladies Rock Camp runs from Friday, Sept. 20, to Sunday, Sept. 22, at the Vera Project, 305 Harrison St., Seattle. Sliding scale tuition between $200 to $425. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for information on scholarships and payment plans. No experience is necessary. More information at raincityrockcamp.org.