- Photos by Michelle Carlisle
- (From top) Meredith Hancock, Tonya Stewart, Shelley Buisson, Patty Van Norman, Jaime Powell
It's a rainy Saturday afternoon in late October, and I'm sitting inside a goat cheese farm's bed and breakfast near Siler City. Lunch has just ended, and Meredith Hancock—a therapist and social worker in her late 20s, who I met yesterday—tells me about the dream she had last night. She and I were onstage singing a funny little song about elves.
"Oh, we should do it," I say, singing a potential line for our elfin tune in a high voice that, to me, fits the role. "I had a dream we were singing a song," it goes.
She likes the line, and we laugh until we're crying. For the next hour or so, we add lyrics to the elf song. Shelley Buisson, a mom and piano teacher, joins us, offering enthusiasm and expertise. She's worked as a character actor for the North Carolina Renaissance Faire, so she knows her elves. And after some pleading throughout the day, we elf singers finally find some musicians on the farm willing to back us up.
Today is the first full day of the second Women's Rock Retreat, which began last year as a response to the success of Girls Rock NC summer camps. Designed for 7-to-17-year-olds, multiple Girls Rock camps sell out each year. But kids aren't the only ones who want to rock, of course. We women—some parents, some professionals, a wanderer or two—want to get in on the action, too.
Abby Pearce, a founding member of Girls Rock NC, helped create the Women's Rock camp after a conversation with the director of Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls, a similar organization in Portland, Ore. Each year, they hold several Ladies Rock day camps, and the response is overwhelming.
"She was like, 'You're not going to believe how brave these women are. These women are riding around and picking up their kids and not making any time for themselves at all,'" remembers Pearce, who partnered with Portland and ran with the idea, expanding it across a weekend to create a women's rock retreat. "'You just don't even understand how this is going to change them and you and everyone else who is involved.'"
So on Friday night we give it a chance. Among the folksy décor of Celebrity Dairy Goat Farm's Bed and Breakfast Inn, the women—14 of us, including me, Pearce and another Girls Rock NC staffer, Beth Turner—gather around a long wooden picnic table. We're asked to explain why we're here, and we all repeat a variation on a theme: We all want to play music and, so far in life, we simply haven't found the opportunity or the time to do it enough.
Patty Van Norman, for instance, is a mom who works at Duke University Press. She grew up "playing the Jesus songs when [she] was young" to impress a cute boy. At one point, she was even in The Village Band of Chapel Hill/ Carrboro, a nonprofit community group that's been around since 1974. Life interrupted, but a particularly exhilarating karaoke performance at downtown Durham bar Bull McCabe's reminded her that she wanted to perform again. Khuwailah O. Beyah is a classically trained vocalist busy with her job as an administrative assistant at the Terry Sanford School of Public Policy. She gave herself this weekend getaway as a birthday present.
And there's Barbara Brister, who grew up dispossessed by music, thanks largely to the piano lessons she involuntarily took. As an adult she began writing songs "to soothe a broken heart." She joined the N.C. Songwriters Co-Op last year. A self-described introvert, she wanted a way to play with people.
Not long after telling 11 strangers just that, Brister was, indeed, placed in a band. Based on the instruments we said we wanted to play, Pearce divided us into three quartets. After dinner, rehearsals began. From then until a scheduled performance Sunday night at The Cave—the tiny, venerable rock club beneath Franklin Street in Chapel Hill—the groups were largely autonomous. Yoga and screen-printing sessions on Saturday were optional, while a skeleton schedule included suggestions on when and where to practice. Pearce circulated through the camp, offering assistance to bands when they asked for it. Other than that, the women pooled their skills to come up with songs.
There wasn't a lot of structure to the first camp, "and I was kind of nervous about that," Pearce admitted. "But it worked out perfectly. The women really knew what they wanted to do. And mostly what they wanted to do was rock."
"[There aren't] any rules," explains Mara Thomas, a Girls Rock NC volunteer who was drafted for bass and guitar duty in The Squares. "So I think we can do whatever we want. We are women rocking out. That's all we need to know."
Tonya Stewart also plays guitar for The Squares. A New Orleans girl, she grew up with a guitar-playing daddy ("git-tar," she says) and a blind piano teacher. She played some clarinet as a child, but she got kicked out of the school band for prank-calling the teacher. "I just want to play my chords," she says.
On "Goat Cheese Jam," her contribution to the The Squares, that's what she did, strumming as she sang, "I love goat cheese/ but it tends to make you constipated." Sunday night at The Cave, she skillfully led a segue out of her own tune, morphing into "Happy Birthday" for Jaime Powell, her bandmate, who turned 32 on the last day of camp.
Donning neon face paint and dangly silver-star earrings, Powell took to The Cave stage with a fiendish expression. She grabbed the mic and said, "Get excited, y'all—because you're going to love this." Powell is the front lady for The Squares, and a magnetic performer.
- Photo by Michelle Carlisle
- Squares in clubland
Halfway through "Big Girl Panties," an original tune about forgiveness, she put on a pair of oversize, thin cotton panties with "The Squares" screen-printed on them—Stewart's handiwork—and then threw identical pairs into the audience.
Powell—a puppeteer, yoga teacher and life coach from New Orleans—stumbled upon Girls Rock NC during last year's Women's Rock Retreat at The Stone House in Mebane, where she was staying during a 700-mile long hiking trip. While hiking, she spent a lot of time pondering how she wanted to be in a rock band. When she serendipitously found the Women's Rock Retreat, she was "unanimously pow-wowed into" becoming "Cleavage" in the band Cleavage and the Booby Traps. The women taught her to rock, she remembers, sometimes going as far as to wrap their arms around her to show her exactly how to move her hands onstage.
Throughout our weekend in Pittsboro, that's how everyone responded—warm, open, fun. There wasn't any arguing or infighting as we all plowed onward to create our songs, but the process was difficult nonetheless.
Carrie Goldsmith, for example, had never played an instrument before she became the drummer in Prey for Rock and Roll. I was part of the band Creative Casualty, which included Kari Webb (a mom who played guitar on her own until she injured her hand playing tennis), Brister on keys and Crystal Mays-Balster, a Chapel Hill hairdrsser, on guitar and vocals.
During our first practice session, Brister suggested that we use the somewhat polarizing, often ubiquitous and in this case ironically named Sensitive Female Chord Progression. Named for musicians of the Sarah McLachlan and Jewel ilk, the progression follows the pattern vi-IV-I-V (which, in the key of A minor, would be Am-F-C-G). During the weekend, the four of us likely toiled through enough variations on that pattern to make an entire album. Our final version, "The Walls Are Down," combined many of the discarded pieces. We sacrificed clear lyrical narrative for an it's-all-good mentality.
"Desert is wide and empty. I burn leaves with a blow torch," I sang on Sunday, taking lyrics that we had written as a band at various times over the weekend.
By weekend's close, we were saturated to exhaustion with memories—rock, hilarity, fun. Really, there was only one moment of tension. During The Squares' practice late Saturday afternoon, Powell found herself lagging a bit on the vocals. Stewart's response was quick. "Don't start freaking out on us now. You were all loosey-goosey before. It's because of that goddamn elf band you joined."