Feminism is growing up into a family affair: little girls in black Converse, gripping their mother’s hands; the stickered ukulele case of a 14-year-old front woman; an entire row of young boys bobbing their heads to a glittered-up bass player.
This is the scene at the official, start-your-engines, VIP pre-party held Oct. 20 at Upstart Crow Studios for Eugene’s month-long Grrrlz Rock festival.
Every November, Grrrlz Rock spotlights women and girls in music and the arts, providing a platform, encouraging mentorship and collaboration and creating an incomparable sense of community for young people and their families.
Matrisha Armitage, Eugene’s fairy rockmother and founder of MEPAA (Musical Education and Performing Arts Association), is infectiously giddy as she slings pizzas and sponsorship swag in her newly rented-out music hub in the Whiteaker.
Armitage took over the festival in 2010, four years after local promoter Cindy Ingram, more recently the owner of Pacific Pub Cycle, created it. The fest went fully nonprofit in 2014. Now paying rent in the cluttered loft of granted instruments and glitter paint just above the Eugene children’s theater Upstart Crow Studios, MEPAA has become a participation funnel for the festival and a way for Armitage to extend the magic of Grrrlz Rock.
“I wanted to work with these youth, these performers all year round,” she says. “I wanted us to have programs that happen all the time because seeing the community and the support and just the beauty of what this festival had every single year, I want to see that happening in the community all the time; I want to know that that feeling can happen all the time.”
Armitage, 38, learned the bookkeeping trade at 15 before starting 19th Avenue Productions, a student-run production company that managed the theater at South Eugene High School after having spent some time as a homeless youth. Years of mentorship and rockstar persistence, along with an army of volunteers (notably her mom, Peggy McKibben, and board vice president, Sean Brennan) have turned the once-edgier Grrrlz Rock festival into a cozy family. It’s become a place for women to find their voice on stage, ultimately growing the festival into a massive community of diverse artists.
More than 300 performers and artists are primed to rock the festival this year, including June Millington, the legendary guitarist and front woman of Fanny, the all-female band who, David Bowie once said, “played like motherfuckers.”
Millington will kick off the musical festivities on Nov. 2 at Whirled Pies with a split show.
“We want to get as much of her time as we can to inspire the youth, but also let the veteran rock ‘n’ roll women have a more intimate concert with her as well,” Armitage says.
Festival favorites like Mariah Moon and Eugene Bhangra will perform at Saturday Market Nov. 9. The jazzy and soulful guitar strumming Naomi Ariel will play for the women’s gallery showcase at New Zone Gallery Nov. 1, and Hannah Paysinger, the Silverton singer and pianist is returning to Eugene for her first CD release party at Sam Bonds Garage Nov. 22.
I caught up with Paysinger, who praised Armitage for the festival’s growth.
“Steadily each year it gets bigger and bigger. It’s really inspiring the way that she has maintained such positivity and encouragement.”
After a fire code capacity violation at Petersen Barn, Armitage promised dance participants they would have bigger venues to perform in going forward. This year, the Wildish Theater is hosting a local, multicultural movement and music event which includes Waka Daiko, Bounce-Zenith Aerial Arts, a mixed bag of local dance troupes, and musical guest, the BMA-nominated LeLe.
Youth bands like Mest Up, winners at last fall’s Make a Band series at the WOW Hall, are new favorites, drawing a crowd of elementary-aged head bangers at the pre-party. Teenagers furiously drum on a dozen marimbas. A sea of flexStudio dancers roam the building, excited for the promise of November fun.
Grrrlz Rock “empowers young girls,” says 12-year-old dancer Maia Hart-Smith.
“Yeah, and the energy is really positive; I’m excited to see everyone again,” adds 14-year-old Hanna Pavulans Sherwood, returning for her second year at the festival.
Solo artist and lead singer of the youth band SONG (Sirens of the Next Generation), Anna Fine highlights a major function of the festival, exposure.
“It’s been a really cool opportunity to meet people and get yourself out there — and I get to perform with June Millington,” Fine says.
Even if you’re bold enough to brave a stage, it’s not easy to book gigs, especially for young female artists in a wholly male-dominated industry. The music education process is a stressful one, and panic attacks over who gets second clarinet in the school band are not exactly encouraging.
MEPAA’s role in the evolution of Grrrlz Rock has pushed the need for inclusivity, and not just regarding gender. Most bands aren’t all-female, anyway. There needs to be comprehensive education, including the technical side of music, self-promotion, exposure to other musicians as well as positive, uplifting safe spaces for artists to be artists.
“It doesn’t have to be perfect,” says a resolute Armitage. “It just has to be fun and not hurt anyone’s ears.”
Girrrlz Rock runs Nov. 1 through Dec. 2 at venues including New Zone Gallery, Whirled Pies, Saturday Market, Wildish Theater, Axe & Fiddle and Sam Bonds Garage. For the full schedule check out GrrrlzRock.com. Most events are $5 or under.