Musician Sharon Rickson is no stranger to NUVO readers.
Her former band Neon Love Life graced this publication's cover a few years back and her current project Small Arms Fire has been a fixture in NUVO's music calendar. But it's Rickson's role as president of Girls Rock! Indianapolis that frequently brings her into the spotlight these days.
I spoke with Rickson about her work with Girls Rock in advance of the organization's Girls Rock Kids Day in the Park happening this Sunday, June 28 at Broad Ripple Park. For just five bucks, the event offers family friendly live music, food trucks, bounce houses and a musical petting zoo.
This interview was excerpted from a larger conversation about women in music I moderated with Rickson, Elle Roberts and Lisa Smith (DJ Shiva). You can hear the full discourse this Wednesday night at 9 on 90.1 WFYI Public Radio.
NUVO: In case someone's been living under a rock for the last few years, can you give us a refresher on what Girls Rock is all about and your connection with the organization?
Sharon Rickson: I cofounded the Indianapolis chapter of Girls Rock with a handful of amazing women. We're coming into our sixth year of programming. We're part of a larger organization called the Girls Rock Camp Alliance which is an international organization. Girls Rock is all about music, self esteem, empowerment and giving girls the boost they need at an age where a lot of things are confusing and they are getting bombarded with messages from the media.
Girls Rock Indy gives girls in our community between the ages of eight and 16 the opportunity to learn an instrument, form a band, write a song and perform live in front of an audience. In addition to the musical programming our curriculum is based on things that I feel our girls here in the Midwest don't get in school. We cover things like body mage, self esteem and we find really cool ways to connect students with mentors to give them a big sister in the music community.
NUVO: The Girls Rock camp has been a huge success in Indy. You mentioned that the 2015 camp has already reached maximum capacity.
Rickson: Yes, that breaks my heart but it also makes me happy. I wish I could tell everybody that's interested that we have a spot for them. We're working on an expansion that will allow us to serve more girls in the future. The camp is at IUPUI this year. We're very excited to not only have a great fresh space for our girls to learn, but to also introduce them to college in a very organic way.
NUVO: I'm curious if you can recall any personal experiences as a musician that motivated you to co-found the Indy chapter of Girls Rock.
Rickson: A lot of things made me want to start the camp. It's funny being a woman in music, because you never think of yourself as a woman in music. You think of yourself as just a musician until someone else tells you different. To me that's laughable. This is a label that has been put on me. It's not because I say "I am a female musician." I know a lot of musicians who will say "Oh,why is it a big deal if you're a girl or a guy, or gay or straight?" It's not. That's the beautiful thing about music, it's a language of its own.
I've experienced some sorts of discrimination as a musician. For example carrying a bass amplifier into a venue and having the door person stop me and ask, "Whose girlfriend are you?" I feel like I had to prove myself as a musician in a different way. It's like "that's weird, you're a female and you can play well.
Things like that were frustrating, especially during my early 20s. I'd meet musicians and say, “Let's get together and jam or put together a band.” And they're like, "Uh, you're kinda hot." Thanks, I guess, but it's not about that.
NUVO: Have you noticed any progress on this issue, or is it a constant opposition against misogynistic attitudes?
Rickson: I wouldn't say it's a constant opposition, but if you look at the hard numbers from some of the big music festivals and see the percentage of women that are in the bands performing, it's not very high.
I was in one all-female act (Neon Love Life) and I thought if the promoter sees our band as a gimmick - good, book my gimmick band and pay me. My current band Small Arms Fire is me and two men. They both identify as feminists. They look out for me and other women in the music scene. They take women just as seriously and expect them to rock just as hard.
Girls Rock has been very well received in the Indianapolis community and that gives me faith. I think things are getting better. There is misogyny out there and at Girls Rock we're just trying to teach a bunch of sweet young girls how to smash the patriarchy.
NUVO: You must've had some powerful exchanges with the young people attending this camp. Any memories you'd like to share?
Rickson: Tons, whether it was the girl who was not talking into a microphone on the first day but signed up to be the lead singer and by day three she's just brave enough to sing into the mic. And then to see her and her band performing an original song they wrote in front of 500 people. That is guts, skill, hard work and dedication.
Every girl who goes through our program has that experience, but some of them take it and run with it in very different directions. We have former students who are pursuing things like music journalism. I just went to a former student's cello recital last Sunday. Now we're trying to raise funds to send her to a prestigious cello camp where she'll have an opportunity to continue to develop the skills she learned in our camp in a very different way. We're all about supporting our girls in their next endeavors. It's not just a week long program. We're here for these girls throughout the year to push them to succeed in whatever they want to do.