Anna Bulbrook plays violin on stage

An Indie Rocker Shows Her Classical Roots

If I hopped in a time machine and told my teenage self what I am doing with my life, I am not sure how she’d react.

I grew up as a pre-professional classical violinist in Boston. Music was a huge part of our family culture. My brother, Andrew (the second violinist in the Calder Quartet) and I did the Saturday classes at New England Conservatory Preparatory School; barefoot summers at Greenwood Music Camp and Tanglewood Institute, where we studied chamber music; and, later, summers at Encore School for Strings in Ohio, soaking up as much as the legendary violin teacher Robert Lipsett could teach us in six weeks. At Encore, I’d watch child prodigies shred perfect octave runs in the chapel every night and feel like I would never, no matter how hard I worked, catch up.

…guided by some inner voice, I did something unthinkable: I quit the violin. And I moved to
Los Angeles.

I was never only a violinist. I loved the rest of life, like school and drawing and writing and reading – but my identity as a classical musician ran deep. Even as I pursued the classical path through college, I majored in creative writing and American studies. Then, as graduation approached, I hit a turning point. I could pursue a life as a violinist, which meant (or seemed to mean) staying in classical music. Or I could do something else, whatever that meant. (By the way, the career counseling center at Columbia University also had no idea what someone with my skills and interests might do.) So, guided by some inner voice, I did something unthinkable: I quit the violin. And I moved to Los Angeles.

Being 21 in a new city as this strange violin-less person was not easy. I was in a new phase of life. My music friends were performing in studio class; I got a job. They went to coachings and auditions; I stayed out late discovering loud music and indie rock at clubs around town, hunting for new ways to love music. During that time I tried martial arts, baked a thousand loaves of banana bread and briefly took up cartooning.

The pressure to support myself as a fledgling adult was real, so I worked, starting with an internship at FILTER magazine writing online music news blurbs and reviewing EPs. I also tried artist management and classical music PR. I was playing violin now and again but only to remain on cordial speaking terms with my instrument. You could not describe what I was doing to music as “pursuing” it. I had closed that door for good.

Then, one day, a friend from around town named Mikel Jollett asked me to join his brand-new rock band called the Airborne Toxic Event – and it’s amazing how fast the door reopened. The next year was spent recording with the band while working full time, taking vacation days to tour in Europe, wriggling out of a client event to play our first KEXP session in Seattle, spending weekends driving up and down the West Coast to play shows over and over and over. During that time, I also made a record with a band called Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, and I played every show I could with them.

In the process of joining a band, something clicked into place. I was suddenly this new, open-minded person, available to learning about song structure, to playing tambourine, to singing, to being a terrible guitarist, to being an acceptable keyboard player, to wearing what I wanted, to playing simple whole-note lines onstage with the fire of a thousand suns and to throwing myself into performing with an utter abandon.

Airborne soon started to get some radio traction, and the single from our first record went on to become an alternative radio hit. I quit my job and spent 18 months on the road, growing our touring base with my family of boys: Mikel, Steven, Noah, and Daren. As a member of Airborne, I’ve toured the world, signed multiple major label deals, recorded four studio albums (and a fifth acoustic album) and made a live concert documentary and album at Walt Disney Concert Hall called All I Ever Wanted (featuring the Calder Quartet!). The single “Sometime Around Midnight” went gold. I’ve gotten to play music festivals all over the world from Coachella in the U.S. to Lollapalooza to Fuji Rock in Japan and Pukkelpop in Belgium, perform on different late-night TV shows more than 15 times and build a profitable touring and merchandising business.

…leading and fronting a band is currently the scariest thing I have ever done as a performer and musician.

Over the last 10 years of working with untrained but totally brilliant musicians and songwriters, and learning how to be a more openly defined musician, something else happened: I developed my own voice as a songwriter and singer. My new solo project is called the Bulls, and leading and fronting a band is currently the scariest thing I have ever done as a performer and musician. I am routinely terrified, and the slight masochist (violinist?) in me finds the experience, well, pretty rewarding.

It hasn’t been perfect. After 10 years of living in the masculine world of alternative rock, I stopped being able to ignore the extreme lack of other women around me. So I started an all women-fronted music festival, called GIRLSCHOOL, with the idea that if we got enough talented women together to create a critical mass, we could form a launching pad to lift each other up. Our first festival went well enough that we have already grown into a music- and community-based creative agency that focuses on connecting and celebrating female-identified artists and leaders. It feels special to be working with so many talented women after so many years; there is a magic to GIRLSCHOOL that all of us involved want to share.

So, at 33, I’m technically the worst violinist that I’ve ever been in the traditional sense but the best musician that I’ve ever been. I’ve been humbled in the process more times than I can count, and I’m sure I’ll be humbled a few thousand more – but I can’t wait to find out where music will take me next.

A band performs at GirlSchool

Noticing a dearth of women in the indie rock world, artist Anna Bulbrook founded GIRLSCHOOL, an organization designed to bring female musicians together in a mutually supportive artistic community.

The project debuted in August 2015 when Bulbrook’s band, the Bulls, headlined a series of shows at L.A.’s The Satellite. As part of the residency, Bulbrook curated a lineup of 100-percent female-fronted bands, including acts like Gothic Tropic and White Sea – the latter the solo project of M83’s Morgan Kibby. GIRLSCHOOL was such a success that it repeated in January of this year in the form of a three-day festival called FIELD DAY WEEKEND. Along with performances, it featured panels with industry professionals, and the proceeds of the festival were donated to Rock n’ Roll Camp for Girls LA.

GIRLSCHOOL is part self-fulfilled creative home, part political spotlight, and part master plan. Bulbrook describes GIRLSCHOOL’s aim as “creating critical mass.” It’s an effort to push more and more talented female musicians onto national stages, and to, quite literally, give them a voice.

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Anna Bulbrook

Anna Bulbrook, the singer-songwriter for the dream-gaze band, the Bulls, has spent ten years as a member of Airborne Toxic Event. She has also collaborated with Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, …more 

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