Studio designer John Storyck (Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland) and his wife Beth Walters contributed the designs of the studios and control rooms, which play host to a Recording Camp each August, headed by Grammy award-winning engineers Leslie Ann Jones and Roma Baran. For our latest women in industry feature, Wears The Trousers talks to Ann about her political roots and how the IMA, which she affectionately calls the “the love child of an educational activist and a rocker”, got started.
You helped to run the Women’s Center at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts after finishing your studies there in 1980. Was it your work there that inspired the larger-scale vision for the Institute?
I had been building a vision since I was young, I guess around thirteen, when I began to think critically about methods used in the public school system. Later, as a college student I was involved in work targeting institutionalised racism and sexism and class bias, so that added to the vision. Before I got to Hampshire I had been at another college, Lawrence University in Wisconsin, and it was there that I began to develop an understanding of the ways that racism distorts and divides us. Toward the end of my time at Lawrence I was asked to join a mixed (race, religion, class, gender) group of other students and faculty interested in starting an alternative learning community. We were all so young and conflicted in so many ways that we didn’t get very far, but it set the stage for possibility. It was then that I became interested in building organisations that were intentionally multicultural. My mentor at Hampshire was Gloria Joseph, who is African-American and a feminist, and I did work with her around differences in Black and White feminism.
My work with the Women’s Center specifically helped me to develop organisational skills like program development, grant writing, promotion and budgeting, which have contributed to the work with IMA. I also got to try out my first ground-up venture of working on a project with women of diverse cultural backgrounds. We put on a conference called ‘Survival & Visions’, and the organising committee was a veritable feminist rainbow coalition, bringing together academics and activists to discuss the basic survival issues in their communities and their visions for creating a world where everyone’s basic needs are met.
How did you and June meet? What did you bond over, and how was the idea for IMA born?
June and I met in 1981 when she was coming through the area to do a gig. The concert producer called the Women’s Center to see if we wanted to hire her to do a workshop on campus. We hired her to talk about being a woman of colour in the music industry. She came again the next time she did a show in town in 1983, and did a workshop on demystifying the recording process. That would be the one way to answer to the question. Another way to answer would be to say that the moment we saw each other is permanently seared into each of our minds; you could say it was love at first sight. We didn’t become lovers until 1984, and shortly thereafter she began living with me at my apartment on campus when she was off the road. We were there, in Amherst, until 1986 when we decided to head to California. June wanted to be closer to her family, most of whom lived in California, and I was ready to move on.
We drove across the country that summer and all the while talked about our future. By the time we’d gotten to the West Coast we’d decided to start an institute for women musicians. June sat down and wrote thirteen pages about why an institute for women in music was necessary. I took that to a friend of mine who was a professional grant writer and she helped me distill it all down to one page and, like that, the IMA was born. We booked our first fundraising show at Hampshire College and then spent the rest the year touring the country, with June doing solo shows promoting the idea of and raising funds for the school. We got our non-profit status in 1987.
The IMA is an inspiring example of DIY activism that has really worked, in a sense that it’s still active and still creating positive change twenty-five years down the line. What is the key to keeping a large-scale project like this going? What kind of skills and resources have you relied on, or developed as the journey has progressed?
There are so many variables that go into getting a project aloft and keeping it afloat that I can’t say for sure there is a ‘key’ to it. I know that June and I sharing the passion for the project has been very important, so having at least one other committed person helps. The other thing I’d say is to start where you are; just do the next small thing to make the project happen. I’ve seen too many people wait for their idea of how much money or which people or whatever it is they think they need before they can start a project. Just commit to the project and build it bit by bit. Walk through the open doors, don’t get caught up banging on the closed ones.
When June and I started out we had no money to speak of but we had the passion for the project and each of us brought our own skills and contacts. Specifically, I brought my ideas for building a multicultural feminist learning community as well as organisational and certain basic social skills, like how to listen and mediate conflict. Over time I have also developed skills in cooking, book-keeping, long-range planning, budget proposing etc., not to mention carpentry, plumbing and landscaping. I wear a lot of different hats, which is great because if I get tired of working on one thing I can do something completely different to change my energy and clear my head.
You’ve said that you “wanted to change the world very early on”. Where do you think the roots of your activist ideals came from? What were the particular issues that spurred you into action?
I’d have to say the first things were around gender inequalities. I was a tomboy, and while I couldn’t put my finger on it I knew something was off about me being treated differently than my friends who were boys. I was probably not more than five or six when I was told one hot summer day to put my shirt back on, even though my friends didn’t have to, and the only answer they gave me to my “Why?” was “Because you’re a girl.” Also, my family was upper middle class and the neighbourhood I grew up in was mostly working class. We also belonged to the Country Club, so I had two distinct sets of friends, and by the time I was nine or ten I began to notice class differences. Later, as the public school system began to stratify us, I started to see the ways in which people were kept in their place by the schools. It’s subtle in America because we are all supposed to have equal opportunity, but the caste system is firmly in place. In addition to my direct experiences, I was a child during the 1960s and news of the Civil Rights movement in particular filtered through to me. I was ten years old in 1966 and the country was already on fire, literally and figuratively, over the Civil Rights of African-Americans, and that was just the beginning of the social justice movements to follow. While I wouldn’t say I understood what was going on – in fact, stories of the turmoil frightened me– I knew there was something really wrong with the picture I was being presented of who we were as a nation and the reality of who we were at that time.
I grew up in a small, all-white Midwestern town and the “United States of America” that I was being taught about in school – the one in which we all believed in equality, freedom and justice for all, the one where Americans were the good guys and everybody in the world loved us – was essentially reflected back to me except for some seemingly small inconsistencies. Learning that black people had somehow been excluded from the equation did not make sense to me, and I couldn’t make that fit in to who I thought ‘we’ were. Also, when I was twelve, a teacher gave me John Hersey’s book Hiroshima to read for extra credit. Learning that our country had used such a horrible weapon on civilians also seemed incomprehensible to me. I really did believe in the ideal version of America that was presented to me in school. At the time I concluded that something had gone wrong somewhere, and because the school system was the thing right in front of me I decided the problem lay there. I could see that we did not educate according to democratic principles and I thought that if we did do that we would create a truly democratic country, the place where everyone really did have equal opportunity for participation and growth. That was before I understood that the school system was simply supporting the economic system, which is in no way democratic.
You’ve said you realised that changing the public school system was the best way to set up a more fair and productive infrastructure. How did you set about doing this? Would you say the IMA provides an alternate kind of education that the public school system doesn’t offer?
I should clarify that before I got to college I thought it possible to change the world by changing the school system. Then I learned about realities of capitalism and imperialism. Understanding that the country had been built upon the genocide of the native peoples with labour of enslaved Africans, and that the public school system was designed specifically to keep everyone in their proper place in order to support a structure in which economic, political and military power is held by a small self-serving group, did not become clear to me until I was in college. At that point I realised that there would be no radical change in the public school system unless there was a complete (and highly unlikely) overhaul of the economic system. Eventually I turned to alternative living and learning communities and accompanying movements. That’s how I ended up at Hampshire College, it was a new and ‘alternative’ college at the time.
In answer to the second part of your question, yes, IMA offers an alternative kind of education but it is more than that. Because it was founded by and has grown up out of the experience, needs and concerns of women from diverse cultural backgrounds it is an all-too-unique organisation that will eventually, with June and my passing it on, become an institution. As far as I know there are not very many, if any, institutions that have grown out of women’s relationships in this way. Most of the women’s organisations and colleges are modeled on men’s colleges, or on men’s idea of what women should be doing. Throughout the industrial world men have been running the show and women are relegated to a sub-class. That arrangement has created some huge imbalances in the world and we have come to a place in the last sixty years or so where the technology that has come out of that imbalance is poised to destroy us. I think an antidote to this dangerous precipice is to move toward integration. I don’t mean integrating women into men’s world, or black people into a white world, or indigenous peoples into a colonial world, or Muslims into a Christian world. I am talking about bringing the content that each of us hold as individuals and as cultural groups together into a whole, and operating from there rather than compartmentalising, categorising, subjugating and suppressing.
Could you tell us a little about how June’s experience as a musician helped to shape and inform the IMA? As an innovative musician who started out in age when women rockers were a minority, she undoubtedly had invaluable first-hand knowledge of what girls and women need when starting out.
I think June understood early on that playing music, and in particular playing in a band with other girls, was completely empowering. She is working on her autobiography and the sense of liberation she describes in her first band as they practiced and gigged each weekend – getting better and better at their craft, doing more and more shows and driving further and further away from their homes – and the limitations put on them for being girls, is palpable. The fact that they were a band made it easier to take the insults and ignore many obstacles because they had a group identity.
While some things have changed in the fifty years since they started out, the reality is that it is still difficult for girls and women to develop their musicianship without having to overcome limiting expectations both from within and from the outside world. June knew very early on that having a place to go with other girls and women to learn their craft is essential. Also, she felt that having access to equipment and understanding the recording process was critical. One of the places women traditionally have lost control of their music is in the studio. IMA had its own recording equipment right away. In fact, I think we had a board before we even had a place to put it! We now have a state of the art recording facility and train girls and young women in studio recording, engineering and producing. A girl who comes through our programmes will gain understanding of how to run a sound system, how to play a variety of instruments, how to write and arrange music, how to run a band rehearsal, how to set up to record, how to run a recording session, how to engineer and mix.
Can you tell us a little about the programmes you offer, and how they have developed from the Rock Camp pilot programme you launched in 2002?
The programme has grown from the five-day pilot programme for teens we did in 2002 into four separate summer sessions. All the programmes are residential, and enrollment is limited to fourteen girls per session. We start the summer with a five-day session for preteen girls (ages 9–12) called Explore Rock ‘n Roll. Here the girls have an opportunity to explore various instruments, get their feet wet in an ensemble of some sort, start songwriting and put on a short show at the end. Then we have two sessions of the Rock ‘n Roll Performance Program For Teenaged Girls. These sessions are ten days long. We generally run the preteen and the teen programs similarly in that we start the first day with the girls introducing themselves to us and each other through their music, either via music they like or music they have written. The first evening, both age groups are introduced to the gear, and that first night they learn to run the sound system so they can come in and power up and play without any adults around. There are three classes a day: a vocal class, a drum and percussion class, and then June’s class which is called ‘Music As A Second Language’. She covers a lot in this course: some theory, chart writing and arranging, as well as listening to the foremothers in music, starting with Bessie Smith.
We teach all of them to write charts – that’s one of the tools used to help them come together as bands for the final concert. Generally, each girl brings one song to full fruition over the course of the program. The piece is often an original composition, which they develop from little more than a ‘poem’ written in their journal into a fully-fledged song, which the faculty help them develop the music and arrangements for, rehearse and perform at the end. The bands come together organically for the most part. The teen programme has no bedtime, so the girls are doing a lot of hanging out – sometimes just goofing around, or trading stories – doing the kind of bonding that allows for their creative voice to emerge. It’s sort of like a big musical playhouse. We have tonnes of gear: guitars, basses, banjos, ukes, a sitar, violins, cellos, a grand piano, and lots of keyboards, vibes and more. They are encouraged to experiment on all of them, and they do. They seem fearless about trying out new instruments and playing them for the show. Because they all learn to play drums we often have a girl who has never even sat at a drum set playing drums on something because she’s just got a natural affinity for it.
There are classes all day, and usually one night a clinician comes in. For the last few years it’s been singer-songwriter Erin McKeown, and she’s done either songwriting or performance technique classes. It depends on what the girls seem to need more. Now that we have girls who return year after year, they pretty much hit the ground running so we don’t have to do much to get the them up and jamming. And because the group and the returnees are leading with the confidence and collaborative skills they have picked up here, the new girls find their confidence more quickly now. It’s stunning actually. The final concerts are usually about sixteen songs: most of them originals, most of them written or at least arranged at the camp. We also usually open the whole show with a big group percussion piece that often is choreographed sort of Taiko drummer-style.
The final session is the Studio Recording, Engineering & Production Programme for girls who have been through our programme and college students who are ready for studio recording or interested in engineering as a career path. This is a hands-on program so the participants are learning how to engineer and how to be in the studio as musicians. Most of the participants are musicians who want to learn about being in the studio as recording artists, but they also learn how to run the recording equipment, how to select and set up mics, how to isolate sound and tracks, how to arrange for the studio and prepare to come in to record. At the end they have produced a CD in which they have all played on tracks, if not recorded one of their own songs, engineered, produced and helped to mix. We call the compilations ‘Studio Dogs’. I think we’re up to volume five.
Is the IMA affiliated with Girls Rock Camp and Ladies Rock Camp, or the film ‘Girls Rock! The Movie’ at all?
No, not in any official capacity. Our work with girls came out of the work with adults at the Institute and our approach is different, but we share the same goal of empowering women and girls to get out there and rock the world.
You’ve said on your Leading From The Kitchen blog: “When June and I founded IMA we had lots of ideas about what we wanted it to be. Not once did we think about the kitchen; yet, as the institute has evolved the kitchen has become the very center of all that we do.” Please elaborate.
Around the mid 1990s, a local women’s newspaper asked me to write about IMA for an issue focused on women’s relationships. I wasn’t sure what to write so I just started describing what was going on in the moment as I sat upstairs in my office at the Old Creamery [in Bodega, California], which was then our home. I realised while writing that article that everything and everybody was filtering through the kitchen, and that’s when I understood that we were growing an Institute from a seed planted in women’s relationships rather than building one from a static blueprint or an idea of what it should be. We have rarely had a lot of money to spread around, but everyone knows they can get a good meal here. Having a great meal with others goes a long way toward making the work that needs to be done worthwhile. That’s a no-brainer I suppose, in many cultures, but not so much in America.
What is different about what is unfolding at IMA is that this universal human activity of cooking and eating together is a central point from which what will become institutional relationships are forming. Out of necessity I ended up cooking for the camps and there have been some, on our board for instance, who have felt that I, as the Executive Director, should not be “stuck in the kitchen”. Initially I felt somehow ashamed that I liked to be in the kitchen while the camps were running, but later I realised that it was the perfect place for the Director to be. It clearly showed that command central was the kitchen. When the girls want to find me the first place they check is the kitchen. So the whole feel of decision making and problem solving is very different when it is done in the kitchen as opposed to my office. Being in the kitchen is also a great way to be present for the girls without being intrusive. The kitchen is open 24/7 during the summer programmes, and the girls are welcomed in at any time (except when we are rushing to get a meal finished on time).
Sometimes I just go about my business when they are hanging out in the kitchen, and at other times I join or initiate conversation. Either way, it is a point of interaction and a way to keep an ear to what is up with them. The whole concept of leading from the kitchen seems like an oxymoron until you begin to explore it. We have begun to explore it simply because we maintained the vision of developing from scratch a women-centered institution – we didn’t let our ideas get in the way of what was really happening.
I want to refer to something you wrote on your blog after you found out, coincidentally, that ‘ima’ is the Hebrew name for mother: “Because IMA was founded by women and has a goal of supporting women and girls, it can hardly help but take on a mothering role. What, though, does it mean to remove mothering from the individual and weave it into an organisation – a non-profit corporation to be exact. It’s hard to say, really, I’m not sure there are any models.” Have you/the IMA come up with its own model over time? What advice would you give to other women who want to manage that balance of business and giving that the IMA has perfected?
I have always believed that IMA is a model simply by virtue of its all-too-unique origins of having been built from the ground up by women of diverse cultural backgrounds. ‘Leading from the kitchen’, or putting the nourishment aspect of our work first, changes the dynamic dramatically. We are modelling raising the feminine (the nourishing, receptive, intuitive, birthing, intuitive, empathetic aspects of who we are) and cultivating an institution which reflects an integrated masculine and feminine self so that we might all move from the imbalances created through the deification of either side of the equation.
Because I am so inside it all it’s hard for me to step back and point to specifics, but the focus on maintaining small intimate groups, cultivating collaborative leadership skills, and creating healthy relationships toward the self, each other and the Institute itself is an alternative to institutions that focus on working with large groups in a competitive setting, which cultivates specialisation at the expense of relationship and health. If we simply trust our own intuition while building businesses, schools and other organisations rather than bowing to the pressures of the masculine culture to do otherwise, we will achieve that balance. In short, the less we compartmentalise and compete and the more we integrate and cooperate the better.
What makes your job difficult?
Cultivating and then staying connected to my own inner truth, while at the same time paying attention to the needs of others and the Institute itself.
What makes your job rewarding?
I can honestly say that there is not one thing that is unrewarding, whether I am cleaning a toilet bowl or speaking to an audience, because I know it is all part of my contribution to positive creative expression in the world.
Helping women and girls to explore their creativity and overcome ideas of permission must be an inspiring, and mutually rewarding process. Are there any particular moments or people you have met and helped that have stood out for you?
Wow, there have been so many moments. The work with girls is especially fulfilling. There are performances each summer at the end of all four sessions; the courage, creativity and transformation that happens during the session is exhibited so powerfully during those concerts and is an incredible joy. I did have a moment a few years ago that literally stopped me in my tracks. It was walking up to our newly finished world-class recording studio and seeing Leslie Ann Jones through the window teaching a row of girls about recording gave me great pause. It was a culminating moment where the dreams and work of so many women became visual for me in a profound way. It brought tears to my eyes.
June Millington and her sister/fellow ex-Fanny member Jean Millington released their newest album, the Kickstarter-funded Play Like A Girl, earlier this summer. Girls from IMA’s programmes sing and play on several of the album’s songs. Last year, Rhino Records issued a limited edition 4CD boxset containing all four of Fanny’s albums for Reprise. For more information, visit fannyrocks.com.
Top photo: All photos courtesy of Ann Hackler/IMA.