“Creativity is so important for all of us,” says local musician and vocalist Karen Austin, who performs in electronic shoegaze duo VIA with her partner, Steven Gaona. “The feeling of not being able to get your heart out there because you don’t have the tools necessary to articulate it is the worst feeling in the world.”
Austin, who grew up in what she describes as “an Amish-type commune” in British Columbia, was sneaking a listen to the radio when she heard U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name.” “I was like, ‘What is this sound? Whatever it is, I have to figure out how to go make sounds like that,’” she says. The search took her first to Edmonton in Alberta, Canada; and later to Lubbock, Texas, for a program that included audio engineering.
“I started pursuing what made me come alive,” she says. On Saturday, June 15, VIA will headline a concert to benefit Girls Rock Asheville with fellow bands Miss Jean and The Love Cats and Kathryn O’Shea. Two more acts, Moonlight Street Folk and Rooster, are made up of Girls Rock volunteers who will be working at this year’s camp.
The afternoon show at The Grey Eagle also includes the debut screening of VIA’s short film Firefly. Starring Asheville-born, Atlanta-based actor Katie Cassenti, Firefly is a video for the first of seven songs from the band’s just-released album, Vessels of Sound, Vol. 2, Morse. Austin met Cassenti at a show at The Mothlight a few years ago, and the two decided to collaborate. “Our sound is very soundtrack-type material,” Austin explains. For the project, she also tapped her choreographer niece Olivia Joy Harris with the idea to “pull all these powerful people together and do something magical.”
Eventually, each of the album’s tracks will be represented by a video that will form a full-length film.
Firefly was filmed in Atlanta in the home of Austin’s late grandfather, J. Paul Austin, who was the CEO of Coca-Cola and used his influence to help the civil rights movement. It’s perhaps in part from her grandfather that Austin inherited her own belief “in creating opportunity and giving back to the community.” With that mission in mind, VIA plans to film future videos in Asheville with local talent and remains dedicated to supporting Girls Rock Asheville.
The Girls Rock Camp Alliance “is an international membership network of youth-centered arts and social justice organizations,” according to its website. The organization launched in Portland, Ore., in 2001, and the first Asheville camp was held in 2014. This year’s event — for girls, trans and nonbinary youths, ages 8-14 — takes place Monday-Friday, June 17-21. The camp for 2019 is already full, but there are many opportunities for adult volunteers (no musical skill is necessary; email firstname.lastname@example.org for info). Supporters are also invited to both the June 15 benefit show and the Saturday, June 22, showcase (where campers perform the music they’ve worked on during their week at camp) at The Salvage Station.
Girls Rock provides instruments and lessons (no prior experience is required) as well as workshops and discussions on self-confidence, teamwork, conflict resolution and more. Plus, there’s racial equity and gender justice training for all volunteers. “We’re teaching so much more than a musical instrument,” says Lockie Hunter, who serves on the local organization’s executive board. “I always say it’s a social justice camp that has a musical element.”
This year, 40 campers will attend Girls Rock Asheville. Priority is given to those from marginalized groups who are unlikely to have another opportunity to attend a summer camp. The long waitlist includes enough names to fill a second weeklong session — one of the organization’s future goals. About 80% of campers receive full or partial scholarships, and funds raised go toward that financial aid as well as operating expenses.
The June 15 benefit show will include a silent auction with items donated by UNC Asheville’s STEAM Studio and recording time at Echo Mountain. The camp itself also receives community support, such as food from local restaurants (breakfast and lunch are served to campers and volunteers) as well as musical instruments and gear. Most popular, says Hunter, are keyboards, guitars, basses, drum kits, ukuleles, and “we love our synths.” She adds, “If you have an instrument to donate, even if it’s not in good shape, we have somebody on staff who repairs them for us.”
There’s a hope, too, for a weekend version of Girls Rock geared toward adult, femme-identifying people who want the empowering experience of learning or improving on an instrument and performing live. But even the volunteers, says Hunter, “say it’s one of the best weeks of the entire year. We have so many bands that have come out of musicians who’ve met at Girls Rock … and lasting friendships form, year after year.”
It was such a chance meeting-turned-bond that lend to VIA’s involvement in Girls Rock. Austin met musician and bartender Kristin Sears, aka Wifey, while playing a show at The Odditorium, and Wifey invited the band to play during one of the camp’s lunchtime shows. Austin immediately resonated with Girls Rock. “It was quite a culture shock to come from my upbringing and figure out how the world works, but then also learn something [I was] passionate about,” she says. “It’s always nice when there are nice people in your path who believe in you and say, ‘You can do it.’”
WHAT: Girls Rock Asheville benefit featuring VIA with Miss Jean and The Love Cats, Kathryn O’Shea, Moonlight Street Folk, Rooster
WHERE: The Grey Eagle, 185 Clingman Ave., thegreyeagle.com
WHEN: Saturday, June 15, 1-4 p.m. $5
WHAT: Girls Rock Asheville showcase, girlsrockasheville.org
WHERE: Salvage Station, 468 Riverside Drive
WHEN: Saturday, June 22, 2 p.m. Suggested donation $5-$10, but no one will be turned away due to lack of funds