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Rock Stars In A Week

Rock Stars In A Week

The Yukon girls' camp that takes over Dawson City's biggest stage
By Herb Mathisen
Oct 13
2017
From the Oct/Nov 2017 Issue

“I’m a girl in the North, I’m a girl in the North, just hanging out, just hanging out.” The young singer of Time Fox croons away on a Saturday afternoon in July, under the big-top tent on Dawson City Music Festival’s main stage. It’s the first—and maybe only—time she’ll perform the song in public. She and her bandmates only wrote it earlier that week. In fact, some of them hadn’t picked up an instrument before Monday.

The song ends and we—the crowd of more than one hundred assembled before them—explode in cheers, screams and even a few tears. The four members of Time Fox, just eight and nine years old, look equal parts adrenalized and relieved. As does Lana Welchman, a founder of the Yukon Girls Rock Camp and the show’s MC. She tells us to give it up one more time for Time Fox, as the girls leave the stage in smiles. She introduces the next band. Giant guitars—in relative terms—are placed on the girls’ laps.

For the past three years, Welchman has helped organize the five-day camps for Yukon girls aged eight to 17. This afternoon’s showcase, where the bands play songs they wrote over the course of that week, is fast becoming one of the can’t-miss events of the festival. But it’s not all about the music.

“I think a misconception is that it’s a music program,” says Welchman. “We just happen to use music as the medium to discuss social issues, gender issues—just what it’s like being a girl or a youth growing up today.” The trick, she says, is to hide the social justice and empowerment aspects of the camp in the workshops. For instance, a healthy relationships discussion is disguised as a band dynamics workshop. “You’re still talking about these tools on how to have healthy friendships and healthy romantic relationships, but within the context of a band.” During the week, there are workshops on consent, presentations from local LGBTQ community members and the Yukon Women in Trades and Technology, and talks about gender, sexuality and activism. “It’s designed to be super intense,” says Welchman. “And it brings out a lot of emotions in the girls. What we do as counsellors is help them navigate those emotions and get them to the performance on Saturday. It’s really a way for them to learn tools to identify emotions and learn how to deal with them and express them to other people.”

Expressing themselves through music doesn’t happen right away. “On day one, they’re usually so quiet—afraid to make any kind of sound. You have to really encourage the girls that it’s okay to whale away on these drums,” says Welchman.

But counsellors don’t tell the girls how to write a song. Some bands do it collaboratively. In other bands, one girl will write the lyrics, while another band member designs merchandise—like the buttons that are sold at the festival’s official merch table.

One seven-year-old took to the soundboards right away. “We taught her how to run it, how to work all the levels, how to set up the PA and all the mics and stuff,” says Welchman. “All week, she kind of just took over the soundboard in one of our main jam rooms.” Welchman told the girl she would show her the festival’s  sound set-up on Saturday. “So right after the performance, she just walked up to me and was like ‘Where’s the big board?’” The girl got a tutorial. Soon, she was working in the lighting booth with the technician.

The camp has inspired some girls to develop their chops too. As the Flaming Roses set up on stage, Welchman talks about the band’s drummer, who was in her second year of camp. She’d taken lessons over the winter. “I’m walking by one of the band rooms and I hear someone playing drums and doing fills. I thought it was the instructor demonstrating a beat or a rhythm or something. I open the door and it’s this tiny nine-year-old. I was like, ‘Wow.’” The drummer, sitting behind her kit, gives a cool smile, before clacking her sticks together to kick off their song.

As each new bass line, electric guitar riff, or synth chord joins the mix, the crowd pops in appreciation. Every song has a unique sound and theme. Time Fox tackles the occasional tedium of life as a pre-teen. The Fire Spirits sing about a battle between fire, water, air and earth. And Brain Wash Station, a band made up of the camp’s junior counsellors, dives into full-on teenaged angst.

At the end of the event, every band member and counsellor takes the stage for one last jam, chanting a chorus together—“Yukon Girls Rock!”

The two charismatic singers of The Fire Spirits sing along and do the Swim.Looking like rock stars.