About a year ago, I was fortunate enough to meet Jen Baron — a remarkable musician and passionate educator. Her zeal for teaching music as a means of building confidence and fostering self-expression in her students is nothing short of inspirational. Jen launched the Santa Barbara branch of Girls Rock just a few years ago and already it’s given hundreds of girls in California the opportunity to rock out. I sat down with her in sunny Santa Barbara to chat about Girls Rock SB and the musical journey that led her to start it.
Tell me more about Girls Rock. Based on what I’ve heard, I wish it had been around when I was growing up!
A lot of people have said the same thing. We’re actually doing an adult ladies’ rock camp in May!
I’ve volunteered and participated in some of the Girls Rock Camp Alliance‘s ladies camps. We haven’t run one of our own yet, but because there has been so much positive feedback around the idea, we’ve decided it’s time! It’s a three-day program and at the end, participants will play at Soho [Restaurant and Music Club] and we’ll have a headliner follow them.
But our main focus are our girls’ programs. We now have a full after-school program. We’re in several different schools all over Santa Barbara and just launched a home school curriculum as well. This winter we have 140 girls. We’ll have 200-300 in the summer.
We have girls who have been playing since they were four and are already recoding in studios and working with producers, and we also have girls come in who have never picked up an instrument.
While you might be more advanced than someone else in reading music or playing an instrument… it’s amazing how valuable everyone’s skills are, especially in the context of a band.
How does that affect their interaction, especially at that age?
For the most part, there’s actually a lot of peer teaching that goes on. Every once in a while we’ll get a girl who thinks she’s better than everyone else, but what I try to instill in our students is this idea that while you might be more advanced than someone else in terms of reading music or playing an instrument, maybe she’s an awesome lyricist. It’s not just about who has been playing since they were four or who’s classically trained… it’s amazing how valuable other people’s skills are, especially in the context of a band.
How do you determine what makes a great teacher?
Staffing is probably one of the things I spend the most energy on — not just choosing instructors, but training them. It’s not just about finding a musician, it’s about finding someone who can drop their ego at the door and be present for our students.
Finding female musicians in general, especially ones who are knowledgeable about their instrument can be hard. Finding people who know how to be with kids can be the hardest part, because you can’t necessarily figure that out in an interview. It’s such a unique skill — you need to be able to be a supportive mentor, but you can’t let them walk all over you. When someone has the right energy, kids know. They listen, they participate.
Did you have teachers growing up who shaped you?
I can think of so many mentors. That’s the thing — good teachers are more than just instructors. I try to instill that in my teachers. If you come in and your kids are having a bad day and it turns out they’re all kind of going through a similar experience — maybe you talk about bullies that day. Some of the teachers walk away feeling like they didn’t accomplish much because they didn’t write lyrics or work on a particular song. But from my perspective, it was a success.
That’s what those girls needed in that moment and you were able to be that for them and they were able to be that for each other. Plus, they’ve all connected over an issue which means that when they do write a song, it’s going to be so much more powerful. We often have girls from the lowest socioeconomic schools mixed in with girls from the highest socioeconomic private schools. There might not be anywhere else in life where those two people would meet.
Everyone has the potential to be an artist. It’s just a matter of self-identification.
What do you think people need to unlock their potential?
They need to have an open mind. People form ideas over time like “I’m not creative, I’m not this, I’m not that.” Everyone has the potential to be an artist. It’s just a matter of self-identification. I hear a lot of people say things like “I’m a math person, I’m a science person.” Well, there’s a mathematician who wrote a symphony based on algorithms and formulas. He figured out which intervals sounded good to the ear and wrote this equation. He had never played music in his life, but he ended up writing this incredible symphony based on a computer program that he wrote. And when he played it, it was an incredible piece of music.
Tell me about your personal musical background.
I came from a really musical family. My dad played guitar in a big band and wrote music. All of my cousins, my brothers — everyone plays in a professional way, not just as a hobby. I started playing piano when I was around four because I was so desperate to play “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” I just sat at the piano and pounded out the notes until I had learned the song. My dad played like every instrument so he taught me piano. When I was eight I got another teacher. I started playing guitar when I was nine. My dad was my only guitar teacher. I started writing songs pretty immediately. I would stay up really late at night and write music. I also started taking vocal lessons when I was five or six.
I think I got scared when I hit high school – you start thinking more about college and what you want to major in. I freaked out. Music didn’t seem like it would be a viable career — even to my dad who was a professional musician, so I ended up studying journalism in college.
Did you stayed involved in music then?
Only in the sense that I never stopped playing or writing on my own. I moved up to San Francisco and lived in the Bay Area for about seven years. I loved it and thought that I would live there my entire life. I ended up moving with my partner to the East Coast. I had my son there and stayed for about four years. I kind of took a break from everything other than being a full-time parent. I wrote songs for him, but my music was pretty closeted.
Then my dad got really sick, which brought me home to Santa Barbara. Writing music was something we shared, so I would write songs and play them for him. One day I played something for him and his reaction was weirder than normal. He was like, “I just don’t get why you haven’t pursued music. I hear you write songs and it makes me sad, because you just write them and they disappear. They’re not being recorded.” I think he was at a time in his life when the idea of things being temporary — writing something and have it go off into the ether — this was on his mind. He offered to help me fund an album.
“I don’t think my dad’s going to live a lot longer. I have four songs. I just want to get this recorded as quickly as I can because I don’t know how much time I have with him.”
I wasn’t sure I wanted to do that. I held music so close to my heart. I was afraid someone might judge it and I didn’t want to have to think about that. But I got past that since it was something my dad requested. Someone recommended an engineer. I remember I walked into his studio and said “I don’t think my dad’s going to live a lot longer. I have four songs. I just want to get this recorded as quickly as I can because I don’t know how much time I have with him.”
I was really scared and hadn’t sung for anyone but my five-year-old in a really long time. I said, “I’m probably going to have to record in your closet.” During the process, my dad got better for a little while. It ended up being a much longer road than we originally thought.
I decided I didn’t want to record those four songs after all. I wrote and recorded an entire album in the studio. I’d go in and record something, then go home and write something and come back and record it the next day. I worked on that album for a year and (laughs) I didn’t have to record in the closet.
I had been so worried that what I had to offer wasn’t good enough, but that year took me to another level. I really didn’t care what people thought.
Robinson Eikenberry, who recorded it, is a very encouraging, positive person. All that support, day after day for a year, really opened my eyes. I had been so worried that what I had to offer wasn’t good enough, but that year took me to another level. I really didn’t care what people thought. I realized I was a good songwriter and it boosted my confidence in a way that I hadn’t experienced before.
When I finished the record, a friend of mine listened to it and asked for some tracks to send along to someone she knew who was a music supervisor. We didn’t know if anything would come of it. Two of my songs ended up in a Sharon Stone documentary, which was really exciting.
Did you see the movie and was it a weird experience to hear your music like that?
I did see it. It’s called “Femme,” and it’s all about female empowerment, which is weird since Girls Rock SB was only in its earliest stages at that point.
I had wrapped up the album and heard my music in that movie. I didn’t know what I wanted to do next. I had a six-year-old son and I was a single parent. It wasn’t a reality for me to be out playing every night. My dad had passed away at that point and I started thinking about that whole year — how it felt to have that kind of experience and support. I realized what I wanted to do was start a program for girls that did basically what I had just experienced. It would teach them about songwriting and music. I looked it up and realized no one was doing it in this area, but I found the GRCA (Girls Rock Camp Alliance). I contacted them and ended up going to this big conference with people from all of their organizations from all over the world.
What’s on the horizon for Girls Rock SB?
This year we’ve added film, photography, and music journalism. We partnered with the Santa Barbara Independent and the Santa Barbara Bowl. The Bowl will give our girls $5 tickets to any show they want to see. We’re running these classes and then pairing a photographer or a filmmaker with a writer. We’ll have them go to a show and do a piece on it. The Independent is going to print their stuff and some other publications will re-run it. I’m so excited about it!
I want to show kids that there are jobs that are typically held by men that women can do. You don’t have to be the person on stage! There’s so much that goes into creating.
In the summer, we’re also going to have a live sound/engineering track. I want to show kids that there are jobs that are typically held by men that women can do. You don’t have to be the person on stage! There’s so much that goes into recording and mixing and creating.
On top of that, we’re doing two week-long sessions of “Amplify Sleep Away Camp” in July. Girls ages 11-17 will have the opportunity to take instrumental or vocal lessons and participate in band practices, workshops, and a final showcase. It’s all happening at Ojai Valley Boarding School.
And what’s on the horizon for you as an artist?
I’m going back into the studio this summer, which I’m really excited about. Now Girls Rock is so busy that I don’t get to play out too often, but I’m still happy to do it when I can. I still write music, trying to balance that and the other ten million things.
Ideally, I would like to do more licensing stuff. I just want to have a house with a recording studio somewhere in the middle of nowhere where it rains a lot. But for now, this is so perfect. I get to do what I love and still come home to my family everyday.
Click here to learn more about Girls Rock SB.
Check out some of Jen’s music here.
To learn more about the math behind music, check out this fascinating TEDxMIA talk that Jen recommended!