Women find their inner rock star at Ladies Rock Camp

In a classroom at Atlanta Charter Middle School in Ormewood Park, roughly two dozen women armed themselves with acoustic, electric and bass guitars, tapped their feet and strummed away in unison. Down the hall, a handful of middle-aged gals artfully banged on a drum set. And elsewhere at the school, a few ladies found their "Middle Cs" on electric keyboards.

The 23 women may have been playing basic chord progressions and drumming simple beats last Friday, but if the hoots, hollers and smiles were any indication, they believed -- just for a moment -- that they were rock stars.

And so began Ladies Rock Camp, a three-day workshop helping women find their inner artist. They came from as far away as Baltimore, Md., and paid $350 apiece to try their hands at new instruments, form bands and learn songwriting 101 from famed artist Emily Saliers of Indigo Girls. The weekend culminates in a performance Sunday at The Five Spot in Little Five Points in what is, for many, their first live show.

"It's really cool that housewives came out to jam with us," remarked 21-year-old Carly Costello, a student at Georgia State University who came to the camp to learn bass guitar.

Indeed, the women ranged from college-aged to middle-aged, with housewives, executives and hippies among them.

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Ladies Rock Camp is a fundraiser for a summer program called Girls Rock Camp (ATL), a six-day empowering event for girls ages 10 to 16. The Indigo Girls are a supporter of the eponymous nonprofit organization, which formed in 2008 and is now seeking 501(c)(3) status.

For Lisa Balser, picking up the guitar meant reclaiming her former self. Between her work in advertising and taking care of her two young children, she stopped making time for her art -- until now.

"I grew up singing and playing a bunch of instruments," said 42-year-old Balser, of Atlanta. "I decided this is the year I'm taking back my life."

Jonna Cartwright, a brand manager who lives in Decatur, said coming to Ladies Rock Camp meant a check on her "bucket list." She had often dreamed about performing onstage, but only recently made music a priority.

"The Girls Rock Camp sounds interesting to me, but I don’t know if in junior high I would’ve had the guts to do it," said Cartwright, 34. "When you’re older, you have more confidence."

Rock camp founders Heather Gibbons and Stacey Singer said their mission isn't just to teach music; both the ladies and girls camps focus on empowerment.

“[The women] come with a lot more baggage and fears and insecurities than kids do," Singer said.

The group worked through those fears and reservations in musical workshops such as those led by Saliers. The red-headed singer said she takes part in the pro-feminist camps to give others what she and bandmate Amy Ray lacked as young musicians in Decatur.

“When Amy and I were growing up, there weren’t a lot of women mentors in rock music. There were in classical or folk music, but not rock," she said. "It’s very exiting to now be part of that.”

The participants ranged in talent and skill, from novice to seasoned musician. But her advice was universal: “Find your own voice, even if it’s monotone.”

- Writer Rachael Duane contributed to this report.

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