Millington Smoreship

It’s a beautiful day in Goshen as teenaged girls start filing into a big old barn along with some parents, siblings and other relations, carrying musical instruments and bags of clothes. It’s not quite like a typical summer camp drop-off, and it’s not quite the first day of wizard school at Hogwarts—but there is a certain magic in the girls’ eyes, and a spring in their step.

Following them, drum and percussion instructor Janelle Burdell and vocal instructor Evelyn Harris roll in, toting various materials relevant to their respective crafts, each painted with a broad, obviously genuine smile and that same bit of magic in their eyes—the magic that only comes from music. Little Dog, a Chihuahua puppy, does a squirmy jig far below on the barn floor, narrowly avoiding being inadvertently trampled by the influx of relatively towering humans.

Girls come from all over to attend the non-profit Institute for the Musical Arts’ rock camp for girls, though one girl, a 13-year-old, is missing from the mix so far; she’s stranded in Newark, N. J., having missed a connecting flight to Bradley from California. IMA Executive Director Ann Hackler expresses some concern, and is in phone contact with a volunteer who’s still sitting at the Connecticut airport waiting for the wayward rocker girl, but Hackler’s partner June Millington seems to have an air of confidence that she’ll arrive in one piece.

“I’m trusting she’s okay—she’s a rock and roller. We heard the tracks,” Millington says with a smile as we sit at a table out back of the main house at IMA.

Millington is a sight to behold: a naturally tanned Filipino with long, flowing white hair and a dress that’s more high priestess’ robe than cocktail dazzler. She’s also an energetic presence, possessing a strong, earthy vibe that makes me wonder as I interview her if she might actually not be a woman at all, but some magically animate species of thousand-year-old tree. Her branches have soared to graze the stratosphere of rock stardom (with early ’70s all-girl band Fanny), and her roots have nested deeply into a study of Buddhism; the blend of the two makes her shine as the default Dumbledore for this particular school of musical magic. She recalls being a green young rocker in the heyday of the jet-set mega-stars:

“I was 21 when we started to record seriously, but we [June and sister Jean Millington] started to play in a band in 1965 in high school that was called the Svelts.” She goes on to detail some of her more memorable experiences: “We toured with Jethro Tull, Dr. John, The Staples Singers—we did a whole month with Chicago.”

When I ask about the clip, posted on Fanny’s website, of the band playing on The Sonny and Cher Show, she one-ups it with Beatles stories.

“We recorded at Apple, with Geoff Emerick, the Beatles engineer—we did a cover of ‘Hey Bulldog’ with their engineer, so I was able to ask him a lot about those guitar sounds and how they recorded and the mics they used and stuff like that. And we had the same publicist [the famous Derek Taylor] as The Beatles,” she beams. “I’ll give you a picture of me with him if you want it—you’ll have a scoop.”

She goes on to inform me that a lot of classic photos like this one are being saved for her autobiography, which she’s well into writing. It covers her family’s move from the Philippines to the States, her own and her sister’s musical beginnings in the Svelts, and the time when they were discovered at an open mic at L.A.’s Troubadour club on the night before Fanny was set to pack it in, give up on the music biz and flee the City of Angels.

“It’s a very exciting story,” she chuckles. “It’s a big arc& in the evolution of my life, from Fanny to Buddhism to women’s music to IMA& and it’s very interesting. I can’t even believe my own life! As I’m writing it, I’m going, ‘Really, this is&? Wow!’ You know, I was just telling [an interviewer from the New York Daily News] about how we played live in the studio with Barbra Streisand, or that I heard the basic of ‘You’re So Vain’ in London, because our producer was producing it, or how David Bowie was a fan of ours before we met him.” (Sister Jean married and had children with early Bowie guitarist Earl Slick).

After I gush about how big a Bowie fan I am and relay a story of playing in a Bowie tribute band, she brings the conversation back to a facet of IMA’s mission to educate and enlighten that’s clearly Buddhist-inspired.

“I would say the biggest thing I learned from [Bowie] was how to think about your career in a big way, and then achieve those goals in your lifetime. The first conversation I had with him, he told me he wanted to get into movies, and then the next year he was in his first movie. You know, I was like, ‘This guy actualizes what he thinks of,’ and there are a lot of people who cannot do that—they have their dreams and their big visions, but this guy knows how to actually… go toward them and manifest them, and that was big for me.”

The concept of direct transmission of knowledge is important to her in both musical education and life instruction, and she references it frequently.

“It’s not like reading from a book,” she says. “You don’t absorb it the same way.”

*

Most of this summer’s crop of would-be riot grrrrlz consists of returning students, so they know the drill; there are a total of 16 in the teen program (there’s also a half-price pre-teen session for those who are game to start cutting their chops early). They’re a lucky bunch, really—any sort of summer camp is usually fun, but these girls are attending rock ‘n’ roll summer camp, which, by its very nature, is more fun. This 10-day adventure costs $1,000 per kid, but there are ways to shave the cost down to make it more affordable.

“We work with the ASCAP [American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers] Foundation’s Irving Caesar Fund,” Hackler explains, “which right off the bat will give any girl a $150 scholarship toward the program as long as they submit an original composition.”

This summer’s session is also benefiting from additional grant funds courtesy of Catie Curtis and her “Aspire to Inspire” endowment to ASCAP. In addition to the July 10-day performance-based program, girls can elect to sign up for a recording and production program in August.

The girls have a couple of options for lodging. Some will stay in one of the IMA’s two Mongolian-style yurts, which are cool circular huts with hardwood floors and canvas exteriors, located just behind the barn on the Institute’s gorgeous 25-acre spread across from the D.A.R. State Forest. Others will bunk in the eight-bed dorm room in the main barn, which also houses a huge performance space, a circular lecture/classroom space and a state-of-the-art, just completed recording studio with isolation rooms and soundproofing that befits the space’s Woodstock chic. In a back room, there’s a massive collection of guitars, bass guitars, Dobros, mandolins, banjos and more that are all available for the students’ use.

“We even have an electric sitar,” Hackler says as she gives me the tour, wearing a grin that betrays at least a few listens to George Harrison at the height of his Krishna phase. Asked about what happens when summer’s gone, Hackler details what the IMA does in the winter, when camp’s not in session:

“We do a concert series, usually in the fall—we’ve been converting this barn since we moved here [from California]—so we’ve been sort of in transition for going on 10 years. In the winter into the spring we do music and music business-related workshops—Erin [McKeown] came in and did a songwriting workshop; we had an improvisation workshop that was geared toward classical musicians; we had a music business workshop with [area entertainment attorney] Leah Kunkel and Emily Lichter [aka publicist Public Emily]—and those are open to anybody. And then we have a recording studio.”

The women hope to get the studio booked up to provide an additional revenue source of funding for IMA, principally to pay off the cost of converting the main barn and building the studio. In addition, they’re holding a fundraiser on Saturday, Aug. 20, at 2 p.m. that coincides with the release of June’s and Jean’s new album, Play Like a Girl. Suggested donations for the event are $50-150, or $25 for younger/poorer people. Food and nonalcoholic beverages are included, and the Millingtons will perform both music from the new CD and a selection of ’60s rock/pop and Motown tunes from their days in high school band The Svelts.

IMA has graduated at least a few familiar names that have been getting around the local music circuit, including The Feel and Who’da Funk It? They’ve also got some impressive people on their advisory board, including Christine Ohlman (resident vocalist for the SNL band), Bonnie Raitt and Leslie Ann Jones, Grammy-winning director of music recording and scoring at George Lucas’ Skywalker Sound.

The Millingtons are kicking off a tour to support Play Like a Girl on Aug. 17 at New York’s Highline Ballroom, and have tour dates booked for the fall in California and Oregon, a stretch that may also see East Coast dates tacked on well into the winter and even the spring of 2012. It’s an ambitious endeavor for women now into their 60s. June confirms their commitment to live performance, however, reiterating the high value she places on direct transmission and personal interaction.

“What we want to do is play in front of girls, or play in front of people and kids so that they can see us ‘play like a girl’ while we’re still able to do it and want to do it. So we’ll do it as long as we can, basically,” she says with a smile. “You know what it’s like to play live—it just feels good, and we didn’t do it for it long time, so now we’re ready to do it again, and that’s important to us, you know. We’re just going to go out there and explode,” she says, a fire growing in her eyes. “It’s going to be incendiary.”

Millington emphasizes that IMA taps into that idea of “playing like a girl.” Boys, she says, play louder and faster; girls at IMA create a space in which they don’t have to compete with a male version of rock energy and can focus on other values. Succeeding in that space, she explains, often gives them a newfound confidence.

As I leave the property, June gives me a hug that, like her spiritual makeup, seems to simmer somewhere between gentle and powerful. The dogs escort me to my car, and as I depart more students arrive, carrying what I assume are guitars in soft, nylon gig bags like other summer campers might carry tennis rackets. It’s a little like leaving Never Never Land—a place that reminds me a bit of my boarding school youth in Vermont, or, perhaps more appropriately, a “Sugar Mountain” or a musical Narnia that exists only through the wardrobe, and only for the young.”

Check out June and Jean Millington’s Play Like a Girl benefit Aug. 20, 2 p.m. at the Institute for Musical Arts, 165 Cape St., Goshen, (413) 269-3074, http://www.ima.org. Other upcoming concerts at IMA include Toshi Reagon on Sept. 10 and Christine Ohlman’s band Rebel Montez on Oct. 29.

Author: Tom Sturm

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