June Millington was 13 when her family moved from the Philippines to Sacramento, Calif. The year was 1961.
"We felt blatant prejudice when we first came here," she says. "It was horrible."
But June and her sister Jean knew how to play ukulele, and they used their musical talent to win friends. "We played at the junior high school variety show," recalls June. "Kids started coming up to us and telling us they liked it. So it dawned on us this was a way to make friends."
The Millington sisters have made a career of using music to fight stereotypes and prejudice. They formed Fanny, one of rock's first all-female bands, in 1969. Now they're helping other girls discover their inner rock star.
In 1987, June co-founded the Institute for the Musical Arts, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit. "We've retrofitted a huge barn and turned it into a state-of-the-art recording studio that's dedicated to helping women and girls participate in music," she says.
Now June and Jean have reunited to tour in support of a new album, Play Like a Girl. They perform at the Goodman Community Center's Loft Nov. 12.
When I spoke with June Millington by phone last week, I asked what inspired her new album. She didn't need to think before answering. "I had a dream in March of 2010, and when I woke up, these words just came to me," she says. They were the second verse and chorus of Play Like a Girl's title track.
"Two little girls staring out at the sea," sing the sisters in unison. "Water touching China, it's as blue as can be."
The chorus grounds the song as a female rock anthem. "If they tell you you can't do it, you just turn it up and play like a girl."
Millington says the clarity of the words moved her. "Those girls were Jean and I when we were young in the Philippines. I took it as a rock 'n' roll imperative. I called Jean and said, 'Get out here, we need to record this.'"
The Millington sisters are best known for Fanny, the first all-female rock band to release an album on a major label. "Rock was the kind of music we knew we had to perform to prove that girls could play as good as guys," says Millington.
In 1978 Jean Millington married Earl Slick, who played guitar for David Bowie's band. Their son, Lee Madeloni, will drum with the Millingtons at their Madison show.
While in town this week, the Millingtons will also be hosting two workshops for girls. On Friday, Nov. 11, they'll provide a music workshop for participants in Madison's Girls Rock Camp. Then they'll host a Saturday workshop open to all girls at the Goodman Community Center.
More than 40 years after forming Fanny, Millington still sees young women not being comfortable expressing themselves as musical performers. "There are still the same mental barriers for girls," she says. "The girls we see come to our camps are very nervous about body image and their ability to perform. For them, our institute is a place where you can trust and build your self-esteem."
Millington believes music builds confidence for girls, the same way it made her feel at home when she first came to the United States. "Rock 'n' roll," she says, "is an attitude of fearlessness."