Amid an uptick in artist-run festivals, the two big-name Washington acts are throwing more intimate destination festivals in Mexico, respectively dubbed Girls Just Wanna Weekend and SUNDARA.
It’s hardly a secret that the American festival landscape is feeling a little fatigued. While a few at the top have maintained their cultural cachet, many once-thriving fests like Sasquatch! Music Festival have packed up their tents, unable to keep blankets on the lawn amid increased competition.
Furthermore, criticisms of homogeneous or formulaic lineups, often short on women, have made once novel music festivals feel a dime a dozen. Despite a tough-as-ever festival market, an increasing number of artists are getting in the game, launching smaller fests of their own with clearer focuses than some of the more mainstream megafests.
This year, homegrown stars Brandi Carlile and ODESZA are heading their own destination fests, aiming for weekends more intimate than hot, dusty fields packed with 20,000 people.
“Looking at the rise of the artist festival … I think it’s a really nice segue into maybe the future of festivals,” says ODESZA’s Clayton Knight ahead of their SUNDARA festival in Riviera Maya, Mexico. “These super-curated experiences are really building a unique environment, unique setting [that] differentiates you from everything else.”
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Rumors had been circulating that Knight and his partner in coolly booming beats Harrison Mills were hatching a festival, and last fall they announced their all-inclusive fete for March 13-16. The lineup consists of several acts affiliated with their Foreign Family Collective label — similarly chill indie-electronic artists with hints of future bass like Rüfüs Du Sol and Jai Wolf — plus a few more EDM/trap-leaning heavyweights such as RL Grime and Alison Wonderland. Essentially, like-minded stuff that’d play well during SUNDARA’s daytime pool parties, beachy mainstage slots and late-night sets alike.
ODESZA, which played a New Year’s Eve gig in the region years ago and got hooked, have three different performances planned — their usual live set, plus ambient and “No.Sleep” DJ sets, the latter a nod to the group’s mix series. “Being on the beach in Mexico feels like the perfect [place] for a lot of our more cinematic, symphonic-based music,” Mills says.
Like SUNDARA, Carlile’s Girls Just Wanna Weekend looks to be more of an intimate winter reprieve that lowers the barrier between artist and fan, with yoga classes led by her sister, and “Brandi-oke,” where fans sing Carlile’s songs backed by Carlile and her band. But the folk-country songwriter’s extended weekend — Jan. 30 to Feb. 3 at a different Riviera Maya resort — has a bigger agenda than good tunes, tan lines and bottomless margaritas.
With its all-women lineup — including rising country-pop star Maren Morris, Indigo Girls, Margo Price — the family-friendly Girls Just Wanna Weekend is a direct response to those male-dominated mainstream festival bills. The gender disparity has been under increased scrutiny in recent years and doctored images of festival posters removing the names of all-male acts, usually leaving just a handful of women, have gone viral.
“It tells women [who] want to explore a job in the arts that they’re only going to get side-stage high,” Carlile says of the lack of representation. “And as a mother, it tells parents don’t let your kids go to that festival, it’s all men.”
Carlile, who had “coming of age” experiences at the first three Lilith Fairs, says the dearth of women on mainstages contributes to a festival culture that makes women feel unsafe. Last year a widely circulated Teen Vogue report interviewed 54 women at Coachella, all of whom reported being sexually harassed or assaulted that weekend. The reporter was groped herself 22 times during her 10 hours at the festival.
Between Girls Just Wanna Weekend and her all-star birthday bash at the Gorge Amphitheatre (not to mention that haul of Grammy nominations), Carlile hopes to be a “harbinger for change,” showing promoters that women “are a viable commercial entity. We do sell tickets, we do sell records. We have the attention of the American public and we deserve that platform, that headlining stage, and we’re not getting it.”
As much as they’re trying to do their own thing, both Carlile’s and ODESZA’s minifests are taking at least a cue or two from more established events. Mills and Knight hope to emulate the laid-back, beach vibe of Alabama’s Hangout Music Fest, while Carlile was inspired by all the “crazy things” (like Brandi-oke) and collaborations from her years on Cayamo cruise — a seafaring concert voyage stacked with Americana artists. Carlile’s also planned a “ladies of the ’80s” finale, where the performers will belt their favorite “femme fatale power ballads” to cap the weekend.
While the passport-required resort locations and all-inclusive vacay prices (starting around $1,300) are more in line with the Cayamos of the world than some of the domestic artist-driven festivals like the Foo Fighters’ all-rock Cal Jam or Tyler the Creator’s hip-hop-focused Camp Flog Gnaw Carnival, it remains to be seen what the turnout will be like (the sticker shock was especially high among some of ODESZA’s younger fan base). Both artists are taking a wait-and-see approach before determining whether they’ll make their vacation fests an annual thing.
On the local front, Carlile openly dreams of her Echoes Through the Canyon concert at the Gorge perhaps becoming a yearly tradition, though again, one step at a time.
“It’d be so cool if it really went well and it got to be an annual thing, or if it ever turned into an annual weekend where I did two shows or something,” Carlile says. “I would try to build it out to get all those side stages fired up and get local girls on the stages and try to relive my Lilith Fair glory years [laughs].”
Until then, another round of margaritas by the pool.