At SXSW, music permeated every aspect of the conference and festival. It wasn’t hard to find some feel-goodness and inspiration among the spaces that hosted some incredible artists and bands. So I’m in flashback mode remembering some of the standout music-related moments that made SXSW 2019 all the more inspirational.
Shirley Manson and Lauren Mayberry
One thing I’ve been thinking since the #MeToo movement began, is that if it were to ever touch the music industry, no one would be safe. It would appear as a result that not many people have been brave enough to make waves in that particular pond. Fiery frontwoman Shirley Manson of Garbage harbours no such apprehension, however. Shirley and fellow Scotswoman Lauren Mayberry of CHVRCHES opened the SXSW music conference with a fearless keynote interview with Pitchfork Music Editor Puja Patel. Both women have been outspoken on the topic of gender-based discrimination and violence both within the music industry and among music consumers, with both singers unfortunately well versed in both aspects. As you can imagine, #metoo and rape culture figured heavily in the conversation, but no topic was off limits as Shirley and Lauren threw down about misogyny and sexism in the music industry, and how it was about time some #metoo action started happening.
Later I caught Manson on another panel, this time on Gender Parity in music. The panel was hosted by the PRS foundation in support of their Keychange Initiative (incidentally they also sponsored Shirley’s keynote above). Keychange is a pioneering international initiative whose main pursuit is gender equity in the music industry. One main goal is for festivals around the world to achieve a 50:50 gender balance by 2022. Many festivals have already taken up the Keychange pledge, including Toronto’s NXNE and recently Canadian Music Week. Manson was joined by former CEO of Keychange Vanessa Reed, who moderated, DJ Target and Richard Burgess, CEO of the American Association of Independent Music.
The group and audience were all unified in their belief of the importance of equality in all aspects of the music industry, and the steps forward needed to make that happen. Manson herself spoke of her commitment to achieving equity in the touring crew when Garbage is on the road, and using her considerable influence provide opportunities to traditionally overlooked individuals whenever she is able. She was also quick to point out that the definition of equality needed to expand beyond a male to female-specific ratio, pointing out how easy it is to overlook those who do not feel that they fit within those traditional gender norms. The panel was disappointingly under-attended considering the importance of the topic, but the benefit of the smaller audience meant that I got a chance to meet one of my heroes afterward.
Laura Jane Grace
I also heard musician and transgender rights activist Laura Jane Grace speak. Grace, lead singer of Against Me made headlines back in 2012 when she came out as trans, taking both the punk music world and the world at large by surprise. But pushing the gender boundaries of a male-dominated genre like punk is something that Grace has become adept at. She maintained her rockstar status and easily incorporated trans rights awareness and activism into her on and off stage life, which is actually the most punk a person can probably be. She also did all of that while bringing hope and inspiration to individuals everywhere with her guileless openness about her own struggle and subsequent journey.
Somehow I’ve been blessed enough to see Bishop Briggs every year I have attended SXSW. The sweet, soulful songstress put on an incredible set at Antone’s for the Capital One House. Some may be confused at that description, considering her powerhouse voice and edgy style, but one thing I have come to love about Bishop Briggs is (née Sarah McLaughlin, true story) her earnestness and the joy she shows after every song. It’s that moment after she finishes belting out a song when she breaks into this elated smile, followed by a shy downward cast of her eye that endears her so very much to as much as I live in awe of her talent. That inherent kindness was further displayed in her newly shorn hair; she shaved her head out of solidarity to her friend and makeup artist Arax, who is currently undergoing cancer treatment. And to add to those positive vibes, I learned later on in the conference that Capital One House had elected to donate their delegate swag budget to local Austin charities instead of buying useless junk for delegates, reducing waste and doing something positive with those funds.
ACLU 100 Anniversary
The American Civil Liberties Union has been making headlines in the mainstream news ever since Donald Trump took office, which is both terrifying in its necessity but comforting to learn that such an organization exists. The ACLU marked its 100th year of fighting for those who need it most in the face of injustice with a tour, stopping of course at SXSW.
Tom Morello and K. Flay
Being a huge Chris Cornell fan, I was thrilled to discover that his Audioslave bandmate and consummate rockstar activist Tom Morello would be taking the stage in support of the cause. Introduced by actress and activist Padma Lakshmi, Morello brought the house down from the moment he emerged on a platform in the middle of the audience. He played with passion, power and purpose. The show and the material gave me goosebumps, and to know it was in support of a group that works so tirelessly to safeguard the rights of the most vulnerable raised Morello and his fellow performers even higher in my esteem. Speaking of fellow performers, Morello was joined onstage by K.Flay for a few tunes, and the pair were a match made in rock and roll heaven.
In yet another edition of ‘random cool shit happening at the Fast Company Grill’ (see my first SXSW piece here), I headed there for lunch one day to meet a new friend, and TLC’s Rozonda “Chili” Thomas just happened to be speaking as I sat down. She was for a panel discussion that may have been about innovation in live music, but honestly, I don’t remember, and no one cared when this happened:
Say what you want about the hyper-commercialization of SXSW, but when moments like that happen, it’s quite apparent that they’re doing something very, very right. And even an even more wonderful turn of events, Chili offered to stay after the panel and give a hug to as many fans as she possibly could before she had to leave. While I didn’t get a hug of my own, I was touched to see someone give so much of herself to those that support her and in turn, find joy and happiness in what she brings to the world.
Taking in some Canadian content at Canada House, this year hosted at the Bungalow on Rainey, I made some musical discoveries included Kai Exos and Melanie Brulee. Both gave wholehearted, emotional performances. Melanie stood out, especially when she candidly shared her own experience watching a friend struggle with addiction through her new album Fires, Floods and the things we leave behind. She also blew my mind with her incredible French-language cover of Nancy Sinatra’s Boots Are Made For Walking.
Later, I had the pleasure of both experiencing a long time musical love live and making a brand new discovery, on the same stage at different times. It was back at Canada House when I finally saw Wintersleep play songs I’ve known and loved for years, live and just a few feet away from me.
I had two more exciting new musical discoveries at SXSW this year. The first was by design, as Arts and Crafts staffers cajoled me into checking Tamino at Canada House. The new darling at the iconic indie music label took the stage solo, competing with two very loud venues on either side of Bungalow on Rainey. He stayed true to his soulful sound, the depth, passion and poignancy of his music penetrating through the din. Playing shoegazey rock music with an Arabian aura, he was worth sticking around later than I’d planned that one night.
The other discovery was made quite by accident on Rainey as well. I was walking with some fellow Canadians from the bungalow to bar-conversion-laden street to Austin’s bustling main downtown when I was stopped in my tracks by an infectious beat and some impressive rhymes. A small crowd was gathered at the Alibi, both within the fenced yard and outside on the sidewalk. And we were all there for the same reason, planned or unplanned; to hear Jayo perform. Hailing from Decatur, Georgia, Jayo grew up with a rapper mom and rounding out the family biz, dad was the manager. Jayo even appeared on some of his mom’s tracks, so you could say he caught the music bug early. He dropped his first EP, Bag of Dreams just in time for SXSW, showcasing his unique style, and notably clean lyrics, giving Jayo’s songs a chance to gain that wider appeal. Here’s the song that stopped me in my tracks:
Keep up with Jayo here.
My last day at SXSW, I ventured off the beaten path at the recommendation of a dear friend of mine, who just happens to be an artist herself. And when a powerhouse musician such as SATE gives you a recommendation, you know she won’t steer you wrong. Reignwolf was worth the walk away from the general SXSW festivities – and I wasn’t the only one who thought so. Traffic literally stopped those passing by could check out his set, pedestrian and vehicular alike. Following in the footsteps of Rival Sons, the Darkness and Led Zeppelin before him, Reignwolf reminds you of what rock and roll is meant to be like. Poetic that my last musical discovery at SXSW 2019 is one that reminds me of why I love music so much in the first place.
Until 2020 SXSW!