Elizabeth Harris, best known as Grouper, notoriously doesn’t like to play live much — that is, unless it’s at her kind of venue. One such space is Daniels Spectrum, an arts-based community center on the eastside of Toronto. Grouper performed there on the final Saturday of September, as part of the lineup of entirely women-led acts at a new annual event called Venus Fest.
Every set at Venus Fest, which was all-ages and organized by local artist Aerin Fogel, was triumphant. Three performances in particular rocked my heart: Colombian singer/producer and 2017 Polaris Prize winner Lido Pimienta shook the audience with her unabashed stage banter (at one point she took some time to mock her white cishet male bandmates), and an unreleased power anthem, in which the only English words she sings are, "I am just a stupid woman, an Indigenous women, a black woman."
Weaves’s Jasmyn Burke ended her band’s hyper-energetic set by thrashing on the floor, singing a version of The Who’s “My Generation”; the song was so twisted and transformed I almost didn’t recognize it was a song written by old white men. And a little later, Grouper played a spectacular set to a seated, hushed room. Even as she took her sweet time setting up and sound-checking, we all were rapt, like we were watching a supernatural being.
Grouper decided last minute she didn’t feel like talking to anyone at the show, but if we’d spoken I’d have asked her why she decided to play Venus Fest, of all places, since she’s so incredibly particular about the spaces in which she performs. I can imagine it has to do with comfort, respect, and being really seen and heard.
Here’s a super-fun fact*: of the 32 million yearly music festival attendees, more than half are women. But 73% of festival lineups are dudes, 15% are women, and 13% nonbinary. Often when looking at a festival lineup, you can count the women-identifying and nonbinary artists on one hand.
And that’s why Aerin Fogel decided to organize Venus Fest, to create a space where non-men musicians could be celebrated without tokenization. “Part of the issue is that there isn’t enough representation for women and nonbinary musicians for their music to be celebrated in the way that there’s representation for male artists to be celebrated,” she told me post-festival. “At the end of the day, it’s just twelve amazing bands on stage.”
I talked to Lido Pimienta and Jasmyn from Weaves about the show, too. (Read all three women's thoughts in full, below.) “All the festivals that I play should be all-women lineups,” Lido said, “until we catch up and we’re equal with all the other festivals who are 99% men or men-led.”
“If there’s not a need for something, there’s not much point in continuing to do it,” Aerin continued. “People feeling like this was a space that they needed, and a space they felt welcome in, was the main piece of confirmation that I needed to feel like our team could keep going, and keep growing.” I know I’ll be there next year.
LIDO PIMIENTA: This is going to inspire other people. I’m happy to be a part of something great. And I know that for this to be really great, we’re going to need three days of the festival, when they have more resources. And then they can diversify not just the lineups but the genres. If Venus Fest had a bunch of women soca singers, this would be so packed — like, a line down the street. But we’re not there, yet. The resources are not there. This is what Aerin knows, and she does an amazing job with what she knows.
I can also see how [all-women lineups] are gonna start happening more and more, but with a capitalistic goal. Hashtag feminism. The capitalist agenda is going to get hold of it, but there’s not gonna be a carefully curated event like today. I’m excited, but I’m also wary, because every time that we do something good, it starts blowing up and all the fake replica simulacra are the ones that start making the real money. “This is something that will appeal to liberal feminism,” or whatever.
“I don’t want to be performing for a bunch of white people wearing sandals and white socks all the way to their knees, in their fucking lawn chairs, just going because it’s fucking <i>exotic</i> or whatever.” —Lido Pimienta
The moment I do “world music” all the festivals I’m gonna play are gonna be “world music” shit. I don’t want to be performing for a bunch of white people wearing sandals and white socks all the way to their knees, in their fucking lawn chairs, just going because it’s fucking exotic or whatever. I don’t want that. I’d much rather have all these fucking white people who fucking love me and will buy my merch and give me all the thousands that I ask for.
It’s so complicated, because I don’t feel like I belong to any type of nothing. I’m my own entity. So I just have to flow wherever the money is, so I can take care of my son. And then I observe and I see, and if I care enough then I talk to the organizers and I’m like, “Here’s a list of motherfucking people you have to book. I did your homework. You don’t have to pay me.” But with the resources Venus had, they did what they had to do. I’m not mad at them. Also, how great that you have someone like me that’s keeping it real?
WEAVES’S JASMYN BURKE: We haven’t really played feminist fests previously. Looking at the audience and seeing all these young people felt very special. It was powerful, and I felt super enthused on stage. When you make eye contact and people are truly watching and listening, it brings another level. You see young women of color in the audience, and you perform for them. It’s about putting it in their brain that they can achieve things. Especially all-ages shows. That’s why tonight I was like, I’m just gonna be kind of a madwoman. You need to, because they need to see that they can do whatever they want. Visibility is the most important thing. You get that connection and motivation when you’re onstage because kids are looking at you. You can see that they’re absorbing.
The festival’s been planned for a long time. We initially said yes before we got Polaris nominations. Playing with a bunch of dudes, I’ll be like “Is my lipstick OK?” And Zach [Bines, bassist for Weaves] has no idea. Sometimes I’ve asked, “Is it even?” And they say, “Yeah.” And then I look in the mirror and… it’s not. Lido gave me a nice wipe backstage. She was like, “Your lipstick’s all over your face” after the set. And I was like, “Thank you.”
“I was like, <i>I’m just gonna be kind of a madwoman</i>. You need to, because they need to see that they can do whatever they want. Visibility is the most important thing.” —Jasmyn Burke, Weaves
AERIN FOGEL: It really felt like people were connecting in the space, meeting new people, and just really celebrating. That was so beautiful to see. The feeling and the vibe in the space, and the way people were responding to the initiative behind the festival, was exactly what I’d hoped for. I’m definitely already scheming and plotting what next year can grow into and what that might look like. Looking at who was there, and how people responded to the bands this year, is giving me a lot of ideas for how we can build on that in the future.
There was a lot of special energy around Lido’s set. Part of that may also just be the beautiful synchronicity of her having won the Polaris Prize just a couple weeks earlier; there might have been some new people in the crowd that were just recently connecting with her music. But she brought something very special onstage that people in the room were really resonating with. And she brought a bunch of kids onstage at the end, including her son, which was so special — part of why we made the festival all-ages is that there are a lot of youth who don’t ever get a chance to see the bands they like. Weaves also had a really, really special thing going with the crowd.
“It was like everyone in the room knew what was needed.” —Aerin Fogel
Grouper was a really important piece for me because she’s so selective with the shows she plays. I can’t speak for her decision-making process, but it certainly seemed like in the conversation I was having with her team, the fact that it was not in a traditional music venue, and a more community-oriented space, was something that felt more inviting for her. I did have a lot of awareness leading up to the festival around what kind of space she hopes to create for her set. There was this really beautiful moment right before her set: I had planned to get up on the stage and invite people to have a more quiet space while she was playing, which I anticipated being very difficult at 11 at night when there’d been so many high-energy acts before her. And then this really magical thing happened, where people just sat down and went silent completely on their own. It was like everyone in the room knew what was needed.
There were some really wonderful conversations happening backstage. I know that at some point Jasmyn from Weaves and Madame Gandhi and Lido all went and got food together. Just the idea that those three women were connecting by nature of being at this festival together felt so special to know about. It was really gratifying to talk to most of the artists who were performing and have their feedback and their gratitude for being able to be a part of it, because I felt equally honored that they were there. There was such a strong sense of connection in the space, probably because all of the artists on stage have their own really unique way of connecting with people through their music.
*These insights are from SoundBoard, a music consultancy powered by creative agency Deutsch.