When I started covering shows for Staged Haze several years ago (when we were known as Chicago Haze), it was always a dream to get the opportunity to cover a big time festival. Lollapalooza was always on the horizon as a goal for me to get to, one that would signify myself “making it” as a writer who started a website as a form of creative expression as well as a place to recommend music to my friends.
After graduating college and moving home to my parents’ house, as many a freshly grads to, I was commuting into the city multiple times a week to see shows: sometimes with friends, but more often times, alone. I decided that as a writing exercise for myself as well as an opportunity to expand my website, to start writing reviews on every single show I saw. This eventually opened the door for me (and by opening the door, I mean I would cold email artists’ PR teams) to start gaining access to these shows on “press passes” (in reality, just spots on the guest lists) in exchange for full show write-ups.
The first festival I was ever approved to cover was South By Southwest, back in 2020. I reluctantly applied at the end of 2019, stumbling my way through a letter of assignment on the press application, doing my best to thoroughly explain my fest coverage plans. At this point in my journalistic career, I had applied to cover Lollapalooza upwards of four times: and getting denied continuously wasn’t the most encouraging of results. In early 2020, I found out that I got approved to cover South By Southwest.
Unfortunately as most of us know, South By Southwest was canceled due to the initial wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, maybe a week or two out from the fest’s kick-off date. Up until this point, I had meticulously planned out my schedule down to the second and already inquired with several artists to set up interviews. Bummed was an understatement, and my reaction to this news was more selfish than I’d like to admit, but I would like to think that at this point, most of us had anticipated this pandemic scare to last a week or two, tops, before we got bacck to “normal.” But as the story goes, things did NOT go back to normal, and little did I know, I wouldn’t get to South By until 2022. The world spun on.
After having experiences at major fests like Lolla, Pitchfork, Boston Calling, and Austin City Limits, I was looking forward to attending a festival that focuses on giving up and coming talent a platform to create connections with professionals in the industry that could elevate their careers to the next level. I feel like this is a direct correlation with why I like to write about “music’s best kept secrets:” or artists that I believe in and want to see succeed. Don’t get me wrong: festivals with mainstream performers are a great time and still offer an experience to attendees to discover (generally) undiscovered talent, but it’s really not comparable to seeing showcases in venues that are smaller than the lines for alcohol at Coachella. There’s an element of intimacy that I obsess over. The element of mystery doesn’t exist. You see the grit that musicians go through to pursue their passions: performing late nights, setting up and tearing down their own gear onstage, selling their own merch. The list goes on. The details that go into making their dreams happen are never ending.
Check out some highlights of the music showcases below.
Some artists are tasked with the duty of performing solo, when they’re used to doing so with an entire band backing them. South African by way of London musician Baby Queen (the musical project by Bella Latham): an artist we’ve covered extensively on Staged Haze, happened to be one of them. Her 40-minute set at Austin’s “Augustine” bar was led entirely on her own: not necessarily recognizable as anxiety-inducing for her by the crowd, but an experience she would come to comment on negatively, expressing her lack of talent having to play a guitar while performing (I thought she did just fine).
Baby Queen’s set consisted of performances of several already-released songs (“Internet Religion,” “Buzzkill,” and “Dover Beach,” to name a few), and also featured an opportunity for audience members to hear some unreleased music, presumably testing the material before embarking on Olivia Rodrigo’s Sour tour dates in the UK. Closing with “Want Me,” Baby Queen’s biggest song to date, she declared it being “the one song people came to her set to hear,” before a rambunctious performance, including a verse sung in French. Baby Queen’s kingdom has definitely grown after that SXSW debut (also, her second performance in the US ever).
Pom Pom Squad
When Pom Pom Squad’s opening track happened to also be my fifth most streamed song of 2021, I knew I was in for a treat.
Pom Pom Squad, one of the artists I was most anticipated to see at South By, had at least four different sets sprinkled throughout the week, but I didn’t want to risk my chance of being turned away at one of their showcases due to them potentially hitting capacity, so I decided to see them the first opportunity I had.
Dressed in a cowboy hat and chunky, patent leather platform boots, lead singer Mia Berrin took the set by storm, quickly launching into the live rendition of “Lux,” and then “Drunk Voicemail,” which got me more emotional that I anticipated getting so early on into the set!
The first half of the set was carried with a lot of momentum, but it lost its energy with the performance of three songs from the band’s 2019 album.
One of the busiest events of the four days I attended South By Southwest was hands down, the Saddest Factory Showcase featuring performances by Charlie Hickey, Sloppy Jane, Claud, and MUNA: hosted by the one and only Phoebe Bridgers. I arrived about twenty minutes before MUNA was slated to close the evening with their performance and had to wait about 15 minutes in line before I could get in. Badges (what I had) had priority entry, music wristbands (those who are paying attendees) had to wait a bit longer to get in, and the event was completely closed to the public.
The venue was incredibly packed to the point where they were only allowing one person in as one person left. While the lineup was definitely enticing enough on its own, I would venture to assume that the special guest appearance of Bridgers, who hosted the event and performed a song with each of the artist, was a grab in its own right. I later discovered that there were a few hundred people waiting in line outside that never got in.
I’ve been a fan of MUNA’s for about four years now, and after seeing them perform twice at South By, I did the math and realized I’ve seen them a whopping nine times now, at select headlining performances as well as supporting slots opening for artists like Bleachers, Harry Styles, and most recently, kacey Musgraves. It’s clear that their signing with Bridgers’ label has catapulted them to a new level in their career, and it’s exciting to see them gaining more notoriety for their music while being apart of a new label.
Opening with “Number One Fan” and closing with “Silk Chiffon” featuring a cameo from Bridgers herself, it’s safe to say MUNA’s certainly gotten many new fans after their numerous showcases at SXSW this year.
Undoubtedly an artist to watch this year, British band Wet Leg pulled a ridiculously large crowd during their early set inside Austin’s Convention Center last week. I made the mistake of arriving 10 minutes before their set time and almost didn’t even get in since the space was at capacity before the band’s set even began.
Wet Leg only has five songs out ahead of their debut album, which is set to drop next month. They’re currently touring ahead of the project, and managed to sell out their tour pretty quickly: a phenomenon that is absolutely alluding to the band’s inevitable world domination. It was fascinating to see Wet Leg’s casual demeanor after learning all of these facts about the band and their current rise to success: they felt incredibly down to earth and almost unaware of their own buzz.
Wet Leg’s debut drops on April 8.
When an artists’ band arrives onstage dressed entirely in moss (assumingely fake moss), you just KNOW It’s going to be an interesting set. I saw several showcases at the Austin Convention Center, which is essentially a large space with several conference rooms, some converted into smaller rooms with stages, and despite it feeling very “corporate event-y,” Sasami managed to make the space entirely her own with hilarious moments of audience interaction and plenty of ecccentri facial expressions.
I’m not quite sure how to explain what Sasami’s music sounds like, but if you can get down with a good folk pop song (think Waxahatchee), but also love grunge rock (Pom Pom Squad), AND also love the weird edgy electronic music that artists like Grimes makes, you’re going to love Sasami Ashworth and her ability to integrate all of these sounds in her live set. Sasami’s currently on tour in the US now before hitting the UK at the end of April.
One of the artists I was hoping to catch at South By was Self Esteem, an act that I (reluctantly) accepted wouldn’t fit in the schedule I built out for myself during my four days of music. Luckily, I was able to find a slot during my Friday afternoon, because the performance ended up being one of the best of the entire weekend. Rebecca Taylor’s 2021 album Prioritise Pleasure catapulted her into dance pop stardom, becoming a gay icon (essentially) overnight.
The themes of the album: female sexuality, body autonomy, self-love, and more, were absolutely brought to life during Self Esteem’s 40-minute performance, the lyrics so clearly pushed to the forefront of the experience, almost like they were written for spoken word first and a song second.
The opening track of the set also happened to be the opening track from Prioritise Pleasure. The track, titled “I’m Fine,” features a voice note of a group of women discussing safety in public places. “It sounds so stupid, “but something that me and my friends actually do if we’re approached by a group of men, we will bark like dogs. There’s nothing that terrifies a man more than a woman that appears completely deranged.” Taylor then proceeded to bark onstage with her backup singers/dancers as onlookers watch: some in confusion, some in awe, and probably a mix of both.
Ferris & Sylvester
When Issy Ferris and Archie Sylvester crossed paths in 2017, it was a sign of fate. The duo, now a couple, have been making music together ever since, camping out in a cottage outside of London during the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic to work on their debut album together.
All ahead of their debut record, Ferris & Sylvester have won UK’s Americana Awards Emerging Artist of Year, and been compared to artists like Simon & Garfunkel and First Aid Kit. I’d also add a comparison to The Civil Wars, the now extinct folk duo of Joy Williams and John Paul White.
Performing in a BBQ Restaurant (strange venue choice, SXSW), Ferris & Syl absolutely brought the house down on Friday night, seamlessly weaving their harmonies together, sounding even better than they do recorded. The space couldn’t have had more than 50 people in attendance (probably closer to 30, to be honest), and the vibes of the room felt extra special. The beauty of this festival in particular is the ability to see artists in such intimate spaces, and the herd mentality I felt in the air was one of “wow, one day I’m going to say I got to see Ferris & Sylvester in the smallest space possible,” and that is a pretty amazing thing to feel.
See more photos from South By below:
From top to bottom: Petey, Cassandra Jenkins, Pom Pom Squad, Grace Cummings, Balming Tiger