Truly great performances depend on the receptive crowd almost as much as the performers themselves. This past Friday at 576, the powerful lyrics of two indie songwriters were not lost amid chatter, but amplified in stunned silence.
This was true talent. Kimya Dawson and EMay were truly something fierce and powerful.
I’ve written about femme supremacy once before, when I detailed a fantastic night in Austin. There I had the chance to listen to Florence and the Machine command thousands. Yet months later, seated on a cozy couch in a lantern-lighted room at 576, I heard this same spring of talent, this same hurt through new voices and new lyrics, but still singing away pain and, most importantly, still declaring their resilience.
This wasn’t a big stage national tour displaying femme power, but an intimate indie one taking root wherever the wind blows. These performers don’t scream to the masses, but whisper and croon to the people on a couch nearby.
The women headlining this campus event captivated the respectful attention of music lovers at 576 on a calm Friday night. Instead of showing sheer power, there was an atmosphere of support and love that came from performers and audience alike, largely shaped by the intimate, conversational performances of the two headlining artists.
The fantastic student performer Maya Burke initiated the soft, understated acoustic sound that permeated throughout the night. But for me, I felt the first tremor of the night’s supportive vibe backstage before the show, when I had a chance to meet EMay and Kimya Dawson — two wonderful performers flown to campus by the Stanford Concert Network.
All the acts were united by simple guitar overlaid with each singer’s unique vocal range. The two headlining singer-songwriters complemented each other quite well during the performance, with EMay’s grassroots-punk voice an ideal contrast to Kimya Dawson’s sweet melodies, familiar to many from the bubbly Juno soundtrack. The two singer-songwriters strip down their show to barebones: just their songs, their guitars, and their voices.
The sonic resonance between the performers was not merely a coincidence, but an act of engineering on the part of SCN indie producer Sam Gussman, who wanted to create a night featuring women artists. As female performers, the pair already face a lot of obstacles in the music industry. While definitely allowing them to be flexible in subject matter and musical stylings, being indie singer-songwriters sometimes adds further complications to Dawson’s and EMay’s careers.
I wanted to learn more about the challenges they face as indie artists, so I asked them what it was like to perform at college shows. Both responded that it’s a mixed bag, often with a lot of surprises as a consequences of it being student-organized. As we chatted about different show experiences, Dawson and EMay began exchanging horror stories of tours past — drunk producers, rules preventing merchandise sales, smoky non-smoking rooms — and how they’d often had to improvise on the fly.
“I’m very adaptable, but I just like to know,” said Dawson about these curveball logistics.
For instance, on a previous tour, Dawson had explicitly requested non-smoking venues. Upon arriving at a performance space, the owners—cigarette in hand—assured her that patrons of the bar wouldn’t be allowed to do so at showtime.
EMay, reflecting on similar experiences, chimed in with a dry laugh: “I know that bar.”
The two seemed to bond over misgivings and difficulties faced by miscommunication and, in many cases, fundamental disrespect between musicians and the employers that hire them or the audience—unfortunately, sometimes people that just stumble in—that come to their shows. Their stories seemed to highlight the difficulty of being an indie artist, navigating random spaces in random towns with random fans. They often have no idea of what kind of welcome they’ll receive from the audiences on tours.
But it appears that Stanford delivered that night. During the performance, when EMay said how pleased she was that we sat on the ground and just listened, it wasn’t empty talk. Quiet college students nodding their heads far surpass the literal body violation of permeating smoke (sometimes from adjacent rooms, since, per her wishes, smoking wasn’t allowed, but that ban only applied in her room — another fun loophole the two artists experienced).
The space 576 created for this event wasn’t a bar. 576 became, for the moment, a real concert venue with a fully engrossed audience. Some magic came into the space. Perhaps it was the colorful lanterns or the comfy couches or the laid-back vibe of sitting on the floor, but somehow the arrangement produced a near sacred space, a temple for music. There was minimal chatter down the hall—a situation significantly better than the bars where EMay recounted having to compete for any attention. Here, her powerful Alanis Morrissette-like vocals filled the room with no leftover space for drunk bar shenanigans.
It was this same attentiveness and engagement that allowed Dawson to get the a crowd of college students to sing along to songs off of her children’s album. While EMay’s throaty voice grabbed and kept hold of the audience from its sheer power, Dawson’s sweet cooing was echoed by the audience on songs like “Bobby O” (the audience did, indeed, sing “Bobbbbbyyyy Ohhhhhhh”).
The room was a safe space, in which EMay casually rambled off interesting, hilarious tidbits of her life while tuning her guitar before her last song and Dawson, forgetting old lyrics, could pause, giggle, and hum her way through musical hiccups.
Some pauses, however, weren’t mistakes. On “Loose Lips,” Dawson paused to reflect and make a timely amendment to a line about George Bush.“This song’s really old…,” she muttered over rhythmic guitar strumming, thinking for a second before jumping back in, “fuck Trump.”
Dawson updated lyrics on the fly to make them more timely during her live performance, but she explains that her songwriting process is rarely so intentional. Her stream of conscious melodies come to her when they come to her. She has no idea when her next project will come and she currently has at least five songs that have yet to be released on an album.
EMay’s writing process echoed this spontaneity. After Hurricane Sandy left West Virginia without power for three weeks, EMay was flustered and called her mom, panicked, about how she wasn’t able to reach friends and family who, in her anxious mind, could have been trapped in the snow or worse. Calmly, her mom told her, “Well, write a song or call the police.” EMay did both, a testament to the cathartic nature of songwriting.
For inspiration, Dawson says that she looks to writers like Maya Angelou, who she was able to see speak to once before, and Kurt Vonnegut, whom she met in an even weirder way. Checking her email one day, she read an email from the son of the literary icon, who had been using her music as a teaching tool in a psychology class on mental illness. Dawson emailed back, flattered, but also with a request. She wanted him to play her songs for his father. Soon, she got a reply from the son who wrote back: “He thought they were very nice.”
But many of the people she admires are her close friends. She stressed the importance of these friendships in her creative process. She and a friend regularly go back and forth: she’ll say a song was influenced by his, only to have him counter that that particular song was influenced by her other song, in an infinitely iterative process.
This collaborative element came across on the stage when she brought her friend Pete Lee to sing a few songs, handing him the guitar to give him a chance to share his work with the audience.
Dawson says that most of the musicians she admires aren’t stuffy songwriters who sit down and trudge through pages and pages of text. Instead, she refers to them as something akin to aliens who receive transmissions from elsewhere. Writing, almost, feels beneath that kind of talent to her. Composing a song is the process of putting thoughts and hopes and dreams and life to music.
Both Dawson and EMay stressed that there is no singular way to write or to be an artist.
“There’s this notion of what you have to do to be successful, but it’s so narrow and there’s, what, six billion people on this planet”? EMay began. “We’re all kind of our own success stories if we can be.”
Kimya, jumping in, laughed and added, “Waking up in the morning, woohoo did it!”
“Brushed my teeth!” shouted EMay. The two riffed off of each other, a casual intimacy that struck up in the backstage room over the course of the night.
While the room burst out laughing about simply brushing your teeth, this celebration of simply getting up perfectly underscored Dawson’s self-care and self-love philosophy that lies at the crux of her music.
One morning when her daughter asked why Dawson was wearing pajamas, Dawson gave her a simple answer. She woke up, took a shower, and put her pajamas on. It wasn’t a mistake: it was how her day was going to go and the exact way she intended to face it: haunted by terrible events past and present, the pajamas were like cozy armor for the singer.
This spectre of pain and the acknowledgement of that pain is so crucial for Dawson’s method of writing. She’s mentioned that following rehab, writing became especially crucial for her. Though ideas and feelings spontaneously snowball, she notes that in most cases writing out the songs really help her heal. “For me it’s kind of like: this is me working through some stuff,” Dawson said. “And then usually when I do that, it turns out that other people are trying to work out the same stuff and that’s what makes the music relatable.”
One of Dawson’s most recent challenges was the powerful Black Lives Matter ballad, “At the Seams.” In this song—written over the course of five years—she details years of violence and dehumanization at the crux of Black Lives Matters’ attention. This was the sort of song that she had to write, because she couldn’t deal with these issues circulating on television or social media and constantly reverberating in her head. While Dawson has to think about these issues everyday, the song helped to process the revolving door of headlines and deaths. In fact, the stop-and-frisk verses that started the process had to be cut from the final, much more condensed final product.
The song still runs seven minutes long.
After the show, Dawson told me that she thought about performing the song, but simply couldn’t. Dawson writes the kind of music that can bring you to tears and make you laugh within a few breaths, but this was a smiling kind of night. It was not the time or place to play “At the Seams.”
Instead, she and EMay decided to craft an optimistic show: we woke up in the morning, and that night, we celebrated that.
Photos courtesy of the Stanford Concert Network.
Kimya Dawson and EMay’s performances were part of this year’s Co-op Showcase, sponsored by the Stanford Concert Network. For more info on upcoming SCN events, check out their Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/stanfordconcertnetwork