Women's music festivals have a complicated history. Since its founding in the '70s, the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival has nurtured some, and angered others by refusing to admit transgender women. The first Ladyfest in 2000 signaled an exciting new era even as Lilith Fair devolved into a punch line for lame jokes about estrogen and vague, new-agey female empowerment. Today, women's fest planners find themselves staring down this legacy and facing hard questions.
Is there room for another big-ticket event in the era of Coachella, SXSW, Bonnaroo, and Sasquatch, to say nothing of Ladyfest? Does women's music still need to be recognized separately from men's? And how do you go about representing a group of people as diverse and increasingly deconstructed as women? For Natalia Kay and December Carson, organizers of this weekend's Siren Nation Festival, the answers to those questions are: yes, absolutely, and very carefully.
Kay, a booking agent, hatched the idea for the festival over two years ago after deciding that Portland needed a new showcase for women's art and music. She approached Carson, a collaborator and owner of Siren Music Company, and pitched the concept. Carson enthusiastically signed on, in part because Kay's vision of a women's showcase resonated with her own frustrating experiences booking women artists.
"I would see it when my men bands would be booked twofold over my women bands," Carson remembers. "The men's voices would be played on the radio four or five times more than the women's voices would be played. You look at Coachella, or you look at Bonnaroo—80 percent of their acts are men... so when Natalia came to me with this, I saw [Siren Nation] as my one chance to show that women artists have the breadth and the depth that men artists have, in terms of genre, in terms of talent."
Kay agrees. "I think there is still a lack," she observes. "I think we've come a long way, and there are a lot of super-talented women out there who are making it in the music world, but I still don't think there is equality. And until there is equality, creating spaces like a women's music festival is going to be necessary."
With Carson on board, the two women and a board of organizers set about choosing a festival name and a concept. Inspired by Carson's company's name and its connotations of warning, female power, and musical allure, Kay joined the words "siren" and "nation" in order to suggest community. Next, they decided to try to distinguish Siren Nation from past festivals.
"Rather than do something like Lilith Fair or Ladyfest, we thought we could do something that would be broader and more encompassing than both of them," explains Kay. The organizers also decided that Siren Nation would be both transgender-inclusive ("We don't want to define for anybody what it means to be a man or a woman," Kay insists) and stylistically diverse.
Carson describes her motivation this way: "I felt like all the voices at Lilith Fair were the same. For me, it was more, 'I want the hiphop voice to be heard. I want the bluegrass voice to be heard. I want the performance artist to be seen.' I wanted people to realize that what you're hearing on the radio and what you're seeing in these magazines is nothing compared to what's out there. What's out there is so much more."
The Siren Nation team found a valuable ally in local musician and Renaissance woman Sarah Dougher, who agreed to release a benefit compilation CD of Siren Nation artists on her Cherchez La Femme label. Dougher, taking time off from two new gigs, as a choir director and bandleader of Sarah D and the SGs, will be at the festival selling copies of the CD.
"Compilations are always better for younger and lesser-known bands so they can get exposure," Dougher says. "I decided to put out the compilation because it would allow me to be supportive in a way that was aligned with my own project, politically and in terms of [Cherchez La Femme's] mission."
The CD, Voices from the Siren Nation, gathers tracks from festival artists including Swan Island, Swallows, Myshkin's Ruby Warblers, Jamie Stillway, Ashleigh Flynn, the Flat Mountain Girls, Mirah, and Marisa Anderson. Missing from the compilation but headlining the festival are Team Dresch, who replaced the Gossip after an 11th-hour cancellation.
Siren Nation will also present two days' worth of film screenings, workshops, and art displays, all in keeping with the festival's mission to inspire and empower through art and education. "Anything that we can do to help these women and girls get their art out there we should still be doing," Carson declares. "I think the battle isn't over, especially in music. It's far from over."