What Montaigne learned at The Plot

I have been to five festivals both in my life and this year.

I volunteered at Falls Festival in ’14/’15, played at Groovin’ The Moo in Canberra, attended Splendour as a guest, and finished my headline tour playing at Mullumbimby Music Festival just a few weeks ago.

As an artist, I adore festivals. I love playing on such huge stages, with such huge PAs, I love meeting fans (old or new) after sets, I love the adrenaline rush on the back of performing that enables me to carry on enthused and energetic for the rest of the day, and I love seeing friends I usually don’t get to see because touring/don’t live in the same state/generally busyness of musicians. 

As an artist, they are incredible. But they’re just not for me to attend as a visitor. I do not have the disposition for them because, as an extrovert, I get exhausted very quickly by the constant energy I exert during my conversations and meetings with people, which come thick and fast because there are people constantly around. I can conceal the physical and psychological tax on me if I must in social situations, but inside, I am usually dying. I don’t drink alcohol, I don’t take drugs, I have no interest in either of those things, and alas, it seems that the reality-bending powers of substances prolong one’s ability to be constantly social – and festivals require you to prolong that ability over several days. I know others have greater reserves of energy (or perhaps a higher threshold for discomfort), and that’s perfectly excellent, good on you guys. I hope you guys have a great, safe time when you go to a multi-day festival, thank you for coming, you’re really helping us out. But I’m a fucking wuss.

NOW SINGLE DAY FESTIVALS! I am fond of them as both artist and punter. Why? Often it’s a bit hot and sweaty but you get to go home at the end of the day and shower, the toilets don’t face the brunt of a week’s worth of shitting so they’re not nearly as Horse Stable v. Dog Vomit remix-y as usual, people generally don’t go as hard on the alcohol/drugs hence fewer fools in the crowd distracting from a set, and at least you’re only paying for your meals for one day. However, most importantly, it means that I feel obligated to watch as many performances as is reasonable, because I know I’ll get to rest comfortably the next day.

I talk about this now because a couple of weeks ago I attended my fifth festival, The Plot, a single day fest.


Posted by The Plot on Monday, December 7, 2015

Held in Parramatta – an old haunt of mine because of my former footballing days in the NSW Women’s Super & Premier League – it boasts a lineup loaded with Australian artists accompanied by a few internationals. The lineup this year was particularly dazzling, and happened to include many friends of mine. I tried to do the “as many performances as is reasonable” thing but again, because I am extroverted and talk a lot, my energy drains quite quickly and sometimes I just need to sit down and eat some of the hypothetical (but actually present at this festival) free couscous salad and fruit in the artist’s area. The acts I did catch however, I learnt much from.

Whenever I watch a gig, I nitpick all the positives and negatives and see how I can apply them to my own performance (which is why I go to so many gigs and try to watch ~all~ the festival sets – it’s homework). One of my great weaknesses is deciding if/when I should talk in between songs, and what I should say to keep the crowd revved up. I can sing pretty well, the musical aspect of the performance is generally up to scratch, but everything else is always due for improvement. After having read How Music Works by David Byrne, I am especially analytical and clinical about these things. I choreograph my performance: I think about what moments I should have my eyes open or closed, when I should lift a hand or leg or stand completely still, when I should hold the mic and when to keep it in the stand (I am still trying to refine all these factors). It sounds like I’m taking the romance out of live performance – you’re supposed to just feel the music! Let the songs possess and move you! Stream of consciousness! Let loose! – I probably am. But I promise my hard work is going to make your experience better. If I do it right and well, you won’t care about the apparent ‘artificiality’. Jehnny Beth from Savages does a similar thing. She stares people dead in the eye, rocks back and forth on her feet in certain parts of songs, stands with a certain posture, moves near another band member – it’s all deliberate and calculated. Even the way they all dress – everyone in the band wears black. These are things I think about.

Australian music is in a very good place right now. The following analysis, whether laudatory or critical, means nothing. I know many, many people who will be well-satisfied by much less than me. As it happens that I am also a performer with the intention of becoming the best I can be, I am hyperaware of all these things. This is my craft, and as I used to do with football, I will watch the teams (acts) out there play matches (shows) and learn from them. If you are a punter, this may have very little interest for you, and you might disagree with or not understand much of what I say. That’s fine. I just hope you know that I am not disparaging my peers, not by any means. I have as many things to fix about me as they do.

So what did I take away from my peers at The Plot? I’m going to tell you.

Sampa The Great: Sampa doesn’t move around the stage a great deal, and none of her movements are sudden or grandiose. She moves her hips, her feet, her hands, but it’s all very calm, very intuitive. It’s very suited to her rapping style, and to the music. Here, restraint is powerful. Stillness can be transfixing as it denotes calm self-possession, a quiet confidence in the music as the impetus for reaction, rather than the conduit (the performer) of the music. Her back up singers – two of whom I know (all have their own brilliant projects) – had choreographed moves and all carried expressions appropriate to the mood of the music. She spoke little between songs but what she did say was in the domain of spurring on: “For everybody that is here, let’s just bounce!” There were few thank you’s (not because she’s unappreciative), and any gaps in the music were filled with “uhs”. It made for a streamlined show which flowed seamlessly. Selective dialogue worked to her advantage, made her seem aloof enough to be mysterious/distant and cool, but still connected her to the audience.

Boo Seeka: These boys are lovely people and also exude such loveliness on stage. Ben, who sings, has this pensiveness about his eyes which you get lost in, and Sam has this sincere face which you want to make an emotional investment in. What I learnt here was less to do with stage presence and more to do with PA. Ben’s voice was mixed too quietly, and that for me should be the most salient part of the music. I want to hear the words being sung, and the tone of the singer’s voice. The track being run in the mix was overwhelming his vocal. That’s not the boys’ fault, but because this sometimes happens, often with Front Of House (FOH) dudes (dudes meaning both men and women I promise), I always ask whoever’s doing my FOH to turn up my vocal a little bit more than they would usually.

The Meeting Tree: Raph and Rowan are on a whole ‘nother level to be honest. Their sense of humour is understated, which is why I love it. Almost in the style of Flight of the Conchords, but it’s still their own thing. “Everyone have a great day, drink lots of water, and crush capitalism,” a line delivered by Joyride as if he were presenting a TED talk. “We respect the police,” Raph announces, just moments after performing R U A Cop, a song about attempting to take illicit substances in public spaces and wondering whether the person they’re revealing this information to is actually a cop. What they do is its own particular brand, and I don’t think it’s right for me, but anyone shooting for that semi-serious semi-satirical thing should pay attention to them.

E^ST: love Mel. Very chill person. When she performs, she moves about the stage freely, whips her head around, moves her arms, everything feels very cool and natural. She does what I used to do a lot though, which is not keep eye contact with the crowd much. There’s definitely great effect in closing your eyes while you’re singing – it shows people that you’re really feeling what you’re singing. However, there’s even greater effect in picking moments to close your eyes and moments to stare dead in the eyes of a punter, or into the distance. It’s nice to share that moment of contact with your audience, fulfilling even. It’s fulfilling for them too. If you haven’t seen her music video for The Alley, check that out right now, and notice how captivating it is to watch her run with her gaze dead ahead. Next time I watch her perform live, and I will see her perform live again because I think she’s brilliant and I enjoy watching artists improve over time, I want her to stare me down until I’m sobbing in a ball on the floor.

L-Fresh The Lion: L-Fresh and his team were amazing. They also had choreographed movements, all of it extremely dynamic, they had planned cues for dialogue, the performance was mostly live instrumentation with minimal track, and everything was kept in the realm of the uplifting and communal. All these things made for a consummate performance. My hope one day is to have a few backup singers, because whilst it is convenient to have vocal harmonies on track, the magic happens when you hear a choir of voices combine in perfect harmony. Meg Mac does it and her shows are immense without needing any pomp. L-Fresh had three others on vocals. Worked a charm.

SAFIA: The boys are masters of their trade for many reasons. After having seen SAFIA four or five times this year, I’ve noticed that Ben has a bit of a routine in regards to his movements. The routine is highly effective. He has a trademark gesticulation where he keeps a straight palm like he’s karate chopping something and moves it in time with the lilts and runs he sings. Having a trademark will help distinguish you. The boys also have sartorial trademarks. Ben usually wears full black, Harry generally wears the same long-sleeved shirt and Michael wears a dropped-sleeve singlet. Michael Jackson had the single glove and hat. I have my Docs. All the boys are very good at rousing the crowd to clap or jump. They’re very good at it, and the music itself facilitates it too – it’s that kind of music. While talking to Ben last night, he told me that all he cares about with this whole band business is the music. He’s very good because he practices and works on his shit. They all do, and they’ll be huge because of it.

Tuka: Tuka has a very strong social and philosophical edge which he incorporates into his socials and live set. He, like myself, is of the belief that the artist is one with their fans. You are in communion with your audience. You treat them with respect and you give yourself to them. In between songs, he asks if the audience can be his friend. He talks about #CatSquad which is 1. The greatest idea ever just on a conceptual level and 2. An equally great idea on a social engagement level. It’s not necessarily making him any more money, but it’s giving fans something universal to interact with. It’s not alienating. Nothing he does is alienating. The dude’s been playing live since he was 19 and it shows. He’s got a script, he doesn’t stumble over his words during crowd banter, he moves in a way that is especially his. He knows who is, and he knows he can still improve the set (I’ve had the conversation with him). I think this is the ultimate goal as a performer. To believe you are at your best, and almost be convinced that you are, but still knowing your best could be better.

I don’t mention musical ability because I think that is an implicit expectation. If the playing is good, people will think the set is good. However, if the above things have been nailed down, people will think the set was one of the best experiences they’ve ever had.

That was a lot of information. Sorry, I’m like that. (But I’m also not sorry.)

TL;DR I learnt shit from my peers and I also learnt that single-day festivals are optimal for me. It was great. All the acts at The Plot are up and comers who will do great things. I am very excited for all of my friends’ futures, because they are bright.


Montaigne’s album is coming out in 2016.

Share this article, won't ya?