It was day two of the festival and we were already running on more adrenaline than sleep. The dusty air was cooling as the sun nestled downward, the aromatic changeover from sunscreen to bug spray just beginning. We had gotten used to the constant jostling it took to stake our claim in front of the mainstage. I had heard of Alabama Shakes, but they weren’t one of the bands we had come to see. So, my gaggle took the opportunity to remove ourselves from the chaos and perch up on a grassy hill overlooking the cavernous Gorge, whose majesty always threatened to outshine whoever was playing. We needed the break, all of us saturated by music and happy to turn our attention elsewhere. But when the bluesy melodies started, they pleasantly surprised me.
Breaking through the social buzz, I looked to the stage and everything around me became still. There she was: Brittany Howard, front and centre, bursting with exuberance. And shake she did. She belted, bouncing and moving wherever the music took her body. Her electric guitar jiggled along, nestled under her chest. She was un-contained in a way that I’d always thought was reserved for thin women. How was she making this look so good?
I had spent my entire music-obsessed life idolizing women with big voices and tiny frames, convinced that I needed both. I always tried to make myself as small as I possibly could when I was on stage. And here was this woman in low-rise jeans and a fitted button-up, stomach un-camouflaged, curly hair pulled casually into a ponytail, unabashedly taking up all the space in the world. The Gorge didn’t have shit on her. It made me uncomfortable: I felt exposed, like the sort of unease that accompanies wearing pajamas in public. Something shifted. Beside me, my friends were re-hashing the pros and cons of Eryn’s relationship with her on-again-off-again boyfriend. How were they not see what I was seeing? I was mesmerized. Shaken.
It was the spring of 2012. Sunshine had finally awakened the West Coast. I was nineteen, and the wave of my aspiration to become an indie-folk frontwoman was cresting. It only made sense to take the road trip to my first ever music festival. I’d been performing as a folk duo with my bandmate, a lifelong friend, for a couple of years. With her and three other friends, I took my parents’ old Toyota Forerunner down from Vancouver to Washington, GPS set to the edge of the infamous Gorge. We covered the truck with window markers, “SASQUATCH 2012” scrawled along the sides and “JUST MARRIED” on the back, which both distracted from the rusted-out bumper and made us some curious friends along the way.
Thanks to messy festival traffic and an overly optimistic sense of time, we’d arrived well after dark. The evening air was still warm; it teased us with rain and carried several varieties of smoke around the grassy campground. We were barely able to find a spot that would fit our musty old ten-person tent, which boasted missing poles and duct-taped canvas seams. Making what we affectionately named “The Burrow” structurally sound by flashlight (with the help of some kindly neighbours whom alcohol had made very generous) was a feat that formed an unbreakable bond. We spent the rest of the cell-serviceless weekend weaving through hot crowds and dirt clouds, hands held tight in a train so we wouldn’t lose each other.
For my friends, the trip spawned new best friendships and roommate arrangements. For me, it began my pursuit of chasing down whatever secret it was that Brittany Howard knew on stage that day that I didn’t. Because while I loved (and still love) performing with my dear friend, I could never shake this feeling that lived in the pit of my stomach, right beside my nerves: that I didn’t quite fit on stage with her. I could feel every audience we walked out in front of reviling or pitying me, standing there at least twice her size. I obsessed about my body before every show, squeezing into my tightest tummy-shaping underwear, despite their hindrance on my breath.
Meanwhile, my friend was pursuing a modelling career alongside music. I pretended not to notice the different ways we were received by people in the industry. It wasn’t her fault, after all. I didn’t want it to affect our friendship, for her to think I was jealous. But when she once tried to get us signed through a talent agency that had hired her for modelling, I hesitated in queasy silence, not wanting to state the obvious. It didn’t matter how talented I was. Once they saw my body, they would want her and not me.
In 2018, the two of us had moved across the country, her to Montreal to pursue music and me to Toronto to focus on writing, each of us following our own uncertain paths, as you do in your twenties. The better part of my path had been spent training my brain to accept the fact that my body isn’t to blame for all the shame and insecurity it carries, or the lack of space society makes for it. Maybe this was Brittany’s secret, or maybe it wasn’t. But I had learned that my body exists in a paradigm premised on a bold-faced lie: that if we all try hard enough, we can be small, and if we are small, then we are good. And then I’d realized that this paradigm was one that I had the chance to shift.
I was thrilled when my friend invited me to get the band back together for a mini-tour through Ontario: we would open the show as a duo with the songs off of her upcoming EP, and then join the headlining band as backup singers. This is how I found myself performing on a festival mainstage for the first time. The two of us were back side by side; and this time, it felt different.
It was our last show after a string of nights in pokey small towns. We’d spent our days driving pin-straight roads through flat fields of wheat and corn, the Louvin Brothers and Dolly Parton taking turns keeping us company, preaching Satan is Real and I Will Always Love You out the windows. We’d spent our post-show, wine-soaked nights cooling off in black lakes that showcased the stars, before turning in to our snugly shared Airbnbs. After our last long drive, we finally arrived at Hillside Festival, this time being put up in a swanky hotel with overzealous (but welcome) air conditioning and a mountain of memory-foam pillows.
I hadn’t been back to a musical festival in several years, having happily left that experience in my early twenties. Things looked different from backstage, but the texture was the same. The dusty dry grass; the mingling scents of sunscreen and bug spray; the way your brain tunes out faint beats from other stages to focus on who it wants to hear; the quiet camaraderie you feel with thousands of surrounding strangers, merely because you’re all there in this chosen fray.
Night fell. Lights went up, illuminating the swarms of mosquitoes fighting for their time in the spotlight. We traipsed out onstage and took our places. The opening guitar riff floated out over the crowd and the drums thudded toward my cue. As I reached down to take a gulp from my water bottle and pick up my tambourine, I looked up and saw a train of bedraggled young women clamouring to the front, hand in hand so they didn’t lose each other.
Stage left was ours. Mine. As the set danced along, I felt myself growing bigger. Every hit of my tambourine against my bare leg sent a ripple down my thigh. I stomped, hit harder. Phones were out, filming and photographing as close as they could. I bounced and moved wherever the music took my body. I sang with all the outmost corners of myself. I breathed deep into my gut, extending it as far as it wanted to go. My arms jiggled, naked in my sleeveless bodysuit. Not once did I think about them, nor the other parts of me that move right behind a beat.
The encore ended and I stood, sweating, curly hair wild and unleashed by my movement. As I steadied my breath and beamed out at the cheering crowd, my eyes were caught by a bright moon of a face near the front. Something about it felt familiar. Was I imagining it, or was she staring back at me? Young, mesmerized. Still. Just waiting to grant herself permission to shake.
I love this
This is an awesome, and important, piece of writing.?your light shines through.?Beatiful!
Wow Ems! What amazing writing! So proud of you :)!!