We are gathered mid-city at the edge of a lake, waiting for a raft to take us across the moonlit waters to an (uncharted?) inner-city island. I am undeniably jet lagged, and slurring my words so that no one can understand my Australian/English accent.
A quick jam, before we have reached the island, and the self-advertising by proud Texans begins: “Well haai there! I’m a very successful U.S artist who has released 12 albums…” or (repeated at least five times), “You need me. You know you need my skills on your songs.” And the first lesson was learnt. People here aren’t afraid to be as pushy as hell.
Although there was no ferocious King Kong to be found on Snake Island, there certainly was marijuana, a sludge-like vegan stew, a campfire and honest Americana music. A beaten guitar was passed around the circle, which I grabbed all too eagerly in the hope of making some early connections, and found myself giving a jet lagged version of my song Crying Birds. It seemed every single person on the island was a musician of some sort. We had trumpets, accordion, panpipes, banjo… the whole shebang. Honestly, I don’t think any other experience would have been a better-suited introduction to the eccentric culture of Austin, even if it was the underbelly. People eating off their guitars? Yes… Music goes hand in hand with anything in this city.
Wednesday – Saturday, March 12-15: SXSW
Although I certainly wasn’t expecting my Snake Island adventure, I don’t think anything could have prepared me for the all-consuming frenzy that is SXSW. The biggest music festival in the world. Every music lovers dream. And although I was initially sceptical, it quickly became clear why I was warned how by the end of the week, I would be begging, ‘No more music.’
Imagine noise coming from… basically all directions. There is so, so much to soak in I doubt even SpongeBob himself could handle it. My first performing experience of SXSW was at the NZ Party, on Wednesday 12th March. Big thanks to Alan and Gary from the NZ Music Commission for sneaking me onto the bill. The line-up was Streets of Loredo, Connan Mockasin and Truth.
Awesome talent, and acts diverse enough to have all the different walks of life present, ferociously nodding their heads along to the beat. These guys had established themselves internationally, had artist visas, and were doing their thing touring the big US of A with no fear. Cool Kiwis indeed.
Stepping onto stage I was most paranoid about how a girl with a guitar could be heard in a festival that doesn’t favour acoustic artists. I was even more paranoid about whether people would consider me worth being heard (Is my music of an international standard?). Longing for my six-piece band left behind in Auckland, I gave one of my best performances energy-wise, and when it came to beating my guitar like a drum, thought the wood was going to split. People seemed genuinely supportive, and the enthusiasm of the crowd made it a truly rewarding experience. Talking with industry types after was also a new game for me to learn. I was to smile and give them my manager’s card.
Saturday, March 15: The Continental Club, Austin
The Continental Club gig I was particularly excited about, being the classic haunt of guitar legend Stevie Ray Vaughn (thanks Ben Livingston). It was one of the best listening audiences I have ever played to, which made me feel better about the fact the Kanye West was performing a few venues up the road. And what would Austin be without the raunchy rock’n’roll gig at Kababalicious where the sound craps out during the first song?
When it came to networking I tried the spontaneous approach. My personal favourite was stepping into a burger joint with my guitar and foreign accent, singing to the surprised people chewing on their cheeseburgers – and receiving a free dinner. Remember, the quirkier the better in this town. Or so goes the legendary slogan, ’keep Austin weird’.
All in all, I could have been a lot pushier. But if you’re a newcomer, the main focus is to keep your head above water most of the time…
The fact that I was 19 years old in a State where the legal age is 21 initially had me worried about how much of a good time was possible. But I had absolutely nothing to be concerned about. Sneaking past bouncers (timing is crucial), all-ages venues, and the many world class acts one could find on a mere stroll down 6th Street, ensured my ears (and mouth) were always engaged.
Chasing hype is a dead end, and people relate the most to an artist who is… themselves. I came away from Austin feeling appreciated not only as an artist, but also as a person. There is a definite openness, and genuine feel about this city that makes a lot of people feel at home here.