May 04, 2018
By: Matt Williams
Speaking with Lawnya Vawnya Executive Director Chrissy Lee and musician Kate Lahey (who performs dreamy pop tunes as Weary)—both native Newfoundlanders—the phrase “come from away” arose a lot. The term refers to anyone who isn’t from The Rock (aka Newfoundland, a literal rock rising up out of the Atlantic Ocean). It’s pretty regular to use it as a noun, too, as in, “So and so’s a come-from-away.” It’s not the kind of thing you’d hear in a place like, say, Toronto, where planes are jetting in and out of all the time and pretty much everyone you meet comes from away. But it makes sense in Newfoundland, an isolated spot that depends on the mercy of Mother Nature to get to. And who here among us knows Mother Nature to be particularly merciful? Certainly not East Coasters.
This whole thing, the limited access of living on an island in a part of the world where the weather is rough, to say the least, is part of the origin story of Lawnya Vawnya. In 2010, Mathias Kom and Ariel Sharratt (both members of The Burning Hell), along with Dave Lander and Andrea Vincent, decided to do something about it, where they could bring in bands who come from away and connect them with local acts in an event that could forge relationships between artists. Sounds like a small thing, but touring is hard enough when you live in an easily accessible province like Ontario. Making pals with bands who can make it worth your while to spend the money to get out of Newfoundland and play some good shows provides a gigantic advantage that would be difficult to create without a festival like Lawnya Vawnya. As Lahey points out, it’s invaluable for artists looking to expose themselves to new audiences.
“We work in a really wonderful community in St. John’s, but also one that’s really challenging,” Lahey says. “I think a lot of artists here feel isolated. They don’t feel really as valued or seen or heard in a national context. I think it feels really good to feel recognized and heard and valued, but it’s also really incredible to play the festival because it’s a networking opportunity. You get to meet mentors, and every artist who comes from away to this festival is really generous with their time and their knowledge and their resources.”
Lahey speaks glowingly of the connections she’s had the chance to make via the festival, like driving Jennifer Castle and Fake Palms out to Cape Spear to watch the waves, eating fish and chips with Julie Doiron, or seeing Raphaelle Standell-Preston of Braids command a large bar crowd in an empowering moment. It goes both ways, what with locals and come-from-aways, at Lawnya Vawnya: she’s already invited me to dinner long before we get off the phone.
“Those are people I can ask questions or can help me book shows or give me some encouraging words that say, ‘I see you, you can do this, you belong here. This is how you do it,'” she says. “I can’t really stress how amazing and important that is. Especially for marginalized and politically and physically isolated artists.”
With such an opportunity for access to fellow artists, the festival has also helped develop the music scene within the city, Lee says.
“Every year we try not to bring the same bands,” she notes. “We have a rule where we don’t try to book the same bands from away every year and we don’t book the same local artists every year. We make sure the lineup is fresh and new and not just showcase the same artists every year. I think that also helps with developing the music scene in this city. We always find bands will show up out of nowhere a few months before the festival and then they apply to the festival and play. It’s sort of a good excuse to start a band.”
Lahey—who also co-founded St. John’s Women In Music and is a board member for Girls Rock Camp NL, as well as being a Ph.D. candidate at the Women & Gender Studies Institute, University of Toronto—says Lawnya Vawnya is an especially important festival in the region because of what it represents. She points out that Exploits Valley Salmon Festival in Grand Falls-Windsor took a whopping $1.1M loss for a couple rough years, a deficit the town was responsible for. Massive acts, like Pitbull and Maroon 5, and low ticket sales were partly to blame. But Lahey says Lawnya Vawnya is an example of what the province should be spending money on: a sustainable festival that is also participating in a progressive cultural zeitgeist, celebrating artists that are at the vanguard of, well—art. It’s not an easy feat for any festival, especially not one so isolated. But this is Lawnya Vawnya’s eighth year running.
“We have a history of festivals in this province exploiting small communities that are in deep need of cultural and creative and political vibrancy, and instead they exploit isolation for these financial gains that actually don’t really benefit anybody at all,” Lahey says. “What we see with Lawnya Vawnya is a small, independent arts festival that continues to be economically viable and financially sustainable while also prioritizing diversity, safety, inclusivity, political controversy if it wants to—nobody is being muzzled—networking, community-building. All of these things. So it is a weird climate. But as an audience member, a partner, and a musician with Lawnya Vawnya, it’s really a beacon in a really, really dark climate.”
The festival is also multi-faceted, incorporating panels, workshops, and multimedia work that expands boundaries and borders through different modalities, content, and representation, Lahey says. There’s a downtown music crawl (Friday) and one in Quidi Vidi (Saturday) that features quick performances in venues not normally used for music. The Quidi Vidi one stops at the legendary Inn of Olde, a ragged pub where you can sometimes see owner Linda Hennebury watching TV from her actual living room while things are going on (the bar doesn’t serve food, but some hungry friends of mine were treated to bologna sandwiches she whipped up). Lee adds that there’s much more to see than just tunes. Obviously, there are the beautiful, end-of-the-world views of icebergs and (sometimes!) whales, fog and cliffs. They’ll be screening a documentary called Play Your Gender at some point, presented with the St. John’s International Women’s Film Festival. She’d like to see the festival to progress toward more year-round programming, including getting off the island to collaborate with other festivals and bands.
And we haven’t even gotten to the lineup yet. Both Lee and Lahey are very excited for Yamantaka // Sonic Titan and Maylee Todd. Local legends Gramercy Riffs will be playing, too. But really, the performances are starting to sound like the tip of the iceberg of a spring trip to St. John’s.
“You become a part of that community for four days, really suspended in something that feels meaningful and creative and for a small second, not commercialized and not corporate and not industrial,” Lahey says. “That’s rare and special.”
You should probably come from away.
The 2018 edition of Lawnya Vawnya happens from May 23-26, 2018 in St. John’s, Newfoundland. More info can be found here.