Newfoundland’s Lawnya Vawnya is an antidote to the “bigger is better” mentality of major festivals

Now entering its ninth year, the St. John's music festival creates spaces for knowledge-exchange between artists and is a reminder than rurality can be a strength.

June 27, 2019

At the end of May, a few days after Lawnya Vawnya—an exposition of independent art and culture in St. John’s, Newfoundland—held its final official event at a groovily lit Eastern Edge gallery, I finally had the chance to take in The Rooms. Located right downtown, “Newfoundland and Labrador’s largest public cultural space” is a giant building packed with both permanent and rotating museum and art exhibits, a café that celebrates the island’s food heritage, and maybe the best view of the majestic, unforgiving Atlantic Ocean you can get in the city of St. John’s without traipsing up Signal Hill. 

In a stroke of sheer dumb luck, the woman who’d put me up during the festival (and, graciously, for the post-festival days I used to enjoy “The Rock” further) happened to be Mireille Eagan, the facility’s Curator of Contemporary Art. She’d just opened the fantastic second part of Future Possible, a temporary multimedia exhibit that places historical works in conversation with works by contemporary artists, and took the time to give me the grand tour. 

Signal Hill// Matt Williams

Future Possible uses many different types of art and material—paintings, photographs, video, installations, sculptures, and even historical pieces like ex-premier Joey Smallwood’s cabinet meeting chair—to interrogate Newfoundland and Labrador’s late entry into confederation in 1949. Done in two parts, with ‘49 acting as the dividing line to cover pre and post-confederation work, the exhibit stirs up questions about whether it’s possible for an entire place to escape its past in order to create itself anew in the future. It also turns a lens on many of the situations where the answer to that question turned out to be a resounding, and often painful, “No.”

As we walked around the exhibit discussing all those heady ideas, she brought up Guglielmo Marconi, the Italian inventor who used a kite aerial to receive the first transatlantic wireless transmission at Signal Hill in 1901. Marconi eventually came to believe—though he was never able to prove—that sound never truly meets its end but instead fades away eternally, growing fainter and fainter, impossible to detect in any clear way with the unassisted human ear. 

Imagine, then: the voices and sounds of a place collecting and swirling and building through infinity, seeping into its collective consciousness, waves gently shaping its geography. There are few more moving visions than that of our dead relatives and predecessors in this human experiment using their spectral voices to sculpt, quite tangibly, our future; there may be none more terrifying. Either way, Marconi’s ideas about the nature of sound, provable or not, are shot through with at least one truth: Inevitably, the ghosts we remember shape us, in some way or another.

Kate Lahey// Matt Williams

Which is just one of the reasons we need to know what we want to say, and say it loud enough that it takes a long, long time to fade away. Kate Lahey is a Newfoundlander and the frontwoman of Weary, a gentle-but-heavy soft-pop group from St. John’s. She’s also the co-director of St. John’s Women In Music (SWIM) and a board member of Girls Rock NL, and a PhD student at the Women and Gender Studies Institute at the University of Toronto. She’s familiar with those Marconi-esque ghosts—her research “explores how intergenerational trauma reverberates through our memories, dreams, bodies and family relations of paradoxical legacies of both silence and deep psychic knowing.” She’s of the mind that Lawnya Vawnya, like all local, independent art festivals, is important because it empowers people to have authority and agency over their own cultural production. By remaining specific to a people and place, it encourages small-scale arts production and allows cultural diversity to flourish. 

In the case of most major arts events, when big industry steps in, the nuances of regional cultural details are wiped away to create something homogenous and mainstream. Think of the mega-festivals that exist mainly to sell tickets on the backs of big, palatable international acts with smoothed edges. It’s not culture, it’s capitalism. Any festival “culture” manufactured by something like Coachella or the now-defunct Pemberton Music Festival is algorithmic. Long after our generation is gone, the events that transpired won’t say anything about the people who lived there or the spirit of the place. The record will simply show that thousands of rich weekend hippies splurged on seeing Weezer play Toto’s “Africa” live for the ‘gram.

“We’re at a moment in time when we’re seeing cultural reclamation across the globe that says we don’t just want a singular, mass-produced notion of arts and culture that’s produced by white America and is often appropriative of other cultures,” Lahey says over the phone from St. John’s, with Lawnya Vawnya 9 in the rear-view mirror. “What the world is saying now is that small-scale cultural production is valuable not because it can compete financially, but because we need art and culture to exist as human beings—to be politically rigorous, to be active and involved, and to be healthy, thriving societies and communities. And we’re realizing we need to do that on a local scale that allows for cultural specificity and diversity in a way that is often really confrontational to capitalist ideas.”

This is how Lawnya Vawnya has succeeded for the past nine years. It was started in 2010 by Burning Hell members Mathias Kom and Ariel Sharratt, along with Dave Lander and Andrea Vincent, and has provided an excellent showcase of St. John’s local music scene—with an ever-widening scope to include the rest of Newfoundland and Labrador. With few exceptions, the festival has operated under a model of pairing “come-from-away” acts with local heroes (or newbies!), ensuring that regardless of the size of the headliner—and come-from-aways aren’t always headliners, either—a local voice is granted the space to make an impression, learn and collaborate through performance, and engage with their community on stage.

This year, the dreamy guitar-pop of the rising Renders set the stage for a mind-blowing and incendiary U.S. Girls set at Club One; the strange, dance-y grooves of Cuerpos made way for a night of hip-hop with Lex Leosis and the explosive Snotty Nose Rez Kids; and Spring Var’s medieval folk settled The Ship crowd in for Lonely Parade and a groovy Faith Healer. 

The festival organizes two music crawls each year as well—in downtown St. John’s and Quidi Vidi, a historic fishing village that’s also a quaint, eclectic neighbourhood—which both weave their way through local businesses and feature local and come-from-away bands setting up shop in actual shops and restaurants. On Saturday afternoon in Quidi Vidi, on the second day of the festival, everyone had the chance to bask in some gentle, acoustic numbers by way of Jake Nicoll in the Mallard Cottage restaurant’s yard, adorned with animal skulls, just steps from the big blue ocean as the afternoon sun beat down. 

Often, the festival books artists that are brand new, with some even playing their very first shows at the festival. Cuerpos’ set at the Rockhouse with Lex Leosis and Snotty Nose Rez Kids was their first time on stage, and though it kicked off with some technical hiccups, by the end of the show they had the entire room dancing. In these cases, you’re able to see artists adjust their performance in real-time, easing or crashing, gloriously, into their skin. Sometimes, the bands on the bill wouldn’t make sense sound-wise in any other typical situation. For most, putting on a perfect show is never the point. Instead, the festival focuses on creating an environment where artists can keep growing artistically.

The festival’s dedication to prioritizing the experience of artists invites the participation of some who come to St. John’s just for the fest, Joanna Barker says. Barker, like her fellow SWIM co-director Lahey, keeps very busy. She’s a founding member of Girls Rock NL, and has volunteered as a host and stage manager for Lawnya Vawnya. She’s also a First Nations drum carrier and splits her time in three bands: John, Eastern Owl, and the Belle Trackies. 

“The artists who come to Lawnya Vawnya are often doing things we’ve never seen before, whether it’s how they hold space on a stage, physically, or the way they hold space in a social context, for other people,” Barker says over the phone from St. John’s. “Last year, when Bernice was here, just watching them perform—no one in St. John’s had used the stage the way the members of Bernice were using the stage. You’re allowed to do that. It’s a permission.” 

“A lot of permission is granted by visiting artists to just kinda do what you want and to push a creative envelope outside of a comfort zone. St. John’s has a lot of incredible artists here doing really awesome things, but like any arts community, we can fall into patterns of how and what we perform, and what performance looks like, and what we say in between songs. So I think it’s really special. I don’t learn at other festivals the way I learn at Lawnya Vawnya, as an artist, just by watching other artists take and use space.”

I don’t learn at other festivals the way I learn at Lawnya Vawnya, as an artist, just by watching other artists take and use space.”

Joanna Barker

In a world that conspires, pretty clearly, to minimize the space provided to artists outside music industry centres, festivals like Lawnya Vawnya play an important role by providing a platform and building space for artists in peripheral places. While building “export-ready” artists may not be the point, a mention from a national publication can prove helpful for musicians attempting to secure funding.

This year, one of the country’s biggest music publications made the trip (on Lawnya Vawnya’s transportation and accommodations dime, same as us) to cover the festival, but only four of their twelve live reviews were for Newfoundland artists. One has to wonder what the point of having a national outlet come to cover a locally-minded, Newfoundland music festival is if they’re mainly writing about bands that either call Toronto home or tour through it all the time. 

Decentralization—mainly from Canada’s major cities—came up a lot in the conversations I had during the festival and after. There is, of course, the idea of decentralizing the music industry and encouraging the media machine to direct more energy and resources toward community-focused festivals like Lawnya Vawnya. But to follow the idea of decentralization further, Barker says Lawnya Vawnya provides an environment where artists can get together and talk about the positions, livelihoods, and roles of artists rather than brainstorming ways to commodify the music industry—often a recurring topic on panels for many showcase-centric industry events. In spaces like this, artists are able to challenge the false notion that an artist even has to be on stage to be an artist.

Ceurpos/ Credit: Matt Williams

During a panel featuring Julie Doiron and Charlotte Day-Wilson in 2016 concerning women in the music industry, Jennifer Castle spoke up from the audience to make an important point: to be an artist, to be a musician, to be a songwriter doesn’t mean you ever have to be on stage. It doesn’t mean you have to ever play music outside of your bedroom. It was the conversation that happened as a result of that panel that also led to Lahey and Barker founding SWIM. 

“If you’re very happy living in your rural community and never want to leave it, everything in the music industry says you will not be successful—the gigs you play, if you play gigs at all,” Barker says. “So again, decentralizing the conversation from urban areas [is important] but also decentralizing it from the stage—taking art and music and just talking about it as a way of life. These are conversations I’ve only had primarily because of Lawnya Vawnya events.”

They’re conversations that aren’t possible, or at the very least, don’t make a lot of sense, at other arts events in the province, Lahey says. She believes that the biggest barrier to making art on the island isn’t that Newfoundland and Labrador are isolated, or that it’s an ordeal to get off The Rock and tour. Rurality is a strength: “When I’m in a place that’s culturally resonant to me, I feel empowered and I make art for my community,” she says. 

The big institutional challenge facing Newfoundland and Labrador artists, Lahey says, is political corruption. The arts organizations are tied up in the oil industry, which makes it difficult to take a stand against the very things art often takes a stand against. Without independent events like Lawnya Vawnya, there’s little to challenge the status quo. “So many arts events are funded by Nalcor or Exxon Mobil or Husky,” Lahey says. 

How are you supposed to be speaking against colonialism or resource extraction when you’re fucking funded by Nalcor?

Kate Lahey

“What does it mean to make culturally and politically relevant art in those environments and in those spaces? How can we think about funding and valuing artists provincially and not as a sidebar to our oil industry? How are you supposed to be speaking against colonialism or resource extraction when you’re fucking funded by Nalcor? How are we supposed to be programming and funding relevant art for people in this province when our arts and culture centres are run by white people from away who don’t seem to have any knowledge or investment in our culture or communities and are afraid to be political because of their funders, but aren’t invested enough in this place to stand up? To me, that’s the real issue. It’s not, ‘Oh, we need to get off this island. We need to have export-ready artists.’ We love that term. I don’t need to be export-ready. I want to make music for this place.”

Lawnya Vawnya’s “good time by the sea” is providing the antidote to “bigger-is-better” attitudes, and in doing so, providing a model that festivals in all communities can look toward to empower their artists. And artists empower those communities in return—it’s often their voices that ring out most powerfully over time, telling the stories of the places they’re from. It’s in everyone’s best interests that those voices are free from the influence of bad actors like the companies actively working to destroy their land. 

If we imagine that sound never truly dies, the racket that Lawnya Vawnya makes every spring is digging grooves into the streets of downtown St. John’s; hovering and humming inside the fog that sits heavy above the harbour; searching for purchase to grow between the jagged, ancient rocks pushing out of the island. The ghosts we remember do shape us, and the voices the festival amplifies year after year will carve out the cultural future of the province—best let the b’ys sing loud.


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