I limped into the Cancun airport exhausted, hungover, with scraped knees, strained vocal cords, and a pulled hamstring. Brandi Carlile’s first Girls Just Wanna Weekend music festival was over and I can describe the experience in three words:
BEST TIME EVER.
In the beginning, my sister guilted me into going with her on the trip, saying it was her dream birthday vacation to go to the inaugural Girls Just Wanna weekend music festival at the Hard Rock in Mexico. She had already asked most of her friends and I knew my place was towards the end of this list. Given that I hate the sun and wasn’t familiar with most of the musical guests – even the headliner, Brandi Carlile – I wasn’t insulted. After some convincing, I caved, bought some 85+ sunscreen and boarded the plane.
The trip did not get off to a strong start. This is an actual conversation – cross my heart and hand to the universe – between my sister and me our first day there. (I’d like to apologize to Ms. Carlile, her band, her family, her friends, her pets, and all her fans in advance for this next paragraph.)
“She looked way younger than I was expecting,” I said to the back of my sister’s head. We were on our way to the pool the morning after the sound check we were lucky enough to catch the night before.
“What were you expecting?” she replied, “I think she’s only 37.”
“That’s impossible. She was big in the 80s, but she’s not as pop princess as I remember either.”
“Pop princess? Nothing about Brandi Carlile has ever been 80s pop princess.”
She stopped dead and turned to stare at me in disbelief.
“You’re not thinking of Belinda Carlisle, are you? The lead singer of the Go-Go’s?”
In a confession I now regret, I said, “Yep. That’s exactly who I’m picturing. Who is Brandi Carlile then?”
She looked up and whispered to God to give her strength.
“You are not allowed to talk for the rest of the trip.”
I know. I KNOW. Please don’t judge me. In my defence, we weren’t allowed very close to the stage during the sound check, I didn’t have my glasses on, I’d had a few Mojitos, the Grammys had not happened yet, and I’ve been told I wouldn’t know good music if it walked up and gave me a hug.
Before I start getting hate mail and threats of bodily harm, I’d like to say that while I wasn’t familiar with her at the beginning, I’m a HUGE fan now and firmly part of, “The Bramily.” Much like Beyoncé’s Beyhive and Lady Gaga’s Little Monsters, Brandi Carlile has her Bramily, avid fans who love her for the person she is and what she stands for, as much as they love her music.
The music festival kicked off on Wednesday, January 31st with the lineup of KT Tunstall, Shawn Colvin, Maren Morris, Indigo Girls, Mavis Staples, Lucius, The Secret Sisters, and Ruby Amanfu. It was a beautiful mix of beloved music veterans, the hip and current, and fresh-faced up-and-comers. The lineup of all female performers is, unfortunately, a rarity. A shout out to Cloud 9 Adventures for taking this leap of faith is well deserved. Given it was the first year and almost sold out, it shows, despite opinions to the contrary, that women will indeed show up and support each other. To quote Ms. Carlile: “Thanks for packing this thing out, showing what women can do when they get together.”
There were rainbows aplenty, too. This truly was my sister’s dream: a (mostly) gay music festival in Mexico in the dead of winter. There is something special about being with a group of people who share a passion, and Ms. Carlile enveloped the whole event with a warmth of spirit that could be felt everywhere. We met women (and a few men) from all over the world, including Canada, Spain, Brazil, Germany, and the U.S. It seemed like every U.S. state, from Hawaii to Alaska to Florida and New York, was represented. They came from cities like Seattle, Cleveland, Chicago, Miami, Kansas City, Des Moines, LA, Pittsburgh, and Allentown. (FYI Billy Joel, they’re still pretty ticked about that song. Might want to send them an apology and a fruit basket.)
In a music industry where female empowerment and strength seem to only be represented by the badass, give zero f*cks movement – which don’t get me wrong, I love too – Ms. Carlile’s message of girl power comes from a place of pure joy and youthful exuberance that is usually only found in children and Labrador retrievers. She’s sharp and funny and sweet. It’s a different kind of badass. Think homemade brownies with a shot of tequila.
The raw, sweetness of the lyrics and the intense vulnerability of her voice, coupled with an amazing clarity, range and ability to bend notes, is captivating. But the girl can rock, too. She’s got a raspy growl that would make Janis Joplin proud and the two identical bald guys – Tim and Phil Hanseroth – who flank her kick it up to a whole other level. By all appearances, they look and sound like they could be on stage with Metallica, but the three come together in a mix of country, pop, folk, and straight up rock, that is a genre all its own.
Two highlights of the week were Brandi-oke, where lucky and very talented amateur singers got to perform with the band, and the final night’s, Ladies of the 80s concert, which was the cause of the lost voice and pulled hamstring described in the first paragraph. It was a raucous and wildly fun night of costumes and dancing and singing songs from the best decade of music. (Don’t email me, classic rock fans. The heart wants, what the heart wants.)
Throughout the entire festival, what Brandi Carlile and all the performers brought, was a feeling that they were genuinely happy to be there, performing together in this special event. They brought fun and humour and gave the audience a sense of cohesiveness that only strengthened song after song. Ms. Carlile gave everything she had onstage and infused pure heart into this event. With her honest and raw love of music, her band, and her fans, she makes you feel important, like there is no place she’d rather be than standing in front of you, singing you a song.
But make no mistake, she was also delivering a message. Her Grammy-winning song The Joke is a love letter to the disenfranchised, a missive from a girl who never fit in at school but managed to make her dreams come true in a business better known for crushing them.
The mother to two young girls with wife Catherine Shepherd, Ms. Carlile was doing her part to build a space where it’s OK to be who you are and women are always the headliners.
“I hope one day the world will give its daughters as much as it gives its sons.”
Amen, Brandi. Amen.
And thank you.