The annual Athens Popfest has been called a family reunion for indie-pop nerds, a grown-up summer camp for rock ‘n’ roll geeks with extra dust sleeves on their of Montreal records and neatly organized zine collections. When I attended my first Popfest in 2010 as a young musician and Athens music history super-fan, I discovered a community in which female musicians are centered and celebrated, female fans dominate the audience, and women play a vital part in music history and lore. It was an experience that changed my life as a music maker and fan forever.
Over the years, Popfest, founded in 2003 by Mike Turner of HHBTM Records, has hosted a myriad of indie-pop heroes, twee gods, promising up-and-comers, DIY punks, and legends of the Athens scene. When so many music festivals skimp on female performers, Popfest has historically celebrated non-male and LGBTQ performers, right here in the South, all for an affordable ticket price. From experimental noise idols Deerhoof to Georgia royals Oh-OK to perennial favorite Eureka California, August sees downtown Athens filled with women hauling gear, women dancing in the front row, women signing autographs, and women soaking up the spotlight.
Being in that environment as a player or an audience member is transformative. The year I attended, singer-songwriter Madeline captivated the audience with fingerpicked guitar and tenderly haunting, hypnotic storytelling. The room buzzed in anticipation as Rose Melberg, the Queen of Indie-Pop herself who charmed the world in Tiger Trap, The Softies, Gaze, and Gigi, performed a solo set; hours later, a jam-packed 40 Watt Club roared as her band, Go Sailor, took the stage.
Over at Caledonia Lounge, the entire audience sang in earnest with Your Heart Breaks, Defiance, Ohio, and Nana Grizol to mourn the loss of influential Plan-It-X Records founder Samantha Jane Dorsett. The walls themselves sweated in the summer heat and the whole place was aglow as the crowd held each other and sang, “All we got is each other!” in perfect, chaotic unison.
As my friends and I drove the winding back roads home, I stared at the passing farmland and realized I felt different—stronger, supported, inspired to write all the music I had caged inside my head. My tendency to nervously pick over songs before sharing them, to only write about the gravely serious, had shaken off.
During Popfest weekend, I learned that women can sing about sweater weather and candy and sunshine and depression and dogs and foreign policy and divorce and drinking and naps and hold an audience in their palm as they do so. I saw unstoppable women having the time of their lives, and danced among people who were ready to listen, to buy their albums, and sing along.
Popfest went on hiatus in 2011, returning triumphantly in 2016. Since attending, I’d performed in several bands and co-founded a garage-pop band, COEDS. I was writing songs about the beach and cat-callers and monsters and crushes. I jumped around onstage and felt strong and invincible. When it was time to apply to festivals, my heart was set on one. COEDS plays Athens Popfest 2017 on Wednesday, August 9 at Little Kings Shuffle Club, and I couldn’t be prouder to take what the 2010 festival taught me directly back to the source.
Even if I wasn’t performing, I’d be there dancing my way between venues—the fest’s great team has truly outdone themselves this year in the booking the women who built indie rock and those leading the charge in 2017.
On Wednesday, start your Popfest with singer-songwriter Emileigh Ireland at Little Kings Shuffle Club, then hit The 40 Watt Club for a stellar kickoff evening. L.A.’s Rat Fancy, helmed by Diana Barraza (formerly of Sweater Girls), deliver saccharine sucker punches in songs like “Suck a Lemon” and “I Can’t Dance to the Smiths Anymore.” Closing out the night is Elf Power, the prolific Athens indie band featuring Laura Carter. A treasure of the Athens scene, Carter’s played everything from Zanzithophone to drums in many noteworthy bands, including Neutral Milk Hotel. She also co-founded the eco-village Orange Twin Conservation Community and Orange Twin Records.
Thursday afternoon begins at Little Kings Shuffle Club. Check out Florida baroque-pop outfit DieAlps!, fronted by Austrian-born Cornelia Calcaterra, Heavenly Creatures, and Outer Spaces, who released their debut, A Shedding Snake, last year on Don Giovanni Records (Alice Bag, Screaming Females, Laura Stevenson).
New Haven noise-pop troupe Procedure Club hits The World Famous for a late-afternoon pick-me-up—get a bite to eat while you’re there to fuel up for an evening at The Georgia Theatre with standouts like Palehound (their album A Place I’ll Always Go, released in June, is already being hailed as one of the year’s best), and the inimitable Waxahatchee.
London’s Schnade brings rollicking rock ‘n’ roll to Little Kings on Friday afternoon, and poet and songwriter artist Claire Cronin is a can’t-miss at World Famous. At night, it’s time for rock royalty. Make sure to catch R. Ring, a new project from Kelley Deal of The Breeders. The duo, featuring Deal and Ampline’s Mike Montgomery, released a debut LP, Ignite The Rest, in April. They’re on Friday night’s Georgia Theatre bill with Einschlagen, Big Quiet, Lætitia Sadier (of English-French avant-pop band Stereolab!), Eureka California, and Chapel Hill’s legendary Superchunk.
Saturday is the final day of Popfest, and it’s going out with a bang. After an afternoon of great picks, kick up your heels to headliner ESG’S wildly influential blend of post-punk, no wave, rap, and house at Georgia Theatre. ESG launched in 1978 and has been inspiring artists with its infectious grooves and fierce independence ever since. Superbody, Athens rapper Lingua Franca, Noon:30, post-punk icons Pylon Reenactment Society, and Popfest faves Tunabunny help wrap up the festival.
I, for one, am looking forward to another year of new friends, new favorite songs, and new reasons to be a proud and loud Southern feminist. See you in the dance pit!
Athens Popfest takes place in downtown Athens, Georgia from August 9-12.