The pandemic sent the 2020 Mission Creek Festival flowing underground, offering a few socially distanced sets of musicians, writers and film. But this year, the festival is coming up for air April 29 and 30, streaming performance and conversations between musicians and writers in a program called “Duos.”
Tickets are now on sale with various price points and perks, with early-bird discounts through 11:59 p.m. April 4. And even though the number of viewers is unlimited via the outer/most platform, just 200 limited-edition vinyls of Elizabeth Moen’s “Creature of Habit” EP are available for people buying the $105 Creek Freak or $195 Supporter packages. So those two options might sell out, noted John Schickedanz, marketing director for the Englert Theatre, which presents the annual spring festival. It typically brings a blend of music, literature and “radical community happenings” to downtown Iowa City.
Nothing has been typical, however, in the past year.
“Last spring, there was great uncertainty. We were all wrapping our heads around it in our professional lives and our personal lives,” said Andre Perry, the festival’s co-founder and the Englert’s executive director.
“If you asked us a year ago, we would have said, ‘Yeah, we’ll definitely back next year.’ And as we got into the fall and were putting together the Witching Hour programs, it was clear to us at that time that we would be designing something virtual for Mission Creek this spring. So we started thinking about it in earnest once we were done with Witching Hour, and really focused our attention on putting this program together.”
Each “Duos” segment will pair one musician and one writer with complementary styles, performing separately, then coming together on-screen afterward to strike up a conversation.
While the schedule hasn’t been finalized, the pairings are: Brandon Taylor, literature, and Japanese Breakfast, music; Gina Nutt, literature, and Nat Baldwin, music; Chuy Renteria, literature, and MC Animosity, music; Kiese Laymon, literature, and Billy Dean Thomas, music; Donika Kelly, literature, and Ami Dang, music; and Andrea Gibson, literature, and SASAMI, music.
“They’ll be talking to each other about everything — their work, what this year’s been like, what they’re looking forward to getting back to,” Perry said. “It seems like there can be a little bit of optimism, at least in some of the conversations at this point. Just trying to explore what it means to work in different forms, and being writer and musician, how you’ve responded this past year, and how it’s shaped your future.”
Matchmaking required “a little back and forth,” Perry said, “talking with some of the artists and seeing where they wanted to go. We definitely had ideas, and all the matches seemed to work out. Everyone seemed excited to talk to the person they’re talking to.”
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The process involved “finding people who would be on complementary wavelengths,” he added. “It’s possible that one of them might be making something more obscure as an artist, and the other one might be doing something more accessible, but in some way, they’re on the same plane. We were really trying to do that — to see people who would get along from a conceptual standpoint.”
As in years past, the upcoming digital festival is striving to expand viewers’ horizons.
“From an aesthetic standpoint, we wanted a real broad range in the sounds and words that we might hear,” Perry said. “So we tried to find musicians who were going from sounds that might be more popular or catchy to things that are maybe more abstract.
“When we look at the music, Nat Baldwin, who’s playing a lot of popular music, he’s right now working on a yearlong avant-garde project, and I think that’s at one spectrum. In this other spectrum, you have someone like Japanese Breakfast, who’s a super-sharp songwriter, and pens songs that are catchy. Almost from the moment you hear them, there’s a lot going on in the subtext, but anyone can hear them and be pulled in immediately.
“So we wanted to get that span of sound and artistic vision,” he said. “I think that’s represented in the writers, as well.”
He pointed to Brandon Taylor and Andrea Gibson as writers who offer their audiences “easy ways in” to their works. “Gina Nutt is going for a different sort of aesthetic,” he said.
“We just wanted a span of aesthetic concerns. We really wanted to see the different sorts of art people can make in this era.”
While it’s been challenging to form the festival through the pandemic, it’s a challenge the Mission Creek team has embraced.
“It has been really interesting and difficult and inspiring to see how we can deliver on the mission of this program in this weird time,” Perry said. “It was refreshing then, that the musicians and the writers and our team came to us with excitement, even though there are a lot of reasons to not be excited today.
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“That was positive and necessary, and really I hope that some of that good energy can be shared by the community as they watch this festival.”
Here’s a deeper dive into some of the festival artists, from bios provided by Mission Creek:
• Japanese Breakfast (she/her) knew that she wanted to call her new album “Jubilee” from the moment she started writing it, since a jubilee is a celebration of the passage of time.
Recording under her artistic name alias, Michelle Zauner’s first two albums garnered acclaim for the way they grappled with anguish. “Psychopomp” was written as her mother underwent cancer treatment, while “Soft Sounds From Another Planet” took the grief she held from her mother‘s death and used it as a conduit to explore the cosmos. Now she’s ready to fight for happiness.
• SASAMI (she/her) has been making music of every kind in Los Angeles for the past decade, from playing French horn in orchestras and studios to playing keys and guitar in local rock bands (Dirt Dress, Cherry Glazerr). She’s also been playing on albums by and doing arrangements for artists like Curtis Harding, Wild Nothing and Vagabon.
Sasami Ashworth released her solo debut album, “SASAMI,” in March 2019 on Domino Records, and NPR called it “impressive: finely crafted and introspective, elegant and bruised.” She has been named an Artist to Watch by the likes of Stereogum, The FADER and The Guardian, and has toured supporting Mitski, Soccer Mommy, Snail Mail, and more.
• Billy Dean Thomas (they/them), AKA “The Queer B. I. G” is a hip-hop recording artist and producer born and raised in Harlem, now residing in Boston. Thomas’ quick-witted punchlines highlight intersectional feminism, social justice, and growing up in a gentrified city.
Recently named one of NPR’s 2020 Slingshot Artists to Watch, Thomas has been described as a blend between The Roots and Rage Against the Machine, and recently served as a songwriter for the Alphabet Rockers’ Grammy-nominated album, “The Love.”
• Brandon Taylor (he/him), a writer with ties to Iowa City, is the author of the novel “Real Life,” honored as a New York Times Editors’ Choice and a finalist for the Booker Prize. His work has appeared in Guernica, American Short Fiction, Gulf Coast, BuzzFeed Reader, O: The Oprah Magazine, Gay Mag, the New Yorker online, The Literary Review and elsewhere. He holds graduate degrees from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he was an Iowa Arts Fellow.
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• Andrea Gibson (they/them) is a spoken word artist best known for their live performances, in which they regularly sell out large-capacity rock clubs and concert halls. Gibson’s poems center around LGBTQ issues, gender, feminism, and mental health, as well as gun reform and the dismantling of oppressive social systems.
• Kiese Laymon (he/him) is a Black southern writer from Jackson, Miss. His best-selling memoir, “Heavy: An American Memoir,” won the 2019 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction and was named one of the 50 Best Memoirs of the Past 50 Years by The New York Times. He is the founder of The Catherine Coleman Literary Arts and Justice Initiative, a program aimed at getting Mississippi kids and their parents more comfortable reading, writing, revising and sharing.
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At a Glance
• What: Mission Creek Festival: “Duos,” pairing musicians and writers for conversations after their performances
• When: 7 p.m. April 29 and 30; available for rebroadcast for 48 hours after the premiere
• Where: Streaming online via outer/most
• Tickets: $20 to $195, with early bird discounts until 11:59 p.m. April 4; various add-ons at each price point, from T-shirts to limited-edition vinyls of Elizabeth Moen’s “Creature of Habit” EP
• Pairings: Brandon Taylor and Japanese Breakfast; Gina Nutt and Nat Baldwin; Chuy Renteria and MC Animosity; Kiese Laymon and Billy Dean Thomas; Donika Kelly and Ami Dang; Andrea Gibson and SASAMI; schedule to be determined
• Details: missioncreekfestival.com/