Mission accomplished. Dessner’s brainchild has evolved into one of the singular musical events in the Midwest, a multi-day festival featuring a like-minded collection of adventurous musicians who relish the opportunity to partake in its laid-back, artist-friendly atmosphere.
Check this list of past performers, many of which appeared at the festival prior to penetrating larger cultural consciousness, a sign of Dessner’s acute curatorial ear: Andrew Bird, The Books, Clogs, The Dirty Projectors, Erik Friedlander, Grizzly Bear, Kronos Quartet, My Brightest Diamond and Sufjan Stevens.
Still, this year might be Dessner’s sweetest lineup yet.
The three-day festival, which takes place at Memorial Hall in Over-the-Rhine March 30-April 1, features performances from Joanna Newsom, a singer/songwriter/ harpist whose sprawling new album, Have One on Me, will only cause her rabid fan base to grow exponentially more fascinated; St. Vincent, the solo project of singer/ songwriter/guitarist Annie Clark (read my interview with her here); and Justin Vernon (aka Bon Iver), a gifted singer/songwriter whose most recent full-length, 2008’s gorgeous Emma, Forever Ago, is one of the great breakup albums of the 21st century.
Dessner — a Cincinnati native who moved to New York City, where he formed The National with his brother and three other Queen City natives a decade ago — says the festival has, four years after its inception, taken on a life of its own.
Festival Recap by Emily Maxwell
“Early on I presented a lot of my friends because they were the people I could convince to come to Cincinnati for a weekend in April and hang out and do something strange,” he says by phone from his apartment in Brooklyn.
“But after a year or two I kind of ran out of options on that level. Now it’s more about what people in town are going to be excited to hear or how it might fit for the festival.
“I think I set up a pretty broad idea of what we could do: We’ve had Rock bands, we’ve had Folk singers, we’ve had experimental cellists, we’ve had an African harpist, we’ve had an African guitar player, contemporary music ensembles and quartets," he says. "It’s pretty wide what people might expect. For me it all fits nicely under one umbrella.”
Memorial Hall, which has hosted the festival since 2007, has gone a long way in establishing MusicNOW’s identity.
“It’s a special place because it’s rare to find a small theater like that,” Dessner says. “It’s intimate, but it’s also kind of grand. It has this character about it. It’s a two-tiered theater, but it’s only 600 seats. It almost feels like this big, old rambling house that we’re all living in for a weekend. It seems now the audience has come to associate the festival with that place.”
Another unique aspect of MusicNOW is its continued nurturing of the creative process. Each year one of its participants is commissioned to write new music specifically for the festival. This year’s piece, written by St. Vincent’s Annie Clark, will be named for Esme Kenney, the 13-year-old SCPA student who was murdered just prior to last year’s festival. Dessner, who has a friend who knew Kenney, wanted to acknowledge the loss in some way.
“A lot of what I was hearing about Esme was that she was this beautiful young musician who had this kind of incredible spirit and interest in music,” he says. “So we reached out to the family and asked them if they found it appropriate that we dedicate something to her. They were excited about it.”
As a festival without big corporate sponsors — no doubt another reason for its distinctively low-key vibe — Dessner has had to adjust on the fly. Last year’s economic recession led to a scaled-back festival, which meant fewer artists over only two weeknights. Other changes have been more logistics-based.
“I really wanted to present Joanna Newsom, and the night we have her, which is the opening night of the festival, is really the only night she could play,” he says. “I also think her music is so singular in its vision, it’s such an intense and amazing world that she creates, that I don’t know that I need to present four other artists before her.”
Speaking of logistics, it’s impressive — and telling — that Dessner finds time in his busy schedule to remain dedicated to MusicNOW. The National, whose profile has grown exponentially in recent years, just finished recording its most anticipated album to date, High Violet, which drops on May 11. (For those interested, Dessner says the new album “definitely has some edgy stuff and it’s more up-tempo. But there is also sort of that Matt whispering-in-your-ear thing on some songs.”)
Besides playing in The National, Dessner has within the last year put out a new record with his Chamber music group Clogs; has written a multimedia opera of sorts with his brother Aaron and the Deal sisters (of Breeders fame) called “The Long Count”; and co-curated with Aaron a stellar 31-song project called Dark Was the Night, the latest album for Red Hot Organization, an international charity dedicated to raising funds and awareness for HIV and AIDS. Dessner also helped program the massive, like-minded Big Ears fest in Knoxville this weekend, where he’ll perform with Clogs.
“Sometimes people will be like, ‘Wow, are you superhuman? What’s wrong with you?’ ” Dessner says, laughing. “And I’m just like, ‘I don’t know. I like doing all this stuff.’ But it’s not some sort of grand plan on my part. Part of what I love about MusicNOW is that it’s sort of under the mainstream media’s radar. If we were doing it in New York, it would be massive.
“Justin Vernon is coming this year. He’s off tour; he doesn’t want to do something that’s overly scrutinized. He’s playing all new songs. He wants to kind of come and try something out. That’s the kind of reputation he’s coming to the festival to experience. On some level the festival was created as a laboratory for that stuff — to just let whatever’s going to happen happen.”
MUSICNOW features Joanna Newsom and Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold March 30 (get details and tickets here), St. Vincent and yMusic March 31 (get details/tickets here) and Justin Vernon of Bon Iver April 1 (it's sold out, but get details here). All performances are at Memorial Hall in Over-the-Rhine.