Testing Space for New Music: Six Years of the Gatas y Vatas Festival

Becki Jones/Sing Down The Moon, a first time performer at Gatas y Vatas 2015. Image courtesy of the artist.
Becki Jones/Sing Down The Moon, a first time performer at Gatas y Vatas 2015. Photo by Hotvlkuce Harjo.

Written by Joe Cardillo, who has worked in nearly every part of a startup, including product/project management, analytics, marketing and content. He’s also a musician/the founder of micro/touring music label Ocotillo Records, and works directly with entrepreneurs & startups as a mentor, adviser, and investor.

When Becki Jones picked up her first musical instrument, being in a band wasn’t part of the plan.

She began learning violin in the 3rd grade, and soon afterwards taught herself to play the piano. Somewhere around eighth grade she started listening to punk rock, and asked her grandma to buy her a guitar.

For a few years after that she experimented on a semi-regular basis, but it wasn’t until last year that she started actually making music on a regular basis, and playing in bands.

The festival itself doesn’t just feature solo female performers, it’s also completely organized by them.

“My partner wanted a bass player, so I filled in, and from there I started to bloom. My friend Alicia is in an all girl punk band and I asked if they needed another guitar player. The answer was yes, and I’ve been with Litter Brain for a little under a year. Then at the beginning of 2015, I started a band called Weedrat with Greg Yazzie and Adrian Burke.”

Her most recent experience with music was even more of an experiment: She performed a first ever solo set at the Albuquerque showcase of Gatas y Vatas, and it wasn’t without its share of nerves.

“I definitely felt vulnerable on stage by myself and really insecure, but after I was finished playing, I felt good about myself. I was really proud of myself for doing this and signing up. I didn’t think I would make the cut, but when I got the email I was in, I was so ecstatic. I’m really happy about being a part of something so special and empowering. It warms my heart.”

Performing as a solo musician is scary. Much like stand-up comedy, there’s no safety net, and it can feel like both your music and your identity are under a microscope. For women who venture into spaces that are male dominated, that feeling is magnified.

Having watched a few years of the festival and experienced the band vs. solo performer dynamic myself, I wondered, if Jones’ experience is the first step, what does having a dedicated/inclusive festival space like Gatas y Vatas mean for female musicians over the course of several years? And what kinds of experimentation does it enable that might not otherwise happen?

A different kind of festival

I posed that question to Gatas y Vatas founder Marisa Demarco, who has spent the last six years building the festival from scratch.

She’s a native of New Mexico, reporter for KUNM, and has been playing music for nearly a decade, both in bands and as a solo artist. The festival originally started as a response to not seeing many women on stage at shows, and hearing women talk about playing open mics or at home, but rarely being on stage in other venues.

Being the only female musician in a room full of guys made her wonder why more women weren’t playing in public, and the first year of the festival was an experiment to see how people would respond. The only requirement was to play 10 minutes, and that it had to be solo composed work.

Since nothing like it had been done before, two of the early challenges Demarco encountered were replying to people asking “why,” and validating that there was in fact a demand for something like Gatas y Vatas.

“I had no idea if anyone would show up and play the fest, especially because it demands solo performance, which can be really intimidating. I had no idea if anyone would come to the fest. I was basically just kind of diving in and hoping other folks would jump in after me. And when it was all over, I was elated. It worked! And it was radical.

“Another thing I dealt with in the first year or two that quickly dissipated was this “why” question from people. Like: Why are you doing this? The insinuation was that we don’t need a fest for chicks. There was also a lot of, ‘Oh yeah? Well, I’m going to throw a fest for just dudes.’ And I thought to myself: Haha. Sure, that’s called Friday night. Or just about every other night of the year, practically. I don’t feel like I have to answer that question much anymore.”

Image courtesy of StockSnap.io | licensed via CC0
Image courtesy of StockSnap.io.

In the years since, it hasn’t strayed much from its core mission: providing a space for women to perform and experiment. Although the festival, and Demarco herself, are often described as DIY, she likes to think of it more as DIT, or Do-It-Together, a term coined by Sarah Grace Slater, the founder of Titwrench (a sister festival of sorts that focuses on women musicians, but doesn’t have the solo performance requirement).

Demarco says that while the festival has grown, the basic structure stayed roughly the same. There’s an idea building phase, where organizers talk about what they want to see in the coming year’s festival, what it should look like, and what they’re imagining in their wildest dreams for their own sets (most of the organizers also perform at the festival).

During that time, there’s a lot of taking stock, and figuring out how the festival fits culturally into Albuquerque or the host cities (this year’s main showcase is in Seattle, with accompanying shows in Albuquerque and Oakland). Once things start ramping up there’s coordinating with a volunteer team, launching a crowdfunding campaign, building online channels and the main website, creating designs & merch, lining up a venue, doing media outreach, and a whole lot of hustle.

In the several weeks before the festival, things kick into high gear. There’s constant communication with performers to make sure they’re ready, and Demarco and other long time organizers even work with first timers to help them learn the ropes. For some performers, it’s their first experience with a festival, or with recording, so the organizers place an emphasis on teaching and learning alongside them.

And that’s part of the magic: The festival itself doesn’t just feature solo female performers, it’s also completely organized by them. It started with a small set of musicians doing everything by hand, but over time they’ve begun to delegate much of the festival to younger musicians.

Cecilia McKinnon / Star Canyon. Image courtesy of Gatas y Vatas
Cecilia McKinnon/Star Canyon. Image courtesy of Gatas y Vatas.

Cecilia McKinnon, who performs under the name Star Canyon, first played the festival in 2012 and this year moved into a major role helping organize the events, creating the primary logo/artwork, and coordinating the artist compilation/recording, T-shirts, and other merch. She says the last three years have been a rapid evolution.

“I went from feeling like the little sister that got to hang out with these amazing women to helping create the festival itself. It’s a tremendous change, and it’s helped me learn as an artist, work on my own recordings, encourage other women to play, etc.”

Gena Lawson, an organizer and performer at all six years of Gatas y Vatas has watched that same sort of evolution in herself as a performer and an organizer, noting that it’s changed how and what she plays, as well as her ability to support other female performers.

“I started performing as a solo musician [under the name Anna Mall] solely for the purpose of playing the first Gatas y Vatas back in 2010. Since that year, the acts I see at Gatas, the daring feats of bravery by each of these ladies of all ages and genres and styles, has helped me push boundaries within myself both emotionally and musically. It has truly helped me boost my own confidence with my artwork and the more it grows, the more my art tends to grow and take its own shape.”

Building new structure, and recognizing old ones

To truly understand what Gatas y Vatas represents, you also have to understand what it’s responding to—that casual attitude about it, or even the “why” that Demarco mentioned.

Compared to the past few decades, women face fewer barriers that technically prevent them from playing (pop icons like Taylor Swift and Beyonce are often used as examples of success stories)… but the mechanics of the music industry are still largely dominated by men, and it shows.

Popular music festival Coachella, for example, typically doesn’t break past the 15% mark for female fronted bands or female solo performers, and the Warped Tour isn’t far behind at only 22%. If those numbers sound bad, the recording side is even worse, with female producers and other recording professionals in the single digits.

That dynamic is changing, but so is the way space is ruled. It’s not as often an obvious block, like someone putting an arm up and saying “you can’t go here,” as it is an implied set of rules.

Much like the more highly publicized efforts of women in tech, the dynamics in the music industry tend to favor those who play by the existing rules and don’t cause too much trouble. If you point out the problems, you’re accused of being “stuck in the past.” It’s a double-edged sword and it can be exhausting, as Erica Joy pointed out in a piece last year.

Interestingly, some of the solutions in both tech and music are similar. First Round, a venture capital firm that funds early stage tech companies, talked recently about how their portfolio company Etsy worked to increase the number of women engineers. The list looks a lot like things that Gatas y Vatas is already working on, including making sure that teams are balanced, having an attitude that focuses on building together, and doing it in public with an explicit goal and no apologies.

Even the name and artwork reflect the mission: It’s not an apologetic space or a festival that asks permission to exist.

Perhaps no better reply sums it up than that of Nani Chacon, when I asked what inspired the 2011 poster design.

“The inspiration came from the name ‘Gatas y Vatas.’ I really liked the name so the imagery was a personification on the play on words. Here you have a ‘Vata’—which is Spanish slang for these homegrown tough girls or a type of ‘around-the-way’ girl—and then ‘Gata’ which is Spanish for cat. So I went with this idea of creating a kind of mascot out of the words and drew up a Vata Gata. To me she is the symbol for these outsider girls that have always existed here in the Southwest. Girls who make their own rules and will also break them if they want.”

Image courtesy of Nani Chacon.
Image courtesy of Nani Chacon.

That’s part of what makes Gatas y Vatas so powerful. It recognizes the varying and complex identities of the organizers and performers. Simply put, a gata can also be a vata.

And while the festival has created a dedicated, and welcoming, performance space for female identified individuals, it hasn’t gone the way of separate but equal. The experiment has already led to venues, labels, and bands founded by both men and women, and on a given week in Albuquerque you’re just as likely to see art/music that’s co-curated, co-created, and co-owned by men and women, as you are by men alone.

Brett Maverick, who’s chronicled rock & roll in Albuquerque for the better part of two decades in both his well-known ‘zine Wig Wam Bam and under the moniker Captain America in several local publications, describes how he’s seen the space change, but stay focused on the creative pursuit and not just on the significance of gender lines.

“Just as the major labels were signing any band in flannel shirts (grunge!) they also signed dozens of women, but of course made sure to capitalize on gender for promo purposes: either the ol’ sex kitten routine or the mildly acceptable pissed off girl (but only as long as she wasn’t too pissed off: Alanis Morissette, okay. Kathleen Hanna, not okay). Of course all these acts were touted as ‘women musicians’ and not just ‘musicians.’

“But the true change over all this time is I think mostly the attitude of female musicians saying, ‘No, we’re not asking permission to join the boy’s club, in fact they can join our club…and yes of course we’re going to do this and no we won’t flash you, asshole.’

“It’s not so much a case of accepting musicians of genders other than men but more like briefly acknowledging gender, maybe celebrating its ‘other-ness’ (other than men I mean) but impatiently adding, “Yeah, yeah, right, but what does the music sound like?”

What comes next?

If Kathleen Hanna and other tough, powerfully creative musicians from the ’80s/’90s represent a kind of speak truth to power movement, than Gatas y Vatas seems to go one step further.

It made me wonder if the challenge for women/female identified musicians is shifting from seeking equality into forging something new, a kind of stepping across the zero line. If that’s the case than Gatas y Vatas is already building a new space where women can imagine whatever they want to be. And that’s something anyone, regardless of gender, can get behind.

But more importantly, it seems fitting to hear what the festival has done for performers, in their own words. Her first ever solo set already has Becki Jones thinking about what’s next, and there are possible echoes of her future in the responses of long time organizers and performers Monica Demarco and Mauro Woody.

Image courtesy of Becki Jones.
Image courtesy of Becki Jones.

“I know there are a lot of talented females in Albuquerque who are doing amazing stuff. I’m so thankful we have the women that started GyV in the first place. I do know that certain areas in New Mexico need more support for female musicians. Perhaps more exposure to other women being in bands, being an artist, or making zines. I’d like to play more shows on the Navajo reservation, because I grew up there, and more exposure to females would have been more inspiring.”

—Becki Jones | Sing Down The Moon

Image courtesy of Monica Demarco.
Image courtesy of Monica Demarco.

“Most performance is riddled with the expectation of what you should be and not of what you are. Gatas has no expectation other than that you should challenge yourself. It’s an invitation to be who you are with no predetermined image of what that should be. More than that, there is room for everyone. It’s not catering to one ideal or pushing one agenda. We simply want you, whatever that is.

“For me as a performer each year I have sought to feel the same fear and excitement I felt that very first year when the most terrifying thing I could think of was playing songs I wrote on the piano. Each year the plan has become more and more elaborate and imaginative. It continues to help me grow as an artist in a way that no other venue can because it’s the only truly safe artistic space with no expectation or judgement.”

Monica Demarco | Cthula

Image courtesy of Mauro Woody.
Image courtesy of Mauro Woody.

“I feel so lucky to have been a part of GyV since its birth. To see how GyV has grown is amazing. The year that I did Gatas for the first time was also the year I joined Milch de la Maquina (and got to perform at the equally powerful and influential Titwrench festival). I was nerve-wracked for both. I didn’t know what I was doing and it felt both thrilling and terrifying. I liken this experience to the open mics I did in high school and some in college. To expose yourself in this vulnerable yet open way can be very disconcerting. Unlike some of the open mics that I did around town, I was encouraged to challenge myself, to promote myself, to explore myself in Gatas. I wasn’t covering other people’s material, I was showing who I was. That is an incredible feeling.

“It wasn’t until the third year that I finally pushed myself creatively because I had something to say and I needed to get it out of me. I believe those first years of GyV really laid the foundation for musicians new to GyV to know that they are capable of great works of art inside themselves and that they have a space to do it in. That is an immensely powerful and necessary foundation.”

—Mauro Woody | Lady Uranium

Gatas y Vatas, an all-ages music festival featuring solo, female identified artists, is in its sixth year. This year’s main festival took place in Seattle on Friday & Saturday September 18/19, with a showcase in Albuquerque on September 5.

You can still catch the showcase in Oakland tomorrow, Wednesday, September 23rd. Access the full line up for the show here.

Listen to this year’s compilation of GyV artists here.

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