By Louisa Byron
“One day, tell our story of how we made something; we made something of ourselves.”
This Lucius lyric from “Two of Us on the Run” beautifully sums up my experience at Newport Folk Festival. It had its challenging moments and it had stunning performance moments that I will cherish for the rest of my life.
The Berklee Instant Strings (in the photo, from left: Felix Herbst, Parker Ousley, Cecilia Vacanti, and I) started rehearsing for the Newport Folk Festival in early June 2018. We all had a special connection to Lucius, the headlining band we were going to play with. Lucius is an indie pop band composed of two lead singers that serenade an audience with gorgeous harmonies on top of amazing guitarists, bassists, and a drummer. Us stringbeans were inspired by the fact that Jess Wolfe, Holly Laessig, Dan Molad, and Peter Lalish are all alums of Berklee.
Thursday, July 26, 2018
We rehearsed with Lucius at a near by university in Newport. I swear we stepped into Hogwarts! The building was enormous. They welcomed us in and introduced us to the whole band. They were extremely generous to us by offering snacks, drinks, and treating us like professionals. We joked that we were Instant Strings, all they had to do was add water and we’d be there! We met the other string players that were already a part of the band as well. Rob Moose, violinist, guitarist, arranger, and producer wrote the string parts.
The band circled Jess and Holly as they sang through one mic in between them. I can honestly say I’ve never heard two people sound like one voice in that intrinsic of a setting. It was hard to focus on my own playing when all I wanted to do was sit back, close my eyes, and let the magic of their amity embrace me. There were cameras everywhere capturing our intimate moment. I felt like I should have been practicing my movie star smile, but the music felt so natural to play I started to not notice the cameras.
Friday, July 27
Next day we signed into the Newport Folk Festival. I will always remember my golf cart ride that took me from the parking lot alllll the way to the check-in tent! Short ride, but enough to make me feel pretty important. We met up with This Is the Kit, an alternative rock and folk band from the U.K. We rehearsed with the lead singer, Kate Stables, with just a guitar and a tambourine on her foot. The Instant Strings and I got our hip green artist wrist bands and the festival was at our fingertips. Our first performance was at the Harbor Stage with This Is the Kit. It was an absolute thrill to walk onto the stage where the crowd was already going wild. We played on the last two songs of This Is the Kit’s set.
Playing at Newport Folk Festival and with Lucius especially has reminded me that it’s all about music. How does it make you feel? Not how do I become better than so and so.
I blinked and it was over. I can remember clapping the rhythm to start the first song we performed and then I was suddenly playing the last note of the whole set. With smiles all around we thanked This Is the Kit and headed over to Lucius’s trailer to get adorned with their Lucius-approved costumes and glitter. With our lucky green artist wrist bands, we were able to go to any backstage, receive all the amazing free artist gifts, and to all the FREE FOOD! We headed to the Lucius trailer and I swear we all had a little swagger in our step.
We met up with the other string players and taped our parts to the music stands so they wouldn’t blow away on stage. Of course the sun was being patient with us until that moment. It blasted its heat like a ray gun aimed at my non sunscreen very very pale skin. Any make up I had on was now somewhere on the floor by this point. Felix and I went into the trailer to get our glitter and costumes from Holly and Jess. Felix got a Lucius brooch and I got a Lucius arm band to match Holly and Jess’s capes. It may seem like a small detail, but it really meant the world to us to feel like we belonged with the band.
Now that we officially looked the part, we were ready to get on the Fort stage, the main stage of the festival. I could feel my legs giving up on me as I climbed the backstage steps. Heart pumping, legs shaking, and yet I felt no nerves. It was all excitement. I think I know what Lady Gaga was saying when she sang, “I live for the applause.” That crowd was definitely a self-esteem boost. It was the first time that I could actually hear my individual part among the whole band. In other live performance situations, strings are usually not heard well or not at all. Stage crew were yelling commands left and right. I just hoped I didn’t get in their way or accidentally step on some important chord.
I looked out to the sea of people singing along and laughing. This is what I am meant to do. I had been juggling between what purpose in music I would like to have. Would I be the performer? The writer? The arranger? Coming to Berklee has opened up so many avenues of music for me that sometimes I forget what I came for. I fell in love with performing again. I had my head wrapped around in theory and in computer software and trying to please certain audiences with my music. I had been trying to please all types of genres when I really didn’t know which one was my “home.” Playing at Newport Folk Festival and with Lucius especially has reminded me that it’s all about music. How does it make you feel? Not how do I become better than so and so. My dad used to remind me as a kid during competitions and auditions that it’s “all about the music, man; that’s all it has ever been about.” That was all I could think about (and playing the right notes) while performing with Lucius. Their incredible lyrics and voices reminded me why I chose music in the first place.
The last song we played with Lucius was “How Loud Your Heart Gets.” The set wasn’t finished just yet so when we were done, we watched from the side as they sang “Woman.” They sang the last refrain, “as you float away,” and slowly drifted away from the mic. They walked backwards as the music got softer and softer. There was silence and then a gigantic roar from the audience emerged. We went backstage to take photos with everyone. It looked like paparazzi were hovering over us. They took video of us getting our photo taken with Lucius. One would say we felt pretty “legit.” We all hugged each other and gave our thanks to each of the band members. I thought it was surprising that they all remembered our names. They took the time to really get to know us which spoke volumes to us Berklee students.
That night Instant strings and our lovely media team and manager went out to eat to a Mexican restaurant in Newport. As we were waiting for a table, we got recognized by a woman who went to the festival! She asked us if we played with Lucius. We were all stunned that she even remembered us. We said yes and she told us we did an awesome job. I can honestly say that was a first for me to get recognized after a performance, especially at Newport level.
Saturday, July 29
The next morning, we rehearsed with the last band were going to perform with, Hamilton Leithauser and Rostam. We met with them at a studio an hour away. No A/C and a very dusty building did not agree with my allergies. Needless to say, I was itching to get out of there. We rehearsed the song, “Gwan” by Rostam. It had a very intricate string part. Mostly sixteenth notes the whole way. We worked on this song very hard to make it the right tempo. I had to start off the quartet so I blared 100bpm to 80bpm in my headphones the entire drive back to the festival to memorize the exact ritardando we had to do. I did not want to be the one to mess this song up.
We were back to the Harbor Stage for our last performance. We start off “Gwan” with ease and I can see the ritardando coming up in my peripheral vision. I held my breath and started the sixteenth note motif at what I believed to be 80bpm. I looked around at the rest of the quartet and they nodded to ease my worries about the tempo! We ended the song with the loudest applause of the whole set. I will never forget that feeling. I could actually feel the wave of sound hitting us, making all of us grin ear to ear. We finished the set and thanked Hamilton and Rostam for having us. We packed up our instruments, took some last minute pictures and we were off, back to reality.
Our drive back was full of anecdotes, inside jokes, and Burger King. I was wearing my new personally designed denim jacket that I had gotten at the festival. My initials and a rainbow heart were sewed on the pocket (I’m actually wearing the jacket as I write this). I got dropped off at my apartment and said goodbye to Instant Strings… for now! My deepest appreciation for Greg Liszt. He put the quartet together and got us incredible opportunities this summer. Lastly, thank you to the amazing artists who let us perform along side them. Thank you This Is the kit, Hamilton and Rostam, and Lucius. I think I can say for the whole quartet that we have grown as musicians just by performing with you. Thank you.
Louisa Byron is a multigenre violinist/violist and composer for film and multimedia from Waseca, Minnesota. She is currently studying film scoring and violin performance at Berklee. She continues to stretch and broaden her creative voice to express stories through her music.