SXSW darlings make the leap to ACL
Lissie and Mayer Hawthorne lead class of musical freshman back in Austin for our other big music festival
In the first couple years of the Austin City Limits Music Festival, when organizers were still working from the New Orleans Jazz Fest model, it was rare for an act to go from South By Southwest "baby band" to ACL Fest featured artist six months later.
That changed in year four, 2005, when Scottish rockers Franz Ferdinand made their name at SXSW, then were booked as a top-tier act at ACL. Other early graduates of SXSW that year were Death Cab for Cutie, Bloc Party, Kaiser Chiefs, the Bravery and the Decemberists.
SXSW is all about building buzz, as acts play several shows in four days, virtually for free. ACL is a sign of arrival. And the bands get paid, some quite handsomely.
This year's SXSW class of 2010, who came, were seen and should conquer Zilker, include raspy-voiced singer-songwriter Lissie, a native of Illinois who is currently the toast of Europe, epic Swedish trio Miike Snow, Milwaukee's funky soul brothers Kings Go Forth and L.A.'s unabrasive noise addicts Warpaint.
Also coming back to town after March triumphs to take slots that might have previously gone to Lucinda Williams and Ryan Adams are nouveau soul singer Mayer Hawthorne, who grew up just close enough to Detroit to grab cred points, Los Angeles elusive daydreamers Local Natives, acclaimed England trancers the XX and the charmingly quirky Henry Clay People from L.A.
With the exception of the XX, who arrived on a jetload of hype, most of these acts were virtually unknown a week before SXSW, but left as certifiable buzz bands. But, somewhat surprisingly, they had all been booked for ACL before making mid-March splashes.
"We're all booked up before South By," says Charles Attal, who has booked ACL with Amy Corbin since its inception.
Debut year 2002 was unique because the first band was signed a mere five months before the fest. These days, Attal and Corbin start seriously booking in November and have most of the 130 or so slots filled by February.
Attal says C3 Presents has always put a lot of trust in the booking agencies "to let us know who looks good to break out." Attal and Corbin are often sent new music several months before it comes out. That's how they found out about Amy Winehouse in 2006 (she ended up canceling) and Lissie this year.
"Matt Johnson, who owns Fat Possum (which released Lissie's debut LP "Catching a Tiger" in August) sent me the record and said 'check this out.'" Attal did and booked her immediately. "I think she's going to be the next big female artist," he says.
Indeed, "Catching a Tiger" shows a supremely confident singer-songwriter who can go from tender to traumatic in seconds. Lissie is a young Marianne Faithful with the voice of old Marianne Faithful (an intoxicating mix), plus she keeps her sound current by riding a heavier bassline than the material suggests.
Elisabeth "Lissie" Maurus was one of those kids whose first words were probably sung. She did 80 performances of "Annie" when she was 9 and then started writing songs.
"Singing has always soothed me, always given me a way to express myself," says the 27-year-old, who burned a couple years with half-hearted attempts at attending college before realizing that school doesn't help you write songs.
Her million-plus-viewed performances on YouTube, especially a cover of Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance," show an artist in joyous cahoots with her shaggy band and the attendant rock n' roll lifestyle.
The British rock press has gone gaga over Lissie, which is one reason she hasn't been to her farmhouse in Ojai, Calif., in almost six months.
"I've been racing around here like crazy," she says by phone from Germany, where she's filmed a video for "Cuckoo," currently a top 10 single in the U.K. "But I'm having the time of my life."
She's also excited, she says, about her return to Austin, where the band she's most looking forward to seeing is Phish.
"They were my band in high school," she says.
She's also looking to hang with Band of Horses, whose Bill Reynolds produced Lissie's debut EP "Why You Runnin'" in 2009.
Lissie's memories of SXSW were a bit of a blur — 10 shows in four days -- but her favorite moment was off-stage.
"We had just finished our last set of the week at Stubb's inside," she recalls. "It was Saturday night and freezing cold outside, where the Scissor Sisters were starting to play. We took a shot of tequila and just danced our asses off. It was so much fun. It brought me back to what playing music is all about."
Soul musician Hawthorne has been to SXSW five times, the first time as a fan and then as a hip-hop artist. "It's the best music festival in the world," he says.
The 29-year-old, who played every instrument on his debut LP "A Strange Arrangement," discovered soul music while searching for samples. When he decided to make his own vintage soul music for his hip-hop records, he inadvertently became the falsetto-crooner that wowed 'em at SXSW.
Being booked at ACL Fest, he says, "is an honor. The main thing I know about ACL is that you've gotta be a real musician. You can't fake it."
Besides playing Zilker with his band Saturday, Hawthorne will play Antone's Friday with Kings Go Forth, a band that shares his affinity for Curtis Mayfield.
"I bought their first seven inch single and it blew me away," says Hawthorne. "I can't wait to meet those guys and do a show together. We don't play concerts, we put on a show."
So when did ACL Fest, which initially booked mostly Americana acts that fit with the namesake TV show's demographics, start focusing on cutting edge talent? Over time it has become apparent that multiday festivals such as Coachella, Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza (which C3 also owns) are great sample stations for new music.
It's fun to see Los Lobos for the seventh time, but it's even more rewarding to be blown away by a new discovery, like Regina Spektor in 2007 or the Jones Family Singers in 2005 or Sam Roberts in 2006 or Kings Go Forth this year.
Austin is lucky to have SXSW and ACL Fest, which are both even luckier to have Austin. To host two world-class festivals — six months apart — is quite special for the local music scene.
In a way, SXSW has become more like ACL and vice versa, what with huge acts such as Metallica, Kanye West, Smokey Robinson and Jane's Addiction playing the clubs in March and the likes of Temper Trap, Dawes, Gayngs, White Rabbits, Beach House and Blind Pilot playing the fields in October.
There is common ground between the two events that goes beyond the Austin connection. Both are celebrations of live music, which is still, in this era of downloads and computer stereos, the thing that brings fans and artists back to what music is all about.
From SXSW to ACL Fest
Kings Go Forth: 3:15 p.m. Friday, Clear 4G
Warpaint: 11:45 a.m. Sunday, Zync Card
Henry Clay People: 4:40 p.m. Sunday, BMI