Mixing It Up At Pitchfork With Clairo, Charli XCX, JPEGMAFIA and Khruangbin
CHICAGO, IL– On Sunday, I marked the end of my Pitchfork Music Festival with singers Tasha, Clairo, and Charli XCX, rapper JPEGMAFIA, and bands Khruangbin and Whitney. Some early showers made for a soggy day and canceled the first set. Naturally, it was one of the artists I was most excited to see, but Pitchfork radio came through for me once again. I was able to catch Chitown rapper and singer Dreezy’s interview on the tail-end of JPEGMAFIA’s set, which was right across from the radio station.
Someday (hopefully soon), society will drop the “female” prefix and simply call the ladies of hip hop rappers. But for now, women still have to put in double work to earn respect. Dreezy’s invitation to J. Cole’s Dreamville recording camp and placement on the ensuing album Revenge of the Dreamers III proves she’s got moxie.
343 artists and producers were invited, and only 5 of the 62 placed on the final project were women. She called the unstructured sessions “survival of the fittest,” and from what I gathered through the official film, she wasn’t exaggerating. Those who waited for permission to jump in the booth didn’t get far.
Her latest album Big Dreez was full of bangers; “Chanel Slides” is the type of song you put on during the last 3 minutes of an Uber ride to ensure you don’t get your aux privileges revoked on the next night out. But Dreezy’s music isn’t all about the turn-up. She has serious lyrical prowess and a soulful side, too. Fingers crossed that Pitchfork brings her back next year.
Singer and poet Tasha was the first act I saw once the weather cleared up. She stepped onstage beaming in a gauzy white dress and asked her audience if they were ready for a “sweet, sweet time.” Their collectively enchanted expression upon the very first note answered her question. A sweet time was exactly what they came for.
She started with “New Place,” a hopeful, hauntingly beautiful track that might’ve made me tear up just a tiny bit. When she played “Lullaby,” a self-explanatory track, the entire audience glowed. Mesmerizing lyrics about everything from moonbeams to magic left me wondering if I had actually just witnessed a real-life forest fairy amid the trees surrounding the Blue Stage.
The next act I saw could not have possibly been more different. JPEGMAFIA’s one man show was unlike any I’d seen before. “They done let me up here with a live microphone, again. Mistake,” he told an eager crowd. Over the course of the next 45 minutes, Peggy went absolutely berserk. He probably touched every inch of the stage at one point or another, and I’m honestly surprised he didn’t tear a ligament with how he was moving.
He started the same way he apparently starts every show – with a shout out to Denzel Curry. While Denzel’s part of their track “Vengeance” played out, he calmly strolled across the stage. But the instant his verse cut in, his casual gate turned into an all-out sprint. He screamed every word, crowd surfed (over, and over, and over again), bear-hugged a photographer in the pit, and let a fan hold him. It was pure insanity, and I loved it.
His set included hits off his self produced 2018 album Veteran, which balances overtly political messages and nihilistic nuances with dark humor. Sonically, he experiments with jarring, industrial sounds inspired by his stint in the military. Peggy has no interest in being conventional, and his music becomes even more off-kilter with each release. You probably don’t need to listen to his latest song “Jesus Forgive Me, I Am A Thot” to know that.
Just in case you need one more reason to love JPEGMAFIA, here’s a video of him performing to one person in a bowling alley the exact same way he performed to thousands at the festival: https://www.instagram.com/p/BiUcMCTl4uC/.
Over at the Green Stage, I saw the current indie “it girl”. Clairo’s quirky webcam music video for her satirical feminist hit “Pretty Girl” went viral and helped make her a dream-pop starlet in just two years. She’s accumulated a cult-like following thanks to her relatable, girl next door image, but Clairo is striving to move past the fuzzy bedroom pop label. On her latest album Immunity, her voice is as breezy and bell-like as ever, but she’s embracing higher quality production and more complex songwriting.
The rhinestone C on her cheek and coordinating, sparkly initial on each bandmate’s face felt totally Clairo. But as far as her performance style goes, she wasn’t exactly like the goofy girl I’d seen online. She commanded the stage with a poise that normally comes after years of touring rather than a year in college. What did seem to be nearly identical, though, was her voice.
Clairo’s never really been one to hit high notes or elaborate riffs, so I wasn’t sure what to expect from her vocally. It’s not uncommon for pop stars to sound a bit lackluster live. But her singing voice was totally angelic, and I found myself putting my camera down at certain points just to fully appreciate her awe-striking stage presence.
Next up was modern psychedelic group Khruangbin. The Houston band consists of three members: bassist Laura Lee, guitarist Mark Speer, and drummer Doland “DJ” Johnson. The story of how the band formed is a surprising one. DJ and Mark initially met in the gospel band of a Methodist church, and Mark and Laura met through a friend and connected over their common interest in Afghan music and Middle Eastern architecture. After eventually forming, they recorded all of their songs in a barn in the 300 person town of Burton, Texas.
When Laura was learning Thai, she came across the word “Khruangbin,” or “flying engine,” and felt it fit the band’s diverse sound. Many have described their music as “Thai funk,” and granted I don’t know much about Thai music, I’d probably call their style soul meets psychedelia. But the band doesn’t like to be boxed into a genre as their influences branch from cultures across the globe. Their second album, Con Todo El Mundo is named after the only response Laura’s Mexican grandfather would accept after he’d ask “how much do you love me?”
Running around with two cameras and zoom lenses all weekend gets exhausting, and I hadn’t given myself much of a break. After photographing Khruangbin, I relaxed in the grass for the rest of the soothing set. Drawn out instrumentals, soft background harmonies, and rain sounds had a transcendental quality on their most popular song “White Glove.” For their track “Evan Finds The Third Room,” Laura picks up a rotary phone after an exaggerated, hypnotic ringtone and answers, “Hello, Pitchfork!”
The next band I saw was Whitney, led by vocalist and drummer Julien Ehrlich and guitarist Max Kakacek. About a dozen other instrumentalists backed the frontmen, creating a distinctively full sound complete with strings and horns. Julien has one of the most unique voices in indie music right now. The Elton John endorsed singer is a high tenor whose faint falsettos are almost ghostly.
Julien and Max had embodied the persona of a lonely drinker named Whitney for their first album, hence the name. The bandmates were both experiencing breakups at the time, so it makes sense that the character they crafted seems vividly realistic. While cheerful melodies and robust instrumentation add an air of optimism to their sound, Julien’s wistful tone and longing lyrics ground listeners in the bleak reality of heartbreak.
They teased work from their sophomore album Forever Turn Around with two unreleased songs; “Used To Be Lonely” hints at healing and an overall happier second chapter in the saga of Whitney’s love life. For most of the set, I sat in the bleachers left of the stage to get a better view above thousands of fans. When they played their most popular track “No Woman” right at the golden hour, I saw groups holding hands and dancing freely all across the festival grounds.
I’d never been a big fan of Robyn, so I opted out of her set and made British singer Charli XCX the finale for my weekend. Two giant color-changing cubes and flashing lights made for one of the most dramatic stage setups I saw at the festival, and she amplified the theatrics by striking a few poses just for the photographers.
Charli felt like a perfect match for the festival with her energetic, danceable tracks that have worked their way into the mainstream but still remain left of center compared to most pop. She skipped her highest-charting songs like “I Love It,” “Fancy,” and “Boom Clap” in favor of some newer tracks off her 2019 album Charli, like “Blame It On Your Love” (ft. Lizzo) and “Gone” (ft. Christine and the Queens). The audience went wild when she brought local rapper CupcakKe out for their collab “Lipgloss” and later closed with the bubbly “1999” EASYFUN remix.
As I was leaving, I laughed a little at a comment from the woman behind me. “I was starting to think I didn’t even like music anymore, but coming here reminded me that I still do,” she said. Though I’m pretty sure it was mostly a joke, her statement carried some weight. Lots of festivals try to secure whoever’s hot for the summer, but Pitchfork only selects the most genuinely talented artists to perform. Throughout the weekend, I saw dozens of stellar vocalists who produce their own beats as well as genre-bending bands full of multi-instrumentals. Theirs is the type of music to hold up over the years and sound just as good even when trends change.