- Illustration by Anna White
- From left: Nilüfer Yanya, Julien Baker, Ravyn Lenae, and Lucy Dacus
When it comes to booking women, Pitchfork has just broken its own record. This year it's one of only three major summer festivals to assemble a lineup where at least half the acts include women—a feat not one accomplished in 2017. The women at Pitchfork include several under age 25, among them Lucy Dacus, Julien Baker, Nilüfer Yanya, and Ravyn Lenae. But don't dismiss them because they're young, or assume that their presence is a side effect of some sort of gender-based quota system. All four are powerful storytellers, articulate songwriters, and inventive musicians. Each in her own way balances personal reflection with empathy and openness. They've earned their spots at Pitchfork, and even if equity in representation weren't a problem in music, it'd be a better festival for their presence.
Fri 7/20, 2:30-3:15 PM, Green Stage
Fri 7/20, 5:15-6 PM, Blue Stage
Sat 7/21, 3:20-4:10 PM, Red Stage
Sun 7/22, 3:20-4:10 PM, Red Stage
Lucy Dacus, 23, released her first single, "I Don't Wanna Be Funny Anymore," in 2015. It's a disarmingly direct story about struggling to be taken seriously as a woman and a young person. "It's sort of a reflection specifically on my time in middle school, which I think is a huge time for everybody in making your identity and trying on different hats and seeing what fits and what doesn't," she says. The need to grow into yourself isn't something that people only have to confront in middle school, of course: "It happens at any time in your life where you become a person that maybe you just aren't totally happy with," she explains. "And it's really hard to change once people know you as a certain stereotype or as having a certain personality."
Raised in the suburbs of Richmond, Virginia, Dacus put out her first album, 2016's No Burden, while still all but unknown outside that city's indie scene. She's since signed with Matador to release a second full-length, Historian, this March. Her sharply observed music does an extraordinary job bridging the personal and the universal. She describes Historian in particular as a meditation on processing negativity: the end of a relationship, the death of her grandmother, the loss of her Christian faith. She often reflects on difficult situations through a lens not her own, and the hope she carries through her pain, as well as the honesty in her warm voice, invites listeners to heal alongside her. "I think that writing is hugely cathartic for me, whether it's in the moment or a few years after the fact," she says. "It's never too late to find clarity and closure."
Tennessee native Julien Baker, 22, also uses music as a tool for healing. Her words are somber, but her guitar and her voice ring and swell with courage in the face of turmoil—she sings about her struggles with mental illness, addiction, and isolation, as well as about coming to terms with her queer sexuality (something else she shares with Dacus).
Baker's debut album, Sprained Ankle, released when she was 20, looks inward. "All of the songs are sort of limited to a very zoomed-in personal experience," she says. "They're all centered around my experience of a certain pain." Her second album, last year's Turn Out the Lights, broadens the scope of her storytelling. "I wanted to expand the perspective from which I was writing to escape a little bit of that myopic lens and to compose the feelings of other people and incorporate the narratives of my friends and my loved ones," she says.
Baker has also stopped assuming that her fans are necessarily part of her demographic. "The people that are at the shows are people that are coming up to me and saying they like my music. Sometimes it's people that are like myself, they're queer or they're female or about my age," she says. "Sometimes they're adult males or parents with their young children. So I think after the first record, I threw the preconceived notions of who might be benefiting from my music out the window."
Nilüfer Yanya, 23, emerged from West London's indie R&B scene after her first EP, Small Crimes, in 2016. She owes part of her style to her musician parents, who exposed her to traditional sounds from her Turkish, Irish, and Barbadian heritage, but she's also cited Nina Simone and Jeff Buckley as influences. In February she released her third EP, Do You Like Pain?, about the fight to walk away from a toxic relationship.
Yanya's songwriting process often takes her to unexpected places. "I get into the idea of telling a story sometimes, and then I go off on a tangent or change my mind about what the song should be about," she says. Sometimes she invents characters (or recruits them from her life) to help herself get out of her own head. "I'd say it's a good way of making sense out of things and thinking aloud, because you can tell the truth about so many situations, but from a different perspective or angle each time. It's more like performing surgery than healing. I think there's a lot of unanswered questions and conflict naturally in my music."
The soulful, jazzy feel of Yanya's music, bolstered by circular, swinging motifs on electric guitar, roots it in an era long before she was born. Her lyrics tend to address relationships, but they can also be unexpectedly timely, engaged with present-day social and political conditions. She wrote her debut single, the hauntingly minimalist "Small Crimes," from the perspective of a thief, and it explores how the fallout from the robbery erodes the humanity of the perpetrator.
So far Yanya has no idea who might be listening to her music—and that's how she prefers it. "I like to imagine people of similar ages to me would get it, and people who are interested in a process and not a finished product," she says. "But that could be anyone."
At 19, Ravyn Lenae is the youngest performer at Pitchfork this year. Born and raised on the south side of Chicago, she released her first EP, 2015's Moon Shoes, when she was still attending Chicago High School for the Arts. By the time she graduated, she had a deal with Atlantic Records.
"Being that I was only 15 or 16 when I wrote my first body of work, I wasn't super confident spilling my entire life into my music," she says. "I wasn't comfortable speaking on my experiences with relationships and the confusion and frustration that age entails."
Lenae's music is still a whimsical, dreamlike twist on R&B, but its content has evolved in other ways—her lyrics are grounded in honest and accessible emotion. Her latest EP, this year's Crush, straightforwardly addresses heartache and self-love—a departure from previous releases, where she tells similar stories using complex language and striking imagery, especially nature metaphors (the moon is a favorite). "I've entered a phase where I am comfortable bluntly expressing my emotions through music," she says.
Lenae also feels deep connections to colors and believes they play an important role in her self-expression. "I like to assign certain colors personalities or qualities that often translate in my music," she says. "Moon Shoes is a bit more vibrant through the production, lyricism, melodies (pink, yellow, orange), while Midnight Moonlight channels deeper tones (blue, silver, purple). Crush really pulls reds and pinks, mainly because red symbolizes love, the heart, and boldness, while pink is very soft and innocent—all being qualities of falling in love."
As personal as Lenae's music can get, she hopes her fans are following along. "From 15 to 19 years old, a lot of changes happen in a girl's life," she says. "I like to think of my music as an open diary that allows listeners to experience that growth and change with me." v