Explore Boston

Boston Calling: How to Unlock This City's Signature Music Festival

Festival co-curator Aaron Dessner offers music fans his insider's perspective.

Born in 2013, Boston Calling has evolved into one of the most innovative and imaginatively programed musical festivals in the U.S., if not the world. On the bill for its debut, and returning this year for a third Boston Calling appearance, is The National: an outfit synonymous with the event. That’s because multi-instrumentalist band member Aaron Dessner is the festival’s co-founder and co-curator, and his express desire to create the perfect conditions for collaborative alchemy has helped build for Boston Calling (May 25-27, 2018) its unique identity.

“A close group of friends started Boston Calling,” Dessner tells Where Boston. “It’s always been a labor of love and it has grown a lot. We just try to make it as diverse and exciting as we can.”

That diversity is expressed in a lineup that stirs hip-hop, political rock, folk, comedy and live movie-scoring into its daily gumbo of star-topped wondrousness.

Here’s why 2018 is set to be the best Boston Calling so far.

It’s the event’s second year at Harvard Athletic Complex. What’s new?

This year we’ll have more happening in more intimate indoor spaces in addition to the big spaces outside. We can break down some of the traditional walls that you have at the big festivals, where all you get is a sea of people.

Natalie Portman
Natalie Portman (Courtesy Boston Calling)

What will that mean, in effect?

It’s to encourage collaboration and to create more opportunities for spontaneity and chance and taking risks. For example, having Natalie Portman curating the film program—there’ll be some live film-scoring as part of that, and that gives an opportunity for certain musicians to really experiment. It could make the festival feel like it’s really evolving.

That sounds groundbreaking.

It’s interesting to play around with traditional staging—hopefully the musicians will move outside of their normal way of thinking and performing.

What other themes have emerged from your curating process?

There’s a real diversity—singer-songwriters, hip-hop, rock ‘n’ roll, live filmscoring—but to me it’s just about craft. We try to choose artists that are really focused on their songcraft and on pushing an attention to detail that I find interesting. Jack White is an auteur, with his singular musical mind and I would put Annie Clark (aka St. Vincent) in the same category.

Boston outfit STL GLD
Boston outfit STL GLD (Courtesy Boston Calling)

Does the festival have a unique Boston sensibility?

It’s definitely made for Boston. The line-up includes a lot of world-renowned performers but as we’ve grown we’ve always tried to include as much local talent [e.g. STL GLD, above] as we can. The DNA of the festival is really connected to the town—it has become one of the major festivals in the Northeast. It’s an opportunity to bring some of the big names in music to Boston, but my interest is more in the between-the-lines stuff and the underground artists.

Who are the dark horses to watch?

There’s a band called This Is the Kit, an underground folk singer from Bristol, England: She’s one of my absolute favorites. Julien Baker is an amazing guitarist/singer. Maggie Rogers is an up-and-coming artist, with a beautiful voice.

The Is The Kit
The Is The Kit (Courtesy Boston Calling)

How does the current musical zeitgeist feed into Boston Calling?

I’ve noticed underground communities of collaborators that are really living outside the margins of hierarchical, highly structured music industry stuff. Also, it’s exciting to see how an artist like Chance the Rapper can have a direct relationship with an audience. He is not on a label, just makes music, puts it out there—he’s never made any physical records but he’s a giant artist. We’re excited about that aspect of music festivals: it’s a place where artists can get to know each other and work together and collaborate. If Boston Calling can start to have some of those kinds of experiences come into it that would be wonderful.

What do you hope the festival will deliver?

Maybe it’s less about polished songs and more about experiments within the festival. But I think there’s going to be some real magic that happens. That’s what I’m most looking forward to.