Pop Montreal Curates Community With Global Ambition

Yung Baby Tate// Piccolo Rialto// September 27, 2019

There was a moment during this year’s Pop Montreal where Leif Vollebekk, towards the end of his set, at a secret house show on a nondescript, tree-lined street, posed a question. After a dizzyingly compelling rework of Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. slow-burn “Love,” he asked the audience if he could—should—do one more. The answer was obvious, but it was the power of an emphatically affirming rustle in the room that urged him to continue, rather than rapid applause. It was intimate, and touching; incredibly quiet, and incredibly sweet, effectively breaking down the traditionally held boundaries between artist and audience. It was also the kind of wholly singular live show opportunity that rarely has space to exist within festival walls. 

Now in its 18th year, Pop Montreal is more than a multi-venue music festival that swarms the city annually; it’s a sprawling, genreless, multimedia collision, folding in both film and art showcases in addition to a speakers series that offers an even blend of thoughtful conversations on topics at the forefront of the cultural zeitgeist, and workable, practical advice for local artists from industry pros. 

This year, Pop stands out in a shifting national festival climate, where the absence of big monoliths has created more space for smaller festivals across the country, that prioritize curation, to reign supreme. Considering that the festival’s alumni includes Patti Smith, Arcade Fire, and Grimes, this year the festival reset another bar for itself. 

With an overwhelming group of female artists both claiming headliner status, and filling out a large portion of the lineup, it’s part of a wave of festivals like Barcelona’s Primavera Sound that are advocating for a “New Normal” by showing what gender parity looks like rather than paying it lip service. Through a programming approach that located the sweet spot between surreal-to-witness, genre-shifting musicians, and a first look at about to break artists, on the vanguard of the genres they operate within, Pop Montreal provided space for experimental composer Felicia Atkinson, legendary songwriter Laurie Anderson, and soul icon Mavis Staples to coexist alongside pop minimalist Tirzah, and rising bubblegum rapper, Yung Baby Tate. The festival brought together Congolese Afrobeat post-punk outfit KOKOKO! and members of indie’s ever-impressive upper echelon, Weyes Blood and Aldous Harding, 

Landing on this year’s lineup was a careful balancing act, based on listening carefully to insights from the community, and thinking practically about the deliver on their promise. “The approach to our festival programming initiates in a collective call amongst artists/co-workers and conspirators for ideas of artists that people would love to see at the festival,” creative director Dan Seligman explains over email a few weeks after the festival. 

We are always trying to be unique, inclusive, diverse and reflective of the various underground musical communities in Montreal and around the world. — Dan Seligman, creative director

“We are always trying to be unique, inclusive, diverse and reflective of the various underground musical communities in Montreal and around the world,” he continues. “The programming takes shape over months as we try to strike a balance of styles, genres, and aesthetics while taking into consideration availability, tour routing, and all other logistical issues that arise when you book a 5 day multi-venue festival.” 

But what elevates the festival from a collection of artists, to a legitimate cultural event—capable of reflecting the city it lives in—is Pop Montreal’s unyielding ability to pull in wide-ranging audiences under the same umbrella. Traditionally, the festival has happened during Varning, Montreal’s famed hardcore festival. But rather than pushing up against the fest, it’s complimentary and supportive. When Brazilian post-punk outfit Rakta played a blown out endurance test at Le Ministère, veiled behind a wall of smoke, it served as both the meeting ground, and pre-festivities to the Varning after party. Earlier that night, the iconic 70s Malian group Tinawiren played to an enthused, intergenerational crowd at MTELUS, a woven-in addition to the lineup. 

It’s this marriage of curation and sustainability, that aims to platform the best of the best while also reallocating resources back into their community that Seligman prioritizes. “I’m probably most proud when new and emerging artists have an amazing experience, have a great show, make new connections, and are inspired to continue creating and making new music.”

In many ways, Pop Montreal resists a particular cultural moment that prioritizes self-selecting everything that we engage with. It’s wild to consider, that, in 2019, trusting someone else’s programming can seem like a radical act. It’s a long-winded way of saying that at its core, the festival remains a place that has something everyone, but offers a little extra for those willing to suspend their expectations, and adopt a spirit of exploration.