On August 17 & 18, the homegrown gathering Solasta Festival returns to Spirit Crossing in Sneedville, Tennessee for the second year. The lineup is dreamy and the extracurricular activities include audio development workshops and a unique Sunday Brunch. The talent bookings are ambitious, from the New Zealand psytrance legend Grouch to the Swedish ambient composer Solar Fields, who hasn’t performed in the States for nearly a decade. Top-billing is given to rising musicians like Jade Cicada and Detox Unit whose new sounds and young energy are invigorating the community’s collective nervous system.
Solasta is far from the only exceptional grassroots festival to pop up and spotlight alternative electronic music recently. However, strong intentions toward individual and communal growth, a risk-taking and rarified musical lineup, and an obsessive focus on safety and organization distinguish this event from most others. The Rust Music has been corresponding with the festival’s three key organizers about their intentions and areas of focus for Solasta, as well as the festival's short history.
Another steamy summer was approaching in the Southeastern United States in 2017 and lovers of alternative electronic music and culture were naturally excited. For the electronic community and culture at large, summer is when the magic - and the music festivals - happen. That summer, however, the intentional gathering and Southeastern anchor festival Kinnection Campout was taking the year off. The regional music scene was looking at a “very bleak summer” according to Liam Collins, a music producer known as Push/Pull local to Asheville, North Carolina.
Solasta appeared in this void. The event lasted two days and two nights in September in Sneedville, a town of less than 2,000 people tucked into the foothills of the Smokey Mountains in the northeastern corner of the state. The small but refined lineup featured rare international talent. Workshops offered included a sampling seminar with RJD2. The Clinch River ran slowly through the grounds, the sun rose with music, and campers left without a trace. The festival passed into the autumn quietly, although a foundation was set for the future.
Electronic music thrives in a handful of cities scattered among the hills and hollers of the Southeast. Asheville stands out among them for its vibrance. On his first U.S. tour, the highly sought after UK producer Kursa is playing major cities like Denver, Atlanta, Boston, New York, and…Asheville. The city is also the home to Harmonia, one of the producing entities behind Solasta. Founded by Asheville resident and perennial festival worker Maegen Coral, Harmonia is one of a handful of companies worldwide dedicated to providing harm reduction and creating sanctuary spaces at music festivals.
Maegen and Liam linked through the greater Asheville electronic circuit over the years, particularly through Kinnection where Liam was a performer and Maegen a part of the festival crew. The gathering was formerly hosted just north of the city on the Deerfields Retreat, one of the only places in the Southeast apparently where one could play bass music through the night.
Also working Kinnection in years past was Hasan Zaidi, another perennial festival worker holding down the box office and going on about “high-density awesomeness”. Hasan had recently started the production company Envisioned Arts in the Bay Area. Today, Envisioned Arts is a leading provider of live niche electronic music, and the other key producing entity behind Solasta. Hasan and Maegen worked festivals together from California to Costa Rica and back to the Carolinas where another transformational event called Gratifly Music & Arts Festival roared with abundance for two years before fading away due to financial insolvency.
In this landscape where the cultural soil is fertile but the fruit of financial stability struggles to flower, Hasan, Maegen and Liam linked up to throw the first Solasta Festival. “The three of us definitely connect on the core principles of how people should be treated and how the experience should be facilitated,” Maegen told me while working her Harmonia sanctuary space at Elements Lakewood in Pennsylvania over Memorial Day weekend.
“It’s crucial for the organization behind an event to have a higher intention than money or just having a party,” Liam writes via email. “You can feel when there is real love and thought behind it versus when there is a disconnect between the organizers and the patrons…For me, Solasta is about keeping the musical lifeblood flowing in the Southeast, and stems from a very sincere desire to grow the scene and musical community.”
Maegen has seen much while working the festival circuit across the continent, and it’s not all good. Despite its fantastical atmosphere, the electronic music community isn't free from destructive behavior. “In this culture, what I’ve noticed, the cool thing is to not give a shit and to not care. Like ‘let’s eat all the drugs, let’s throw shit on the ground, who cares.’ It’s kind of self-serving. That’s the culture, so people are learning that as they come into it.” This is why Maegen started Harmonia, to empower through education, lead by example, and subtly push the cultural needle in the opposite direction. These same intentions undergird Solasta Festival. “What we’re trying to do is create the other culture, where it’s cool to take care of yourself and it’s cool to check in on people. It’s like a culture of compassion.”
As the head of a production company, a booking agent, and the initiator of the Bassnectar AmBASSadoor program, Hasan is uniquely positioned to comment on the micro-communities that are both a cause and effect of the rising popularity of alternative electronic music. For it’s part, Envisioned Arts has been helping to set the pace musically in the States for years now by booking rare talent, particularly in the psydub universe, before others began to.
“Our events are different because we’re all similar in these weird ways, and we’ve come together because of the music,” Hasan says. “But when we’re actually together we realize we share these certain qualities and characteristics.” Birds of a feather flock together. Music nerds have a great time hanging out with each other, especially if their favorite tunes are pumping through a top-of-the-line system under the bright light of the moon. “There’s a rampant sense of humor that tends to run through everyone, kind of a skeptical view of what is fed to us from a commercial perspective, and a desire for something more authentic and different.”
Solasta is intended to be that something. It’s hosted by the community, for the community. The organizers believe this DIY approach is imperative. “We have all been to those larger corporate festivals,” writes Liam. “They throw up a big stage in a hot field and sell you bottled water and shove beer ads in your face.” Indeed, no one who’s ever bought an Aquafina for five or six dollars will soon forget the sting of that experience. “You’re herded through long security checkpoints and it just feels like the purpose of the event is to make as much money as possible while caring little about the experience. Unless we all create and support the kind of events that we want to see, they just won’t happen anymore.”
Creating an authentic, homegrown underground event within the framework of the festival market is like threading a needle. A group seeks to put forward their purest ideals, but it must bend with the force of a conscious-less machine market that doesn’t give a damn about ideals. “In a broader sense,” Hasan muses, “all grassroots movements that do something right will one day expand into something more. Being able to consciously monitor that growth and actually stand by the core ideals from outset, instead of just paying them lip service, is the actual battle.”
Community and grassroots are not just buzzwords for this crew. The organizers build a sense of community into everything they do, particularly by blurring the lines between performer, staff, and audience. “Our team for Solasta is very literally embedded in every aspect of the scene,” writes Liam. “We are booking the shows, managing touring acts, checking you in at the door, rocking the clipboard in the back, making sure that you are supported during tough experiences, on the four-wheeler keeping you safe, dancing right next to you in the crowd, and up on stage.”
There’s no VIP area at this festival. “We often joke that Solasta is a producer’s festival,” says Hasan. “Last year especially that's really what it was....All the artists we book are going to be on the dance floor ripping it up. Woah! Nice, we just sold five tickets,” he says over the phone, interrupting his own train of thought. Hasan loves to talk, but he doesn’t bullshit. There’s one stage and no overlapping sets at Solasta. It’s fortunate for attendees because every set on the lineup is worth catching. There’s no “check the box” bookings here. We’re sure the producers dig this, too. They miss sought after sets sometimes, too, you know. Solasta also lowers the stage towards the ground, bringing the performer closer to eye-level with the audience.
Born from the nerdy natures of each of the three organizers, one of Solasta’s most unique offerings is the full slate of audio development workshops. There will be sessions on vinyl scratching, integrating hardware synthesizers, piecing apart the frequency spectrum and more. Last year the focus was placed exclusively on the deep technicalities of production. This year’s workshops will be a bit more accessible, including seminars from “industry movers and shakers” about other aspects of the underground music community. Solasta intends to give people the knowledge to do it themselves, and do it properly. “A lot of the workshops we do allow the participants to become the people who will be on stage,” Hasan says.
Although Solasta is a second-year festival, expect a safe and highly organized experience. These folks know what they’re doing (at least when it comes to hosting events). “We are technically a startup but we do not have the organizational clusterf*#@ that most startup festivals inevitably have,” writes Liam. Sometimes one trades the six-dollar Aquafina in for a traumatizing porto-potty lineup or a botched musical schedule. Not here. “Our entire staff in every department is filled by one tight-knit community that has been doing this together professionally since before 2012.”
Spirit Crossing is nestled into the western foothills of the Smokey Mountains where the ground is soft, the fog settles early and often, and the sun splits through the hills at dawn. Running through Spirit Crossing is the Clinch River, one of the cleanest rivers in the Southeastern US and home to rare and diverse marine life. One can camp next to the river and wake to its bubbling rhythms each morning. Wes, the landowner, began hosting burns on the grounds years ago, but they were more like river clean-ups with music. “We try to impart on people, don’t just keep the land clean because we’re telling you to,” Hasan says. “Keep it clean because you genuinely want to.” Solasta intends to maintain the pristine conditions at Spirit Crossing by strictly adhering to a ‘leave no trace’ policy.
To sustain the festival and it’s growth, the organizers are partnering with other like-minded companies. “Solasta is a group effort,” says Hasan. “No event happens with just one community." Solasta has linked with Midnight Voyage, who for years ran the electronic circuit in Knoxville, Tennessee. They’ve brought on outfits from New Orleans, Chicago, Boston and New York City (The Rust Music is partnered with and actively promoting Solasta Festival) to spread word through the underground. “What I’ve found is that a lot of people are so competitive,” Hasan continues. “We can do cool shit without being competitive. We can collaborate and do something far bigger than any of us. I’ve always believed that.”
Perhaps the most important area of focus for Solasta is safety, which according to Maegen reaches “almost to the point of paranoia.” Harmonia will establish its public sanctuary space on site (attendees of the Tipper & Friends 4321 event may recognize this serene, domed environment). They’ll also have isolation tents for those with augmented experiences who require individualized attention from a caring volunteer. “You have the best time at festivals when everyone’s smiling and looking out for each other,” says Maegen. “That inspires people and helps them connect in a potent way. So to make a statement and make it a critical part of the infrastructure changes the game completely.”
“All of us keep coming back to these festival experiences for a reason,” says Liam, who has himself been coming back to festivals for about a decade and a half. “Small, thoughtful gatherings are some of the most potent places for release, communion and connection that I know of. Amazing things happen when people of like mind gather to celebrate. Solasta is the newest attempt at growing one of these from within our community.”
Solasta tickets are available for a startlingly low price and special magic is already swirling around this event. If you’re traveling from far afield, Solasta has shuttles running from the Atlanta airport. If you’re driving, be wary of the switchbacks once you get into the mountains. Although the organizers have poured their own resources and intentions into the project, it’s the attendees themselves that make it all thrive. “We might be creating a central gathering point,” says Hasan, “but the idea is to empower each individual to their fullest, and allow them to spread the feeling they get at the event to others.” Noble intentions aside, “just get ready for some good old tomfoolery,” the organizers suggest.