Josh Owen on the beauty and unpredictability of outdoor festivals
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Josh Owen on the beauty and unpredictability of outdoor festivals

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Look, I’m not saying that inner-city festivals are passé, and Melbourne can throw a multi-band street party like they invented them. But there’s a particular magic to loading up the car and adventuring beyond the busy metro streets and scattered suburbs to find a whole other musical landscape. The Mokoan Music Festival is about to celebrate its third birthday out in the Winton Wetlands, and the stunning scenery of the one-day festival is one of the major drawcards on offer. That, and the outstanding tunes of troubadours like Josh Owen.

“I’ve been to many places in Australia, but I’ve never been out there myself,” Owen says of Winton. “With any festival that’s situated in such a place, with this natural beauty, it’s generally…people want to go because they’re in these places. Like Bluesfest, it works not just because it’s a great festival but because of where it is up there in Byron. I remember when a bunch of people got together to do Melbourne Blues Festival, where they were trying for something like Byron. While there are probably many reasons why it failed, I think when people go to festivals, they want to go out somewhere. They want to go to Port Fairy, they want to go to Apollo Bay, the Bellingen Global Carnival. Whenever you’ve got that, there’s a different energy when you’re in an amazing place. It seems to create some kind of vibe.”

Owen chuckles at trying to describe something as intangible as a vibe, and yet it’s something he holds very dear to his performance heart. At Mokoan he’s sharing the afternoon bill with the likes of Dan Sultan, Cheryl Simaika, and George and Noriko, and the energies of an outdoor audience are at the forefront of Owen’s mind.

“Without trying to sound too psychedelic, when there’s a vibe to a place, there comes this collective energy. We’re in this beautiful setting, and in terms of a gig like that, people are generally looking at the stage, but they’re also looking at this beautiful, natural vista. It’s the same when you’re on stage, looking back to the audience and looking out. It’s totally different [compared to indoors], because sound travels completely differently on an outside stage. Something happens when the sound pressure level is added to a gig within four walls. If you ever go and see a drum and bass band like Shapeshifter, and you’re crammed into a room and you’re sweaty, and the music is immersive, you can feel the music in your body. That’s a different sonic experience to outdoors when you don’t have walls bouncing sound onto you.”

While many performers talk of the differences in audiences between festival and indoor venues – how transient the festival crowd can be, how much harder you have to work in order to keep them – few talk of the idiosyncrasies these contrasting spaces can throw at you.

“Something happens when sound travels, and it can be an absolute disaster as well. You’ve probably been there at a festival seeing your favourite band, and the wind picks up, and it’s suddenly like you’re listening to them in a washing machine. Outdoor festivals can have a lot of things against you, but it also puts a completely different spin on what you’re doing. If you play a gig as the sun is setting and it’s a warm evening, you look out and it’s like, ‘Whoa. Look at that.’ And as soon as the sun goes down and the lights come up, there’s a different energy that happens out there.

“But you can’t anticipate what you want people to do,” he continues. “Things can just change at certain times of the day, and depending on how big the crowd is. What I’ve been told about the crowds at Mokoan, it’s a mid-afternoon festival so we’re not playing into the dark of night. It’ll be a chilled out event. It’s about meeting people, and meeting their energy at that time of day without trying to whip them into a frenzy. That’s not always necessary. You just need to meet people’s energy where you find it.”