Marisa Demarco of Gatas y Vatas on the Importance of Spotlighting Female Musicians

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Now in its fifth and final year, Albuquerque's Gatas y Vatas experimental music festival is preparing for a grand finale this weekend. Founding performer and festival organizer Marisa Demarco says that it was her experience as a performer and audience member at Denver's Titwrench music festival inspired her to create Gatas, which focuses on spotlighting female solo musicians -- performers she sees as being underrepresented or not acknowledged at all.

As a co-founding member of the first edition of Titwrench in 2009, I first met Demarco back when she came to Denver with her performance collective, Milch de la Maquina, to be a part of the multi-day, DIY music and art gathering. Since then, Demarco has been back and forth between Colorado and New Mexico performing at each year's Titwrench, as well as coming through on tour multiple times over the last six years. As she prepares to put the finishing touches on what will be the fifth and final installment of Gatas y Vatas, I caught up with Demarco and we talked about what makes her unique festival tick and why she's deciding to end it all after half a decade of success.

See also: 50 Ways to Support Your DIY Music Community

Bree Davies: Coming from working on a similar-minded women-centered event like Titwrench, I know what it is like to be asked "why" we would put on a music festival. I feel like that isn't something big corporate music festival organizers ever get asked; it's like a given for them. How do you deal with the "why" question?

Marisa Demarco: The answer for Gatas y Vatas is pretty clear -- the deal was, there were lots of moments when I would play a show and be the only girl on stage all night. I don't know if that's the same in other parts of the country, but it was definitely how it is here in Albuquerque. Sometimes I would be the only girl in the room; I felt like shows with local bands would have mostly dude attendees as well. It was mostly guys at the show and on the stage. So when I first started playing it was definitely like that and as I continued, though at some point I put my sister (Monica Demarco) in my band so at least there would be, like, two of us.

But I kept running into women around town who would say things like, "Oh, I totally play music. I've been playing for twenty years... at my house." I mean, really. It was like that. [Women would] tell me that they had been practicing since they were a child but they only played at home. I guess that I never asked why they didn't perform, but I think there's a valid point too, which is that not everyone who plays an instrument wants to be on stage. But it was just crazy meeting so many women who had that experience. All the women were playing at home and all the dudes were on stage.

So the deal with Gatas is that everyone who played just had to play ten minutes. That is the minimum requirement. It has to be solo-composed work and that's it. Our first festival was tiny, but it just got bigger and bigger. But the reason that Gatas exists is to get people on stage. It is simply just to get them there.

So when you go to curate the festival or put the line-up together, did you reach out to those women in particular? Or do performers submit to take part in Gatas?

A lot of times it is me individually harassing people. [Laughs.] I also have an open call and if you want to play, you hit me up. But it is also me going out and approaching people and saying, "hey, I really think you can do this!" It sometimes takes me having two or three conversations with someone. I'll say, "I promise this is fun. I think you're going to really like it; I think the people attending the festival are really going to like you. We have a lot of people on stage who have never done this before and it is a really good place to try for the first time." I offer help -- I let [performers] know that there will be people there to help them with whatever they need, whether it is gear problems or just nerves.

It's a lot of wheedling on my part. [Laughs.] I guess this last year, not so much because now there is a really full group of people who want to play this festival so that's what is different about this year. But in all previous years, it's been me talking people into it.

I think that something really special about smaller, curated festivals like this -- especially Gatas. Where else are you going to find a person like yourself going out into the community and convincing artists to play? It is so much about getting a performer you value and you like in front of other people so that they too can enjoy this music.

Yes, absolutely. Gatas has been an original place for people to learn about recording, too -- we have a guy who records the performances and that music will go on our compilations. And for some performers, this is their first recording experience. It can also be someone's first experience seeing live bands, first experience being on an album, first experience being on stage and maybe first time to meet other women musicians. I've heard from people that it ends up being a really profound experience. It's like, oh look at all of these people here too -- with me, supporting me, people like me. How would you explain or describe the atmosphere of Gatas y Vatas to someone who has never been to the festival?

For the performers, I've heard people say it is like Christmas; you wait all year for Gatas to come. Part of that is, you're waiting to see who is going to play. You're waiting to see what the line-up is going to be. It is really a multi-genre experience. It feels almost like a holiday of some kind -- it's like "recognize women day."

I think Titwrench can be like that, too -- you walk into the room and it is filled with all kinds of people who are performing and watching. We see people come out for Titwrench that don't necessarily come out for shows the rest of the year, and I think that's because of the atmosphere created.

There's a lot of respected people who go to Gatas and Titwrench. I am always so glad to see people there who just show up to take in the music. That's why they come. Music and art can become very egotistical, so it is important to just chill out and listen to each other sometimes, you know?

Totally! How did you decide initially to focus on solo performances at Gatas?

I've been on tour a lot and I've seen bands all over the country and bands in my city where I feel like, if you're lucky, there's a girl in the band -- there's one girl in the band and she doesn't have a central role. So the idea behind Gatas was that everyone who gets on stage is alone and you are the focus. Your ideas are the focus and it is you executing your ideas -- which is a pretty raw experience.

The other thing that is kind of funny about it, and I joke about this but it is only really a half joke and that is that I wanted to do a solo set and I hadn't done one. So it is very much like me to have to throw an entire festival to do my first solo set. [Laughs]

It's kind of like giving yourself a deadline. [Laughs.] Robin (Edwards) and I have talked about this, but she does that a lot -- if she's going to start a new music project, she books a show before she's even maybe written any songs.

Heck yes! I'm with you there, for sure. It was like, well, I guess if I'm throwing a whole festival focused on solo sets, I can't punk out and not do one. [Laughs.]

When you talk about Gatas, it is clear that this is a festival that is all ages and all welcome. Why is that so crucial for you and your fest?

Man, there are a lot of reasons why Gatas ends up being awesome. But initially it was like, I want all kinds of people to be able to come see these people on stage. I wanted little boys and little girls to come see their momma play the drums. I want adolescent girls to come see other women rock out and think, "Hey, I can totally rock out." We don't have Girls Rock Denver. We don't have anything like that.

It has just become so important that people of all ages can get exposed to the women in our town who have musical talent, on stage and presenting themselves and are in control of presenting their whole identity to you. That becomes really essential for the show. This year we have a young woman who is nine or ten performing. We have our youngest ever Gatas y Vatas Gata performing on Friday night.

We have some performers like that at Titwrench, too. They have come up through Titwrench or even through Girls Rock Denver and onto the Titwrench stage and I think it is just as important for us as adults to realize that all ages truly can mean all ages.

I have to say for sure that Gatas comes from Titwrench. I went to Titwrench and seriously, it was like going from being lonely to not being lonely or something. [Laughs.] I felt like I was kind of an anomaly here in some ways and maybe I just hadn't met all the friends that I was going to meet. I'm from [Albuquerque], but it can still feel lonely -- like I was a weirdo musician who likes experimental music and weird performance. Then I went to Titwrench and it was like, oh my gosh. I don't even know how to describe it, really. It was just like, here is everybody. I didn't know all of these people existed. It was like finding my family, a little bit.

So I went back home and was really wanting to bring that good feeling I got from Titwrench home. That was why after the second Titwrench, I think I was on the drive home from Denver and I got the idea for Gatas.

And that is crazy and awesome to hear that, because when I think about what shapes Titwrench, I think about your group, Milch de la Maquina, performing at the first edition of our fest. Your performance is like a cornerstone of what makes Titwrench what it is.

When we did the first Milch performance, we didn't know if anybody was going to like it; I honestly thought, this might just be seen as so fucking lame. I had those nerves all the way up to the first performance. I thought, am I just crazy? Is anyone going to like this? That was really the first Milch experience for me.

Something that always stands out to me about Gatas y Vatas is the strong visual component. You have amazing artwork that changes each year, but you can always tell it is part of Gatas. How do you go about connecting with visual artists to bring those images to t-shirts and posters and such?

For the first year, someone just volunteered. It was like, here; maybe you need an image for Gatas? That's what's sort of funny about Gatas -- I just sort of announced that I was doing it and then other people were like, maybe you need an image and a name. The name isn't even something I came up with -- a friend of mine came up with it. Then someone offered to make me a flier. The next year, I hit up Nani Chacon, who is one of my favorite painters out here. After that, people have just had different ideas for what the art should look like -- people have just invested in the festival and started having feelings about what the art could be like.

This year, I just wanted to continue the spirit of involving more people and new people and making sure we don't become static. I tapped Lisa Lou, someone who I didn't know very well but whose artwork I had seen here and there and had done some album and t-shirt art. I just tell people, this is what Gatas is, this is what our previous years' art has looked like and whatever you come up with is cool.

Why is this the last edition of Gatas Y Vatas?

There are a few reasons -- right now I'm in the midst of planning it so it feels crazy to make it end because I love it so much. It is my favorite time of year and I'm so happy to see everybody in town. But I think my impulse is right. One of the reasons I'm ending it is because I really want someone else to throw a festival. It's not that I don't like throwing festivals, but I want to volunteer to work on someone else's vision. I think we can't always be the boss -- sometimes we have to be the volunteer for someone else's idea.

A lot of the people in Gatas have started throwing their own shows. Not only did those performers who had never performed before start playing, they started throwing shows that have their interests at heart. So I'm like, well let's do your festival now. I think that is important -- we can't let it get entrenched. It can't just be this one person who is the festival thrower; we all have to do it.

The other thing is, I really don't want it to peter out. I don't want people to assume it is always going to exist and that they can participate next year if they want to. I gave a one-year warning at last year's festival that this year would be the last year. Everyone who wants to do it has been planning and had to get off their ass and get it together and do it. I just wanted us to go out huge -- I wanted us to go out with a big bang and that will be the conclusion of this round of Gatas y Vatas.

Also, I'm kind of interested in doing it in other locations. I think it is a model I could replicate in other places -- I want to bring folks from Albuquerque to other cities in the Southwest and find out who the ladies are that want to perform there, you know?

That's a great point -- giving a gathering like this an expiration date just means someone else has to step up and put together their own experience.

Right, like maybe they don't want to throw a solo women's performance thing. My sister (Monica Demarco) is doing these shows that are aerial performances, where acrobats team up with musicians. Let's do that festival! Or, Tahnee (Udero) has these Homegirls Records DJ dance parties, so let's do that as a festival. There are definitely other kinds of festivals that you can throw and that other people might have ideas for that I want to support.

So you feel like you've seen some movement in your own community since Gatas y Vatas started?

I can say with confidence that we changed the performing scene out here. We changed what you see on stage. A lot of the people you see on stage right now (in Albuquerque) all the time started at Gatas y Vatas, you know? Now they are in bands or they're performing solo or whatever it is, but it is not usual anymore for there not to be women no stage. There are always women on stage at shows now. I think we did it!

Gatas y Vatas 5 goes down September 19 and 20 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The fest is currently running a crowdfunding campaign to help pay all of the artists participating in this year's gathering; tickets can be purchased through the campaign or via the festival directly. For more on Gatas y Vatas, the venue and the 2014 line-up, visit the fest's Facebook event page.

Be my voyeur (or better yet, let me stalk you) on Twitter: @cocodavies

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