Held at the beautiful Spirit of The Suwannee Music Park in Live Oak, Florida, Magnolia Fest will be celebrating it's 19th year this October 15-18th. Magnolia Fest consistently features some of the world’s finest performers in Americana, Roots Rock, Acoustic Blues, Singer/Songwriter, Bluegrass & Newgrass, Cajun/Zydeco, New & Traditional Folk and American Roots music. As part of a series leading up to the festival, I will be speaking with some of the artists who will be performing this October. To start things off, Grant Nielsen, of the Jacksonville based JacksonVegas, graciously spoke about the festival, his involvement in the community, music and more.
This is the 19th year for Magnolia Fest. What makes the festival special and keeps you coming back?
I think this will be our fourth year playing the festival. We feel so lucky to even be invited. Beyond it being one of the prettiest concert venues I’ve ever been to anywhere in the world, it’s almost like clockwork how the season changes the Thursday of Mag Fest. It doesn’t matter what’s going on in the climate, the temperature drops ten degrees and everyone is just so excited to get out. It’s a really magical moment. My wife and I have taken our child for the last few years; it’s just a great time to be outside, listen to music and have fun with family. We love it.
Is the festival very family oriented?
Very. It’s not a kid forward kind of thing, but they have a kids’ area where parents will know their kids are safe and everyone is very nice. There is rock n’ roll, but it’s not a raging party; it tends to be more of a “well, I’m going to listen to Bela Fleck play quietly for an hour kind” of thing. At nighttime the kids lessen and the adults can let their hair down a bit. The artists are incredible and everyone has a good time.
When people think of a music city, they think Austin, Nashville and Asheville, but Florida and Jacksonville seem to have an emerging vibrant scene as well.
Ten years ago I don’t know if I would have said that, but over the last few years, in the Jacksonville area specifically, there have been big shifts. We were down to one club in the city and Judy Van Zant came forward and invested in the regional music scene, created more venue spaces and purchased some of the festivals. Over the last few years we’ve seen many venues, with additional owners, popping up in the region-evidence of our thriving local music scene.
Unlike some of the struggling larger festivals, where you might try and see 75 acts in one weekend, for the smaller festivals [like Mag Fest] it’s all about taking our time and choosing say, the best forty acts we can find, and being successful with that. Mag Fest exists in this perfect middle ground where we’re not too big or not too small. We draw from 4000-6000 people every year which is just right.
What drew you to and keeps you in Jacksonville?
In 2008 my wife and I made the conscious decision [to settle there]. I’d toured all over the country and world, and we were ready for something else. We looked at Jacksonville and said we don’t live in a great place today, but if we get organized, get involved in the community and help people, in ten years this might be a really great place, so we decided to double down on Jacksonville. Community activism was why we stayed; it was a bit of a gamble, but it looks like it's paying off.
You are very active in the community and in multiple aspects of the industry from writing and performing to producing and marketing, among other things.
I’m heavily involved in the downtown Jacksonville scene. The culture in Jacksonville was cannibalized through lack of interest, so we had nowhere to go but up. We started from square one and have been able to be effective. I’m one of the founders of the Elbow District in Jacksonville, which has been adopted as the official entertainment district of the city. We have about a dozen venues downtown all next to each other, so we have like a Music Row kind of a vibe and are even exporting our own culture now. We don’t do it for ego, but if that’s what someone else is interested in, that’s fine, come along and do some work; there’s plenty of spotlight to go around.
Nurturing musicians is something that is also very important to you.
Absolutely. Trying to make way for new artists is a big deal, so much so that this will be JacksonVegas’ last year on Mag Fest for a little while simply because I want to give somebody my spot. It’s important. There are a finite number of places on this thing and even though we bring out a nice crowd and are a part of the berth of people who help put on the festival, there are a lot of bands who haven’t played here yet and deserve a place. So I kind of do my part to make sure I’m not hogging up the slots. A big part of the Fest not getting stagnant is to keep having new artists play, which really keeps the blood flowing.
In addition to performing at the festival, you are also its graphic designer. How did you decide on the artwork with the moon and magnolia flower?
Well, the magnolia is because the whole area is flush with magnolia trees in bloom, and the moon was the message of the original artist Marci Davis, who is still friend of Fest. She did the artwork, which was a lot of charcoals, paints and watercolors, for like the first fifteen years. I have a design company and I had been working with Judy for a few years on smaller projects and when she took over Mag Fest, she brought me in. It was a good opportunity for everybody to move forward. I do the web design, print graphics and flyer turnaround and Marci still does the merchandise poster, which is a piece of fine art.
Switching gears from the festival for a bit, JacksonVegas released an EP, Someday Is As Good As Any Day in January. What’s the significance of the title and the album artwork?
JacksonVegas has been around for a really long time and we’ve never put out any kind of merch; there was nothing you could buy from our band, not a shirt or a sticker, nothing. I didn’t want to be that band that hawks $20 tee shirts, so I waited until I could have a more quality offering.
In an interview someone mentioned how we were finally putting out a recording and our piano player responded, “Well, someday is as good as any day” which became the title of the record. As we were talking about, we are incredibly active in terms of the infrastructure of the scene, so the four animals represent the four mascots of the venues that sort of gave rise to the band. The bird is for Freebird Live which is Judy’s venue on the beach, the pig is the logo of Underbelly, the burro is for Burro Bar and the tortoise is for 1904 Music Hall. Every song is about Jacksonville, and the band’s many members include the best musicians in city. The whole thing is hyper-localism at work so I wanted to visually represent that for our first record.
The amount of support we have had in the past is really strange, not bad or ineffective, just really odd. We are a band stuck in between states of being. On one hand we are local guys, but in terms of reach we have had major plays in France, Australia, and New Zealand. You never know where the markets are going to pop up and for us we have thousands of miles in between where we live and where we’re famous, so we live in this bilateral state.
Well, sometimes music fans across the waters latch onto a good thing before the rest of the world catches up.
The songs on the record are very diverse from southern rock to pop to folk. Is that reflective of what you have been listening to, your roots or something else?
As far as being a songwriter, a performer and a producer I have come to find that my greatest strength and my greatest weakness is being that kind of chameleon. I went to university on a jazz scholarship, and then came up playing in bands where we had to move from genre to genre very quickly. Even when I became a more focused performer as an adult, I just had a really hard time pinning down what I loved the best. For fifteen years I was a professional rapper under another moniker and I also produced Pop and EDM music. I’ve done everything. People ask me what kind of music I listen to and I just say “yes.” That’s not to say I love everything, but I draw on many perspectives. I see music as a holistic practice where everything is related. I don’t know that I ever say this is going to be a pop number, this is going to be the rock number, it’s just one of those things where that’s just what comes out.
Magnolia Fest seems to blend artists with different perspectives, so if someone was to come to the Fest this year, who would you tell them not to miss?
My go to answer for that tends to be Grandpas Cough Medicine, who are just incredible and easily the biggest band in Jacksonville right now. There’s also the Avett Brothers, who are one of the reasons I left hip hop and went back to my roots. And the Tedeschi Trucks Band, who are the reason I went into playing jazz. This year’s bill happens to have some of the largest musical influences ever in my life, so it’s a landmark thing for me.
For more information on Magnolia Fest visit here or the official website.
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For more informaiton on JacksonVegas visit their official website
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