meta-scriptQueer Christian Artists Keep The Faith: How LGBTQ+ Musicians Are Redefining Praise Music | GRAMMY.com
Queer Christian Artists Keep the Faith Q Worship Collective
(Clockwise from top left) Semler, Marsha Stevens-Pino, Jess Grace Garcia of Q Worship Collective, iiwaa, Jennifer Knapp, the Many.

Photo: Courtesy of artists except Q Worship/Springwood Productions, iiwaa/Celine Boyd, Knapp/Fairlight Hubbard,EYE Management

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Queer Christian Artists Keep The Faith: How LGBTQ+ Musicians Are Redefining Praise Music

Song has long been part of many Christian traditions, but the religion has historically not been as welcoming to Christian LGBTQ+ artists. Today, a new generation is forging a more accepting church by refusing to compromise either part of their identity.

GRAMMYs/Jun 8, 2022 - 09:10 pm

In 2021, queer musician Grace Baldridge (who peforms as Semler) rocked Christian music on her debut release, Preacher’s Kid. The EP centered on Baldrige’s experiences growing up in the Episcopal Church, a religion that often didn’t accept her identity, and the ways in which she wrestled with religion. "And these days I believe in Bigfoot more than God, 'cause who's he hurting?" Semler questions on the track "Jesus From Texas."

The album topped the iTunes Christan music chart.

In a genre that has doubled down on commercial hits that praise an unwavering dedication to Christianity, Preacher’s Kid was revolutionary for expressing a more nuanced connection with God — and was made even more so by Baldridge's genderqueer identity. While the Christian music industry has embraced modern musical stylings like indie rock, metal and rap, lyrical content has been slower to encompass a broader diversity of voices.

"For a genre that’s meant to harness artistic expression, there are a lot of boundaries, and I think that's very strange, especially when, thematically, we're looking at all of creation and divinity," says Baldrige, adding, "Artists like myself and others, we're presenting a challenge, and a question, to Christian music, which is, what do you want to be known for?"

In the past, LGBTQ+ artists were forced out of the genre after coming out. But a new generation of queer Christian musicians is refusing to compromise either part of their identity. They’re using art to not only express their faith, but also to forge a more accepting Christian church.

The Origins Of The Christian Music Industry

Singing has long been part of many Christian traditions, but contemporary Christian music (CCM) has its roots in the Jesus movement of the 1960s and 1970s. With acoustic guitars and long hair, "Jesus freaks" brought their own sort of counterculture to Christian denominations.

Marsha Stevens-Pino found her own way to Christianity at a Southern California church with "barefoot hippies." She described the atmosphere as being so egalitarian that anyone in the congregation could share an original song.

In 1969, when she was a high schooler still learning the Gospel, Stevens-Pino wrote "For Those Tears I Died" to help lead her sister to the Lord. Her high school choir director encouraged her to copyright the song, which would prove to be wise advice. "For Those Tears I Died" became one of the earliest CCM hits, something Stevens-Pino and her bandmates in Children of the Day could’ve never predicted. They even questioned whether it was ethical to profit from religious music.

"There was no sense of who's gonna record this, who's gonna play it on the radio," says Stevens-Pino, adding, "It was just about what’s going on in your heart and sharing what’s going on."

By the late ‘70s, CCM had become a business, with radio stations, publications and the Gospel Music Association’s Dove Awards highlighting industry achievements. But Stevens-Pino’s success within CCM came to a halt when she came out as a lesbian in 1981. After a long period of grappling with her identity, she was shunned by the industry her songs were torn out of hymn books and she received hate mail.

She joined the queer-affirming Metropolitan Community Church in 1984, and wrote and toured with them and other churches for the next 20 years. Looking back, Stevens-Pino most regrets not being more open in her self-searching, though she realized there was no one she could’ve turned to. She never stopped writing music, including songs like "Can't We Find a Way," which is aimed at helping her parents come to terms with her sexuality.

During the height of HIV/AIDS, almost every song Stevens-Pino wrote had a connection to the epidemic. She recorded her first post-coming out album with money a friend who died of AIDS had left her. For his memorial, she wrote the song "Falling Star." The chorus goes, "Our farewell for a moment knows the promise true/When Jesus comes in glory, He will come with you."

She also found herself helping other Chrsitian musicians coming to terms with their sexuality, including singer/songwriter Ray Boltz, who came out in 2008 after a decades-long career.

Some of the artists she spoke with either went back into the closet or never ended up coming out, fearing the same sort of industry retaliation as Stevens-Pino faced. After moving to Nashville, she learned that the night before the Dove Awards, there’s a secret event for queer nominees called the Pink Party; it’s invite-only and phones and cameras aren’t allowed: "[CCM] became such a big business that you can't even be yourself when you're winning an award. It just seemed like it turned such a far right corner."

But Stevens-Pino never compromised her identity. She formed Born Again Lesbian Music (BALM Ministries) for queer communities and married her wife in 2003. Together, they ran a music ministry training school for LGBTQ+ Christians.

A New Sound, But The Same "Christian Values"

In the late '90s, a more rocking image emerged with a new generation of artists. Jennifer Knapp, who also turned to Christianity as a teenager, made a splash on the CCM scene with her singles "Undo Me" and the GRAMMY-nominated "A Little More." But in 2004, she announced she was taking a hiatus.

Knapp released her first non-Christian album, Letting Go, in 2010 and came out as a lesbian in the media. Nowadays, she describes herself as in "career 2.0," a mainstream singer/songwriter touring, recording and advocating for LGBTQ+ issues. "They watched me navigate being a gay person… and code shift in the middle of a religion that doesn't really give a lot of people an opportunity to challenge it back and still respect it."

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While her new music isn’t religious, she says a keen listener could track her theology through her albums, with an exploration of love being a central theme on her last record, Love Comes Back Around. She says her fans are now about one third long-term listeners, a third who’ve discovered her through secular music and a third who are interested in her work as an advocate.

"I've had to learn to be comfortable with the legacy of having been valued as a CCM artist," she says. "And then if that audience is mixed, I've had to learn how to get people to look around them and share that space."

Creating A "State of Grace"

Now, more than ever, digital platforms are expanding opportunities for artists outside the Christian mainstream. Knapp, who found early success on MySpace, had her CCM heyday when it was gaining such cultural cache that it expanded beyond folk to a range of popular genres. Perhaps more influential than social media is the rise of so-called hipster megachurches like Hillsong Church, Mosaic and the now defunct Mars Hill Church. These churches made CCM music cool to a new generation, including with their own record labels and in-house artists.

But while their worship practice more resembles a rock or rap concert than a Sunday service, many megachurches promote the same traditional values around sexual identity, gender roles and reproductive healthcare as the larger Evangelical movement. These megachurches, along with all-important Christian radio stations like K-LOVE, continue to gatekeep CCM. This is despite myriad controversies, including Hillsong’s founder resigning after an internal investigation into accusations of inappropriate behavior toward women.

In some ways, it was this hypocrisy that drew Grace Baldridge to start writing her own Christian music. Baldrige hosted a Refinery29 series on faith called "State of Grace," including an episode on the dark reality of the CCM industry. The child of an Episcopal priest, she grew up listening to Christian punk and metal bands like Relient K, Underoath and Demon Hunter (as well as songs from Michael Jackson, Prince and Duran Duran that her brother illegally downloaded). Her entry into CCM started as a sort of joke, when she shared the first verse of a song called "Youth Group" on TikTok:

"Youth group lock-ins are a really strange concept that

Youth group leaders seem to really like

It's like ‘Let's take some repressed, hormonal teenagers

And put 'em in a church and hope they find Jesus overnight"

From the enthusiastic response, she realized there were many others who were questioning institutionalized religion. While many of her lyrics are tongue and cheek — "a loser in a button-up can't send you to hell" — they’re often connected to real trauma. Baldrige explains that singing about something takes the bite out of it.

Unlike much "holier-than-thou" Christian worship music, she’s interested in exploring the ways her faith isn’t perfect. Her latest project is Stages of a Breakdown, a mixtape to a born-again friend as their relationship was falling apart. She wrote most of the EP in just 48 hours and each track represents a different stage in the breakdown, with Baldrige exploring new genres like indie dance pop. She even wrote a song from the friend’s perspective, embodying a certain Christian who says they love everyone, but doesn’t accept queer identity. She says this lightly veiled homophobia is just as insidious as open hostility.

This also relates to CCM: She sees how the industry has changed compared to the era of Knapp or Trey Pearson (the founder of Christian rock band Everyday Sunday, who came out in 2016), with artists no longer being openly ostracized. Instead, she described it as more of a "don’t ask, don’t tell, where queer artists will just disappear."

Developing her career both in and outside of CCM is important to Baldrige, who also wants to promote  a more inclusive and justice-oriented understanding of Christianity. She sees her work as part of larger progressive changes within Christian music.

Black Christian musicians, most notably the rapper Lacrae, have increasingly used their music to talk about racism and advocate for Black Lives Matter. But Lacrae has also faced pushback for politicizing his art. Baldrige struggles with understanding why "there's a genre of music that is informed by faith and how we dignify the humanity of others, that has been typically pretty vague on how specifically they want to engage with that."

Still, she sees a shift occurring where people are seeking more thoughtful Christian music.

"I think if someone is wanting to listen to music about faith, then probably they have an immense curiosity and intelligence for what’s out there and mystery and divine and creation," she says, adding, "This should be a genre that’s maybe the best at creating discomfort, both with their lyrics and sonically."

Using Music To Connect With Spirituality

Jay Mercado, who performs as iiwaa, also grew up while "faith and politics all started to merge in our country." Iiwaa is Piipaash and Quechan and an enrolled member of the Gila River Indian Community. From a young age, he participated in his Pentecostal church’s choir and rose to become a national worship leader. He always dreamed about using music to help people connect to their spirituality.

But at the end of 2019, he began to understand his queerness and left the church he had been involved with for almost 20 years: “I was heartbroken at first because my view of God had been so small. My view of God had been one where I believed I would be outside of that kind of love and that acceptance that the faith affords you, as a believer, because of my queerness."

But after being confined at home during the pandemic, iiwaa emerged from that place of grief, and also the freedom of no longer being under the public eye. The name iiwaa is derived from the Piipaash word for heart and represents his desire to put his whole self into what he’s creating. He used his Covid-19 stimulus check to record his debut EP, Dysphoria, and realized he could still use music "to share my experience to connect with others and to help them connect with their spirituality."

He also draws on his Indigenous heritage: “Looking beyond just our pain, I know Indigenous people have experienced joy and experience flourishing on this land,” he says. “With my music, I'm hoping to draw strength from that ancestral wisdom of joy and flourishing."

He considers a track like "Boys Don’t Cry" to be a worship song. Over a stripped back melody, he sings, "They say boys don’t cry. Guess I’m not a boy, am I?" Similar to much contemporary Christian music, he wanted to build on a repeated refrain, allowing the listener to meditate on its meaning. He thought the song might be too niche, but was humbled by the response he received: "People close to me who aren't queer identifying or who’re part of the LGBTQ+ community came to me and said, ‘the song is really healing for my masculinity.’ Men say it helps them realize all the ways society says they don’t measure up."

Last year, iiwaa also participated in Serenade, a multi-genre collection of songs by queer musicians and allies of many faiths released during Pride month. Through living in Flagstaff, Arizona, Mercado was connected with the band Tow’rs, known for Christian-related music. With couple Kyle and Gretta Miller at the band’s core, Tow’rs wanted to be an ally in an industry often not accepting of LGBTQ+ rights. So when Kyle Miller was contacted by the organization Beloved Arise — which is dedicated to celebrating and empowering LGBTQ+ youth of faith — the musician and producer immediately said yes.

Miller and his wife pulled from within and outside their artistic community to garner a diverse roster of participating musicians; many took inspiration from letters written by queer youth of faith. Tow’rs wanted to contribute a song that encompassed the album’s many themes. Miller was inspired by a poem by Hafiz about God being in drag and an experience of stumbling upon a drag show: "There were people cheering for their friends, and people being exactly who they wanted to be... it felt like what I wished church was." The result was “Love Who You Love,” a rousing number that Miller sings in tandem with his wife.

Writing The New Worship Music Canon

These collective efforts, often between queer Christians and allies, are also expanding. The Many is a Chicago-based worship group whose music encompasses folk, pop, indie, gospel and other genres, with original lyrics by Lenora Rand and music by her husband Gary and daughter Hannah. They have performed at liturgies, conventions and other events.

Lenora Rand grew up singing about the blood of the lamb and wanted to develop an alternative, less depressive church tradition. One connecting thread are simple refrains that stick with you, like "You gave us these bodies and call them good" from the song "These Bodies."

During lockdown, they released lyric videos and performed at online events, where the chat was filled with comments about what people were going through. Lenora Rand says connecting so personally with audiences is the outcome of their collective creative process: getting together and discussing issues they care about: "We often say that we write the songs we need to hear."

On "All Belong Here," the Many distinguishes between welcoming (when someone brings you into their space) and belonging (owning the space because you’re supposed to be there), explains Darren Calhoun, who sings in the Many and also leads worship at Urban Village Church. Calhoun is a survivor of conversion therapy and says he’s proud to be at the forefront of transitions happening in the church.

"The music, lyrics, timing, context, lighting and all these things create experiences that churches sometimes shy away from," he says. "But it's something that we create, this very kind of theatrical, artful, intentional space. I think that helps people engage in a harder core kind of way than just 'Oh that was really pretty.'"

Kristina Sinks, a United Methodist clergy candidate and a seminary student, recently joined the Many. Sinks grew up in a church affirming queer identities and felt no conflict when she fell in love with a woman. "Through music, we continue to build this world that we say we believe in as Christian," she says. "I think the church can only ever be as good as the best theology that we have and the best vision we have for the world."

Q Worship Collective also brings more inclusive music into Christian spaces through the creation of community-based worship music that helps people heal from trauma.

"So many of us just wanted to jump right in to doing worship again, but then realized, 'Oh, that hurts. Why does that hurt so much?'" says Q Worship co-founder Jess Grace Garcia, a worship pastor and music director in Los Angeles. One of Q Worship Collective’s members, Stefie Dominguez, not only plays percussion, but is also a mental health clinician. While she doesn’t provide former care to the group, she helps deal with the emotions that come up in reclaiming faith traditions.

This work is personal for co-founder Gabriel Mudd, who went through conversion therapy as an adult so he could keep his position as a worship pastor. He left when he "got tired of hating myself" and found a new community (including meeting his Q Worship Collective co-founders) through the Q Christian Fellowship, which has provided a space for LGBTQ+ Christians and allies since 2001. Mudd, who serves as a vocal arranger, says that in contrast to the hierarchical nature of churches, Q Worship Collective embraces a more equitable model: "We wanted to provide that community for people who weren't just singers, and weren't just musicians, but everyone in the arts who have felt like they've been marginalized from the church community.

One example was Garcia and her co-pastor rewriting the lyrics of the well-known song "Mighty to Save." They changed it so much that they took out the title lyric and referred to Jesus as a "risen King" and "risen Queen." Garcia described it as a healing opportunity: "We sang it loud and proud. And it was this beautiful moment to break the ideas of gender around God and also relate it back to our queerness."

Anna Dawahare, Q Worship Collective social media manager, says there’s a clear market for this type of worship music, given the overwhelming response whenever the collective has a new release: "I feel like Q Worship Collective should be representative of the body of Christ, and the body of Christ isn't a white guy in a V-neck with a guitar. There are people like that, but the body of Christ is so much more diverse."

For the future of Q Worship Collective, Garcia imagines harnessing the power of local organizing to be a resource for churches around the world. She says that music is so powerful, particularly in a faith context, that it’s been used to manipulate people to feel shame for their identity; she instead wants to preserve it as a sacred tool.

"For me, this isn't about showing any sort of personal agenda of music, but it's about providing more opportunity for people to feel the feeling I did when I walked into Q Christian Fellowship for the first time," Garcia says. "I was surrounded by a ton of people who all looked and felt like me worshiping, and I realized that this was heaven."

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Tove Lo (L) and SG Lewis (R) pose in front of a set of red doors
Tove Lo (L) and SG Lewis (R)

Photo: Nikola Lamburov

interview

Tove Lo & SG Lewis Crafted Sweaty New EP 'HEAT' In Celebration Of Their Queer Fans

"Every time I make anything that I'm excited about, I know that when I pass that to Tove, she's going to deliver something incredible back that I haven't even been able to imagine yet," SG Lewis says.

GRAMMYs/Jun 20, 2024 - 01:05 pm

HEAT, the new collaborative EP from GRAMMY-nominated singer/songwriter Tove Lo and dance pop producer SG Lewis is 15-and-a-half minutes of pure dance floor ecstasy. 

Across the EP's four tracks, which dropped June 14 on Tove Lo’s Pretty Swede Records, Lewis brings in classic, euphoric '90s rave sounds and infectious rhythms. Tove Lo adds her signature sexy lyrics and vocals, with an extra dose of confidence and sass.

"We both really wanted this EP to be a thank you to the queer fans that we share and for the videos and the creative to be an opportunity to amplify those queer voices and to celebrate that community," Lewis says. "I feel very lucky to get to soundtrack moments in these spaces and to also get to learn so much from this community."

The duo gave their fans a first taste of their collaborative magic in 2022 with "Call On Me," a pulsing, urgent hook up tune so good they both included it on their last albums, Tove Lo's Dirt Femme and Lewis' AudioLust & HigherLove. They also teamed up on "Pineapple Slice," a sweet and naughty cut from Tove Lo's Dirt Femme.

Since then, their fans — particularly their loyal queer fans have been begging for more bops from the pair. Tove Lo, who is bisexual and often brings queer themes into her lyrics and music videos, has been crowned a gay pop icon, and Lewis' joyful, upbeat dance tunes have brought him many fans from the LGBTQIA+ community. They made the HEAT especially for their supportive queer fans, dropping it during Pride month with steamy gay clubs in mind.

Amid teasing their fans with snippets of "HEAT" and memes on social media, Nelly Furtado also dropped a sultry new single in May, "Love Bites," featuring none other than Lewis and Lo.

The fun and ease Tove Lo and Lewis feel working together oozes from each of their collaborations. Since they first got together in the studio, the "Busy Girl" artists have become fast friends. Their love for sweaty dance floors, '90s electronic music, and danceable pop bops creates a rich, shimmery sonic landscape for their music.

GRAMMY.com caught up with the two artists on Zoom from their Los Angeles' homes, for a lively, laughter-filled chat about crafting gay club friendly dance pop bangers, their magic in the studio together, and what having the support of the queer community means to them.

What do you hope fans get when they finally hear Heat and where are you imagining it being played?

Tove Lo: I hope that all our fans get completely floored and that they play it at the pre-party, in the club, and at the after-party — in all the spaces where they want to be free and sweaty and have fun.

SG Lewis: From what I've heard so far from people who've listened to it, people can feel the fun that me and Tove were having in the studio making it. I hope that it serves as a soundtrack for hedonism, celebration, freedom, and some really sweaty moments.

I was wondering about the specific sonic references and inspirations that you brought to the EP. I definitely heard some squelchy acid house on "Heat" and on "Desire" I got some Cascada and early trance, '90s Ibiza vibes.

SG Lewis: I have been reading this book by Sheryl Garratt called "Adventures in Wonderland," which tells the story of the birth of acid house and how it was brought back to the U.K. from Ibiza and exploded into this huge moment in the '90s and grows into trance.  As a result, I was just digging through a lot of the records from then.

Also, Tove and I were DJing a lot at parties and with our friends and stuff. A lot of those records that I was playing, Tove was as well; we were arriving at the same point through different avenues. There was a shared interest in those sounds and that nostalgia, so we really wanted to channel a lot of those two genres in this project. It happened very naturally through the music that we were playing and DJing together. We hardly even ever had a conscious conversation about how it would sound.

Tove Lo: When it comes to writing the melody and lyrics, from my end, there's never a conscious, "Oh, I want to make a vocal like this." I just kind of [go with] what is speaking to me in this track and whatever comes up. I don't know where it's coming from, but it's probably coming from us DJing at 4 a.m. and it reminds me of that moment, it's unlocking this thing. [Chuckles.]

Lyrically, I wanted it to feel confident and sexy. I step over the line a few times in certain songs, which is the way I love to write. You really encourage that free space. I don't think you've ever said, "Ah, it's too far. You even said [imitates British accent], "Can it be hornier?" [Everyone laughs.]

I feel like we are very aligned with what we wanted it to be. I don't want to say there's not a deeper message, it's more just us loving music, loving to make music together, and our joint fans kind of telling us that we need to make more music together. So, we are responding to this request. [Both giggle.]

How would you describe the magic of when you two get in the studio together? Because obviously, there's something there that's special.

Tove Lo: It's weird, but it's kind of like when you meet someone that you just really click with. As people, we get along really well and like to hang out, and we have a similar sense of humor, so it is a fun time. But just because you're good friends, you don't necessarily make good stuff together. It's hard to explain it, but it's a feeling of being totally at ease with someone, but still wanting to do your absolute best. That's how I feel when I work with Sam. I want to really impress him, but I feel very comfortable doing the journey together.

SG Lewis: It's a really rare sensation in the studio. This is a terrible analogy, but it's like playing a game of tennis with someone and every time they return the ball, they send it dead down the center in the right position. Every time I make anything that I'm excited about, whether it's a chord sequence or a drum pattern or something, I know that when I pass that to Tove, she's going to deliver something incredible back that I haven't even been able to imagine yet. That's where the energy comes from for me, it's this kind of back-and-forth of excitement in the process. And it's just honestly so much fun making music together. I can't say that I've had such a natural studio chemistry with many people before.

What do you admire most about the other's artistry, music and approach to music-making?

Tove Lo: With Sam, I'm always very impressed with how — I think I've said this to you probably 100 times — you can make it feel like there's the energy of something new, but it still has nostalgia in it. I don't know if it's the samples you're using or you're just inspired by certain tracks, but it gives me a feeling of, "Oh, I remember this, but I haven't heard it before," which is what everyone is trying to do, but it's really hard to. And you just live and breathe music. It goes into performing and DJing too, where you'll DJ for seven hours. You just love music and you know the history. It really gives me a lot of inspiration.

SG Lewis: I'm very flattered. Tove is an expert song crafter and creator of pop music, but to me, she has something that no other writer of pop music has. She is able to speak about things with a freedom of expression in her songs. She'll say things that other artists wouldn't dare to say, out of the rules of society. I think it's why she is such a queer icon and her music is so embraced in the queer community, because she harnesses this freedom of expression in her writing that is so raw. It gives her pop music an edge that no other artist on the planet has for me.

Tove Lo: Sam, that's so nice. Can I get this recording [to listen to] when I'm having a bad day?

Can you speak to your love of crafting gay club friendly dance pop bangers, and how you harnessed that specific energy — like you said, the sweaty, free, hedonistic club space — on HEAT?

Tove Lo: Sam and I share a lot of fans in the queer community, and they basically demanded that we make more music together. So we're like, "Well, this is going to be for you then." So this is a celebration of our queer fans, and also a thank you for the support that we've both had from the community. And I'm obviously part of the community myself, being a queer woman, but Sam, you're like a guest in the community. 

Also, you have to remember, the queer community will choose you. It's not something you can barge your way into. If your music resonates, you're in and the support is always there. My most loyal fans are part of that community. And there's a similar love for that kind of music that you can let go and be yourself; it's a safe space to just really live out your true self in whatever way that may be.

SG Lewis: As Tove mentioned, I've been so fortunate to be a guest in these spaces and to receive so much love from the queer community. I'm a nerd about music, and I study the history and who's making what, and I love that about the queer fans that I have; they're reading the notes on who produced what records and who wrote this and the collaborations. There's a level of obsession with pop music that we both share.

What does having the support of the queer community mean to you as artists?

Tove Lo: For me, it feels like there's a mutual love and respect. When I do my own tours, a huge part of my crowd is queer and I feel like I can fully be myself and really feel free and comfortable in my own skin and body and to express myself the way I want. I feel like they always have my back and I always have their backs. Also, all the cool s*** starts in the queer community. They're paving the way for a lot of artists and creators. They're the ones discovering everything first.

SG Lewis: Speaking to queer friends of mine and artists that I work with, anyone in that space has had to fight to express who they are, and there's an element of bravery in even being who they are and the expression of themselves. As a result, the thing that I feel so lucky to get to witness is that freedom of expression in the queer community that is so, so powerful. That's why these spaces and these parties have such an incredible, amazing energy; everyone in that space has acquired this ability to express themselves in a way that you don't see elsewhere. To have the support of that community on a musical level is a massive privilege — to have music that is celebrated in those spaces where that extreme expression and joy and euphoria is happening is really a dream.

I want to know the story of how you two met, because in one of the press releases, I think it said it was on the dance floor.

Tove Lo: Yeah, it was, but Sam was at my house before we met. I think I was out of town, but my boyfriend and my roommates had a party or something. And Sam's like, "Where am I? Why is there a bunch of Tove Lo art on the walls?"

SG Lewis: I was at a Phoebe Bridgers concert and I was standing next to this tall, lovely Kiwi man named Charlie. We were just shooting the s*** and I was like, "This guy's the best dude ever." I ended up at their place for an after-party. I was like, "Why is there so much Tove Lo memorabilia on the wall?" He was like, "I think you're working with my wife next week."

Tove Lo: That says a lot about me, having a bunch of my own sh-t on the walls. [Laughs.]

During the pandemic, I put up every concert photo I have of all the crowds, because I didn't think anything was going to come back. So, my walls are full of shots of me from behind me with a huge crowd. Maybe this is a little narcissistic. I might need to take it down.

SG Lewis: But it's also lots of photos of your friends. It's a celebration of your life, not a shrine to yourself.

Tove Lo: I can't remember the full order, if we then just met in the studio, but we have spent a lot of time on the dance floor together.

SG Lewis: We've had some crazy times, and I have a feeling this EP is going to lead to plenty more.

Talk to me about your CLUB HEAT [parties], because I know you've had one or two and there's more coming.

Tove Lo: We did one in London when we also did the video shoot, which was a crazy day, so much fun.

SG Lewis: Our second one is on Thursday night in L.A.

Tove Lo: The first one was so fun. It was just exactly what I hoped for: completely packed, sweaty, us [DJing] back-to-back, and me not being able to help myself and getting on the mic and singing way too often, because I love the stage. It feels exactly how the EP feels — sweaty, fun, club. I'm trying to think of the perfect word, but it's just all those words. 

SG Lewis: The format of the CLUB HEAT parties is a back-to-back DJ set with a performance element from Tove. I think it gives this really amazing, unique, chaotic party energy. Those moments where she performs really elevates the energy in the room. It's honestly utter chaos in the best way possible. There was literally sweat coming off the ceiling in the London one.

Are you planning on doing more?

Tove Lo: They're gonna be [announced] last minute. There's not going to be planning far out, but we're going to be doing more. 

SG Lewis: I think there's a kind of pop-up element to them. As the nature of the party being chaotic, I think the planning of them is also quite chaotic. I think that it'd be criminal not to do this in New York, which feels like the epicenter of chaotic, sweaty parties.

What was it like working with [producer and DJ] Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs [TEED] on the EP, who did some of the co-production? How did he help bring it all together or bring out different things in the music?

SG Lewis: Orlando [Higginbottom, aka TEED] is not only one of my closest friends, he's very much a mentor of mine. He's taught me so much about production. He is one of my favorite artists and producers, and as much as he gets very sheepish when I tell him that, we're constantly playing each other's music.

While the EP came together from Tove and I in the room together, he was the outside voice who was able to take those songs from 90 to 100 percent, whether it's a synth line on "Heat" or "Busy Girl" was both of us producing together. That was a beat that we started outside of the room that I then played to Tove, and she absolutely killed it on.

I have to ask about the new song with Nelly Furtado, "Love Bites." How did that come together? What was it like working with her and having the three of you in the studio together?

SG Lewis: I was put in contact with Nelly because there was word that she was working on new music. Before I know it, I'm texting with Nelly Furtado, and I was like, "What's going on? This is insane." It was immediately apparent that she was extremely friendly and cool.

Tove Lo: She's way too chill. I'm like, you can be so much more of a diva.

SG Lewis: She was like, "Oh, send me some beats." As a producer, you hear this all the time. You send 10 beats and you never hear anything ever again. I sent this pack of beats. I go to bed and I wake up the next day, and she's written a full song on one of the beats and sends me the vocals.

Fast-forward six months, we'd worked on a couple of things, but none of them had really hit the bullseye yet. I reworked one of the things we were working on, reproduced the beat, and ended up with this idea I was really excited about, but it didn't have a chorus. I was going to ask Nelly if I could send it to Tove. Before I had the opportunity to discuss this with Nelly, I sent the idea without the chorus. And Nelly was like, oh, "Could you send this to Tove Lo to potentially write a chorus on it?"

Tove Lo: I dropped my phone, it's still cracked from it. I was like, "Are you kidding?" And [I thought the] beat was so sick. And her voice and the "ey ey," it's just like Nelly! Sam and I went in the studio and wrote the chorus together and sent it to her. And she's like, "I love this. Can we please get in the studio and finish it together?" We had a late session at 7 p.m. I think she's a night owl. I [was excited to] find someone who wants to work night hours with me. The three of us worked all night; recorded it, tweaked it, finished stuff. She's so lovely. She's got such a distinct voice. I was a little bit star-struck when she got on the mic.

SG Lewis: Her voice is so distinctive and iconic. She has the superstar tone where you know it's her immediately. It's really surreal as a producer to get to work with vocals like that from two iconic pop stars on one song.

How long was the period of time from when she asked you to send beats to y'all getting in the studio together?

SG Lewis: It was about six to nine months total. Everyone's sort of all over the world, so it was really cool for it to all come together in this moment, in the studio, in-person, together.

I love that Nelly's embracing a different sound and really daring to try different stuff, because it'd be so easy for her to try and replicate her past successes. But she's just too badass for that.

How Rising Dance Star Dom Dolla Remixed The Gorillaz & Brought Nelly Furtado Back To The Dance Floor

Queer country feature hero
(L-R) Orville Peck, Allison Russell, Lily Rose, Adeem the Artist, Jaime Wyatt

Photos (L-R): Jeff Hahne/Getty Images, Erika Goldring/Getty Images, Erika Goldring/Getty Images, Jason Kempin/Getty Images for Americana Music Association, Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Stagecoach

feature

How Queer Country Artists Are Creating Space For Inclusive Stories In The Genre

As country music continues its global explosion, the genre is seeing a growing number of artists in the LGBTQIA+ community — including Adeem the Artist, Lily Rose and Jaime Wyatt — blaze a trail toward acceptance.

GRAMMYs/Jun 18, 2024 - 04:36 pm

When country singer/songwriter Jaime Wyatt announced she was queer with the release of her second album, 2020's Neon Cross, she was convinced doing so would destroy her career. Instead, something shifted — not only was she more free to be herself and to date women openly, but many fans reacted positively, too.

"Several times on the road I've had fans come up to me with their same sex partner, and they're like, 'Hey, we feel safe here. It's so awesome because we both love country music, and we're not out of the closet, and we're not out to our families, but we can be here,'" Wyatt says.

Modern country music is generally perceived as a conservative genre, and deep-rooted cultural and industry biases have long excluded LGBTQIA+ (and BIPOC) artists and stories from the genre. For example, in 2010, when successful mainstream country artist Chely Wright came out, her career stalled and record sales halved. Kacey Musgraves was criticized for lyrics supporting same-sex love in her beloved anthem, "Follow Your Arrow." More recently, even, Wyatt walked out of a recording session after the owner of the space asked if she was singing "'some gay s—.'"

But Wyatt is also one of a growing number of country artists who, in recent years, have blazed a trail through country music and toward acceptance. Among them, Adeem the Artist, Mya Byrne, Brandi Carlile, Brandy Clark, Mary Gauthier, Lizzy No, Orville Peck, Lily Rose, and Allison Russell. Together, they're celebrating queerness alongside their love for the genre, and pushing it into diversity with patience, tenacity, and darn good country music.

"If you listen to popular music, or if you listen to hip-hop music, it feels like there's a broader diversity to a lot of subcultures as far as what you're able to access," nonbinary country singer/songwriter Adeem the Artist says. "Whereas with country music, it's very linear, it's very myopic, and singular in its expression."

By way of broadening country's storytelling, Adeem plays a honky-tonk blend of classic and '90s country music that's sonically aligned with the deep musical traditions in Tennessee, where they now live. Lyrically, though, their propensity for gorgeous, frankly worded songs complicate stereotypical southern narratives in rare and provocative ways. On White Trash Revelry, their 2022 studio album, they grapple with racism, economic entrapment, gun violence, and family heritage. And their latest, Anniversary, released in May, includes songs about mental health, the poignance of parenthood, and the pain and fear of being a queer person in a world that threatens their existence.

Indeed, some of the places in the U.S. with the strongest ties to country music remain the least hospitable to queer people. Just last year, Tennessee, home of Nashville, the country music capital of the world, passed a total of 10 bills aimed at LGBTQIA+ people, while Texas, perhaps country music's second-best known state, passed 20 percent of all anti-LGBTQIA+ legislation in the U.S. What's more, LGBTQIA+ people and culture have been targeted by numerous attacks around the world — including the Pulse nightclub and Club Q shootings stateside — in the last few years alone.

For many, the consequences of not coming out, of not sharing their full selves with the world, are risky, too. Growing up, Wyatt had no role model to show her it was okay to be queer. She struggled for years with mental health and substance abuse and was convicted of robbing her heroin dealer as a young adult. "I needed to see someone who looked like me when I was a young child," Wyatt says. "And maybe I wouldn't have been a dope fiend in jail."

But while straight white men comprise most of country music's standard slate of forebearers, women and people in the BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ communities have contributed to the genre since its beginning. Notably, it was Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a queer Black woman, who in the 1950s introduced reverb to gospel and rhythm and blues music — and in doing so, she forever changed guitar playing, and inspired some of country music's biggest trailblazers, from Elvis to Johnny Cash.

In 1973 — four years after the Stonewall uprising kickstarted a widespread gay liberation movement — Patrick Haggerty and his band Lavender Country released what is generally considered the first gay country album. But after it sold out its first pressing of 1000 copies, the album was mostly forgotten until 1999, when the Journal of Country Music published an article hailing Haggerty as "the lost pioneer of out gay country music." Haggerty began performing again and in 2014, indie label Paradise of Bachelors reissued the Lavender Country album, securing Haggerty status as a grandfather figure to queer country.

Haggerty's reissue landed in a different world than the album's original run. In the interim, a handful of artists released more queer country music, including Jeff Miller, aka "John Deere Diva," known for his George Strait parody, "Not Really Strait," as well as Doug Stevens and the Outband's When Love Is Right and Sid Spencer's Out-N-About Again, which put lyrically gay songs to country music.

In 2011, shortly before the Lavender Country reissue, queer country singer/songwriter and music scholar Karen Pittleman convened the first Gay Ole Opry in Brooklyn's now defunct Public Assembly performance space, launching more than a decade of queer country events, tours and a far-reaching network of performers and supporters. And in 2015, gay marriage became legal nationwide.

As progress has accelerated culturally in the near decade since, it has in country music, too. In 2018, Paisley Fields' debut album Glitter and Sawdust merged cowboy grit with queer raunch. In 2019, Lil Nas X's "Old Town Road" provoked country music to re-consider the nature and identity of country music. In 2021, T.J. Osborne of the Brothers Osborne became the first openly gay male artist signed to a major record label; a year later, the duo's song "Younger Me" — which was written in response to T.J.'s coming out — became the first country song with an LGBTQIA+ theme to win a GRAMMY. And this Pride Month, longtime LGBTQIA+ supporter (and GLAAD's 2023 Excellence in Media Award recipient) Maren Morris declared on Instagram, "happy to be the B in LGBTQ+."

Read More: 9 Times Queer Artists Made History At The GRAMMYs: From Elton John's Collab With BSB To Kim & Sam's "Unholy" Union

"We as queer fans deserve to have songs that speaks specifically to us," says Rachel Cholst, a queer writer and educator. "And if that means putting in same gender pronouns, then we deserve that too. And if that makes a straight person uncomfortable, I don't know what to tell you. I've grown up my entire life having to internally change the pronouns to the love songs that really moved me."

Cholst started writing about music when she realized she couldn't be the only queer country fan out there. Her work aims to make queer country music accessible, and she has run the Adobe and Teardrops blog for more than a decade. In 2022, Cholst launched Rainbow Rodeo, a zine about queer country music, which appears bi-annually in print and regularly online.

"Everyone just assumed that country music is this one thing, and it never occurred to them to go look for it. That tells you a lot about how country music wants to present itself as an industry," Cholst says. "If we erase anyone who's not straight, anyone who's not white, then what you're saying is, you want those people to be erased from the conversation, from the culture."

Beyond using she/her pronouns in love songs (which she didn't get to do on her first album, Felony Blues), Wyatt's powerful, steely queer country music complicates social consciousness. Incisive and elegant in her delivery, she's equally compelling chronicling her conviction and jail time on Felony Blues, confronting demons and figuring out who she is on her Shooter Jennings-produced second album, Neon Cross, and outlining her hopes and frustrations for the world on her third album, 2023's sultry, groovy, Feel Good.

Wyatt's knack for catchy and advocacy-laced country bangers is clearest in "Rattlesnake Girl," one of her most popular songs. In it, she offers an anthemic celebration of joy unfettered: "I see my sweet friends out on the weekend/ They all look happy and gay," and a barbed warning to anyone who might impinge on that happiness: "Thank you kindly, don't walk behind me/ I've seen people slip that way/ And if you try me, boot heels beside me/ I might have to make your day."

Queer country music means something a little different to each artist. For many, it's about much more than simply being a queer person performing country music. Adeem the Artist considers queer country its own genre, complete with specific rules — many of which have nothing to do with sexual or gender orientation.

"It is explicitly political in nature. It is often kind of raunchy," they assert. "There's an element to queer country that is confrontational, that is willing to create discomfort for the sake of a relief that leans towards some greater social awareness."

To some degree, raising awareness and representation — which is essential for inclusion and acceptance — requires a bit of self-tokenization, Adeem says. "The very, very basic act of referring to me as a person who is queer, who is trans, who is nonbinary, who is whatever, those labels only do good as much as they illuminate the differences between us and the fact that I am more difficult for some people to relate with."

Adeem and Wyatt both operate within the alt-country scene, which has been marginally more inclusive than mainstream country over the years. Recently, though, rising country musician Lily Rose cracked through with her viral breakup single, 2020's "Villain." On her latest EP, Runnin' Outta Time (which she released in May), she sings a high-octane pop/country mix about her values and relationships. It's a well-worn country music landscape that has been almost exclusively dominated by heterosexual white men.

"To be one of the first to literally [and] figuratively, carry the flag... it makes me really proud. And it has its heavy moments for sure," Rose says. "Night after night, when I get to meet fans and see comments on social media that they feel seen for the first time in the genre, it's really special and it makes every single second of hard work to get here worth it."

The day after Runnin' Out of Time dropped, Rose made her Grand Ole Opry debut with two songs from the album, "Back Pew" and "Two Flowers"; Adeem and Wyatt also played the Opry for the first time in the last year as well. The Opry, one of country music's oldest and most lauded tastemakers, has welcomed a number of queer artists in the last few years, signaling a subtle shift toward a more inclusive country music institution. (In addition, all three artists recently scored high-profile touring spots: Rose with Shania Twain and Sam Hunt, Adeem with Tyler Childers and Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit; and Wyatt wrapped up her first headlining tour.)

For Pittleman, an essential part of making music is ensuring space for anyone who wants to make music to do so, regardless of how they look or identify. "Most people who like country music, they just want to hear country music," Pittleman says. "I want to have a good time, too. But you have to ask at a certain point, 'Who is invited to the good time?'"

As she insists, there's a long way to go. In a digital world, radio play doesn't offer a complete picture, but it remains a dominant force in country music. For decades, women have been played sparingly on country radio and artists of color and queer musicians featured far less, a shortcoming which SongData's principal investigator, Jada Watson, spent years studying. Her research concludes that women country artists are played roughly 29 percent of the time, Black artists 5 percent, and other artists of color 7 percent. Queer artists, Watson estimates, make up less than 1 percent of radio play.

"The real problem is who's making those decisions; who has the power and as a result, who has the power and the resources to record their music, to distribute their music, to get it out on a broader scale," Pittleman suggests. "We have to make sure that everyone who's called to make the music has the resources and the power to make it and bring it into the world."

And in spite of multitude setbacks and naysayers, queer artists are creating country music. As Pittleman wrote in a 2020 essay in the Journal of Popular Music Studies titled "You're My Country Music," one of the joys of singing queer country music is making country music, plain and simple. "The point is to mark the deepest moments of human connection, our truest hopes and heartbreaks, and turn them into a sound that gives us joy and strength," she says.

"Because sometimes you love a culture that doesn't love you back," Pittleman continues on the Gay Ole Opry's about page. "We do it because we love the music and want to build a community to support queer country musicians. We do it because everybody needs a honky-tonk angel to hold them tight. We do it because we believe in country music for all."

Why 2024 Is The Year Women In Country Music Will Finally Have Their Moment

PRIDE & Black Music Month: Celebrating LGBTQIA+ & Black Voices

Sam Smith performing in 2014
Sam Smith performs at Q102's Jingle Ball in Philadelphia in 2014.

Photo: Taylor Hill/WireImage

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How Sam Smith's 'In The Lonely Hour' Became An LGBTQIA+ Trailblazer

As Sam Smith’s massive debut album turns 10, revisit some of the ways it broke ground for the LGBTQIA+ community — from supporting same-sex marriage to making GRAMMY history.

GRAMMYs/Jun 17, 2024 - 04:11 pm

Before launching their own solo career, Sam Smith had already teased their pop prowess by guesting on two bonafide dance classics, Disclosure's deep house anthem "Latch" in 2012 and Naughty Boy's two-step garage throwback "La La La" in 2013. And upon debuting their own work in 2014 with In The Lonely Hour, Smith instantly cemented themselves as the master of the heartbreak ballad — and one of pop's new pioneers.

Self-described as the "diary from a lonely 21-year-old," the record was inspired by the love Smith felt toward an unnamed man which, it seems fair to say, wasn't exactly reciprocated. "I don't have that many sad things going on in my life and it was the only thing that was really affecting me last year," they explained to Digital Spy ahead of In The Lonely Hour's release. "So, it's my way of defining what is love, and how unrequited love is just as painful, just as powerful, as what we call 'normal' love." And audiences both in their homeland and across the pond immediately latched on to its overarching theme.

Largely produced by hitmaking extraordinaire Jimmy Napes (Clean Bandit, Mary J. Blige), In The Lonely Hour reached No. 1 in the UK and No. 2 on the Billboard 200, spawned five hit singles, and, in an era when the album format was commercially struggling, sold a remarkable 8.5 million copies across the globe. And alongside the chart success, the sold-out tours, and the four GRAMMY wins on the same night, the blockbuster LP also became a force for good, and a force for change, within the LGBTQIA+ community.

A decade on from its stateside release (June 17), we take a look at why In The Lonely Hour was such a landmark album for the music industry as a whole, but especially for a new queer generation.

It Made GRAMMY History

Smith famously put their foot in their mouth while picking up Best Original Song at the 2016 Academy Awards for Bond theme "Writing's On the Wall," wrongly declaring — much to Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black's disdain — that they were the first ever openly gay Oscar winner. However, the Brit can lay claim to being an LGBTQIA+ trailblazer at the GRAMMYs.

The year before his acceptance speech faux pas, Smith became the first member of the LGBTQIA+ community to win Best New Artist. The singer also won Best Pop Vocal Album for In the Lonely Hour, while "Stay With Me" was crowned both Record and Song Of The Year. (Eight years later, Smith then made history again as the first ever non-binary GRAMMY winner when their Kim Petras collaboration "Unholy" scooped Best Pop Duo/Group Performance in 2023.)

It Used Gender Neutral Pronouns

The use of pronouns has played a big part in Smith's career. And though they officially announced their they/them change in 2019, the singer refused to commit to a particular gender on their debut album. While In The Lonely Hour was based on their infatuation with an uninterested man, the Brit purposely left things ambiguous, as they explained to Fader at the time of its release.

"[It's] important to me that my music reaches everybody. I've made [it] so that it could be about anything and everybody — whether it's a guy, a female or a goat — and everybody can relate to that." This inclusive approach has also been adapted by several other artists, including singer/songwriter Bruno Major, whonoted how Smith's material "can be listened to by anybody of any sexuality and gender and still apply."

It Advocated For Same-Sex Marriage

While Smith kept all pronouns neutral on record, they were far more specific when it came to In The Lonely Hour's visuals. In the tearjerking video for "Lay Me Down," a flashback shows the Brit getting hitched to their boyfriend in the same church where the latter is later laid to rest. Although gay marriage had been made legal in the UK a year prior to the video's 2015 release, it was still illegal for same-sex couples to wed within the Church of England.

In a Facebook message posted to coincide with its premiere, Smith said, "This video shows my dreams that one day gay men and women and transgendered men and women all over the world, like all our straight families and friends, will be able to get married under any roof, in any city, in any town, in any village, in any country." Smith later performed the album's biggest hit, "Stay With Me," in front of President Joe Biden at the 2022 signing of the Respect for Marriage Act.

It Ventured Into Cishet Territory

Before Smith came along, the modern heartbreak ballad — the kind of emotionally devastating anthem that can reduce an entire stadium crowd to a blubbering wreck — had typically been the domain of heterosexual/cis-identifying artists such as Adele and Ed Sheeran.

However, thanks to radio-friendly chart hits such as "Lay Me Down," "Stay With Me," and "I'm Not The Only One," In The Lonely Hour proved mainstream audiences, no matter their sexual orientation or gender, could be equally moved by candid tales of queer love. Smith's lyrical themes may have been specific to their own situation, but they could just as easily be interpreted on a universal level. Soon after, LGBTQIA+ singers such as "Britain's Got Talent" graduate Calum Scott and Eurovision Song Contest winner Duncan Laurence were mining a similar tragi-romantic path to hugely commercial effect.

It Channeled A Feminine Energy

The tactile way Smith addressed their unrequited love — not to mention, how much it was embraced by the mainstream — meant that In The Lonely Hour wasn't considered an explicitly LGBTQIA+ album at the time. Yet, the singer insists they were deliberately trying to challenge notions of gender, sexuality and masculinity.

Speaking to Out five years after the album's release, Smith revealed it was, in fact, partly influenced by one of the all-time gay icons. "I'm in a suit and in that suit, I was channeling Judy Garland. I look back on those videos of me when I was 20, and I see a feminine energy." They further explained they were surprised when the record wasn't initially interpreted as intended. But thanks to Smith's non-binary journey, the album's inherent queerness has unarguably now become more apparent.

It Opened The Door For Several LGBTQIA+ Artists

Smith confirmed they were gay in the same week In The Lonely Hour hit the shelves, acknowledging the record was "about a guy that I fell in love with last year, and he didn't love me back." And the matter-of-fact way they spoke about their sexuality inspired several other artists to follow suit.

In 2017, Troye Sivan cited Smith as a role model for coming out without making any grand gestures. Years and Years frontman Olly Alexander has also applauded his fellow Brit for refusing to hide their true identity. Even some of Smith's collaborators, including Petras and Cat Burns, have touted the singer's self-assurance.

Indeed, while artists in less enlightened times often felt compelled to keep their sexuality under wraps, Smith has been able to express their true self from the outset. As a result, a generation of artists have seen that queerness needn't be a barrier to commercial success — and that celebrating it can change culture in a powerful way.

Listen To GRAMMY.com's 2024 Pride Month Playlist Of Rising LGBTQIA+ Artists

PRIDE & Black Music Month: Celebrating LGBTQIA+ & Black Voices

Troye Sivan performs in concert during Primavera Sound Festival on May 31, 2024 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Xavi Torrent/Redferns)
Troye Sivan performs during Primavera Sound Festival on May 31, 2024

Photo: Xavi Torrent/Redferns

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9 Outstanding Sets From Barcelona’s Primavera Sound Festival 2024: SZA, Amaarae, Charli XCX & More

Barcelona’s illustrious city festival celebrated 20 years of big music moments at Parc del Fòrum. From Vampire Weekend to Troye Sivan, read on for nine unforgettable sets from Primavera Sound 2024.

GRAMMYs/Jun 5, 2024 - 06:04 pm

Primavera Sound is known for its heavy-hitting lineup and even bigger surprise guests. The Spanish festival celebrated 20 years in 2024, and transformed Barcelona's Parc del Fòrum into a masterclass of genre diversity and LGBTQIA+ inclusivity. There, under mostly sun-soaked skies, a wide range of international and native acts lit up multiple stages from May 29 - June 2.

Primavera Barcelona always promises an eclectic mix of performances that showcase native Spanish talent as well as major international headliners to get the party going. However, it’s not just the massive talent that pulls in the crowd. While the mainstages were graced by American superstars  Lana Del Rey,  SZA and Troye Sivan, the festival’s line-up was elevated by the vibrant non-stop DJ stylings of rising Brazilian star Clementaum and the divinity of Arca — who was rightfully labeled "madre!" by a buzzed up Boiler Room x Cupra activation. 

Primavera Sound’s diverse lineup guaranteed a highlight for every kind of festival goer: from the dad rocker to the 20-something throwing themselves head-first into new music. The festival amped up the energy and was keen to ensure a safe space for all music lovers (including regularly signposting a pro-LGBTQIA+ "Nobody Is Normal" campaign). If you weren't in Barcelona to experience the magic happening at Parc del Fòrum, read on for nine highlights from Primavera Sound BCN.

Arca Delivers A Divine Boiler Room Performance

Drawing on heavy doses of electronica, pop and techno, Venezuelan producer and DJ Arca’s unpinnable sound is exactly what made her sets unmissable. Arca set Primavera alight with two incredible sets: an early morning rave on the Amazon Music Stage on May 31, and a second, more intimate event inside Boiler Room x Cupra’s industrial set up on June 1.

The musician's Boiler Room set brought the club to Barcelona, weathering attendees through a humid thunderstorm with sweaty, fusion beats and remixes (Beyoncé, Lady Gaga and Zedd) that made her experimental anthems even more exceptional. 

Read more: 8 Essential Latin Electronic Releases: Songs And Albums From Bizarrap, Arca & More

Vampire Weekend Ignite Indie Nostalgia On Their Primavera Return

We all love a bit of Spanish sunshine, but nobody seemed quite as home on-stage as Vampire Weekend. Having last played at the festival in 2008, the 16-year wait was well worth it with a set list doused with indie rock nostalgia and new bangers that kept the late-night crowd grooving.

It’s not easy to keep a mainstage crowd going on opening night (especially as the band faced some line-up changes for the festival) but Vampire Weekend's catalog-spanning performance rocked. They ran though hits "A-Punk, "Campus" "Oxford Comma," and new tracks ("Classical", "Gen-X Cops", "Connect")  from their new fifth album, Only God Was Above Us – a record which frontman Ezra Koeing described as "feeling perfect" on stage. 

No Vampire Weekend set is complete with some curveball covers. This year, to match the beat of their long-overdue festival return, the band kept things fresh with an incredible cover of Sbtrkt’s "New Drop, New York" performed against a smokey, dark red stage backdrop. Whether performing their own catalog, making surprise appearance alongside French rock band Phoenix  or dropping electric covers, Vampire Weekend prove they’re music more than hitmakers — they’re also a summer festival bucket list act too. 

Troye Sivan Kept His Headliner Set Hot

Troye Sivan kicked off his mainstage set on Friday night dripping with innuendo. Replete with sexy outfit changes (including a pair of crotchless pants), effortlessly cool choreography and a very well-positioned mic in his pelvic region, the two-time GRAMMY nominee showed Barcelona that he not only has stadium-worthy tunes but is a stadium-worthy performer. Performing a medley of hits from his third studio album Something To Give You, Sivan's infectious pop tracks were perfectly timed to sexy and immaculately polished dance choreography (featuring his reliable backup dancer troupe of Simone Nolasco, Mauro van de Kerkhof, Benjamin Williams, Ainsley Hall Ricketts and Theo Maddix) against a campily creative set. 

The singer yearned alongside Spanish musician guitarricadelafuente on a silver silk bed as they duetted "In My Room," and belted out Ariana Grande’s "supernatural" in front of a mesmerizing anime video backdrop. Whether it was intimately crooning to synth-pop summer banger "Honey" or throwback hit "1999," Sivan was undoubtedly a mainstage highlight. As he wrapped up his set, the singer shouted out Barcelona's art and culture as an inspiration for Something To Give You. The Primavera performance was one of the biggest shows of his life, and closed this set with his anthem queer hit "RUSH."


Read more:
Meet The First-Time GRAMMY Nominee: Troye Sivan On "Rush," The Importance Of Dance-Pop & The Spirituality Of Partying

Yeule Opens Primavera With An Electric Set

Kitted out with tattoos, American flag-styled cargo trousers, a heather gray bikini top and chunky boots,  yeule is exactly as you see them: an uncategorizable phenomenon. While their set clashed with major alt-metal and indie acts Deftones and Pulp, yeule’s distorted, glitchy universe was more than immersive; it was an electronic, energetic undertaking that swept the audience away. Away from the main stages, yeule’s set felt like a charged techo-pop portal to their world of emotional, alt-rock tunes.

Shaped by everything from nu-metal, Avril Lavigne and My Chemical Romance, yeule sounds neither human nor computerized. Often conceptualized as being something of a "cyborg identity," yeule's music translates with a darkly alluring style onstage. They opened with the melodic "Electric" from their second studio album Glitch Princess, while the rest of the setlist beautifully emulated their recent album Softscares; an emotional futuristic electro-pop record. The musician’s punk rock inflected "cybermeat," "sulky baby" and "dazies" were highlights, pulling the crowd closer to the stage as well as new listeners in from nearby smaller stages. 

Performing against a flickering urban city backdrop illuminated the midnight sky, yeule's set created the perfect isolated, small-stage universe to hear their deafening screamo notes during "Bite My Neck" and the hauntingly mellow electro-rock closeout track "software update."

Clementaum Brings The Brazilian Party Spirit To The Boiler Room

The Boiler Room x Cupra stage was the place to be this year. While the Parc del Fòrum never fails to pull together an eclectic mix of talent, Primavera Sound truly thrived in showing its ability to channel the club, ballroom and EDM into a live festival setting. There was never a set that didn’t bring the festival goers in glam outfits and the ultimate dance party vibes. However, the raging techno beats of Clementaum that most caught our attention.

Playing to a packed room with festival-goers tightly crammed in even behind her decks, Clementaum led a chant ("Vai Brazil!") as her country’s flag was proudly waved in the crowd.  Feeling more like a late-night rave, the Brazilian DJ had us thriving on deep beat drops and pummeling beats that you couldn’t help but dance to. Artfully skilled, Clementaum fuses Afro-Latin rhythms, ballroom culture and amped-up electronica for an incredible, heart-racing high.

The trance beat-packed El NICK DGO x Clementaum banger "Dale Pal Party" had everybody dancing, while a full-throttle remix of "Puttuna" pushed things into another level. However, her live rendition of "Pirigótika" (a track with Brazilian singer Bibi Babydoll) was her hallmark performance, and proved that if you haven’t heard of Clementaum, be sure this won’t be the last time you come across her name. 

Amaarae’s Captivating Set Can't Be Boxed In By Genre 

There’s nothing Amaarae can’t do. Taking over the Amazon Music stage on May 30, the Ghanaian American Afrobeats musician can take on anything from punk to R&B. In Barcelona, Amaarae’s chameleonic talent showcases that no style (or genre) is too much for her to turn into a captivating set.

Amaarae proved that whatever mood she brings to stage, she devours, from effortlessly performing slow burner "Wasted Eyes" to silkily switching to "Disguise," a song of desire and domination, and segueing to alternative anthem "Sex, Violence, Suicide." 

Learn more: Meet The Latest Wave Of Rising Afrobeats Stars: AMAARAE, BNXN, Oladapo & More

Charli XCX Proves Her Pop Legacy For Primavera’s Final Night

Nobody throws a party like the ultimate "it" girl Charli XCX. From ranging pop bangers ("I Love It" to "Party 4 U"), the British pop star kept crowds dancing until 4 a.m. — and for good reason. While fans weren’t frightened away by heavy rain and thunderstorms during the festival’s final night, Charli XCX and her fans made Primavera’s final night one to remember. 

And, if you were lucky, you might’ve caught the star pull off an incredible surprise DJ set alongside co-collaborator A.G Cook, and finance The 1975 band member George Daniel. While the early announced pop-up set for her upcoming sixth studio album Brat fell just outside of the festival on Sunday, the sweaty beach-side crowd was packed with fans flocking from Primavera Sound to make sure they got their early hit of Charli XCX ahead of her mainstage set later that night. 

Ethel Cain Gets Political (And Personal)

Following the breakthrough of her sophomore album Preacher’s Daughter, Ethel Cain has been on an unstoppable rise. A goth-pop mix of Lana Del Ray and heartland-style emo rock, the Tallahassee-born musician is crafting her own Americana aesthetic shaped by desire, death and South Baptist Christian influences.

While playing a late afternoon set, the singer stepped out under the blazing sun delivering incredible vocals to fan favorites "Crush’’ and "House of Nebraska." The singer’s set highlights were elevated by two things: a new song and a political call-out that broke the divide between the festival crowd and on-stage artist. Dressed in a ‘Free Palestine’ t-shirt and with a keffiyeh hanging from her mic, the musician denounced genocide and advocated for the people of Gaze before launching into her viral anti-pop song, "American Teenager." 

Amidst her anti-war advocacy, the singer also slotted into a somber new song "Amber Waves," showcasing her penchant for eerie melodies and what fans can expect on her currently untitled upcoming project. 

Learn more: 15 LGBTQIA+ Artists Performing At 2024 Summer Festivals

SZA Brings Stardom, Swords & The Splits To 'SOS' Set

Whether it’s the instantly recognizable intro to "Good Days" or the viral rotations of "Kill Bill," SZA has long been dominating and driving contemporary pop and R&B. The GRAMMY winner highlighted her artistic versatility with deep cuts and chart hits (including those from her massively popular sophomore album SOS) to a packed mainstage crowd.

With a stage set designed to look like a ship, SZA was amplifying the message of SOS loud and clear – with hits, charismatic stage movements and impressive vocals to match. And, she didn’t stop there. From knife play routine to "Kill Bil" to full-throttle Miley Cryus-style and riding an anchor to dropping the splits mid-set, SZA gave a performance that continuously raised the bar. 

Read more: How 'SOS' Transformed SZA Into A Superstar & Solidified Her As The Vulnerability Queen

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