You’ll always experience firsts in life. When you’re young you hit milestones like “trying alcohol for the first time” or “going to your first concert” and when you get older you graduate to more mundane events like “cooking with a sous vide” or “renting a car.” The level of excitement changes, but new experiences never stop. I can attest to this after recently attending a music festival in Iceland five months pregnant.
Last month Sónar Reykjavik organizers flew me out to check out their small, two-day electronic-focused music festival that takes place at the city’s Harpa concert hall, a glittering structure that sits right on the waterfront and looks like it was made of glass fish scales. Founded in 1994, the original iteration of Sónar happens each year in Barcelona, but in recent years, the festival has been franchised out to other cities including Buenos Aires, Istanbul, Hong Kong, and Bogota . Sónar Reykjavik started in 2015, and is far more intimate with several thousand attendees compared to Barcelona’s peak of 124,000 in 2017. The lineup featured mostly local Icelandic bands and a couple of up and comers like Jlin, serpentwithfeet, and Moor Mother, and a number of under-the-radar artists like Sykur, TroyBoi, and Null and Void. The lineup read like a showcase of what young people in Scandinavia are into at the moment, and taking place within the confines of a single venue, it was intimate. Intimate isn’t always ideal for concerts, but it appeals to me right now. Wild and vast and unfolding across a massive field where you have to walk 15 minutes to get to each stage does not.
Being pregnant at a music festival is not exactly a scenario I ever imagined myself in, but if I think about it, it’s not really an illogical one. I’m a music editor. I got married last year. I am 30. I also enjoy festivals, I started going to them when I was 18, and as I get older, there are certain hobbies that will grow with me. I guess that’s why some people take up golf. Pregnancy can prevent you from doing a lot of things. You’re not supposed to eat sushi and you probably shouldn’t ride a horse. You probably shouldn’t take up ju jitsu and you definitely shouldn’t inhale paint fumes. Go to a music festival? No problem. But reader, take note, ingesting MDMA or mushrooms or even alcohol or any of the usual things that make music festivals more fun are not exactly doctor recommended. So I went to Sónar stone cold sober, hoping for the best.
My husband, Danny, and I arrived in Iceland on a Friday morning, and just to get the party started right, immediately went to sleep for six hours. The festival would run til three in the morning, and I was a hell of a lot more conscious of my need for rest. Harpa is a large, multi-level structure, and the shows unfolded across four stages within it. (I got to control the lights of the building at one points, and I would be lying if I didn’t think that was the coolest shit ever, which is probably a sign that I’m going to be a good mom, because that is the kind of thing you do with a kid). The crowd was small and tame, which makes sense given what I now know about Reykjavik; it’s a small, skyscraper-less city with a population of just over 120,000. It’s a great place to eat and relax in some of the area’s many thermal pools. It is not exactly a huge party destination, but it is a wonderful place for Instagram influencers and people who like looking at glaciers. The crowd at Sónar featured some of those characters, as well as lots of European kids in mod, designer eyewear and what seemed like locals just looking for something to do that weekend. There just wasn’t one big act that was the huge draw that would entice you to buy a whole flight to Iceland. I sort of wondered if the festival had spent too much money last year bringing in Fatboy Slim, Sleigh Bells, and De La Soul, so this year they were left with GusGus and Danny Brown (no disrespect to Danny Brown who I love. But more on him later).
The first night of the festival, we went in flying blind, prepared to take in music from several local Icelandic acts that we’d never heard of except for a little Spotify sleuthing. We started with Blissful, a pop act who I assume was trying to do a Robyn thing. We wandered around the venue trying to see as many sets as we could, and really just embrace the fact that most of this music was completely new to us, so midway through Blissful, we went next door to catch a set from Vok, a three- piece synth pop group that formed in a few years ago for the purpose of entering ‘Músíktilraunir,’ Iceland’s annual music competition, which they won. They were interesting, though I found myself trying to figure out what their American counterpart would be. They sounded a little bit like St. Lucia. But it was also hard to follow. Some of their songs are in English but the language barrier presents a challenge. I had the same thought shortly after when we watched GusGus, a house music group that seems to be somewhat of an Icelandic legend, with 10 albums over a more than 20 year career.
Night one felt almost like a hyper-local music festival, but that’s not a bad thing. It was a glimpse into a region’s musical culture, and you can’t get that unless you see it firsthand. I mean, if you want to know what’s hot in Iceland, the best thing for you to do would be go to there in person and and check out a bunch of shows in small venues. This was like a crash course version of that. It felt right that there just a bunch of regular-ass people there, as opposed to an audience of exclusively crazy electronic fans. There were a lot of dudes in jean jackets and people who probably saw that Sónar was happening in a local blog or something. I didn’t notice a lot of Americans there, and it made the whole thing seem normal, not like a big tourist draw. And there’s more to that. While we were watching Jlin’s set we stood right next to a woman in a victorian mask that looked like it was made from coffee filters. She looked like Bjork. I thought surely it would be a little too on-the-nose to go to Iceland and literally see Bjork just hanging out. But it turns out, the woman who looked like Bjork actually was Bjork, which felt right. That’s her home! It gave the festival a certain gravitas to know that she was there. It’s also something I’m going to tell my kid so many times they get sick of the story. “Did I ever tell you about the time when I was pregnant with you and I was at this concert and I realized I was standing next to Bjork?!” That is some unforgettable shit!
That was a cool moment, but the night was tiring. Lots of standing and running up and down stairs between sets wore me out more quickly than it would under usual circumstances. I also have to pee every 10 minutes. Pregnancy is nothing if not totally glamorous, and early in the evening I was worried I would expire before midnight. It sort of sucks to admit that these days I just can’t do everything like I want to, and I need to do things like sit down, take breaks, and drink tons of water. It’s a far cry from the days where I’d sleep for three hours and get up the next day to catch a full day of music. I’m used to being mindful of taking care of myself at festivals, and I’m used to the physicality of spending several days on your feet, but this is a whole different version of that. But I had a good time—a different, more sober kind of good time but a good time nonetheless, and I powered through, just walking around and people watching and noticing three pairs of feet in one bathroom stall and people snorting substances as they stand next to you in a crowd (you notice a lot when you are in the sober minority).
I definitely got some looks (many of which were sort of like this GIF), especially once we got to Lindstrom’s set and I could finally dance, bump and all. The surprised reactions I got made me confront what my own previous perception was of pregnant people at festivals and shows. It was probably judgemental! I remember seeing a woman large with child several years at Coachella and wondering what the hell she was doing there. Why go? Why put yourself through that? Now I realize there were probably people wondering the same about me. It’s funny when the tables turn on you. Isn’t that basically what getting old is? Changing your perceptions, challenging tired notions, doing things you said you’d never do, and trying, oh yeah, to cement your status as a future “cool mom.”
Toward the end of the night we caught Danny Brown’s set, and it actually happened to be his birthday, his 37th. He’s someone I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, after seeing this photo of him, just looking like a normal dude on a visit to Chicago’s Goose Island Brewery. I realize I don’t know much about what’s really going on in his life but I telegraph some of my own feelings onto it regardless. He strikes me as someone who has only gotten happier and more comfortable with himself as he’s gotten older. He’s touring on music that is in no way new, but he looks like he’s having a hell of a time doing it. His energy level hasn’t changed; he runs comically across the stage while he spits the chorus to “Smokin and Drinkin,” just having a ball, hamming it up for the crowd. He doesn’t seem to be bogged down by any external factors. I appreciate that. I want to be like that. It’s certainly part of why I was the only person wearing maternity jeans to a rap set.
We slept in the second day in preparation for what I knew would be another late night. This time I was a bit more prepared, knowing that I got a little worn down early on the night before. It also helped that there were far more people in attendance on Saturday night, making the energy much more frenetic. And good energy feeds off good energy. We walked into Sykur’s set not knowing what to expect. It was another band we weren’t familiar with, but the air felt electric compared to the chill vibe of the previous evening. For some reason, the energy was such that it didn’t really matter that we didn’t know what the artist were saying. I also discovered JóiPé x KRÓLI, a pair of Icelandic teen rappers who were my favorites of the whole weekend. I haven’t been able to glean much information from them because they spoke almost exclusively in Icelandic, but their set had incredible energy with kids moshing and singing along to everything. (Check out the song “Oh Shit.”)
Seeing as it was Saturday night, people also seemed to be a hell of a lot more fucked up. British rapper Nadia Rose was like a light beam of energy, and she seemed like she was just happy to be there after missing her set last year due to a canceled flight. She was clearly a crowd favorite. Underworld’s set was the main event of the evening, and that really felt like the main event. It was packed, with lots of representation from the old raver set, and with the audience flowing out into the outer hallways. There was also a demographic present that I would describe as “someone’s mom,” but I say that realizing that I am about to fit into that demographic, so I’m not really sure where I stand.
Sónar was a good time. But it was also a time I spent doing a lot of reflecting. You have a lot of mental space when you’re sober listening to live music. I have to admit I had some ulterior motives in going to the festival five months pregnant, and no, it wasn’t just writing the greatest stunt blog of all time. Getting married, settling down, and holy shit, having a baby is a huge change. There is a part of me that wants to rebel against that stability and keep doing the things I’ve always done, whether it’s eating soft cheese (also not recommended) or going to a goddamn music festival. I may not be able to do everything like I want to these days, but damnit I’ll sure try. Yes, I admit. Sónar wasn’t the same as my past experiences. It wasn’t a rager and I didn’t see any bucket list-level acts. But in some ways it was the mark of a new era in my life. I wonder if my baby will believe I did stuff like this.
Leslie Horn is Noisey's Managing Editor. Follow her on Twitter.