Aaron Dessner of The National Talks Curating and Playing Boston Calling
The National released Trouble Will Find Me just about a week before headlining the inaugural Boston Calling in May 2013, but the show at City Hall Plaza was more than just a kickoff for a tour in support of the band’s latest album. For songwriter and guitarist Aaron Dessner, it was a culmination of efforts for a personal project—helping his friends Brian Appel and Mike Snow curate the lineup for a major festival that he thought Boston oddly lacked, but deserved.
“It was electric,” he says, recalling the thousands of fans who swarmed City Hall Plaza that inaugural weekend, even despite heavy rain on the first day. “It was a great feeling to see how our idea and concept were being confirmed, and thinking, ‘This is a good idea, and Boston needs this and wants this.'”
For the past 18 months, Dessner has been on tour with The National, playing major music festivals both domestic and abroad, but he has continued to play an advisory role and help Appel and Snow book acts for Boston Calling—a process that has steadily gotten easier with each edition of the festival.
“Boston Calling has established itself, and now artists are asking us to play,” he says. “It does seem to put Boston on the map in terms of major music festivals. It’s a city all artists look forward to playing, and I think it’s just going to get more exciting putting together these lineups as we go because every time, we try to make it better in terms of the curation and the experience.”
At Boston Calling, we’ll definitely try to take risks because it’s a family affair. It’s not a normal festival for us—it’s this thing that we feel close to, so we’ll do our best to make it interesting.
When putting together a lineup, Dessner seeks out a diverse balance of acts—both internationally acclaimed and homegrown, both popular and lesser known, as well as representative of a wide range of genres and eras.
“One of the great things about music festivals is that you can expose people to things they haven’t heard before, even if those things are quite famous and already have a huge legacy,” he says. “You can juxtapose artists that everyone knows because they’re all over the radio with artists who are more underground or from a different era.”
But despite their different backgrounds, Dessner always seeks out artists who can inspire the audience.
“I’m interested specifically in artists who have a very real craftsmanship and a high level of musicality. It might be a massive pop artist like Lorde, but there’s something really aesthetically great about her. It’s not discardable, it’s not fabricated—it’s real. She’s a compelling performer,” he says. “The hope is to create a diverse festival that is both high quality and incredible, but also represents what’s happening in music right now.”
With The National’s current tour cycle winding down this fall, Dessner saw this month’s edition of the festival as a good opportunity to return to Boston before taking an extended break to reconnect with loved ones and begin the creative process for new material.
“We’ve never been a band that pressurizes the writing process or feels like we need to quickly follow up on the momentum that we have,” he says. “[Touring] is a joy, and we’re very thankful for it. We’ve been all over the world twice now. But it’s also important for us to disengage and find new inspiration and new ideas and develop what we’re doing.”
But before hunkering down, Dessner looks forward for the band to give it their all when they return to play Boston Calling Friday night.
“We’re very excited to play these last shows because I think this is the best we’ve ever played. We’ve been playing with a lot of chemistry between us, and we’ve really reached a point where we’re clicking,” he says. “At Boston Calling, we’ll definitely try to take risks because it’s a family affair. It’s not a normal festival for us—it’s this thing that we feel close to, so we’ll do our best to make it interesting.”
The National will headline Boston Calling on Friday, September 5, at 9:30 p.m., City Hall Plaza, bostoncalling.com.