In the 19 years since Coachella began on a polo field in the arid desert of Indio, CA, it has evolved from a rock-centric festival with a soft spot for dance music into the tricked-out official start of festival season. More than any competitor, Coachella has emerged as the defining music event of festival season. It started off being programmed for a generation who prized music snobbery and nostalgia, fueling the reunion of bands like the Pixies, New Order, and Blur and featured headline acts like Radiohead, Björk, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, with the buzziest up-and-comers in indie rock filling out the bottom of the bill. Over the years, the art installations have grown more grandiose, the festival package options have been diversified to include experiences far beyond a spot in a VIP lounge, the food offerings more gourmet, the brand activations more prolific, and the parties surrounding Coachella destinations themselves. One could skip the bands entirely and fill their day on the Coachella grounds with endless games of dodgeball, ferris wheel rides, Record Store Day shopping in the on-site retail hub, the silent dance party, yoga, vintage shopping, and getting their hair touched up.
And yet music remains at its core: Coachella sets the bar for every festival, whether it's reuniting heritage acts for a single performance or putting Queen Bey on the stage or giving the world the first performance of unexpected new music dropped by The Weeknd. Despite its pedigree as a trendsetter and tastemaker in music, it has fallen short in one area: the serious lack of women on its lineup for most of its history. There was a sharp uptick in representation in 2014, and Coachella is very near to equality with the 2018 lineup. Organizers are turning to Beyoncé this year to help right that wrong — she will be the third woman ever to headline the fest. She’s joined at near-top billing by SZA, St. Vincent, and HAIM.
Refinery29 spoke to several female artists who have played the festival, from top to bottom of the bill, and from the debut year of Coachella. We asked them to revisit their first year playing Coachella to tell us what it was like, how it has changed, and what they think Coachella's responsibility to gender equality should be. Here, Emily Haines, frontwoman of Canadian indie rock band Metric; DJ Sandra Collins, one of the only women to play the fest’s inaugural year; and Allison Robertson, guitarist for the Donnas, among others, all paint a vivid picture of the festival from its humble origins to the current brand explosion and celeb-palooza (with many a Lindsay Lohan appearance) we see on Instagram today.
What It Was Like Back Then
Emily Haines of Metric — played 2006, 2008, and 2013: "My first time playing at Coachella is an incredibly vivid memory. We were in the Mojave tent. It was packed, and every single piece of gear we had broke. It was so hot that everyone — and all the instruments — were melting. It was one of the most pivotal shows of our career because we just refused to stop. It all was music, and we refuse to be defeated by it. The audience was so with us; to this day, I think that was the first that I felt that connection and what was possible in terms of the beautiful connection that can happen between the audience and the band."
Allison Robertson of The Donnas — played 2003: "At the time it was new-ish, and something I had never been to. When we heard the name Coachella, we were like, What’s that? We knew Lollapalooza, because it was what we went to when we were young. When they asked us to play we said yeah, because that was iconic to us. Now, that’s how it is for Coachella. We didn’t have a lot to compare it to. It was this wide, flat desert space. There was some grass but it was very bland. They didn’t have all these spas and places you could retire to, like the party houses now. We stayed near there, but we just drove in and there was nothing. There wasn’t an awesome carnival vibe and there wasn’t a lot to look at.”
Princess Superstar — played 2002: "I was really excited when I got there to see that we all got our own trailers. It wasn't like any festival I'd ever been to before; the musicians were all together. We weren't separated from the headliners either, Björk and the Chemical Brothers weren't off on their own somewhere."
Allison Robertson: “I went back in 2005 to see Sloan, and they had a trailer that was a little neighborhood with other bands. You’d see people go by fully made up or in their costumes on the way to stage. It promotes a cool feeling that other bands could stop by. Other festivals have big hangout areas, but that was the first time I’d seen the village setup.”
Jem — played 2005: “My artist caravan had a white picket fence in front of it, and at one point later at night there was a big hang in and around it with a load of amazing people, including The Prodigy. I remember telling Keith [Flint, singer] they’d performed at the first festival I went to in the U.K.”
At the time it was new-ish, and something I had never been to. When we heard the name Coachella, we were like, what’s that?
Allison Robertson of the Donnas on the band's 2003 debut at Coachella
Sandra Collins — played 1999, 2002, 2008: "I played the very first one in 1999 — Absolut Vodka named a drink after me due to my performing at the inaugural Coachella. Compared to many shows back in 1999 and even 2002, Coachella and the care they put into taking care of artists is a breath of fresh air. They have a personalized gift made for you, usually an art piece. I once got a painting where they superimposed my face onto this woman holding a little dog. It was quite funny, a keeper for sure.”
Emily Haines: "Festivals are trying to create these experiences, and it’s not the mud and date rape that the American and Canadian festival scene used to be like at Woodstock '99. When that happened, it was so upsetting and it informed our opinion that Coachella was people with a different idea of what was a good time. We felt so welcomed. But when it started, things were a little scary for artists and concert-goers."
Princess Superstar: "I saw Björk in 2002, and it was amazing. I didn't realize she was one of the only women who have headlined the festival."
Emily Haines: "Obviously, recently there has been a massive shift in consciousness about the way we perceive women’s value and what we’ll accept as women. I realized, because of the time that we came up, I never saw an option other than putting blinders on and carving out my own reality. I felt like the best thing I could do was insist that I had no idea what anyone was talking about and forge ahead. In times like these, where we’re looking at the numbers, we’re sharing the spreadsheet, and talking about this stuff, Amy Milan of Stars said the best thing: Just because we had to do it that way, it doesn’t mean the next generation of girls need to have that experience. I respect the next wave and women who aren’t afraid to take a look at the landscape and say what they see. I took a different approach, but I’d like to think I contributed to the confidence they now have to ask why a promoter is afraid that a female performer can’t unify a crowd. It’s a new time for audiences. Music is different. Women are different. The idea that women can only play for women is something I found so hurtful and negating that I had to completely ignore it."
What It’s Like Now
Meg Myers — played 2016: "I had been told so much about Coachella: hot weather, beautiful lawns, a lot of hipsters backstage, a lot of great bands. It was pretty close to what I was told. It was really hot, and the site was really nice. I did bump into a lot of hipsters."
The Black Madonna — played 2016: "One of the things they wanted to do was take a proper portrait of everyone who played, it’s something they’ve done for many years. I looked over and there was a giant picture of Amy Winehouse. It was so touching for me, to know she’d sat there at some point in almost the same spot for her portrait."
Lissie — played 2012: "I was playing the first year they made Coachella two weekends. As an artist, to be able to say that you play Coachella is just a pretty awesome thing. I played it at like noon on a Sunday and, for me, it was about the honor of getting to do it and be listed on the bill among so many incredible artists, rather than how well attended the show was. If I’m being honest, at noon on a Sunday when it’s a 109 degrees outside, people aren't really trying to get up and shake off their hangovers quite yet.”
Kate Nash — played 2008 and 2014: "I was happy that to have a successful show there in 2014 because it was a really big deal that I'd been able to do that independently. Once I understood what kind of festival Coachella was — I've been there quite a lot now as an attendee because I've been living in L.A., like I've gone sometimes just to like see bands. It's the kind of festival that if you go for the first time, you don't know what it is. After that, you can go and just fucking enjoy it."
One of the things they wanted to do was take a proper portrait of everyone who played, it’s something they’ve done for many years. I looked over and there was a giant picture of Amy Winehouse.
The Black Madonna on her first Coachella experience
Theresa Wayman — played 2011, 2014, and 2017: “Lady Gaga [ed: the second woman to headline Coachella in 2017] was amazing. She's a stunning performer and her stage show is excellent. I don't listen to her music, but I went to see her headline Coachella. I've seen Major Lazer, The Cure, and lots of bands on that stage. I couldn't tell a difference in the vibe because she was a woman, because each headliner brings a different kind of crowd.”
Sara Watkins of I’m With Her, formerly of Nickel Creek — played 2007: "I think it does a festival disservice to not reflect a broad demographic onstage and off. Coachella has a huge, broad demographic in the audience. I can’t imagine Coachella wouldn’t want to reflect that onstage as well."
Georgia Nott of Broods — played 2017: “ I think [gender parity] should be a part of the world’s mission. The artists that play should represent the times, and I do think Coachella keeps that in mind. Its reputation requires it to be relevant.”
The Black Madonna: "One place we can really do the work is on the bottom and middle of the lineups, developing people. That’s what Coachella did with me. Their support has been a piece, as I grow, of my ability to headline larger shows. But that starts early. You have to find acts who are developing, and I think they have smartly done that. From a purely financial point of view, it's good to develop people who are of value to you in the long-term. Right now there’s a lot of room to emphasize that in marginalized communities."
A “Celebrity Spotting” Festival
Emily Haines: "It has gained so much clout. It felt like a SoCal thing, the first time I attended before I played at Coachella. It was a festival where you’d drive out to the desert if you lived in L.A. Maybe then people were flying in from everywhere, but it feels as if its progressed. Now it’s two weekends, and it sells out before the lineup is even announced."
Lissie: “I played the year they had the Tupac hologram, so I got to see Dr. Dre and Eminem and Wiz Khalifa. A girlfriend that I grew up with came out to join me, so that we could run around and take advance the fact that we were like kind of VIP. We had a trailer in the backstage, and you get access to certain garden areas. We were next to Dr. Dre’s backup dancers.”
Sara Watkins: "So much of Hollywood goes to Coachella that it is almost felt like there was an area just for celebrities — you know, the models and actors who want to hang out in a cool space, but need their own private space to not be bothered. I think maybe the Olsen twins were there?"
Kate Nash: "Being backstage, it was a weird festival. Coming from England, at festivals everyone is really dirty and look like they've been up all weekend already by the time they get there, and that's normal. But at Coachella, I saw Lindsay Lohan in the backstage and everyone looked really nice. I was like, Oh god. [laughs]"
Lissie: "I did see Lindsay Lohan, but I didn't talk to her [laughs]. And I saw Jared Leto, who will forever be such a massive babe because of My So-Called Life."
Lily Allen — played 2007: "I was playing in the Mojave tent. Just on the side of the stage before I went on, there was Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan, one of whom, and I can't remember which, gave me a joint, which I smoked. I'd never had California-grade weed before. Not even joking, I forgot every single word to every single song. I don't think they could have known that it would have that effect on me, but it was so horrendous — you can imagine. Ever since, I've had to have a screen that has all my lyrics on it, because otherwise I get catapulted back to that moment. I kind of just nervously giggled my whole way through."
Allison Robertson: "We did an record signing in the middle of one of the big fields and Elijah Wood was in the line. I remember meeting Kelly Osbourne backstage and at that time her reality show was on, and she was just becoming big. You saw a few people, but the real celebrities at the time were the musicians. It was a bigger deal walking by the Red Hot Chili Peppers and meeting them. We saw Tommy Lee and maybe someone from Metallica. There was a lot of rock royalty in attendance who weren’t necessarily on the bill."
Theresa Wayman: "I once saw Lauryn Hill there, and that was a huge deal for me. She's my idol. It's interesting when you see people like Lauryn or Björk in the VIP area, because it's like they go from being heroes to real people."
Just on the side of the stage before I went on, there was Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan, one of whom, and I can't remember which, gave me a joint, which I smoked. Not even joking, I forgot every single word to every single song.
Lily Allen on her most vivid Coachella memory
Georgia Nott: “Coachella is one of those ‘celebrity spotting’ festivals. I didn’t see many. I wasn’t looking. I did meet Mark Foster of Foster the People, however, who I am a huge fan of. He came to our set, which was pretty great.”
The Black Madonna: "My biggest starstruck moment happened when we got our credentials: Courtney Love was there. She looked really good. I stan, big time, and I flipped out and had to work to contain myself."
Allison Robertson: "Now it feels like every huge pop star, every fashion designer, every major actor and their daughter are at Coachella. Now it feels like if you don’t attend, you’re not a person...I wouldn't go to Coachella without a VIP pass, and not because I wanted to be mingling with famous people! I remember going when I wasn’t playing and realizing there’s nowhere to go if you don’t have a VIP pass or access to someone’s backstage area. There was no shade, the water cost $10, and they wouldn’t let you bring your own.”
The Perils Of Playing In The Desert
Allison Robertson: "Any time a picture of us from Coachella comes up throughout our career, I would say please don’t show me because I was really red. I’m naturally someone who gets red when I exercise, and I get hot easily on stage. Having the stage lights plus that heat? And yeah, your guitar goes out of tune immediately. You might play well, but you might not sound like you can play at all. That’s always a concern as a female artist, you don’t want to come across as näive or not prepared. You have to do all this extra stuff to keep your guitar in tune like stretch your strings and leave it outside in the climate so it gets acclimated. Then you hope and pray it stays in tune, but it doesn’t so it doesn’t matter. [laughs]"
Jem: "Standing under the stage in the shade right before going on, I realized it was 107 degrees! Plus I was in a bikini top covered in Nars oil. Amazingly, I didn’t burn. No idea how that happened."
Lissie: "I’m a very loud, intense singer. I have to muster a lot of my core and have to have an inner springiness about me to get to where I can embody the notes that I'm hitting. When you're really hot and you're feeling sluggish, it can for sure affect your performance. You're not going to have quite as much energy to perform. But, there is this amazing thing when the adrenaline kicks in, you find yourself doing things that you didn't think were possible."
Kate Nash: "My first time was in 2008 and I remember just being fucking so hot. [laughs] I'm trying but I can't massively remember the actual gig. I think that was like a bit of a shit show with the gear, and the monitors. Everything can be really bad there because of the wind."
The Black Madonna: "When it was time to go to the show, no one had prepared me for the dust. I didn’t know the dust was a thing. I was wearing this beautiful white outfit, I get out there and the dust kicked in — it had been really dry. I quickly found my beautiful white outfit to be more of an off-white. [laughs] They handled it well, the staff were hosing things down, I was just a big baby who wasn’t prepared for it."
Georgia Nott: "Gotta make sure that Coachella outfit you’ve been planning for six months is functional as well as fashionable."
Sara Watkins: "One of the most beautiful moments at Coachella is when is the sun goes behind the mountain and the temperature drops five or 10 degrees immediately. Little rabbits come out and coyotes come out, and humans there feel refreshed immediately. They get a second wave of energy when that relief from the heat hits. You get a sense that a lot of people come out of their tents and campers only when the sun goes down."
Theresa Wayman: “We played in the tents the last two times we were at Coachella, and it's more of that feeling that makes me think of this festival — it's dark all the time. To me that's what Coachella is, being there and watching bands at night when its still hot. Our first time was on an outdoor stage in the middle of the day, and it wasn't quite the same.”
Princess Superstar: "I didn't have any problems like that [with the weather]. I just remember it being amazing."
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