We pull up to an open field a few miles southwest of downtown Eau Claire. There’s nothing immediately noteworthy about the place—just an empty lot overgrown with tall grass and golden rod. Without a GPS we surely would have passed it.
And yet it was here, on this plateau overlooking the Chippewa River Valley, that tens of thousands of people congregated last July. One by one, they debarked from an endless line of yellow school buses, all eager to take part in Justin Vernon and Aaron Dessner’s first ever Eaux Claires Music and Arts Festival.
At the southwestern corner of the field stands the weathered “Main Entrance” sign, the same one that last summer beckoned the crowds through and pointed them to a dirt path leading down the edge of the bluff.
Today, this corner is where we meet the man whom Vernon called the “most important person to this entire festival”—Eaux Claires creative director Michael Brown.
Brown has a wiry red beard, a brush of brown hair, and is sporting a faded blue and yellow flannel over a sturdy frame. He’s just returned from producing shows for Bon Iver at the Sydney Opera House in Australia. Each sip he takes from a metal Eaux Claires-branded coffee mug helps fend off the last dregs of jet lag.
The demands of the road are nothing new for Brown, who has toured extensively with Grizzly Bear, Wilco, The National, and Bon Iver. A self-described theater kid, Brown grew up in Nashville. As an adult, he moved to New York City and fell into the fashion world, landing a job designing window displays for Ralph Lauren stores around the world. A few years into that job, Brown rediscovered his love of music while lighting and staging concerts at big corporate events. At one of those concerts, he met the members of Grizzly Bear, who took Brown on tour and started him down his career path in music production.
At a 2010 Grizzly Bear show in London, Brown caught the attention of Justin Vernon, the frontman of Bon Iver, who was in attendance. Vernon was impressed with Brown’s work. “Justin came up to me and was like, ‘Man, the lights were amazing man. Someday we’re going to work together,’” Brown recalls. Thinking it was just one of those things people say, he didn’t put much stock into it. Five years later, Brown and Vernon now work non-stop together, including on the Eaux Claires Music and Arts Festival.
“Justin has always wanted to do something to truly give back to the community here—outside of just being an ambassador of Eau Claire,” Brown says. “He’s really wanted to organize something.” That longtime mission finally came to life for a weekend last July with Eaux Claires.
For some festivalgoers, it was the musical performances at Eaux Claires that surpassed all expectations. For others, it was the collaborative spirit of artists of all types coming together with a singular purpose that transcended the very concept of an outdoor music festival: it wasn’t just a collection of bands playing songs, it was a confluence of music and art.
That was exactly what Vernon, Dessner, and Brown envisioned when they gathered at Vernon’s house in 2014 to flesh out the idea for a new kind of festival. “I came out to a brain trust, think-tank situation where everybody was getting together at Justin’s house,” Brown remembers. “They started talking about what they wanted the festival to be, and it was clear that Justin and Aaron and the other producers didn’t just want to do another music festival. They wanted to do something that was striving to push more boundaries.”
The festival they envisioned would create a space for the audience and artists to interact with one another. Moreover, it would be a festival where artists of all mediums could try things they’d never had the means, ability, or time to do on their own. Instead of just seeing a band perform, it’d be a festival where “a community is developed and you are buying a ticket so you can partake in whatever happens here,” explains Brown.
— Eaux Claires (@EauxClairesWI) July 14, 2016
In order to achieve that goal, the festival had to feel like a place, not just a field with stages and merch booths. That sense of place came into focus with the festival’s name.
Sitting around a campfire at Vernon’s house, Brown suggested using the original spelling of Vernon’s hometown for the festival: Eaux Claires (French for “clear waters,” Brown explained). With its mix of history and legend, and its tie to the Eau Claire and Chippewa River confluence, the name held a familiar yet otherworldly appeal that immediately resonated with everyone.
From that point forward, Brown’s role as creative director took shape. “They call me the creative director of the festival, but it’s actually completely misnamed in that the true role of a creative director in a company is to organize the creatives and help them facilitate their goal,” says Brown. “But I kind of bridge the gap in that I’m also one of the creatives.”
In addition to managing projects—like Icelandic performance artist Ragnar Kjartansson’s visual and performance piece, “Forever Love,” and HOT TEA’s much-photographed installation made of thousands of colorful strands of yarn—Brown created many of the other installations at last year’s festival.
One of those projects was the three white, geodesic domes near the upper stage that housed a bank of television screens, an experimental audio project using headphones, and a hip hop confessional with rapper Astronautalus. Right before doors opened, Brown felt a wave of panic rush through him, fearing no one would engage with the domes. His fears were quickly put to rest as lines formed at the domes that lasted the entire weekend.
Another of Brown’s installations that proved attendees were keen on the interactive art concept of Eaux Claires was a collection of window light boxes set deep in the woods, off the main path to the upper field. Attendees trudged through thistles and brush to view the light boxes up close, taking the organizers’ invitation to explore the grounds more literally than they had intended. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh!’” Brown says. “I mean, it’s a beautiful accident, but it’s totally not what we meant.”
This August, Brown and the Eaux Claires team want to take the art to the next level and foster even more collaboration. “Specifically, how can we set it up so that the programming is intentionally that much more challenging and inherently that much more rewarding for the people that come in,” explains Brown.
One project they hope will answer the call is a collaboration between Italian sculpture artist Edoardo Tresoldi and U.K. organist James McVinnie. Tresoldi is constructing a massive baroque pipe organ sculpture, which McVinnie will use to fill the downtime between sets on the main stages by playing classical compositions.
This year will also feature a select few of the over 180 proposals submitted during the festival’s first open call for art. Eventually Brown hopes to source all of the festival’s installations from these proposals to get even more of the artist community involved.
The positive engagement organizers saw at the art installments also translated to the stages, where bands were greeted by audiences who were truly there for the music—a rarity at some outdoor festivals. Eaux Claires is encouraging musicians to experiment more with their sets this year, through dance or visual elements, to bring arts and music even closer together.
The sense of connection and community that attendees felt with the artists, the music, the woods and river, and other audience members during Eaux Claires was hard to describe. Festival narrator and bestselling author Michael Perry, however, found the words in his final address.
“It’s good to have music near a river,” Perry said. “There’s this idea of baptism, of absolution, no matter what you believe. Better yet, it’s good to have music near a place where two rivers come together—a confluence—for what are we but a confluence. A confluence that lives and breathes, a confluence of dream and song, a confluence of 22,000 beating hearts. And so here we are, cradled by a river in a sanctuary of sound, craving consecration, exaltation, on bended knee seeking benediction.”
Brown and the Eaux Claires team hopes to achieve that same creative confluence and sense of community this August, when they invite tens of thousands of people, musicians, and artists to return to the river.