This month saw Øya Festival celebrate its 20th anniversary. Not only is it Norway’s biggest festival, it has also become renowned as a true favourite hidden gem across Europe. Sure, it’s great that they can attract Glastonbury headliners like The Cure and Tame Impala to the intimate settings of Oslo’s green city centre Tøyenpark. But the success of this festival is about much more than big names.
Where other festivals follow, Øya seems to lead. Primavera Sound made headlines this year with a pioneering approach to having a 50/50 gender-split line-up, with other international events signing up for this to be the norm by 2022. This is the third year in a row that Øya has done the same thing – with no fanfare.
Then there’s the green aspect. Oslo itself aims to be an omission-free capital by 2021, and that spirit is in the DNA of Øya: single-use plastics are long-gone, all the food is organic, it’s been run on renewable energy for 10 years, and around 98% of the audience arrive by walking, cycling or on public transport.
It’s clean, it’s green, it’s chilled, it’s inclusive — and it all adds up to an infectious vibe. Day one sees James Blake play a cathartic electro-noir set on the main stage, and there’s far more joy than you might imagine given his music is often, mistakenly, associated with wallowing. “I missed a lot of my ‘20s,” he tells the crowd, adding that with his music he “hoped to encourage others to speak up for how they feel, and be open to their friends and family.”
He continues: “I think it’s the only way, especially to men out there who are kinda fucking things up right now. It starts with that.” Amen.
That same message is carried through IDLES’ set, whose anthems for openness, feminism, pro-immigration and anti-masculinity tear away at any boundaries. That attitude then manifests when the band all swap instruments, and invade the crowd for much longer than other artists would dare. We’re all in this together.
If you’ve seen The Cure as many times as we have this summer, you may start to wonder how one marathon set of indie-goth classics could possibly feel any different to another. While their Glastonbury appearance had its inherent sense of occasion, their headline at Øya 2019 somehow felt no less momentous and arguably more fun. As the summer wears on, it seems Robert Smith and co are getting far more free, loose and just plain daft.
From Smith having the whole crowd indulge him in a prolonged jazzy scat during ‘The Caterpillar’, to his tongue-in-cheek humour throughout the show (“I’m beginning to like this one,” during ‘Friday I’m In Love’), via the sheer abandon of his dad-dancing across the stage for ‘Why Can’t I Be You’ and the fraternity the band show as they giggle arm-in-arm during a closing ‘Boys Don’t Cry’, it’s humbling that a band with their legacy are enjoying themselves more than ever.
Another thing Øya does well is nurture headliners of the future from homegrown talent. We first saw Sigrid on a small stage at Øya in 2017, and has gone on to become the BBC’s Sound Of 2018 winner and an international poster girl for thoughtful new-gen pop. As one of the biggest crowds of the weekend lose their shit to her late afternoon set of classic bangers ‘Sucker Punch’, ‘Don’t Kill My Vibe’ and ‘Strangers’, you can’t help but wonder why she isn’t headlining.
Instead the honour is bestowed upon rap duo Karpe, whose slick and theatrical hip-hop and pyro-filled set pulls the job off with aplomb. No doubt Sigrid will top the bill here in the not-too-distant future, and once again the world will follow.
While we’re on the subject of native talent, let’s talk about Safario. Young, dumb and oh so much fun, his textured and technicoloured approach to hip-hop is a reminder of what Chance The Rapper could be doing if he was still up for partying. Watching the scores of kids lose their minds to ‘Robin Hood 300’, ‘IDK Much’ and the aptly-named ‘Go Crazy Go Stoopid’ (featuring Sløtface bassist Løkoy), we’re left itching to see this new rap rogue bring the party overseas.
Another Norwegian talent well on her way to doing the same is Girl In Red. She was arguably the most hyped new act at this summer’s Great Escape in the UK, and if her euphoric homecoming set at Øya is anything to go by then 2020 could well belong to her. With her lo-fi indie bangers about teenage depression and sexual freedom, she represents the spirit of acceptance and defiance that permeates the weekend, and is echoing throughout the music industry currently.
- Read more: Girl In Red is the lo-fi pop icon changing lives: “Music needs more queer representation”
“Whatever happens to other people happens to the rest of mankind,” she tells the massive crowd gathered at the Øya’s second biggest stage. However, her set is too much of a good time to be preachy. That’s the sweet contrast of what she does, captured perfectly by the stage invasion of friends and fans maniacally throwing inflatables during the closer of ‘A Dead Girl In The Pool’.
The most WTF stage antics of the weekend, though, came from fellow Nords Pom Poko, whose victory lap for critically-acclaimed debut ‘Birthday’ saw the Bella Union signees bring their warped, break-neck jazz-rock to life with the help of some all-singing, all-dancing, totally nightmarish giant Muppets. The most terrifying, who we have named Hamface, will haunt us always. But in Pom Pok’s fevered performance of album tracks and a few even more unhinged new numbers, they encapsulate the big question of the week at Øya 2019: Why not?
“Any time you’re feeling down, look at a tree,” Erykah Badu tells the crowd during her typically delayed but theatrically joyous set of feel-good soul. “It has all the energy it needs. It knows that it’s a tree and that’s a good example of how to live”.
Sure. Why not?
It’s a sentiment echoed by Christine & The Queens. “This is a safe space,” she says from the main stage. “You can change your name, you can change your mind. There will be no judgement; only love. Only love and sweat”. We feel plenty of both as she blasts through her tour-de-force of slick but muscular disco.
It’s the perfect build-up to the headliner, Robyn. From the hazy swoon of ‘Send To Robin Immediately’ and the aching bop of ‘Honey’, her set gradually unfolds from an art-pop installation into an all-out rave with ‘Love Is Free’, ‘Don’t Fucking Tell Me What To Do’, ‘Call Your Girlfriend’ and ultimate song of the decade, ‘Dancing On My Own’.
As the crowd sway with their reusable cups and phones, creating a very modern but beautiful canopy of light, this festival highlight leaves us certain that these events need not be entirely reliant on dudes with guitars.
This is what all festivals could be like.