A transfer from Manhattan's Penn Station to Newark's Penn Station. A two-hour car ride with strangers to the remote Wharton State Forest of South New Jersey. A turn down a dirt road right off the highway. A spray painted sign declaring 'Mad Liberation 2019,' complete with hand-drawn smiley faces and stars. You'd miss it completely if you weren't paying attention.
This logic is what follows two New Yorkers, PAPER's Justin Moran and me, as we decided to attend the third annual Mad Liberation Music and Arts Festival. We read up about the forest, New Jersey's largest, and heeded Mad Lib organizers' warning of high tick population in the area. (The last thing we wanted was to be couriers of Lyme disease, so we doused ourselves in Off! Deep Woods spray every half hour.)
We knew we'd be camping and though both of us have moderate experience doing something similar in our Midwestern stomping grounds, we wanted a more fun connection point for this particular journey. So, we decided to act out the roles of Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie circa The Simple Life, when they literally lived on an Arkansas farm and did everything from administering pregnancy tests to cows to complaining about bugs and making out with local men — all while wearing designer heels and Swarovski-embroidered, face-eating sunglasses.
Over the course of the weekend, Justin and I would alternate between Paris, who on the show frequently switched from her self-created dumb blonde archetype to her deep-voiced provocateur, and Nicole, a savvy, foul-mouthed instigator of down-home hijinks. Remember in season one, for example, when Nicole's purse went missing at a local bar and she went apeshit? She howled like a banshee ("where's my fucking pppaaaaaooouuurse!?!?!") and poured bleach on a pool table as Paris, her cackling sidekick, feebly tried to stop her. What if our time in the forest was boring? Would we need to recreate dramatic moments like these on our own? Had to spice things up somehow.
Nothing — looking at video clips online from previous Mad Lib years and reading about essential camping gear — could prepare us for what we ended up experiencing.
We had two tents set up right outside the Mad Lib cabin "headquarters," already complete with air mattresses, pillows and sheets. Which was great because neither of us knew how to pitch tents. Down the road was a makeshift artist lounge in a wooden building with some random seating of old restaurant booths and a fridge stocked with canned beer and bottled water. There were also two "private," single-occupancy restrooms. Everyone else who wasn't media or artists were required to use the public restrooms, which also had showers. I bought wipes and deodorant for the weekend in case the bathing situation was truly untenable. (It was.) However, we were told the lounge was an upgrade from previous years, which probably saw artists and campers alike using the same facilities.
Mad Liberation Music and Arts Festival (Photo courtesy of Gregory Gramm)
The top level of the artist lounge faced the back of the main stage, which overlooked some kind of body of water, sand, and scattered picnic tables. During any given performance, there would be anywhere from two to twenty people swaying and watching attentively — a stark difference from the rabid crowds rushing the stage at, say, Coachella or Lollapalooza. Others hovered nearby, lighting up joints and snacking on empanadas from an on-site Puerto Rican food truck.
While settling in, we were approached by a woman nicknamed "Mama D" who was helping supervise festival happenings on-site. She was kind and caring, and thought Kim Kardashian was setting a bad example for young women. A retired partygirl herself, Mama D said she's now fulfilled building things and being a mom. Several times she said that we can find her with a "wrench in one hand, and a baby in the other." This maternal Mrs.-Fix-It instinct naturally transferred to the way she oversaw festival happenings.
Justin and I were hoping for swimming opportunities in the Paradise Lake Campground, so brought bathing suits just in case. The water, however, wasn't moving and filled almost entirely with plants. We asked John Mould, Mad Lib's co-founder, if there was any chance the water was safe to swim in. It had a moss overlay atop its murky grey surface. "Not unless you want to grow a third leg, but yes, some people do swim there," he told us, which was pretty much the end of that discussion. Still, groups of friends floated in it all weekend long, blissfully unaware of the possible genetic mutations that could follow.
OK! We then went down the dirt road where various tents and decorations, ranging from Christmas lights to flamingo lawn ornaments, formed a village. Near the swamp's edge were a few abandoned stationery trailers. I couldn't help but wonder if people lived in them when campers weren't present. Something both sad and Bon Iver about it all. Did he record For Emma, Forever Ago in such a despondent setting? Vendors selling vintage jewelry and clothing, homemade oils and candles, and original artwork were interspersed between campsites. Nearly every person we passed said hello. We stopped to pet a slow-moving, stocky pitbull named Mia whose owners told us that she was prone to being carted around in a wagon. Which, same!
Eventually, we found the DIY campsite referred to as "Bikini Bottom," which belonged to Andrew, the person who drove us to the festival grounds from Newark, and his friends. A 30-foot tarp was suspended above scattered lawn chairs, snacks, and liquor bottles, complete with a makeshift kitchen stove where they were cooking dinner. There, we met a bunch of new people we'd spend our weekend with, including Nosh, a bookkeeper, Tahira, a curator, one particularly drunk couple, and Neera, whose performance name was Minty Ivy.
Screaming Females (Photo courtesy of Irene Fedyshyn)
We instantly bonded with Neera about her music. The New Jersey native told us she was recording an album tentatively called Tropical Storms (Of Dark Violent Sex). Somehow, same. I knew she was iconic instantly. She talked animatedly with her hands and spoke candidly about sex, disconnection, and how hot it was outside, but seemed to be unfazed by her surroundings, as people drank and smoked until sunset. She was also exceedingly kind and hospitable, making sure people were comfortable and having a good time with a "you good?" exchanged with friends and strangers alike. She made direct eye contact and laughed easily. Her full mane of hair was teased out and her makeup was bright and natural. She was glamorous and real, and I felt like I had known her my whole life.
As a group, we found our way to a side stage tucked in a corner of the woods amid a performance from New Jersey act Lenci Lavish. On the stage were like six men. The DJ wore blue face paint. Another man wore a welding mask and climbed a ladder. Lavish, who has a Tupac Thuglife-style tattoo on his stomach reading "Stay Kind," stripped down to his boxers for seemingly no reason. Two friends of his began mooning the crowd. I shudder now at the memory of exposed white asses in the pale moonlight. From the stage, another man began spraying champagne on the crowd. Lavish's disjointed rapping over Soundcloud trap beats soundtracked this whole thing. A man began wielding a sledgehammer and breaking bricks. Shirtless men howled and beat their chests and women twerked. Neera joined in the twerking nearest the stage. Someone was recording the whole thing.
Justin and I stood there — open-mouthed and horrified — as people began leaving. Halfway through his half-hour set, Lavish screamed, "Fuck all y'all," which was insane because those of us who didn't leave were basically masochists of mayhem, so it was kinda rude of him to cuss us out. But no matter! This was single-handedly the most chaotic show I've ever seen. (Lavish told us later that this collective freestyle freakout was part of the point. That way, no two shows of his are ever the same. Touché.)
Back at Bikini Bottom, we heard wailing vocals from New Jersey rock staple Screaming Females, which seemed to float from the ether. As we approached the stage, we noticed scores of people looking on in silent awe. It was oddly calming.
Eartheater (Photo courtesy of Emilina Filippo)
Eartheater (Photo courtesy of Emilina Filippo)
A drunken man staggered toward us on the way to watch them, babbling about good vibes and wanting to know "our story." A slightly more sober friend pulled him away. We continued walking calmly in the same way you're trained to do if a bear is approaching. Like bears, uninhibited drunks can also sniff out fear.
Later that night, we met a young person nicknamed "Fox" who said he lived in the woods and hand made all his own clothes. He told a wild story of hunting a deer on his own in the middle of winter, gutting it and dragging it back to a campsite to be cooked and eaten. Who knows how adept he is at hunting wild game, but we quickly realized the rest of his DIY tale was untrue. The Hanes tag was visible on the back of his tank top. It was maybe embarrassing for him to realize that we were in unfamiliar settings, but were certainly not stupid. Justin studied fashion in college.
Fox was sweet. I went to sleep sometime after this, but Justin stayed up to watch Eartheater, whose deliciously, warbled wolf sounds I could hear from my tent. Her set was later described to me as music that sounded like the devil produced it. Though such a sonic description might disturb some, believe it or not, I slept like a baby. I also apparently slept through VomitChord's set, who is a vomit-based performance artist. Perhaps that was for the best.
The next day, I woke up and asked a few of the organizers gathered by the campground's entrance if there were eggs and coffee available, still loosely hanging onto my Paris Hilton persona. I thought about Fox and asked where he was. Probably hunting deer again, somewhere. I played Paris' "Nothing In This World" and Brooke Candy's "XXXTC" to get Justin's attention after several failed attempts to wake him up. I found that there were no eggs, sadly, so I had to settle for cold brew from an all-vegan food truck. Justin joined me moments later and we doused ourselves in yet another round of Off! spray. Neither of us showered, but I decided to use my wipes to... wipe myself. I felt like I had rolled in a pile of dirt somehow, but I wanted to keep things organic since we were in the deep woods and all. I did put on deodorant, though. Justin declined my wipes when offered. Perhaps he took the whole "deep woods" thing more seriously.
We ate a Puerto Rican breakfast of rice, beans, avocado, and plantains at the picnic tables with a view of hungover campers taking morning dips in the swamp. Justin and I wondered aloud if people might have like, been swimming in last night's vomit, or fecal matter? People, as I've been learning, do gross and weird things when totally blitzed. In New York, Justin and I are swarmed with a mix of constant human interaction and technology. Having no cell service for 48 hours and moments of complete stillness can either force you to check out via drugs and alcohol, or to be perpetually present. Sometimes, being that present in our modern world of ADD-level distraction yields boredom. Or insanity.
Perhaps I was occasionally bored (or gradually going insane), but I coped by eating. I'd have a grand total of five empanadas from the Puerto Rican food truck over the course of the weekend. They need to come to New York, I told the food-truck operators. They'd be huge!
We heard a woman's voice singing over heavy electronic beats coming from the main stage, and walked over. Clad in sportswear— crop top, sweats, and slicked-back hair — was Priyya, a Nepalese singer-songwriter in her mid-twenties from New Jersey. Sunglasses on, swaying side to side and holding a mic, she sang gorgeous trills of melody to her self-produced beats for what seemed like six minutes per song. The production was super high-end and recalled Madonna's dark, sexy Bedtime Stories era, when she flirted with R&B. Priyya could really, really sing, and seemed very chill about it. She sang poignantly about American dreams and Gucci in a nostalgic way not unlike Lana Del Rey, but without the stain of white privilege. We met and talked to her and her friend Marilyn about Jersey and making music. Priyya, an independent artist, said she was nervous on-stage, but had a poised, slightly nonchalant air that belied whatever struggles she was having. She ended her performance by saying, almost flatly: "That's all I have for today... Thanks so much... I hope you enjoyed the show..."
Later, Justin and I, in one of our many laps around the campgrounds, saw a mysterious, nameless woman who we'd first noticed from the artist's lounge area. She was in the crowd watching a rock band named Spowder play (the day before, they offered us free hot dogs and booze), and was dancing seductively front and center as if concocting a spell. As we wandered throughout some of the vendors, she passed us and made eye contact, smiling in a way that Justin immediately found particularly unsettling. Something behind those eyes, and the smile was very Truth or Dare starring Lucy Hale (not Madonna), a horror reference few will know because it apparently did not perform well at the box office. (More on the strange, nameless woman in a bit.)
Professor Caveman (Photo courtesy of Gregory Gramm)
There were a couple other prime acts at Mad Lib who stood out to us, too. I was enthralled with Professor Caveman, whose prog-rock band wore matching preppy schoolboy uniforms of polos and shorts. There was a R&B/soul band led by Sonny Dumarsais, and on-stage were painted portraits of other Black artists they either channeled or seemed inspired by, from Jay-Z to Solange.
Sometime after, we were at a little vintage vendor and I decided right there my final form would be a witchy being who you heard and smelled before you saw: heeled shoes clacking, wrist bangles jingling, and heavily scented perfume carrying. I tried on rings and bangles for nearly an hour (because what else was there to do), and Justin helped me pick out the best ones. I got like five pieces for $40 cash and was secretly salty about it because this would cost less in an East Village flea market, but I was in New Jersey and I was having a new experience. And besides, I left the stand noisier and witchier and maybe even gaudier than I arrived. More is more!
We both took naps in our tents having not slept so great the night before — or at all, really, in Justin's case. Eventually we were awakened by rain and spiders crawling on the outsides of our tents. Daddy long legs, things with hairy bodies that somehow also had wings. We were both shrieking, in character of Paris and Nicole, of course: "Ewwww bugs," was screamed more than once.
Because we were rendered phoneless with no reception, time became a social construct and I decided to have yet another empanada. We saw Minty Ivy dressed like a fucking gorgeous oracle hours before her set, which we patiently awaited. We got even more hyped up upon seeing her being driven by Moldy to the stage in a Lincoln town car, which I've decided must be a cult leader's chariot of choice. One way of killing time between sets since neither Justin nor I were particularly interested in psychedelics, was to swing on the lone swingset nearest the picnic tables. We did this for 30 minutes probably, looking at the stars and singing deep cuts from Lindsay Lohan's only two albums. Speak was her celebrity statement, and A Little More Personal (RAW) was her artist statement, we confirmed. What a beautiful moment.
Minty Ivy (Photo courtesy of Gregory Gramm)
Minty eventually came out to the main stage and there were more people present at her show than we'd seen all weekend, which only heightened mine and Justin's anticipation of hearing her sing. The First Lady of Mad Lib stepped to the mic and, with Moldy handling percussion, she opened her mouth. The crowd was eerily silent, as if watching their cult leader address the crowd. Minty sang through a filter that made her voice sound like an operatic chipmunk, beginning with a cover of "A Dream Is A Wish Your Heart Makes" from Cinderella. Justin and I squawked and watched a spellbound crowd just stand there. The combination of her songs, which were rhythmically disjointed and deeply personal, with the distorted music and vocal, was a very powerful one. Had we met the Björk of Jersey City, while hiding out in the southern part of the state's largest forest? She sang about a client at a high-end gentlemen's club who once called her a Bridge and Tunnel Rat. She sang about loving herself, sexual pleasure, abusive men, through a lens of poetry and metaphor. It felt written down, committed to memory, and freestyled all at once.
Folks we talked to after Minty's set confirmed that it was one of the best shows in Mad Lib's three years, but also that it was one of the best they'd seen, period. We agree.
Justin and I headed back to Bikini Bottom for a few hours to wait out New York nightlife star Pauli Cakes' DJ set, who had already been pushed from a 1 AM to 3 AM stage time. Earlier, we saw Pauli, Sadaf, and DJ She Marley Marl when they rolled up, clad in sky-high platform shoes, skin-baring latex head-to-toe, and vivid hair and makeup looks. It was very New York legends, which they all are. I watched them take in their scenery in the way I've watched many a New Yorker in a foreign setting digest their surroundings — always with cautious apprehension, exuding an air of unshakable confidence. It's kind of like "I'm better than you, but I'm humble about it." I said hi to Pauli. It was nice to see a familiar face.
Back at Bikini Bottom, Justin and I found ourselves embroiled in a heated discussion with Lenci Lavish, his DJ, whose name we discovered was Tony, and Nosh, the fiery bookkeeper we met earlier. Somehow, we wound up on the subjects of love and war, given our current political outlook. I am not surprised we found ourselves here because if you take away cell phone reception, Instagram, the self-created need to look cool for your friends or an audience of strangers, and you're forced to contend with nature. Even under the auspices of a music festival, what's left? I would imagine a lot of real shit to talk about. Lavish believed war was a necessity to protect our values, but believed more in solving battles one-on-one than by mass brute force. Nosh argued that love was the answer. I found it odd that the discussion became slightly combative when the two opposing sides naturally conflicted, therefore defeating the point. What was the point? People were high and drunk and we were listening to music in the woods is what. We were reconnecting with What Really Mattered.
So when Justin and I went back toward the mainstage for Pauli, embracing this idea, it was interesting to see Pauli's frustrations manifest in real time. She was starting far later than expected and playing, by that point, to a slim crowd: a man sitting, a man sleeping and Justin and me twirling to her aggressive hardstyle beats. There were a few sound problems. Pauli kept playing. The music throbbed on into the night.
Mad Liberation Music and Arts Festival (Photo courtesy of Gregory Gramm)
Honestly, how iconic is it to leave New York, where you play packed clubs regularly, and come to the dense New Jersey woods for a crowd of two active people under a starry, pitch-black sky? If ever there were a culture clash a la The Simple Life, this would be it.
The next morning, Mad Lib was over and everyone was packing up to go home. Pauli and her girls, dolled up and ready to GTFO, stood by the front entrance complaining about their overnight stay. They were put in a "deluxe" tent, but according to them there was a hole in their air mattress. They talked about bugs getting in the tent, too. There were not as many visibly queer people present at the gathering as they hoped. Justin and I understood perfectly what they meant. Even if conditions were less than ideal, it was still an experience for them, and whether or not they do something like this again remains to be seen. I've always loved a culture clash and I wish the cameras were rolling like they were on Paris and Nicole.
Mad Liberation Music and Arts Festival (Photo courtesy of Gregory Gramm)
Justin and I said bye and went to get breakfast. We noticed the woman who smiled eerily at us earlier, sitting at a picnic table across the way. She turned away when she saw us watching. She pulled out her phone and began FaceTiming someone, before slowly walking to the swamp water's edge. Now several yards from us, she pointed her phone at her face, smiling and giddily jumping up and down. She seemed genuinely pleased with where she was, and wanted to share it with whomever she was talking to.
My skepticism crept in. Is this the part where Minty Ivy takes Mad Lib's stage and summons the masses to gather and sacrifice the newbies on the land? Was this witchy, smiling woman connected to a larger ritual? Were we going to be eaten alive? (In fairness, I had only just seen Midsommar, and the combination of bright sun, clear skies, remote location, and actual kind people was a tad triggering.)
Sadly, not so. After breakfast, Justin and I headed back to our tents, where we saw that strange woman one more time, heading to her car alone in a grassy lot within view. As she walked back toward us, I thought, This is it, we're dying, but decided to break the ice instead. "We've been wanting to meet you," I said, before Justin and I introduced ourselves.
"You can call me Lola," she said after a moment of hesitation, making it clear this likely wasn't her birth name. Lola said she was from New Jersey, but somewhere further up north. Unlike most attending, she had come to the festival alone. Like us, it was also her first time at Mad Lib.
"I have a question for you guys," she said.
"What?" we asked.
"How do you think it is that we gathered here?"
We told her we were invited by the festival's organizers. Lola said she saw videos from past festivals on social media. Something in whatever she saw moved her to pack up her car, drive south, and immerse herself in an unfamiliar experience for 48 hours.
"Do you think it's strange that I saw pixels on a screen only days ago and now I'm here?" Lola asked, her eyes flickering with childlike awe and wonder.
Paradise Lake Campground (Photo courtesy of Gregory Gramm)
This is the world we live in. At first glance, Lola didn't strike me as someone who'd even be bothered with social media, let alone be influenced by it. She blended right into the camp's austere, natural surroundings, and stood out as a clear-eyed, joyful observer.
"It's amazing what happens when you let yourself simply be with other people," she said. Lola spoke about issues of safety present at other festivals. "You don't always know what people are up to," she warned, her eyes narrowing. She smiled again and shook it off. "But it's always nice to meet fellow travelers," she said.
Justin and I listened intently for a few moments of silence.
"Well... that's my time," she said, and then turned around on one heel and headed back toward her car. And just like that, Lola was gone.
For more information on Mad Liberation Arts and Music Festival, visit madliberationfestival.com.