Night Owl Festival keeps growing in a challenging year

NIGHT OWL FESTIVAL featuring OH SEES, OF MONTREAL, NO JOY, BADGE EPOQUE ENSEMBLE and others, Thursday-Saturday (October 11-14) at various venues. Festival pass $80, single shows $15-$25.

The last few years haven’t been kind to music festivals in Toronto, but Night Owl Festival has been getting bigger every year. As it celebrates its fifth year, the four-day fest of all things weird and wacky under the umbrella of psych-rock attributes the success to its community. 

“It’s really become a community festival,” says Michelle Puska, one of the organizers. “I don’t know if it would still be going if it weren’t for people who have gotten involved and who were willing to step up through everything this year.”

This year, Night Owl features some big names in psych, including Of Montreal and Oh Sees. But it’s not just about heavy-hitting headliners from out of town. Over half of the festival’s lineup is from Toronto, with Sunday comprising an all-local bill featuring Badge Époque Ensemble, Possum and Bart. Over half of the lineup also includes women artists, something that’s always been important to the duo of Toronto musicians, Puska and Juliana Carlevaris, who run the fest.

Though there are many obstacles that come with putting on an independent music festival, the team was met with an unexpected struggle this year. At the end of July, Puska was diagnosed with cervical cancer and has been less able to devote herself to the festival as she has in previous years – which is why the fest’s evolution has been so important this year.

The two founders met in 2015 in a carpool down to Austin, Texas, for Austin Psych Fest (now known as Levitation). They both agreed that Toronto desperately needed a psych fest of its own. The two launched Night Owl that year, and what started as a two-night operation has now blossomed into a four-night event spanning bars and clubs around the city. 

Over the past two years, major festivals in Toronto and surrounding areas – WayHome, Field Trip, Bestival and TURF, to name a few – have been disappearing. Roxodus, a major rock fest that was meant to launch in Clearview Township in July, was cancelled just a week before its start date.

“We’re kind of lucky in the fact that we are doing things on a much smaller scale, which is why I think we’ve managed to stay afloat,” Puska says.

The festivals that seem to be filling in the cracks in the city are the smaller, more specialized ones. Take Venus Fest, the feminist festival making room for female and non-binary folks, which just wrapped its third year. Or Eisbaer Festival, local band Odonis Odonis’s new festival that launches in November, which focuses on the post-punk/industrial genre. 

Night Owl is something that Puska and Carlevaris work on and save up for year-round and the two already have plans for next year. Eventually they’d like to move it outdoors. But they’re purposely growing it at a more gradual rate than the big fests that have ballooned and collapsed.

“I think there’s something to be said about keeping it a niche thing,” Puska says. “I think you end up with the people who want to support it more and more and who want to come back every year.”

Puska says she didn’t want the festival to suffer this year due to her health issues.

“I never even thought about trying to cancel it or anything this year. It’s a thing that I work on through the year and I love it so much and would never want to take that away from all the other people who seem to love it so much,” she says. 

Puska has used her voice in the community and on social media to raise awareness about women’s health and hopes to do more going forward, even as part of future shows. In turn, there has been an outpouring of support from the music community, including a GoFundMe page started by local country artist Nichol Robertson to help out with Puska’s recovery. 

“I don’t feel worried about it because we have such a good amount of people who love doing the festival and love working on the festival to sort of step up and take on things,” Puska says. “It’s kind of grown into this operation on its own, like what I’ve always hoped for it.”

@nowtoronto | @OliviaaBednar

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