Between Christmas and New Year’s Day, Ypsilanti has traditionally played host to the incredible Michigan music festival known as Mittenfest. Last year, unable to find a home in Ypsi, however, the festival wound up in Ann Arbor. Now, though… starting tonight… Mittenfest is back in Ypsi, where God intended it, and things are once again right with the world.
Things kick off tonight at 8:30 PM, at the intersection of Michigan Avenue and Washington Street, in the cozy little cavern beneath Bona Sera. If you would like to attend, general admission tickets will be available each day at the door. And, as always, all proceeds will be donated to the fantastic kids’ creative writing non-profit 826michigan.
Following is a short interview I conducted earlier today with event organizer Linda Jordan and 826michigan Executive Director Amanda Uhle on what we can expect over the five days of the festival this year.
MARK: How will this year be different from years past?
LINDA: Mittenfest X is back in Ypsilanti (Cue: “Back to Ypsilanti” by Lee Osler) after moving to Ann Arbor last year. In a lot of ways, it seems like the festival is returning to its roots. Ypsilanti has hosted the majority of the festivities over the years, and the community has always been very involved. The mayor has attended in the past, and local businesses, such as Beezy’s Café, gear up for the event every year, finding creative ways to contribute. It feels like coming “home” to me, which is especially fitting given that it’s the 10-year anniversary.
MARK: Speaking of creative ways locals find to contribute, is there anything special this year that you’d like to note?
LINDA: Jen Harley always does any amazing job with the artwork and decorations, and this year is no exception.
AMANDA: I agree! Jen Harley astounds me every year. She’s done the poster art since 2011 and the on-site decor as well. She has a way of capturing the feeling of the event in print that conveys our vibe to people before they even walk in the door. I’m especially excited about what she’s done to the Bona Sera basement this year.
I often say that our 826 students receive help in thousands of different ways–tailored to their individual needs and goals. That’s really true of Mittenfest and its supporters as well. We receive contributions of performances from many artists; local businesses donate cash to cover the hard costs; a venue opens its doors to us (thanks, Barb and Annette!); Beezy’s hosts an outrageously delicious brunch and contributes back 8.26% of the proceeds; and this year McClure’s has joined on and will be provided endless (I mean this near-literally) spicy pickle chips to all attendees. Every contribution is special, different, and important.
MARK: This year, as you mentioned, Mittenfest is going to be taking place in the space below Bona Sera. How did that come about? Had you actively been looking for space in Ypsi that could accommodate the festival, or did they come to you and lure you back?
AMANDA: We were indeed actively seeking an Ypsilanti home. The always-amazing Tyler Weston connected me to Barb and Annette who have generously opened their space, built a special menu for the event, and have pledged to open extra and different hours over the holiday to make Mittenfest happen. It feels like a perfect new home for us.
MARK: Of the performers on the schedule this year, what are you personally most looking forward to seeing?
LINDA: It is so hard to choose! I’m really excited to see Dead Kind (Deadbeat Beat x Rebel Kind supergroup playing New Year’s Eve). I have spent so many New Year’s Eves at Mittenfest over the years, and I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather be. I’m also really looking forward to seeing Britney Stoney on the 30th; she has a really beautiful sound and I can’t wait to see her perform live. And, of course, Chris Bathgate closing out the festival on January 2.
AMANDA: I have a rule of never picking favorites. I’ll break the rule just this once and say that Frontier Ruckus is one of my all-time favorite acts. I am a big fan of their songwriting. And my little six year old daughter is into the harmonica and saw-playing. They’ve played nearly every one of the ten years.
MARK: How much has Mittenfest raised over the past decade, and what will the money raised this year be used for?
LINDA: Over the years, Mittenfest has raised over $115,000 for the organization. 826michigan provides kids in Southeast Michigan an opportunity to be creative and develop their writing skills. I think the work they do is invaluable, especially given the deficiencies in our public education system. I’m glad I can contribute in a small way.
AMANDA: We direct funds from this event to our Ypsilanti-based programming. Ten years in, 826michigan serves more students from Ypsilanti than from any other city. Our Ann Arbor headquarters are open to all, and 2016 will see the opening of our second site–in Detroit’s Eastern Market–but the core of our programming has long been Ypsilanti and its schools. We run in-classroom support programs in a number of public schools, sending dozens of adult volunteers to assist teachers on a weekly basis. We offer drop-in creative writing at the Whitaker Road and Michigan Avenue library branches weekly. And every weeknight, Beezy’s Cafe transforms from a restaurant to a tutoring lab. Our volunteers meet more than 100 Ypsilanti students ages 8 to 18 there each year to work through homework assignments in algebra, spelling, social studies, and more. Funds raised at Mittenfest will support all of those activities: the supplies, the staff to recruit and train the volunteers, the printing of our student-written publications, and more.
LINDA: Over 75 bands applied from across the state. 35 are playing the festival. Most of the bands hail from Detroit/Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti, but we also have a very strong Grand Rapids contingent this year. Jes Kramer and Bermudas are playing January 2, and The Boot Strap Boys are playing New Year’s Day.
MARK: Over the five days of MIttenfest this year, did you make any effort to book the shows so that individual days have their own distinct character?
LINDA: And the first night is a tribute to the very first Mittenfest; the lineup features bands who also played year one. Some of the bands, like Matt Jones and Misty Lyn & The Big Beautiful, have played every year and have always been incredibly supportive of the Fest. The night begins with Patrick Elkins, which I think is fitting, because, when I think of Ypsilanti, I think of him. Emily Jane Powers travelled from Chicago to play, and Fred Thomas came in from Montreal. It is rumored that Loose Teeth with grace us with their songs and the intoxicating dance moves of the Sugar Shakers. Frontier Ruckus will close out the night. I think it is going to be an incredibly memorable evening.
MARK: How about the following nights… For lack of a better word, have “themes” emerged?
AMANDA: New Year’s Eve will be a party. Other than that, the lineup each night is fairly diverse.
MARK: Who will be traveling the furthest to perform?
LINDA: I think that would be Fred Thomas, who is momentarily back in town from Montreal.
MARK: Is there anyone new this year who stands out?
LINDA: Bonny Doon, one of my favorite Detroit bands, is making their Mittenfest debut. They are headlining night two and I’m looking forward to seeing them play in front of a new audience.
MARK: Several years ago, when talking with Jeremy and Brandon about what makes a band “Mittenfest appropriate,” you mentioned that it wasn’t just about the geography, although all the bands had to have a substantial tie to Michigan, but also a “shared value system” (Brandon) and “a certain work ethic and forethought” (Jeremy) that comes from having lived in the midwest. I’m curious as to whether or not you have thoughts on this.
LINDA: All of the bands have to have a substantial tie to Michigan, and beyond that, we have made a conscious effort to diversify our booking. We have reached out to many more female-identified musicians than in the past and have sought to include different genres of music. I’m not sure that I can comment on the bands’ Midwestern ethos, but all of the musicians seem to really support the cause. Musicians have always been incredibly generous when it comes to Mittenfest. Not only do they play for free, they bring an enthusiasm to the entire festival that is unparalleled.
AMANDA: For ten years now, Mittenfest has attracted this incredible roster of giving, smart, talented people. Like our volunteers, they’re there because they want to be, and that’s the reason the room feels magical and generous and authentic night after night, year after year. If we planned for it too specifically or engineered it too closely, I’m sure it would evaporate. For now, I’m endlessly grateful for the performers who make the event possible.
HERE’S THE LINEUP:
[And, if you still want more info, I posted a pretty decent interview with Mittenfest founder Brandon Zwagerman and others a few years ago. And, if that’s still not enough, you can listen to the episode of The Saturday Six Pack where 826michigan’s Amanda Uhle announced that Mittenfest would be returning to Ypsilanti.]