Looking For Answers (But Not So Sure)

(Silky Shots Photography)

I was unusually ambivalent before my trip to Red Rocks this year for Pretty Lights. This was unexpected because on top of this being the only Pretty Lights show of 2018, it was also my first time at the legendary venue. I was more anxious than excited due to the uncertain future of Pretty Lights. Rumors circulated on the lot all weekend about his impending retirement. I was convinced that he was either going to announce his retirement or drop four albums at once (neither was the case).

I hadn't been listening to Pretty Lights as often as I usually do this year. It's hard to say why. Usually it's all I listen to--it's the soundtrack of my life. I've had a hard time this year. My partner and I left our friends (and his family) behind in New York to move across the country for jobs in San Francisco. While I am happy and proud that he is thriving at his, mine has been profoundly disappointing, and quite frankly dehumanizing, for a variety of reasons. It has triggered my depression, and I can't help but feel discouraged. I remember hearing one of my biggest ISOs, "Future Blind," at The Gorge Amphitheater in Washington last year in the middle of our move. It seemed appropriate at the time, but I didn't realize it would be prophetic. Instead of receiving clarity and direction about my future once I made the transition, it only became more ambiguous.

(Silky Shots Photography)

The same might be said for Pretty Lights. After two years of playing new tracks at shows, releasing 16 rare and unheard tracks on a USB, and teasing an album release date in writing, Pretty Lights has been silent this year. As I reached the apex of frustration with my job in the weeks leading up to Red Rocks, I started to think that perhaps my experience was analogous to the obscurity surrounding the future of Pretty Lights. I came to Red Rocks looking for answers (but not so sure): not just for the future of Pretty Lights, but my own, too. I was hoping that if Derek Vincent Smith (the man behind Pretty Lights) articulated his direction, perhaps mine would become more clear.

I don't know why his music wasn't resonating with me the way it usually does. Emancipator has been my go-to this year after his music helped me speak about repressed sexual trauma for the first time since the incident. And during my commute, which is usually when I would listen to Pretty Lights, I found myself turning to Bassnectar's music to channel my angry and aggressive energy.

It was hard for me to see where Pretty Lights fit in, despite his music being my go-to for that exact reason. There is a song for every mood and every feeling. Perhaps it's easier to confront and process those feelings retrospectively than presently. The Nina Simone sample in "Understand Me Now" comes to mind: "Sometimes I find myself alone regretting some little foolish thing, some simple thing." Perhaps I wasn't ready to confront and process the emotions I was experiencing. So instead, I did what I usually do--I repressed them.

Despite my anxiety, the weekend truly felt like a family affair. It's amazing how you start recognizing people without having formally met them after a few years in the scene. And I think that Derek recognizes and understands that. My only proof of this thought is that two of his oldest fans got married on the stage right before the Pretty Lights' set on the first night. I just think that is so special and unique. I do have a theory about his strategy over the last few years.

(Silky Shots Photography)

In my opinion, it seems like Pretty Lights has deliberately tried to make his following smaller over the last two years. Many of his shows were at intimate and remote locations like Wyoming and Idaho. I imagine that part of the reason is intention. He hasn't made it easy for us. Everyone at those shows had to put in extra effort to be there, which means that nearly everyone is on the same page as far as intention goes. I think this was deliberate, even if the intention remains obscure.

The setlist the first night was filled with classics and what I would describe as heady bangers. I got a few gems that I was looking for like "Let the World Hurry By" and "Press Pause." Night one felt familiar and comfortable.Yet still, my anxiety was not assuaged. I was not emotionally prepared for what I experienced on night two.

(Silky Shots Photography)

I have never cried as much or so hard during a set as I did on night two. (Actually, I have been a complete wreck during a Pretty Lights set, but it was because of external factors, not the music itself). It's worth keeping in mind that I took some exceptional LSD. I think the first time I wept uncontrollably during a set was at Random Rab at Lightning in a Bottle earlier this summer. I fully credit the MAPS seminar that I had attended earlier during the weekend for teaching me that it is OK to fall apart while on psychedelics because it is a path to healing. The context was key, though. Lightning in a Bottle provided the appropriate context for that kind of experience. Everyone at that festival understands and respects your space to process emotions and heal. In a similar way, I knew that everyone at Red Rocks would understand because Derek had spent the last couple of years deliberately trying to get everyone on that same wavelength.

As soon as the band opened with "Dionysus" on the second night, I fucking lost it. I wasn't expecting to be so overcome with emotion, especially since I didn't cry on the first night. Perhaps the significance of the weekend finally hit me: this was the 10-year anniversary of Pretty Lights playing this iconic venue, and perhaps his last show ever. Maybe it was also the journey of following Pretty Lights over the years, and not being able to stand still because I kept running back-and-forth across our row to spend time with all of the friends that I made and sustained through this community.

(Press Pause Films)

It only got worse when they followed Dionysus with a gorgeous rendition of “Out of Time.” This song resonated with me in a brand new way given the circumstances. Normally I interpret the message as running out of time (perhaps with a loved one). Instead of running out of time, perhaps the song refers to the notion of existing outside of time. This occurred to me because of lyrics like “Out of place, out of line, out of touch, out of time” and “watching the whole world move in slo-mo.” I’ve felt a similar sensation all year. Things just aren’t going my way professionally, and I often feel disconnected from reality, and I absolutely feel out of place as if I'm on the outside looking in.

I managed to calm down until the band played “Look Both Ways,” the song I’ve been chasing and tragically missing for my entire Pretty Lights career. I felt this overwhelming sensation of support from all of my friends. Many of them associate the song with me. I can’t tell you how many times a friend has sent me a picture or video of themselves listening to that song to let me know that they were thinking of me. I was inundated with hugs, handshakes, and pats on the back as if I had won an award. It was like everyone knew what I had been going through and offered their support. To communicate that mutual understanding through music is tremendously powerful. I will never forget that moment as long as I live.

Pretty Lights afforded me no time to recover as they immediately followed with Odesza's remix of “One Day They’ll Know,” which reminded me of one of the most important yet simple lessons I’ve taken away from Derek's music: to take things one day at a time. It’s an adage that I have neglected this past year. To look both ways one day at a time is the exact lesson I needed to hear. I think I processed all of the frustration and disappointment from this last year in the most positive and productive way possible. I am so grateful to Pretty Lights’ music for allowing me to experience this release.

(Naomi Oates Photography)

Just when I thought the set couldn't get any better, Pretty Lights played my partner’s number one ISO, “Last Passenger.” It was a similar moment of communal, vicarious joy. In some ways, it felt as if we were being rewarded for all of the time and effort we have spent following Pretty Lights over the years. To get these songs at our first time at Red Rocks for Pretty Lights’ 10 year anniversary was music nirvana.

Although I didn't receive the answers that I thought I was looking for (neither in my personal life nor with Pretty Lights), I at least returned from the weekend with absolute clarity about my friendships, which is more important. It's not that I was insecure about my friendships beforehand, I was simply reminded of their unconditional support despite the distance. One of Derek's main messages these last few years has is that "human energy is a form of light." I don't know much about science, but it seems like light is a form of communication via frequencies. I feel that there is this ineffable understanding within the community that is communicated through a combination of music, light, and energy instead of words. I am trying to internalize the feelings I experienced that weekend and reflect them back into the world in an effort to shine bright despite the plight.