By Michael Varrati
For fans of the jam, there are few locations more sacred than Bonnaroo.
One of the crown jewels of the music festival circuit, the four-day event held every summer in Tennessee remains a primary destination for those with a need to rock. From its humble beginnings in 2002, Bonnaroo has evolved into a primary location for music artists to unleash unique performances and create moments that become part of pop culture legend. It’s where Sting reunited The Police for the first time in decades, and where Bruce Springsteen decided to drop in on Phish for a jam session.
…and now, YouTube star Meghan Tonjes gets to become part of that legacy.
The winner of the “Escape to Bonnaroo” contest presented by “What’s Trending” and Ford, Tonjes came to YouTube Space LA this past Monday as part of the final five, a select group of music artists from around the web who had been selected from hundreds of entrants to try their hand for a spot on stage at Bonnaroo.
Along with her competitors (Vibe, David Choi, Lauren Mayhew, and Bad Wolf), Tonjes’ final shot came in the form of a performance during a special “What’s Trending” live-stream event hosted by Shira Lazar. In front of a panel of judges, which included YouTube stars Chester See, Glozell Green, King Bach, and Kandee Johnson, it was clear that each artist brought uncompromising passion and drive to the event.
I was able to catch up with Meghan in the moments after her win to get her thoughts on the journey that began with the votes of many fans and ended with a ticket to Tennessee. To her credit, the singing sensation was the picture of composure, despite the undoubtedly nerve-wracking events of the hour before.
“I feel overwhelmed and numb at the same time, if that’s possible. I’m just so excited,” Meghan Tonjes tells me about her win. “When they announced my name, I felt everything and nothing at the same time. I thought, ‘I should be freaking out, but I’m trying to keep it together right now.’”
When I ask Tonjes about preparing for the contest, she reveals to me that her whole life is the preparation. For the musician, who routinely shares her work with YouTube, the contest was a logical step in a world of which she was already part.
“I’ve been doing YouTube for years. It’s been a slow burn for me,” she says. “I’ve been a part of the community and big things have happened for me. I was on Ellen Degeneres’ show…so big things have happened. This was an opportunity that came up and I thought, ‘Why not throw my hat in the ring? I’ve never played at Bonnaroo!’ That’s one of those places you kinda have to play. So, I did this, not thinking much of it, and I got to the top five! Today, I was trying not to freak myself out too much. I figured, ‘If it happens, awesome. If it doesn’t, I’m excited for everyone else.’ Then I won!”
If you get the sense that Tonjes is a remarkably chill individual, this would not be a mistake. The artist’s calm demeanor is part of her charm, and the fact that she makes everything seem effortless is a credit to just how comfortable she is with her own abilities. In fact, when I ask her about her preparation for the day’s events, she tells me that she refused to let herself give in to any sort of anxiety.
“I slept as late as possible,” she says with a laugh. “I got some Panera Bread. I didn’t do too much; I practiced a little in the car. I didn’t want to freak myself out, so I just treated it like a normal day. I knew I was going to come see friends and hang out, so I didn’t want to stress too much about the competition.”
That Tonjes considered the day’s events as much a social outing as a competition is truly indicative of her place in the greater YouTube community.
“My entire life is because of YouTube,” Tonjes says. “I started making videos when I was 19. I had just bought a guitar and I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. YouTube has afforded me the opportunity to meet really awesome people, play music, to make videos. To me, that’s always been the dream. Now, as I’ve been able to do all these things, I think, ‘Maybe I need to find a new dream’ on top of this, because I’ve got to do all those things!”
When I ask her about the perceived stigma YouTube artists occasionally face from those who still believe music ought to come from a studio system, Tonjes is quick to point out that those lines grow blurrier by the day. Furthermore, she asserts that the only way to break those barriers is to get out there and play.
“There are a lot of people who just do YouTube,” she says. “But for me it’s always been really important to play shows and tour. I’ve been lucky to have had both experiences. I want to know that tomorrow, if the internet is gone, that I could still do the thing I love. I feel like making videos, going to VidCon, etc. just makes your performances better and you appreciate it more, because you’ve been on the road and lived this super hard musician lifestyle as well.”
When she brings up life on the road, thoughts inevitably turn to her biggest show to come: Bonnaroo.
“I’m excited to walk around and just experience all the different kinds of music,” she says. “Hopefully I’ll find new bands to fall in love with and be inspired by, so I can write new music.”
As we part, I ask Tonjes if she’s had any further time to process her win. She gives an appreciative nod in response.
“I am incredibly humbled and so appreciative that I get to be part of something that most people don’t even understand. I get to have the coolest fans in the world and the most supportive following in the world, and to have YouTube be a part of that is indescribable to me. I’m so happy.”
Check out her winning performance here: