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Oh my goddess
ELLA Fest organizer Robert Johnson leans on the city’s female artists for strength


with Christina Wagner, Amy Steinberg, Raffa & Rainer, Sunny, Lauren Carder & the Multiple Me, the Actomatics and more
5-11 p.m. Friday, Oct. 1-Sunday, Oct. 3
Orlando Brewing, 407-872-1117

Let’s get this out of the way up front: Robert Johnson is tired. Beat up. Exhausted. The guy’s a glutton for punishment and his only respite is to work harder. Robert Johnson may be insane. 

In the last several months the local musician and founder/organizer of the annual ELLA Fest, a weekend excursion into Johnson’s mind and the muses that dance around in it (and officially a celebration of Orlando’s great female artists now entering its fourth year) has hit financial rock bottom, recorded a new album of original material that he may scrap entirely, drove cross-country for a West Coast tour, started a rock band (Everyday Ghosts) and still found time to put together a festival. 

But hard work comes with a price, and it seems to have taken a toll on the ELLA spirit. Orlando’s biggest female names – Kaleigh Baker, Alexandrah, Emma Jean Branch – are missing from the Fest’s roster this year, and the ever-important details came together later in the process than usual. Gone this year is the festival’s traditional “ELLA Rising” stage, where newcomers who aren’t quite ready for the main gig get stage time. (A continuously running second stage has taken its place.) While that hasn’t translated to an insurmountable dip in quality in terms of the talent onstage, it has left ELLA with a bit of an “enthusiasm gap,” to borrow a term from Democrats. 

“It was a matter of timing,” Johnson says. “Some of [ELLA’s past headliners] have managed to amass a substantial retainer fee, some of them moved away, others are in the process of recording, some are having babies and others are just taking a break. That’s the beauty of an all-female fest like ELLA – it will always stay fresh and keep me on my toes.” 

However, just as said “gap” is no excuse for anyone to stray from the polls, a slightly hobbled ELLA Fest is still well worth enjoying. 

Perennial ELLA standout Raffa Jo Harris is back, this time with her longtime artistic partner Rainer Davies, completing a duet that’s made a name for itself in Miami and has recently opened for esteemed acts such as CocoRosie and Dar Williams. 

A couple of Orlando institutions, Sunny Raskin and Amy Steinberg, return as headliners this year, along with some of last year’s discoveries like Lauren Carder & the Multiple Me (Carder helped with booking the fest this time around) and Chasing Jonah. 

Another bonus is the setting: Orlando Brewing, which has been a kind of second home to Johnson over the years, provides not only an accommodating space, but offers festival pluses like bathrooms, beer and free parking. 

Still, putting on ELLA Fest is always a test of will for Johnson, who says he’s been reinvigorated by the scene’s selfless help in service of the cause. 

“It’s been a struggle every year to keep going, being that the only real reward we’ve garnered is helping motivate more artists to keep on,” says Johnson. “It’s going to be magical.”
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