Other Voices: the secret Irish festival where rock's finest mix with fishermen.
If you haven't heard of the Irish music festival Other Voices then you're not alone. Outside Ireland, the festival, based in Dingle, County Kerry remains something of a best-kept secret, yet within the music industry it's a crucial event to perform at.
The gigs, for instance, take place in a tiny 200-year-old church seating (at a squeeze) 80 people. The festival is also of the low-key kind, where world-famous stars such as Rufus Wainwright, Florence Welch and Jarvis Cocker, along with the Next Big Things, saunter along streets rubbing shoulders with fishermen as well as fans.
“You could use big words to describe it, for sure," says Richard Hawley (who has performed there three times) of the Other Voices experience, "but there's something about the festival that is beyond description. The organisers don't make a great deal of money out of it, yet to do something that has value and worth is marvellous."
At the heart of the Other Voices experience are a few crucial elements: the first is what Hawley would rightly claim is its intimacy. As Damien Rice, who performed there in 2002 and 2006, says: "Money doesn't make me happy; success doesn't make me happy. What makes it, for me, is walking on stage wanting to be there, starting a song and getting lost in it. Playing Other Voices felt honestly emotional and reminded me of the recording sessions I had for O. It was one of those nights where everything gelled. "
The second element is that it's an event where no PAs, minders or clipboard fascists hold any authority whatsoever. You can see stars drift into relaxation mode as they arrive at a town that doesn't seem to know the meaning of the word frantic.
It also helps that Dingle is a reminder of Ireland's charm. Tucked away in the extreme south-west of the country, the Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking) town has a population of around 2,000, which means it's small enough that everyone knows your business, but self-contained enough not to bother with anyone displaying airs or graces.
Not for nothing has the town and the Dingle Peninsula has been described (by National Geographic) as "the most beautiful place on Earth". But Dingle is also home to some of the oddest hostelries imaginable.
"I couldn't believe Foxy John's when I first saw it," recalls Hawley of the shop/bar. "I was so grateful that there was, finally, somewhere that I could buy light bulbs, rat poison and Guinness”.
Dingle seems to be one of the last places that has kept a truly Irish generosity of spirit. For all the musicians that come here, it's like a hospital for the soul. It's a bit daft to say so much about something so simple. If you were here, you'd know."
The festival began as Other Voices: Songs From a Room. It gathered together in the town's St James's church a group of Irish musicians and singer-songwriters that had chosen to negotiate their own path through the minefield of the music industry.
All of the musicians involved in the early days of the live event-cum-Irish TV series (since its inception the festival has been broadcast on RTE in Ireland) realised the crucial difference between complete creative control and mortgaging their lives away and so musicians such as Damien Rice and Glen Hansard arrived at Dingle more with a sense of idealism and community than monetary gain.
The idea of bringing together a group of musicians many people considered the cream of Irish contemporary music was conceived by Dingle-based film producer, radio presenter and musician Philip King.
His award-winning RTE1 radio show, South Wind Blows, was where a lot of the music was first heard. "I listened to a body of music," he says, "and began to feel there was a coherent voice, and that people who were beginning to write of their own Irish experience had a particular tone and quality to it."
For the first few years of its existence, Other Voices had an appreciative audience, yet it gradually got to the point where only so many people could stomach only so many sensitive Irish singer-songwriters and the series quality and credibility dipped.
But then something peculiar happened in the mid-00s, something that the show's most fervent naysayers hadn't expected: Other Voices became hipper, ever so slightly weirder and far more interesting for an audience that required a blend of familiarity and head-turning moments.
Here was a festival where fans could see names such as Elbow, Rufus Wainwright, Brett Anderson, the xx, the National, Amy Winehouse, Snow Patrol, Ryan Adams and Ellie Goulding reveal different sides of their characters. Personal highlights include Jarvis Cocker channelling his inner John Otway, Richard Hawley singing Christmas songs with Irish singer Lisa Hannigan, the star quality of Anna Calvi and the poise of Amy Winehouse.
"We asked was there anything she needed," recalls King of Winehouse's visit to Dingle in 2006, "and she asked for a packet of crisps. She walked across the road in skinny jeans, little pumps on her feet and a leather jacket on, and she went into the church and started singing. I can put my hand on my heart and say I'd never in my life heard anything like it."
That's the thing about Other Voices – you will hear many things that you have never heard the like of before. The strategic change in programming has subsequently kept the festival at the forefront of many a musician's events calendar, particularly if they want to flex previously hidden creative muscles.
The change in structure has also been pivotal in introducing acts before they strike a chord with a mainstream audience, including, over the years, Florence and the Machine, Noah and the Whale, Joan as Policewoman, José González and the Rapture.
King may wax too lyrically, perhaps, about what he refers to as "the camaraderie of the busker", but you can understand what he's getting at when you see the motley collection of musicians in the front lounge of Dingle's Benner's hotel (Other Voices' official work/rest/play hub; it is also the place where most of the musicians stay), trading quips, songs and instruments. Such a gathering, says King, recalls the days of old, "when the top bard of the country would call a gathering and all the bards had to come together – an AGM, if you like – and recite their new poetry to each other".
"Over the course of the week I was there," says Glen Hansard, who presented the inaugural Other Voices, "all the musicians were so open; one singer talking about stage fright, another about not being able to watch other people singing because it made him nervous. People who are giants onstage, but who are also quite vulnerable, sharing songs."
In these budget-conscious times, the fact that Other Voices has survived for so long is little short of a miracle. Maybe in St James's church, amid the cameras, cables and rehearsals, there is more than just music in the air.
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