Sunday 27 May 2018

A drop of Dingle gin

Since its inception in 2002, Other Voices has gone from fledging festival to Ireland's finest intimate cultural event. Ahead of its 16th outing next weekend,our reporter meets three of the driving forces behind its success

Honour: Other Voices host Annie Mac
Honour: Other Voices host Annie Mac
Low-key vibe: May Kay and Aoife Woodlock. Photo: Gerry Mooney
St James Church in Dingle, Co Kerry

Tony Clayton Lea

'We're very lucky in Ireland because we have a mass amount of talent to draw from all the time," Aoife Woodlock, music producer of eir Other Voices, tells me.

Hugely experienced and respected, Woodlock has been working in the music industry for almost 25 years, initially with Temple Bar Music Centre, and subsequently (for the past 14 years) with the Dingle-based festival.

"We are also very much on the touring map for countless groups and musicians because we are the biggest buyers of live music in Europe. Bands used to ask, 'will we bother coming to Ireland?' Now they do, and have been for a long time."

Other Voices is, of course, a team effort, but you nonetheless get a strong sense that the involvement of a number of women in the event takes it to a place beyond the commonplace.

Many females work in the background: these include Nuala O'Connor (partner of Philip King, who has, often against barely surmountable odds, visibly steered the course of Other Voices from its inception in 2002), producer Tina O'Reilly (without whom, it is said by too many people to ignore, the event would not happen), series producer Tina Moran, and long-term set designer Caroline O'Connor. Three women, however, have a more visible purpose: the aforementioned Aoife Woodlock, Annie MacManus (aka Annie Mac), and Mary-Kate Geraghty (aka MayKay).

Woodlock's work for Other Voices involves flagrant use of the 'it's-a-tough-job-but-someone-has-to-do-it' cliché. In short, she sources the acts for Dingle (as well as outings to different countries and festivals) by listening to as much music as possible, going to gigs, and visiting music industry events such as SXSW (South By South West) in Austin, Texas, and The Great Escape in Brighton.

"It's multi-genre, just good music," she says of the breadth of creativity that grants Other Voices a level of quality it would be dim-witted to dismiss. "Yes, it's my taste, but you need to acknowledge what's happening around you, so while you might not be into a particular artist, you have to give it a fair hearing."

Woodlock works away in the background, deliberately low-key, with her finger pressed firmly on the pulse of what is good now and what might be even better in a year's time. Much more visible is Annie Mac, the London-based Dubliner who is one of the most high-profile radio presenters in the UK. Indeed, so much in demand is she that she now has her own festival (Annie Mac Presents Lost & Found, which takes place in Malta next May) and a self-curated album series (Annie Mac Presents 2017, out November 29).

Initially unaware of the event's legacy and credibility - Mac has lived in the UK since the early 2000s, when Other Voices was little more than a fledgling annual occurrence - she said yes to Philip King's persuasive request to present Other Voices in the late 2000s after she "fell under his spell". She quickly began to appreciate its significance, and because of this wanted to bring "knowledge of the more upfront and cutting-edge acts to the line-ups over the years. Most of all I was interested in working in Ireland, with Irish people."

MayKay is a newbie in terms of presenting, perhaps, but she is just as emblematic of Other Voices' logic of approaching the best person for the right job. She has an impressive, skilful presence as a singer and performer within Irish rock music, having previously been a dynamic part of the defunct band Fight Like Apes. Now a full-time member of electro-pop group Le Galaxie, she recalls her first interview as an Other Voices presenter in Dingle two years ago with Mullingar's The Academic.

"A bit of me felt I was in at the deep end, but I realised very quickly that it was a purposeful way of doing things - to actually push me into it and see what happened. I'm grateful for that. A part of me wanted to say, 'will somebody tell me exactly what you want me to do', because I didn't want to do it wrong. It turned out there isn't a wrong way of doing it."

You could say that of Other Voices, too. The music event began in Dingle in 2001 with a wish, a prayer and a hope that comes from people with fanciful ideas about music's broad cultural remit, and how that same responsibility can be distributed both intellectually and geographically. Some might have flinched during its early years as the cosy home of the Irish singer-songwriter squad, but it has transformed beyond all reasonable doubt into Ireland's finest intimate music/cultural event.

"You look back at the footage from the early years," observes Woodlock concerning criticism of the festival as having been too dependent on indigenous singer-songwriters, "and it's still magnificent. Other Voices is a wonderful marker of a time and place, because it really does have a musical gauge."

Her expertise has efficiently altered the perception of Other Voices as being a singularly Irish event to having a broader immersive international impact. She wouldn't necessarily agree that its music direction has changed since her arrival. "I did what I was asked to do, which was to mix it up a bit more," she rationalises. Such logic may nicely downplays her input, but it is arguable that without her personal associations with the likes of Elbow, Snow Patrol, and The National, whether those bands would have agreed so readily to perform.

Woodlock works up to a year in advance, she discloses, underlining the sense of such advance planning by the booking 10 months ago of UK hip-hop star Loyle Carner, who, as a relative unknown, performed in Dublin's Workmans Club. Such acutely attuned ears (as well as a pair of eyes seeking out commercial potential) are essential ingredients of Other Voices.

There is another crucial component, of course, that ensures Other Voices is such a distinctive experience: musicians of every stripe and geographical location regard it with proportionate levels of respect. Mixing a hint of Darby O'Gill charm, a fierce sense of social independence and dazzling natural beauty with a non-invasive festival vibe is something not many musicians are exposed to. The acts on the line-up, from the smallest to the biggest, reveals Annie Mac, are looked after so meticulously they could not leave Dingle without feeling positive about their visit.

"It is a 360-degree experience of warmth and charm. Everyone is listened to with an open mind. It's also the aspect of adventure. Dingle is not a regular touring stop. Having to go the extra 100 or so miles into the wild, as such, is exciting and memorable. The combination of the beauty of the topography, the friendliness of the people and the atmosphere of St James' Church must be quite overwhelming when you are a weary touring musician."

Presenting Other Voices, too, has its own inherent traits, not least, observes Annie Mac, the importance of she, MayKay, and her BBC Radio 1 colleague Huw Stephens, instinctively conveying the sensibilities of not only the event and the music but also Dingle.

"The human aspect. The warmth. You can read a script all you like, but you have to mean what you're saying to be believable. I think the presenters are curated as carefully as the music, which is why it's such an honour to be a part of it."

There is honour, and there is also faith. It may take an empathetic interviewer to extract the right response from a musician, but when you're in a band yourself - à la MayKay - trust is implicit. How long does it take a musician to detect whether the interviewer knows their stuff?

"Ten seconds," she replies, without a moment's thought. The most important lesson learned since her presenting/interviewing debut, she admits, was to stop talking needlessly. "I'm not used to that. I also had to learn that I didn't have to show off by telling the musician all I knew about them. There's a bit of humility involved by keeping information about the musician's career and their music to yourself. Half the time I'm asking what I'm interested in, and the other half what I hope the person who knows nothing about them might be interested in."

Other Voices takes place in Dingle, Co Kerry, December 1-3 (www.othervoices.ie)

How to 'do' Other Voices

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St James Church in Dingle, Co Kerry
 

Assuming you’ve a warm bed in which to rest your head (if you haven’t booked somewhere by now, you’ll be sleeping under a very cold sky), you’ll be asking yourself the following questions: Where do I go? Which restaurants are the best to eat a meal between the music, the chat and the craic? Which pubs are the best to watch the music in — and which are the quirkiest?

And, perhaps the most important question for anyone not overly familiar with the eir Other Voices vibe: is watching the music unfold in St James’ Church really worth trying to beg, borrow or blag a ticket for?

The first thing to do when you arrive is to orient yourself. This won’t take long. Dingle has a small centre and Other Voices’ activity takes place (mostly) within it, with Main Street the primary hub and where St James’ Church (pictured) is located. Directly opposite the church is Benners Hotel, Lord Baker’s and Global Village restaurants, and the pubs Foxy John’s, Curran’s, Kennedy’s, Ashe’s, An Droichead Beag, and Geaney’s. The oddest pub? That would be Dick Mack’s, Green Street. Best restaurants off Main Street? Idás, John Street, and The Chart House, The Mall.

And finally — is it worth begging, or blagging a ticket for the church? Unless there’s a technical hitch in filming, which can interrupt performances, the answer is yes. As the performances are streamed live, however, most people watch the music from the comfort of a pub, which is the double whammy of having your Dingle-friendly cake and eating it.

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