TradFest 2018: 'It’s a traditional festival at this stage, rather than a festival of traditional music'
Meet the man behind annual Temple Bar festival, and we chat to Maria Doyle Kennedy and Wallis Bird
TradFest, the annual celebration of traditional and folk music from home and abroad, includes an impressive line-up this year and promises to deliver a little musical treasure for everybody in the audience, writes Chris Wasser
Kieran Hanrahan doesn’t get nervous around this time of year. That happens much earlier — when the TradFest line-up is still coming together. A fortnight before the festival kicks off, however, is when things start to get fun.
“It’s more excitement than nerves,” says Hanrahan, TradFest’s long-standing artistic director. “I mean, we’ve been working on this for 11-and-a-half months!”
Indeed, no sooner has one TradFest closed its doors then planning for the next round commences. We are, of course, talking about Ireland’s premiere celebration of homegrown, and international, traditional and folk music. Actually, if you’ve been paying attention these past 13 years, you’ll know that TradFest is about so much more than, well, trad. There’s room for pop, world music, soul, Americana, R&B, rock ‘n’ roll — you name it, they’ve got it covered.
Resuming business on January 24, this year’s TradFest once again occupies a host of venues in and around the Temple Bar area. It’s here for five days and nights. There are big names on board (Judy Collins, Martha Wainwright, Brian Kennedy, Moya Brennan). And, as usual, the festival has thrown a few surprises our way (The 4 of Us and Wallis Bird join the new trad fold). We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: TradFest almost always delivers a little musical treasure for everybody in the audience.
They call it ‘radical trad’, apparently. We’re talking traditional tunes and the purest of the pure, sharing centre stage with something a little more… experimental. Hanrahan — a former member of Stockton’s Wing and presenter of RTE Radio 1’s Ceili House trad show — is used to explaining the surprise entries on the bill. Better still, audiences appear to be getting used to enjoying them, too.
“We’re a very, very broad church,” says Hanrahan. “It’s ‘trad without frontiers’, and we’re delighted to be actually at that stage. It’s called TradFest, yes, but it’s a traditional festival at this stage, rather than a festival of traditional music, if you know what I mean. We feel that we’re on the map.”
TradFest is always one of the first music festivals of the year. It has the city to itself, basically, merging international heavyweights with hopeful Irish talent.
“We always like to have a good mix,” explains Hanrahan. “Yes, the ‘heavyweights’ probably do get people looking at it and saying, ‘God, these people are serious,’ and it has taken us a while, I suppose, to get that credibility.
“It’s just important to have a mix. I mean, it’s been running for 13 years, so you’d nearly have every Irish band, sort of in and out a couple of times, if you just kept with the whole Irish scene. Nostalgia plays a big part in this as well.”
You can’t argue with that. The nostalgia factor is one of the reasons TradFest always makes room for, say, the aforementioned Stockton’s Wing. It’s the reason why TradFest continues to have a little fun with its annual front-row sessions gigs — a fully
produced series of affordable afternoon/evening concerts, featuring Paddy Casey, The Dublin Legends and The Fureys, among others, playing in some of the city’s best pubs. It’s all about checking in early and getting the trad treats off to a rollicking start.
This year’s festival also features a songwriting masterclass with John Spillane, the Temple Bar TradFest Music Trail, a musical tribute concert to the late, great Eamonn Campbell of The Dubliners (“We want to remember Eamonn,” says Hanrahan, “a fantastic musician and a really kind gentleman.”), a free IMRO conference, a TradKids bill and much, much more.
Whatever’s going on, it’s important for Hanrahan to keep an ear close to the ground. “We’re constantly looking at what’s happening, what’s coming and, indeed, we have a huge commitment to the up-and-coming bands,” he explains.
This year’s free Live at the Hub concerts at the Old Storehouse, Crown Alley, feature six new Irish acts, one of whom will win a prestigious slot at the Milwaukee Irish Fest 2018 (one of the largest celebrations of Irish and Celtic music in the world), not to mention a place on the TradFest 2019 programme.
Oh, and 25 different festivals from across America, Europe and Australia will be touching down on TradFest turf, to examine the goods.
Indeed, Hanrahan and his team have pulled out all the stops. It’s what you might expect — especially from Hanrahan, after almost a decade at the TradFest table.
“It feels like a lifetime at this stage,” he finishes. “I feel so part of it, I’ve stopped the counting the years!”
Maria Doyle Kennedy is coming to TradFest. One of Ireland’s most acclaimed artists talks influences, pre-show rituals and dream duets…
Maria, you’ve been fortunate enough to carve out a successful career in both music and acting. But if you had to pick just one…?
“The two artistic mentors in my life, Patrick Scott and Patti Smith, taught me that your whole life is your art. The songs you sing, the stories you tell, the meals you share, the people you love. Others may want to focus on one bit of it more than another, but from my point of view, it’s all coming from the same well: me.”
Who was the artist that made you want to become a musician?
“Hearing Billie Holiday’s voice sort of changed everything. I had always loved music and would sing along to the radio or whatever I heard. Music could cheer you up, console you or make you dance… but her voice explained deeper things about the world: pain and tenderness and absolute honesty.”
If you hadn’t pursued a career in arts, what do you think you would have done instead?
“My mother always thought I’d be a teacher. I’m an eldest child (code for ‘has the potential to be bossy’) and I have a big voice…”
Do you have any pre-show rituals?
“Desperate panic is my only constant pre-show companion.”
What’s top of your tour rider?
“We have just started to ask folks to write down some jokes. Arriving into a venue and reading jokes, no matter how long or awkward the journey to get there, is its own entertainment. Honey is also up there…”
If you could share the studio with just one of your musical heroes, who would it be?
“Mimi Parker, singer in the band Low. The most beautiful voice in the world.”
Which traditional Irish folk artist has had the biggest influence on your songwriting?
“I am just discovering the songs of Elizabeth Cronin and it is opening a new world to me, but probably Donal Lunny has been the closest and most consistent presence in our lives. Kieran, my husband, made an album with him in the Nineties and we’ve had the chance to perform and collaborate with him a few times since. I’m always interested in what he is making and the sheer joy of his bouzouki playing.”
Maria Doyle Kennedy is live at St Werburgh’s Church on Saturday, January 27 @ 8pm. Tickets: €21.99
The inimitable Wallis Bird journeys home this month for what should be a stormer of a gig at TradFest. But first, Wallis takes a moment to talk musical memories, life on the road and trad heroes…
Germany has been your home for several years now, Wallis. What’s the biggest thing you miss about living in Ireland?
“I miss all of Ireland. Being away makes me see more clearly what I love about it. I like to romanticise about what I love in life and right now, I’m having a romantic period about moving back to Ireland and buying a shed in a field and being a hermit in the west for a while, which I imagine might happen this year. I miss the people.”
Did you ever have a plan B?
“Yes, and absolutely not! I’d be a nightliner or long-distance truck driver, because it’s interesting, can be fun, quiet, wild and responsible solo work, and landscape is a beauty to behold. But realistically, no, I don’t have a plan B because I don’t see music as a job, it’s my being and doing, my soul. I’ve loved and enjoyed where the path has taken me this whole time. I never stop learning and music is everything in this life for me. Also, it’s f***ing brilliant craic!”
Which artist made you want to become a musician?
“Roly Daniels. I was about six, and it was my very first live concert, at the town’s annual festival, Strawberry Fair Enniscorthy. My dad and I walked hand in hand up from our pub, up through Slaney Street, through the crowds and, finally, onto the town square to see this “top-notch entertainer”. And there he was, a debonair, handsome man with a cheeky smile, dressed in a smart white suit, flirting away with the crowd he held in the palm of his hand. And what a f***ing voice! I love this memory.”
You’ve got a busy few months ahead on the road. What’s your favourite thing about being on tour — and your least favourite?
“My favourite things are the travelling, the company, the tunes on the road, the banter, getting to the venue, meeting new people, feeling the vibe of the room, enjoying some nice food together, then blowing the f***ing heads off people and getting into bed with a smile on my face that I get paid to do this! Least favourite thing: an unhappy crew — rare, but heartbreaking.”
This is TradFest, so tell us, who are the traditional Irish artists that have had the biggest influence on your music?
“Liam Ó Maonlaí, Iarla Ó Lionáird, Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh, Wexford Academy of Irish Dancers, Sharon Shannon for songwriting, John Murray for guitar playing, Mary Black for the killer tunes and Kila for the rave!”
If you could share the stage with any of your heroes, who would it be?
“All of the above, and my mam and dad. It’d be a gas show!”
Wallis Bird is live at Whelan’s on Wednesday, January 24 @ 8pm. Tickets: €21.99
TradFest 2018 runs from January 24– 28. For a full programme of events, visit www.tradfest.ie