‘This thing is terrifying. What am I doing here?’
On paper Other Voices is a music festival, but when its series of concerts in a tiny Dingle church mixes with the buzz and banter of the Co Kerry town, it becomes something much more magical
Choice voices: Hozier at an acoustic session. Photograph: Rich Gilligan
Choice voices: David Gray plays an acoustic kitchen set. Photograph: Rich Gilligan
Choice voices: John Grant, who held a beautifully honest Banter session. Photograph: Rich Gilligan
Choice voices: St James’s Church, Dingle. Photograph: Rich Gilligan
Choice voices: Aidan Gillen and Willis Earl Beal on the beach. Photograph: Rich Gilligan
‘It’s no good making art for yourself. It lives when somebody sees it.” The artist Alice Maher is sitting in front of an open fire in the back room of Foxy John’s pub-cum-hardware store, in Dingle, with Jim Carroll during a Banter session. This is the talking shop that forms the intellectual backbone of the Other Voices festival, save for some late-night solving of the world’s problems at Benners Hotel after the gigs at St James’s Church.
It’s west Co Kerry in winter, and the chats and tunes are mighty. A tipping point, that’s what they call it. Wandering up the main street to an acoustic session by the Icelandic musician Ásgeir, Aoife Woodlock, the festival’s music producer, feels a change in the mild evening air. They’ve been making this kind of art here in December for a dozen years, and now it’s living ferociously, as more and more people get to see it.
Other Voices has had a cracker of a year. It expanded to London but first to Derry, via the “imaginary line of longitude that links Dingle to Derry”, according to the festival’s main man, Philip King – everything he says comes out as filíocht. Back in Dingle, though, Martin Byrne is “getting there” on Thursday night. He’s part of the crew packed into the tiny church to get it ready. This is the calm before the storm.
Little about Other Voices makes a lot of sense. Its location is a small Kerry town with many charms but no purpose-built music venues or infrastructure. Tickets are almost impossible to find, because they are now all given away. It’s held in a church, hardly the most rock’n’roll of venues. The gigs are short, the audience has to sit politely in the pews, and the festival takes place in the dark days of December, when most people are plotting how to survive Christmas, never mind trekking off to west Kerry to try to talk their way into a tiny church.
Then there’s the logistics of getting the bands into town. Most seem slightly thrown that they’ve landed down here. Some stay for less than 24 hours. The ones with the wisdom to stay a bit longer start to get it. Josef Salvat, a newcomer with some killer pop songs in his well-tailored pocket, spends a few hours rehearsing in Benners, behind a partition next to guests eating chowder in the restaurant.
“The whole thing is incredibly special,” he tweets. “Just watching tonight’s performance and can’t believe I’m part of it. The town itself, the church, the music, the people – this place is just so beautiful.”
Beauty is common here. Later, one of his band chats in the smoking area of Benners about John Grant’s beautifully honest Banter session, while the drummer drinks Baileys. After his set of bewildering, raw bar blues, Willis Earl Beal strolls across the road and hits it off with the locals. Late in the night he’s sitting at a piano, trying to teach two of them a song. The last time Ellie Goulding was here she came back to write an album. The National tried to change their flights to stay for a holiday.
John Grant, who delivered the weekend’s best performance – if not the festival’s best ever set – said that after his participation in the London outpost of Other Voices he’d do anything for the crew, even if it meant coming to Dingle just to hang with them “in the foetal position”.