Body and Soul: ‘It was a twinkle in my eye when I was 21’

Before yoga was cool, founder Avril Stanley was dreaming of a different kind of festival. This year, the party in the midlands marks its 10th anniversary

Body and Soul founder Avril Stanley:  “The acts we like are that little bit more unique. Headliners have never been part of our passion.” Photograph: Tom Honan / The Irish Times

Body and Soul founder Avril Stanley: “The acts we like are that little bit more unique. Headliners have never been part of our passion.” Photograph: Tom Honan / The Irish Times

 

It is so calm in Avril Stanley’s office that I wonder if I have come to the wrong place. “I need the quiet to think,” says the creator of Body and Soul, the music and arts festival that celebrates its 10th birthday this year. The more frenetic atmosphere is upstairs, where the rest of the team are working. This team will grow from a core of four full-time staff to 25, and to more than a thousand during the festival. Many have been with Stanley since the beginning.

For those of you who may not have been to the festival, which sprawls throughout the grounds of Ballinlough Castle in Co Westmeath each summer solstice, it’s a heady mix of music, art installations, yoga and massage, spoken word, experimental performances, gourmet food, and weird things in the woodlands. Last time I was there, smiling tattooed men in sequinned tutus competed in sack races, and Ireland’s leading sommelier gave a series of talks on champagne. Initially cynical (I can’t help it, it’s a defensive default) I was soon sucked in and smiling.

All this doesn’t seem quite so outlandish today, when mindfulness is a marketing concept, and Leo Varadkar hits the yoga mat and no one bats an eye; but cast your mind back 10 years and Ireland was a very different place. In fact, Body and Soul has an even longer pedigree than its decade of bringing partygoers to the midlands might imply. “It was a twinkle in my eye when I was 21,” recalls Stanley, who started dreaming of breaking Ireland’s then-festival mould of headline music acts, washed down with plenty of beer, back in the 1990s.

“I made a deal with my dad, that if I got an honours degree I’d be allowed to go travelling.” A degree in Italian and French followed, and “that was the end of Avril in Ireland for a very long time,” she says with a smile. Travelling the world, she made money in the usual ways, teaching English, bartending, waitressing, child minding. “And hair wrapping. Hair wrapping was the most lucrative, it hadn’t really come to France yet,” she laughs at the memory.

Stanley laughs and her blue eyes sparkle a great deal as we talk. She gestures with her hands, describing shapes in the air as she recalls the year of mud slides (unintentional), and dawn hot tubs (essential). There’s a vitality to her, that may explain how she sustains the long days and nights that it takes to put the festival, plus the Body and Soul area at the Electric Picnic, together each year. She puts it down to a passion for what she does, and regular meditation, taking 10 minutes each morning, more when she gets the chance.

Russian roulette

“I was one of those 20-year-olds that just didn’t seem to fit in,” the now 45-year-old says. “I remember going to a career guidance counsellor, and there were only traditional careers available. Everyone else seemed to be settling down, finding life partners, they seemed to know what they were doing. So I was off travelling, exploring, getting a real feel for what was outside Ireland. I do feel it’s a trade off,” she continues.

She also began to realise that beneath the overlay of generic civilisation – the culture of Starbucks and suits-to-work that exists in every city in the world – there are deeper expressions at play. “To be exposed to that was phenomenal, and to see how different cultures celebrated their rites of passage and traditions…” So, via a trip to the epic Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert, a wedding in India, and some research into the Celtic calendar, Stanley had a plan.

Decorated matchboxes in the Body and Soul office. Photograph: Tom Honan / The Irish Times
Decorated matchboxes in the Body and Soul office. Photograph: Tom Honan / The Irish Times

The first Body and Soul appeared as an area within the UK’s Big Chill Festival in 1998. Ireland’s festival visionary, the late John Reynolds, took note, and invited Body and Soul to join in at the inaugural Electric Picnic in 2004. “John was always ahead of the curve,” says Stanley. “But we had the proviso that we had the freedom to develop as an independent festival, that was our ultimate goal.”

A stint working with Bill Hauritz, director of Australia’s Woodford Folk Festival, followed, providing “the biggest training ground I ever had in my life,” and Body and Soul as we know it now was ready to be born.

If yoga was an alien concept to mainstream Ireland in the 1990s, so too was ready cash in 2010, when Stanley was planning her first standalone Body and Soul festival. “The recession had kicked off. Ireland was on its knees. I went to the bank, they said ‘no’. I went to sponsors, they said ‘no’. I went to people who I valued and they said ‘are you mad?’” So, how do you do a festival with no money? “Russian roulette,” says Stanley. “It’s that big a risk, and you can only do that kind of thing once in your life.”

Having split up with her partner, and with a new baby (her son Jarrah, now 10), Stanley had sold a house which provided some ready cash. “You have to be resilient. Ireland was sinking, and I thought: I have to build a ship. This was the ship.” Resilient is a word she uses frequently, and I get the sense hers has been frequently tested. So too has her optimism, which is ever-present. “The gods were on our side that weekend. We had 28 degrees. We had 1,800 people. And it really planted a positive energy in Ireland.

“You have to look fear in the eye,” she continues. “You have to befriend fear. Life doesn’t come without its challenges. It has its shadows. It’s hard won, you have to dig your feet in and go down into the depths of your own experience.” Stanley’s own experience also includes training as a mindfulness based psychotherapist, a shiatsu masseuse, and conflict resolution studies. The ideal CV for a festival promoter perhaps?

Magic and memories

Behind her as we talk is an array of matchboxes, sent in for a ticket competition. There’s a Child of Prague, a steampunk version, a gilded wishbone, a little vignette of tiny figures. I think one has his hands up, Stanley thinks he’s dancing. So music is only one element of Body and Soul, but the music industry has also changed with big promoters controlling the majority of the world’s major acts. It’s also an industry not famed for its generosity and kindness, which can make it harder for smaller, out of the mainstream events to manage.

“Music creates the container, it makes people feel safe. And yet the magic and the memories predominately come from a piece of art that blows their mind, or when you meet someone in a hot tub and start a conversation. Of course everyone would like to have Beyoncé,” agrees Stanley. “But the acts we like are that little bit more unique. Headliners have never been part of our passion, and we do lose acts, so it’s really important to stay fresh, and keep that sense of innovation.” As she moves on to describe the incredible music in Ireland, much of it under the radar that Body and Soul can tap in to, I realise that Stanley is a compelling mixture of strength and passion, and on-message efficiency.

“I thrive on it,” she says. “Business is tough. You have to hold the tension between creativity and the bottom line. Between us cultivating and encouraging a freedom of spirit and expression, and making it happen. You have to stand by it. And people have to show up. Had I known then what I know now about the music industry I wonder if I would have done it,” she muses. “I have had those moments when people were wondering where the man was behind me,” says Stanley. I ask her what she does when she has to pull out the don’t f***-with-me persona. “Yes, she’s there. In every woman there’s a nurturer and a carer, but there’s also a Kali,” she says, invoking the Hindu goddess of creation, destruction and power. “And she’s got fangs. If someone threatens what we believe in, she’s ready.”

American singer songwriter Santigold will play this year’s Body and Soul
American singer songwriter Santigold will play this year’s Body and Soul

As Body and Soul gears up for its 10th birthday, Stanley is keen to mark the festival’s role in shaping what we now consider par for the course today. “When we first started Body and Soul, we created something that didn’t exist in Ireland. We had yoga and sustainability initiatives way before they were cool. We saw them as fundamental pillars. We also wanted people to explore holistic arts, and take alternative realities home with them. Six months, or two years down the line, when you have that stress that’s too hard to handle, you have memories, opportunities to dig a little deeper, to step outside the known you, the habitual you.”

Speaking of home, I ask Stanley how she relaxes at the end of each festival. For the first time her animated face falls. “There is no afterwards. When you finish a festival and everyone goes home. There’s a small number of people, humans like me with flesh and blood that are left to take care of the debris…” And then they start all over again. 

Celebrating 10 years

Taking ritual as a theme, the first acts announced for Body and Soul’s 10th birthday include:

German electronic Modeselektor; French duo The Blaze; American singer songwriter Santigold and the Viennese Kruder & Dorfmeister with a 25th anniversary set. Irish acts include whenyoung, SOAK, Wyvern Lingo, The Clockworks and Mano Le Tough. Plus spoken word performer Kate Tempest, the ever popular Soul Kids, tasty Food on Board, and the seaweed recovery baths at The Sanctuary.

Body and Soul is at Ballinlough Castle, Co Westmeath, June 21st-23rd. Spring release weekend tickets are €199.50 plus booking fee. bodyandsoul.ie

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