A mirrorball-loving partystarter rediscovers home in Westport
In the How Music Works series, Niall Byrne talks to people about their work in music. This week, Conor Wilson, booker with the Westport Arts Festival
Conor Wilson: Promoting music and putting on spaces for dancing and entertainment is something he’s always done. Photograph: Babs Daly
Earlier this year, Conor Wilson packed up his metropolitan Dublin life as commercial manager with Gay Community News (GCN) and co-founder of the gay club Mother and moved back to his hometown of Westport, Co Mayo, on a career break.
At first, it wasn’t an easy transition. Wilson moaned about the weather and complained about the lack of good coffee but as he settled into life an opportunity came up to book music at the Westport Arts Festival, which takes place this weekend.
“It wasn’t that I moved to Mayo with a grand idea of shaking up the music biz down here or putting on loads of events,” says Wilson. “It kind of happened organically where I was approached by people to to do that work and I’m glad they did. I stopped continuously moaning about the rain. I’ve actually started enjoying Westport and the countryside for all it actually has to offer.”
With shows happening this weekend from The Strypes, Kormac, The Stunning and Jerry Fish, Wilson found he had to embrace a more old-school version of music promotion, far removed from Facebook events and boosted posts.
“You have to be on the ground, actually handing out flyers, talking to people about the gigs and putting up posters. It’s taken me a long time to settle down here but this is the piece I was missing that is really integrating me back into the town. It’s very much, sit at the bar and buy Joe a pint because he is definitely going to bring 20 people to one of your gigs. It’s a politician’s approach to music promotion.”
Wilson is known as a partystarter. At house parties after club nights, Wilson became known as “Party in a Bag”, as he would often turn up to someone’s apartment or house with a mirrorball and lights.
Promoting music and putting on spaces for dancing and entertainment is something he’s always done. When he was 16, he invited his friends from school to his nightclub in his attic, DJing off cassette decks, playing the songs of the day, recorded from the radio.
“I used to steal old footballs, smash up mirrors and stick the pieces [on] and use them as mirrorballs in my attic. And then on a Friday night we used to go down and steal booze out of my parents’ cabinet.”
Years later, while working for GCN, as the revenue stream started to dip, as it did with all print publishing, Wilson drew from his experiences and the crew started a weekly club night to raise additional funds for the magazine. Mother started in 2010 and soon became the best-known gay club night in Ireland. After three years abroad, Wilson’s childhood friend Catherine Biggs came to the club for the first time.
“She burst out laughing in the club, and she was like ‘Conor, you do realise that we’re dancing around your attic again?’ and I was like ‘Oh holy shit, we are’,” he laughs. “It was just really funny to have that moment of clarity that, actually, this is really what they were supposed to be doing my whole life.”
Wilson continued working deeper in music promotion, organisation and artist liaison. He learned on the job, researching venue legalities, lighting rigs and fire safety, usually after a conversation with someone where he was pretending he knew what he was talking about.
“I definitely made mistakes along the way. You learn the hard way and having the freedom to make mistakes has stood to me the most because I am not going to make them again.”
Wilson and Mother always put their passion to the fore, in who they book or how they look after the talent, as he recounts when talking of the time when Swedish Eurovision winner Loreen performed at a Mother night.
On the way to the gig, the taxi driver had accidentally slammed her fingers in the door and Wilson was there to calm her down, after she felt her hand was so badly injured she couldn’t do the gig.
“I talked to her, soothed her injury, and as I was taking her ring off her two fingers, she warmed to me and was looking at me going, ‘You’re an Aquarian aren’t you?’ And I’m like ‘Yeah I am’ and she’s going ‘You’re going through some pain at the moment.’ I’m like ‘Well not as much pain as you are.’ ”
Wilson sees the potential to run regular gigs going forward, taking inspiration from the Mayo people, who know a thing or 13 about heartbreak, sourced at the All-Ireland finals at Croke Park.
“Everyone down here has been talking about the match and how we’re just going to look forward to 2018,” says Wilson. “No one’s really whinging. That is so admirable. It’s a community that builds itself on resilience and look towards the future.
“I got to be resilient myself and keep trying it down here until I break the back of it so I could stay here. I feel a bit like Wayne in Wayne’s World at the moment. It’s kind of like Jim Morrison and the naked Indian led me into Westport and told me ‘If you book them they will come’.”
Westport Arts Festival runs from September 27th until Oct 1st. westportartsfestival.com