'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".
Power behind the throne
Other Voices' expansion elsewhere speaks of well-placed ambition and well-deserved acclaim, not to mention Philip King's powers of persuasion. He and Woodlock are the power behind this kingdom's throne, and the festival is the gleam in King's eye. Their energy and enthusiasm drive it, rippling out into the peninsula, a place of 2,000 people.
This sense of place is at the heart of the festival. The Dingle peninsula is arguably at its most beautiful in winter, when the weather plays across the vast sky and the day’s last rays of sun punch spotlights on the Atlantic Ocean. The dozens of pubs buzz with musicians and fans, media and music-industry heads, and those here just for the atmosphere. All year they’ve been talking about the Gathering; Other Voices has been here for 12 years.
"When did you take your first pint?" a young barman in Curran's says to an older customer. "Oh, I would have been 16, I suppose." A man at the bar interjects: "That would have been 1968, 1969. Was that the year of the film?" Yes it was, and the film being made was Ryan's Daughter. A signed photograph with a heartfelt note from Robert Mitchum winks in its frame behind the bar. In most of the other bars, the locals have a great game: when strangers come in they ask them if they're famous.
Other Voices is a boon for the town. Locals who run cafes, restaurants and holiday accommodation that would otherwise be dormant talk about how valuable it is. The Music Trail, a relatively new addition, populates the town with free gigs day and night, giving a platform to up-and-coming acts and an opportunity for those without tickets to the church to see some live music. It could be an MC kicking out raps at An Droichead Beag with Nanu Nanu, or Maud In Cahoots playing an acoustic set at Dingle Brewing Company.
The church concerts, streamed live online and filmed for RTÉ’s TV series, which is presented by Aidan Gillen, are also shown on large screens around town, so everyone can warm their hands at the musical fire. Music is even piped into the streets through speakers attached to lamp posts.
Kathy Scott, producer of The Trailblazery and the Ireland-Iceland Project, is at Other Voices for the first time. “I think the setting is completely magical. I loved the integration between musicians and everyone: a fisherman talking to a popstar, it’s all very free. It’s a pilgrimage. You can see artists have a far-away look in their eye, that they’re alive and delighted to be there.”
Scott makes the point that Other Voices is also refreshingly free of advertising. Although it receives support, brands and logos are barely in evidence. “For me with my producer hat on, it’s really refreshing to see how authentic it is. There are no beer sponsors, so it retains its purity.”
Other Voices is moving into the second decade of its life, pushing out to Derry and abroad. Its teenage years could be awkward, but it will always have the comfort of moving home close to Christmas to the Co Kerry town where it all started out as "songs from a room". "There is a magic out there, touching base in Ireland," says David Gray. "It's a powerful thing."
It’s a powerful thing.
From Hollywood to heartbreak: Banter at Other Voices
Jim Carroll's curation of his Banter sessions is second to none, but it's his interviewing style, showcasing a depth of knowledge and an ability to guide conversations down roads less travelled, that makes the conversations so engaging. We would say that, given that he writes and blogs for 'The Irish Times'. But Other Voices' series of Banter conversations ran the gamut from Hollywood to heartbreak, with plenty in between.
David Gray seems to be on the cusp of a second coming, and he is in unsparingly analytical form at Foxy John’s. Speaking about the way audiences bring something else to his music, he says that what emerges is greater than the sum of its parts. “I’m always looking for the soul in music, the part that I don’t own, where I exceed the limits of myself.”
On his new work, he says, he is delighted to be getting away from “the crucified middle-aged man”. Working with the producer Andy Barlow, of Lamb, has been a challenging process, to watch his work “being ripped up and replanted so something else could grow out of it”.
David Arnold has some personality parallels with Gray. He's very good and very confident about his work, but he wears it lightly: he has the witty, easy air of a man whose music speaks for itself. Talking about getting the gig to score James Bond films, he says: "I went from being the next John Williams to being the next John Barry. "
Dealing with the likes of Adele, or enormous projects such as the opening ceremony of the London Olympics, are enjoyable, he says. “This thing here is terrifying,” he adds, waving towards the church. “I don’t play on my own. What am I doing here?”
Actor Jack Reynor is also in town, and gives a revealing and amiable look at life at the top of the Hollywood studio system. But there’s little doubt who this year’s Other Voices superstar is.
John Grant’s chat with Jim Carroll begins with a typically blunt question about The Czars: “When did you realise everyone in the band hated each other?”
In an unflinching and terrifically warm session, Grant talks about falling in love for the first time at 40, which “came as a shock . . . getting that tingle in my toes”.
He talks at length about his upbringing and his long journey to getting to like himself, which involved “chipping away at all the shit caked around my heart”.
For his next album he’ll be drawing on his experiences of his 20s, probably the darkest period in his life. “I don’t care if it’s palatable or not. I just need to let it happen.”
If Grant is breaking hearts, Alice Maher is shattering an illusion – that an artist needs to have an ego. She is more down to earth than you might think would be possible for a creator of her calibre. She documents her roundabout way to art school, a course in European studies, living in a tent and picking bulbs in the Netherlands, an HDip and a chance encounter with an art-college head who needed someone to make up the numbers for an upcoming course. “Anyone could do it,” she says of what she does, with some “ah here” laughter from the crowd.
At Banter, as at Other Voices, with the division between audience and artist gone, she relaxes into a casual discussion, pish-poshing the idea that she influences younger artists, and affirming that she’s happy to be on the outskirts of Ireland’s artistic influence – perhaps without realising that she’s really at the core.