Philip King: The power behind ‘Other Voices’

Philip King’s raison d’etre after 13 years running his hit televised concert series is still the same: ‘We provide a safe house for rambling troubadours from around the world. They find it inspiring and uplifting here’

Seismologists in the US have noticed strange tremors and shakes coming from across the Atlantic, where the ocean meets landfall on the edge of Europe. The location of the quake appears to be a west Kerry hamlet called Baile na nGall (or Ballydavid).

Activity seems to crank up every Sunday night at exactly the same time, when The South Wind Blows goes out on RTÉ Radio 1.

Tiny though the source is, boy, does it register on the Richter Scale. And here arrives the epicentre himself, breezing into Clement and Pekoe’s teashop in Dublin, brimming with words, energy and ideas.

Philip King is a slight, neat man in his early 60s, tousle-headed, wearer of a moustache that has been unmoved by the whims of fashion. He is an instantly recognisable figure as much for his unmistakable husky voice as anything else.


When the idea came up for a big night of music, culture and craic to coincide with last year's State visit to England of President Michael D Higgins, organisers turned to King to curate the Ceiliúradh concert in the Royal Albert Hall.

He was the natural person to do it, what with his own background as a musician with Scullion, as a documentary-maker, as a networker, as a music radio presenter, and as a promoter of extraordinary music festivals and events.

King’s whole career has been about exploring how Irish music and culture has reached out – that small geographical place that has a global reach. What happened with Ceiliúradh was unforgettable, and a game-changer for King.

He loves the saying that music makes audible the thing that gradually become visible. “There is a young demographic who are incredibly connected. When they came together, the visceral human contact is different. That is innate, and I saw it when I did the Ceiliúradh for Michael D. There was a dispersed Irishness that was pulled together by a remote bonding that is called music.”

King first explored that phenomenon in a meaningful way in his extraordinary 1991 documentary Bringing It All Back Home. His output since has included memorable documentaries on John McGahern, Liam Ó Floinn, Seamus Heaney, Nigel Kennedy and the prodigious Canadian musician and one-time U2 producer, Daniel Lanois.

Wind blows in Kerry

King moved to west Kerry about a quarter of a century ago, from whence have emerged two other impressive musical projects: the long-running

The South Wind Blows

and, of course,

Other Voices,

now in its 13th year.

This encapsulates a lot of what King is great at: his ability to persuade musicians (from world famous to up-and-coming, from traditional to rock'n'roll) to play for free to an audience of no more than 80 in a tiny venue – St James' Church in Dingle.

Fourteen years ago, by chance, Glen Hansard and The Frames were in Dingle recording an album. Hansard and King got to talking about hosting something.

“In a short space of time, we had gathered a list of musicians,” King says. “RTÉ came on board. We said, let’s go and do this thing.

“The raison d’etre is the same over 13 years. We provide a safe house for rambling troubadours from around the world. They find it inspiring and uplifting here.”

The track record bears that out, including Amy Winehouse's phenomenal gig and extraordinary performances from Ellie Goulding, Jarvis Cocker, The National and others. There has been the mentoring of emerging Irish talent from Hansard, to Damian Rice to Conor O'Brien of Villagers, and Hozier, who played 14 moths ago just as he was on the cusp of frame.

The latest series includes a spine-tingling performance from the French-Cuban twins Ibeyi. Actor Aidan Gillen presents the show and was recently joined by BBC 1 DJ Hew Stephens. Other Voices has also established a presence at Latitude and Electric Picnic.

Such a tiny venue, but what is produced is far bigger, with a reach far behind our shores, through the TV series that has grown out of it, but also increasingly through new platforms, particularly podcasts, internet video and audio channel.

For example, Hozier's performance of Take Me to Church has had some 2.5 million views on YouTube – despite the lack of decent broadband in west Kerry.

“In the west of Ireland and in west Kerry, there is a new leaving and exodus going on. We have a new Minister for the Diaspora, and the aim is to bring people back. But how are we going to do that if we don’t have that kind of connectivity? We desperately need a broadband infrastructure if we are to entice people to stay.”

This is a prelude to a wider point King wants to make. What is needed to attract people in, to draw emigrants back home, he says, is the kind of infrastructure and supports that will give the place a chance to compete with the bigger urban centres.

That’s about more than just roads and grants. It is, firstly, about being imaginative in terms of your approach. There is such huge potential in tourism, in music, in arts and culture in the West, but they lack proper communications, worked- through programmes, strategies that are sensible and can be implemented.

Always a struggle

The truth about

Other Voices

is that, phenomenally successful as it is, it struggles every year to wash its own face.

King's argument is that Other Voices provides a big boost to Dingle and its hinterland. The reputation of the festival (the Guardian is now an official partner) put Dingle on the map.

“My plea, really, is I am not a supplicant. If this thing is understood from a cultural, strategic and political perspective, there is something [in our music, culture and landscape] that marks us out as being truly inspirational and uplifting.

"Musicians of the world come and sit there. Amy Winehouse was as good as she ever was. The question is, can we do it again and again. We need to be strategic and engaged."

You sense a new mission, the first tremors of another earthquake when King says that any new 1916 Proclamation would have to involve artists and musicians.

“Those people . . . make a hugely invaluable contribution to Irish society and life. In the Celtic Tiger we lost sight of a pluralistic, integrated society. We can see and hear and deduce from those people what a fairer and more balanced and more human Ireland could be.”

RTÉ1 will screen Best of Other Voices on Sunday, March 22nd. The new series will run Sundays beginning April 12th