We discuss this storied winter festival, and the values it holds as a “musical pilgrimage”, with its founder Philip King.
The saying that music is the universal language might be something of a cliché, but not without good reason. And in these fraught and often divisive political times, it’s worth reminding ourselves of the rallying, bridge-building power it possesses – whether it’s a hackneyed phrase or not.
Visiting Other Voices, a live music TV series-cum-festival usually based in Dingle, Ireland, find a home in the Welsh village of Cardigan over the weekend, it’s nigh impossible to think otherwise.
Other Voices began just shy of two decades ago, initially as the humble-sounding Other Voices: Songs from a Room, after its ardent founder Philip King told Glen Hansard, “‘Wouldn’t it be great just to take a photograph of the musical life of Ireland right now?’” Thus they packed St. James’ church with all the musical offerings they could and grew the event quite organically from there. They now have a team of around 120 and air the performances on the Irish broadcaster RTÉ.
Since its inception, it’s become something of a hidden gem for finding some of the most compelling new acts. And with an agreement in place between the Irish and Welsh governments, it will continue to make the journey over St. George’s Channel and take place annually in Cardigan for at least the next four years.
“I think the Other Voices model is about bringing people together, really,” Philip tells me in one of Cardigan’s cosy hotels. “What we’re talking about here is: what is music’s role? It’s not to say it’s everything, just to say it’s a help – it’s sort of a catalyst. Ultimately, it’s about respecting difference.”
Respect is a repeated part of the core philosophy of Other Voices, a word Philip mentions a lot; a respect it has for artists, which has garnered the festival a respect of its own among musicians. Since it began, the festival hasn’t just boasted headline sets from the likes of Amy Winehouse, Florence + The Machine, The xx, José González and Damien Rice, but showcased many of them before they were well-known.
As if to prove the point, Philip – an Irish Micheal Eavis, if you will, who has a story for a time he met virtually anyone in music in the last 50 years – reels off the humble tales of pre-stardom Winehouse asking for a packet of crisps before her performance in 2006, and a pre-O Damien Rice rocking up to the first year of the festival via a train and a bus.
Much of this credit goes to the show’s Music producer, Aoife Woodlock, who scours the world for talent, keeping her one step ahead of the next big act. For anyone in A&R, keeping tabs on the acts Aoife promotes is something of a cheat code.
This is part of what brings the festival’s unofficial slogan into reality: “We celebrate what’s about to happen and we capture what’s about to disappear”. (It’s a statement that stuck with Philip ever since his wife said it; and to give you a sense of the family setup of the event, two of the couple’s triplets also work for the festival).
“It’s about giving a platform and a stage,” he adds, “to somebody who wants to sing their song. We will ask invite them and never tell them, ‘You must sing this or that’. When they ask us, ‘What would you like?’, we say, ‘You just do whatever you want to do.’”
Philip says there isn’t so much a secret recipe to this scouting, but rather “a sensitivity to sound – you just feel it… The defining thing is not, ‘Who’s going to be the next big thing?’. It’s just that you hear something, you think, ‘That’s beautiful’, and you pick up the phone.”
This space afforded to artistic freedom creates a festival that’s hard to come across these days, and one which won’t cost you an harm and a leg to experience either. It’s virtually free from marketing speak. Free from number-chasing. Free from bullshit.
“It’s sort of alluring,” Philip says. “You have to be careful it doesn’t become something else, so [it’s about] keeping the balance right, where it’s all about the musician, all about the music… Music is at the heart of the matter.”
Sure enough, the artists on display – too lengthy and varied to give full justice to – is where proof of this lies. Take the electronic music of County Clare’s Dáithí, who combines synths, samples and the odd dash of violin to create a contemporary sound that’s steeped in Irish tradition; or Dublin singer and composer Rachel Lavelle, who similarly blends the old and the new with arresting charm.
Or there’s Cardiff rapper Juice Menace, whose lyrical dexterity and onstage presence defies her 21 years of age; or five-piece MELTS, who sound like a moody combination of New Order and fellow Dubliners Fontaines D.C. (who, of course, Other Voices have showcased before).
Derry three-piece CHERYM, meanwhile, have an ability to transport you back to your rebellious, mid-noughties, emo-loving phase; and Welsh composer Cerys Hafana is a multi-instrumentalist with a penchants for the ethereal-sounding triple harp.
One musical offering in particular embodies everything that Other Voices stands for: award-winning Welsh harpist Catrin Finch & world-class Dublin violinist Aoife Ní Bhriain, who played their first performance as a duo for the online Other Voices Cardigan show last year and have since continued their formidable musical relationship.
Watching them play among the headline acts in Cardigan’s St Mary’s Church was a moment of musical majesty. Beyond the meticulous attention to every respective strum and pluck of their instruments, the two in tandem represented a fusion of Welsh and Irish traditions. And, as Philip adds, “the intimacy of doing something like this post-COVID is fantastic. You’re there; if we were doing this two years ago, you’re on a screen. The sensation is different in a physical engagement.”
Fellow headline acts at the church were a sure reminder of this, too – and paid homage to local, regional and national cultures. Mercury-nominated artist Gwenno, who made history with her latest album Tresor – the first non-English album to get the nod for the award (it’s chiefly sung in Cornish, bar one song sung in Welsh) – kicked off proceedings.
Rapper Sage Todz, who spits in Welsh and English, soon followed, playing the likes of ‘O Hyd’, which has been reworked as a hype song for Wales’ forthcoming World Cup ambitions. Him and fellow Welsh rapper L E M F R E C K didn’t let the typically sedate church hold back the lively energy of their sets.
Representing South London, meanwhile, Poppy Ajudha showed why she is very much one-to-watch. No doubt she’ll one day be mentioned as another example of how Other Voices spot well-known industry names before they really take off.
The real star, however, who closed off the church acts, was mauvey. You might not yet heard of this Ghanaian-born, UK-raised, Vancouver-based artist just yet, but you will at some point. Draped in a bespoke, frilled and mauve-coloured robe, with mauve shoes of a different hue, he’s a truly unique new act, who journeys through pop, hyper-pop, rap and elements of funk, never letting you know quite where he’s going next. His deliverance is heartfelt without straying into the overly sentimental. His message of love, having dedicated his life to music in order to promote it, was befitting of the church environment.
I repeat: the musical offering at Other Voices really is too varied and eclectic to express succinctly, but the trust in the quality of curation is a thread that runs throughout. And for anyone ever at a loss for new music, predominantly hailing from the British Isles (even if you have followed our series on emerging artists) you’d be hard-pressed to not find yourself at Other Voices with a sense of glowing optimism about the future of music on these shores.
Philip, whose led what he calls in his thick Irish accent “a peripatetic life in music”, as a member of Irish folk group Scullion and something of an expert on the history of Irish music, reiterates the point that “what music does is collapses distances, it brings us together”.
“In my musical expedition across my life, I’ve seen that happen in so many places. I’ve seen it happen in bars and backrooms in Northern Ireland – when things were very heavy – and you’d find people on both sides together.”
To add to that sense of unity, the festival in Cardigan also hosts Clebran sessions, which as the Welsh translation suggests (“clebran” meaning to chatter), are talks designed to explore different cultures. The First Minister of Wales, Mark Drakeford, was on the panel for one – as people queued for him like any rockstar.
The popular politician described culture as “the soul of the relationship” between nations, and gave a humorous anecdote to demonstrate how we are often defined by what we’re not. The order of the day for much of our political backdrop in recent years is for that to be exploited to keep a select few in power. Drakeford’s words and recognition gave further credence to him being one of the few genuinely decent politicians out there.
An Irish, a Welsh and an English person walk into a bar. Were they all at Other Voices Cardigan, they’d sure be having good craic, a lush time, a top night. And will no doubt feel the ebullience of being immersed in other cultures, other sounds and other voices.