AS Kenny Hanlon recounts the origins of the Open Ear Festival on Sherkin Island, it’s easy to tell how organically it came together.
“Basically Chris Chapman, the founder of the festival, was on a camping visit to the island and that set off the idea — it was originally going to be a small party for an extended group of friends and musicians and instead morphed into a full-blown festival.
“While there are many Irish festivals, there wasn’t really one that focused on the music we loved — experimental and left-field electronic music — and there was a huge amount of Irish artists and musicians who rarely, if ever, get to perform their music in a festival environment.
“A fair few of us had previously travelled to festivals such as Unsound in Poland, that was hugely inspiring too, with really astute programming. The party sat side-by-side with the weird in a really exciting and inspiring way.”
Hanlon credits the people who live on the island for the festival’s development.
“Open Ear wouldn’t exist anywhere else. Musically, the festival has been able to expand as the residents of Sherkin offered us access to more locations on the Island.
“We can present some site-specific works that artists create for the festival. We can put on intimate concerts in the community hall or St Mona’s Church which would be harder to make work in the main North Shore location.
“With that said, the fundamental ethos behind the festival is still the same. All Irish, and only one stage with musical performances at any one time.”
Someone with a foot in both camps is Juno Cheetal, an electronic musician who was raised on the island. Like many artists, she has had a circuitous career. “I started off doing soundtracks for theatre productions and student films when I was studying sound design in London at Goldsmiths College. I spent most days making samples from BBC sound effects records, orchestra recordings and other records.
“I then did a music technology and sound engineering course in Dublin, played keyboards in a few bands, and returned to London to do a diploma in film-scoring alongside playing gigs with my own music, which then turned into (after a few name changes!) Flowers At Night.”
Sometimes getting a break in the music industry requires a bit of feverish ‘right place, right time’ networking, in Juno’s case it came while relaxing in her parent’s house. “I was having dinner with my folks on Sherkin and heard music coming from over the hill next to our house, which was loud and really good. It turned out to be the first year of Open Ear, I had no idea that there was a music festival happening on the island and even more amazed at a festival playing a more leftfield type of music so I contacted the organisers and sent them some music, and I’ve been programmed by them since.”
Juno recognises a real quality of Open Ear’s dynamic. “The feeling of being part of a musical community is very important. I spent so much of my time on my own making music with headphones on, it can feel very isolating, so playing alongside other people is great, it makes us feel connected and supported!
“It’s very inspiring to watch other people play, hear other types of music, and to see their stage set-ups. It’s a very unique festival in a unique place, free of that corporateness that other music festivals have. It’s very easy to get around and meet everyone there, and being on an island gives you an extra feeling of freedom!”
It takes a lot of preparation to make the festival seem so casual, especially since the programme of events has grown year on year, as Hanlon — who has performed or worked at every edition of the festival — notes. “There’s a pretty big crew of us now, from the team of bookers, programmers and production team, it is expanding every year. I think there has been a team of about 10 of us working on it in some capacity since late last year to bring around this year’s event, and obviously as we get closer that team grows as the jobs keep piling up.
“Many of us are in some way connected to various music and/or art scenes, but within that it’s still pretty varied.
“Some of the crew had a lot of previous festival experience, some of us none... bar going to them!”
This year Hanlon is also on the lineup, as well as helping putting the festival together.
“I’m lucky enough to be DJing on Sunday night when — fingers crossed — all my work is done. My phone might even be off!
“I’m both excited and a bit nervous as I know I’ll have just had a week of little sleep and hard work behind me, but the adrenaline alone would get anyone through. Playing in this sort of environment is pretty rare for me.”
As a music fan, and record label owner (Apartment Records), Hanlon is also looking forward to seeing the festival’s performers.
“There’s a good few that I’ve not seen live before that I’m really looking forward, including Garies, Son Zept, and Woven Skull.
“Áine O’Dwyer is returning with a concept performance created especially for the festival, called ‘Accompaniment For Captives’, which I think is going to be rather special.
“Also I’m really happy to finally have Jennifer Walshe at the festival, she’s a totally unique artist and performer.”
- Open Ear runs from Thursday, May 30, to Sunday, June 2, on Sherkin Island. Tickets and other information can be found at openair.ie.