Get your groove on for Cork Soul Fest

Cork Soul Fest returns later this month - getting the city into the groove for the end of the summer, and further solidifying a new entry in the annual festival calendar. Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with director Sinéad Dunphy and headliner Karen Underwood.
Get your groove on for Cork Soul Fest

Cork, get your groove on - Soul Fest is Back and running from August 26 to 28, headlined by Karen Underwood and Laoise Leahy.

For a city that has no shortage of genre-specific festivals - think its landmark annual folk and jazz blowouts and more recently, a recurrent reggae and ska weekender as well as now-recurring punk all-dayers - the idea of a soul-centred celebration sits right alongside other events that have made themselves at home on Cork’s festival calendar.

Staking its claim to closing out a long and hot summer for the city by the Lee is the second annual Soul Fest, happening August 26-28 at venues including Cork City Hall, and including performers like Laoise Leahy and beloved songstress Karen Underwood, as well as a Soul Train of performers rolling through the town centre (see panel for more info).

Launched with a photo-call at City Hall, and still to announce a number of other events and attractions, this year’s instalment of the event already bears all the hallmarks of ambition that director Sinéad Dunphy carries for the festival - rising to early encouragement and support.

“The tickets have been selling away, and I think a huge part of it has been, I suppose, making sure we're in a position to be able to give as many artists as we can a platform - and to do that, you need money.

“We've been actually on the hook with funding and city council have been really helpful in helping giving us the foundations and the infrastructure, the festivals, and but in terms of wanting to be able to pay artists, that's where, you know, we go with the begging bowl a little bit to try and get that support on the ground, and Heineken Ireland's new brand Island's Edge has just come through actually, and they've been really good to us, as have Cork Heritage Pubs with Benny McCabe.

“They see the value in supporting musicians, and the real talents in Cork. For us that has made a huge difference in terms of being able to go ahead now, book all of the acts and really look at the festival as a whole as something that will animate the whole of Cork city.”

 Karen Underwood headlining. 
Karen Underwood headlining. 

Last year’s instalment of the festival, as it happened, was able to transpire in person in limited circumstances, happening as it did during the lifted restrictions following lockdown and the Covid-19 crisis - and Soul Fest rose to the occasion, pulling together outdoor and limited indoor concerts to try and help raise the spirits of a city still reeling from the circumstances.

“We had only taken over the ownership of the festival in late 2019, and I had such incredible plans for the 2020 festival”, Dunphy says. “But once we got that announcement, you knew that everything was being pulled. I had planned on bringing the festival right across the city and all of that, and it was just a little bit of a detour, that moment of deflation, where all of your hopes and dreams come crashing down around you. I ran the festival that year, in a digital capacity only, and that year I actually commissioned Laoise to write a song and put together an incredible band under the musical direction of Paul Dunlea, and they did an incredible video for us. We premiered it as part of 2020 - running a little festival, like a miniature festival, from my living room with no support.

“In 2021, we were still in the depths of it, but you could see a little glimmer of hope. We were able to go and sit outside, there were small little markers showing, there's a way out here. It was sheer determination, and stubbornness, that I sat down with the team, and said, right, how do we do this? We put on two concerts, the max capacity [of the Triskel] with 38 people spread out - it was lovely to bring people together. I mean, we all cried on the first night, it was just so beautiful to be in a space and sharing music.

“We really made a big deal out of the Cornmarket Street block party, which was the first time we've ever done that for the festival. It was very emotional, I have to say, for all of us. We were there in our hi-vis jackets, and the walkie talkies. And the music moved us, we were busy dancing, rather than worrying about anything, and it was such a gorgeous day. I think that's what it comes down to. The first slap of the skin on the drum, or the first strum of the guitar, you're kind of going, 'oh my god', it's back. It was like a tonic, it gave me new life, it gave the festival new life. We saw that this festival could be big.”

It wasn’t just live events, either - the festival has also headed up an outreach campaign to DEIS schools in the city’s community response areas, including a musical experience with one of this year’s headliners, Chicago-born soul singer Karen Underwood, whose work with young people has tied together music and its appreciation with positive mental health, following the passing of her own son.

“We started an outreach program this year, we went out to one primary school, and three secondary schools. We discussed the process of mental health, and I shared some of my experiences - I put some music in a way that it would reach children, in a way to help them to open up. Now, this was an extension of work that I have been doing for the past ten years, voluntarily, to schools all over Cork, and I find that when you meet young people where they are, you get a better reaction.

“You allow them to share some of their stories, some of them would just hang around, out of sixty kids, you might get five, they just want to hang around, and they want to have a chat, or send me a message on Facebook, and some have been referred on for mental health support. And I just feel like, if I can help another family, not experience the loss that I had, it gives me hope, and it keeps my son's legacy alive. The stigma of mental health I feel needs to be erased, and people need to be able to say no, I'm not okay”

Work on this year's edition is well underway, in a much different world to the one we inhabited before and during the Covid crisis - getting back to the nitty-gritty of running a large-scale programme of events, then, comes down to the effort of festival heads, their supporters, and the wider community, including current and potential stakeholders, says Sinéad.

Festival director Sinéad Dunphy: "It should be about bringing the community together."
Festival director Sinéad Dunphy: "It should be about bringing the community together."

“We're very lucky to have the likes of Benny McCabe, who's such an avid supporter of live music, he's just pretty much just 'what can we do, how can we help?', and to have somebody like that leading the charge, from the business community side, all that is giving us hope. I have yet to diminish myself down to being a businesswoman. I think in my head, I'll always be an artist or an artsy person. That twenty-odd years ago, me doing this pub scene and gigging myself, you know what I mean? I don't think I'll ever give that up.

“When we're running a festival like this, we're not in it for money. From the venue management point, we see this as a civic duty, and to really show the festival as being a civic amenity, as I feel all festivals should be. They should be owned by the people of the city, and they should be run for the people in the city, and that's something that I've carried through no matter what festival I've ran, or been involved in. It should be about bringing the community together.”

Stepping up on stage for the second night of the headline events will be Karen Underwood, drawing on her reputation as a phenomenal live performer, backed by the cream of local genre talent. While much of her work has involved curating sets and shows through the filter of genre history and its deep ties to historic struggles, she’s devised a ‘Blue-Eyed Soul’ set this time around, drawing from the work of white artists from and adjacent to the world of soul.

“This concept came from a place of the heart. In 2019, I had planned to do this concert, because there were a lot of people I listened to over the years that if I close my eyes, I wouldn't care if they were black soul singers, or what kind of soul singers they were. I realised that for soul music to leave a legacy in Cork, and to sustain itself, when I'm not here anymore, Irish kids need to have a sense of 'this is my music, this is my music too'. There are no new musical notes, as far as I know, on the musical scale that we use, all music is borrowed from everywhere, and music is for unification purposes, for telling stories and sharing pain, and love and joy and suffering, all of that.

“ I thought about those artists, like for example, David Bowie who would have very much been interested in black American culture, and fashion, and music, and where he gets those bass riffs from, you know what I mean (laughs)? The Rolling Stones, people like Simply Red, the way they sing, the way they tell the story, the way it's often on the one, the feelings that I feel, how alive I become when I listen to their music - that's what made me curate the set exactly the way it has been curated.”

With Soul Fest 2022 a couple of weeks away, and with much of the lineup still to announce as of time of writing, there are exciting times ahead in the lead-up to the weekend, and the festival’s earnest, full-capacity return to venues and streets around the city.

“I really want people to know that it's here, it's going to get better,” says Ms Dunphy, “so get in now and really remember it from its fledgling stages, because you're going to come with us on this journey, everybody in Cork, whether they want to or not. I think this year in particular, to put Laoise Leahy and her band inside City Hall, to put Karen Underwood in there, that's a massive venue, and I'm trying to show my belief in these two artists, because they deserve big stages, they deserve big audiences.

“We have our two headliners, two formidable women, in the best possible way. I just want the people to come out and support these two incredible acts, because this is only the beginning of something really incredible with the festival.”

Adds Underwood: “I'm feeling really, really honoured to be a part of such a movement, and music, and such a progression to see it go from me, to the young ones that will share the stage with me on the day.

“I'm feeling really optimistic. Proud. I'm feeling a lot of love that I'm going to be giving and getting back from the people of Cork, and further afield, and I just want it to grow and develop.”

Soul Fest 2020 happens at venues around the city between Friday, August 26, and Sunday, August 28. For more info, visit soulfestcork.com.

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