We chat to the woman behind Cork's Sounds for a Safe Harbour festival

Former CEO of Cork Opera House, Mary Hickson, was born and raised in Fermoy, but now she travels the world working with international musicians, and her mission is to put Cork on the map as a musician-friendly town, writes ELLIE O’BYRNE
We chat to the woman behind Cork's Sounds for a Safe Harbour festival
Mary Hickson, the curator of Cork's Sounds From a Safe Harbour Festival.Picture. John Allen

MANY children grow up dreaming of the glitz and glamour of life as a world-famous pop star.

But Mary Hickson knows the reality of the lifestyle touring musicians really face: endless hours of travelling between cities that become a blur, punctuated by high-intensity bouts of pressure to perform.

“Especially the more established artists, they really don’t have a great time when they’re on the road,” the curator of Cork’s Sounds From A Safe Harbour (SFSH) Festival, says.

“It’s cut and paste, on to the bus, the same thing over and over. It’s really boring and repetitive and can be quite challenging.”

And Mary, who lives in Cork with her husband and two children, is setting out to give 70 musicians a completely different experience when she brings them to Cork for the forthcoming festival. SFSH, for the third time, is due to bring internationally known musicians, artists and performers of a staggering calibre to the Rebel City.

The biennial festival is co-curated by Mary, twins Bryce and Aaron Dessner, from Cincinnati, rock giants The National, playwright Enda Walsh and Cork actor Cillian Murphy.

Appearing among the acts at the festival, which encourages new collaborations amongst musicians, will be Damien Rice, Lisa Hannigan, Feist, DJ/Producer Jon Hopkins, Richard Reed Parry from Arcade Fire, and a host of other acts, all appearing in Cork’s small venues.

“This is a new perspective; all these musicians get to stay for a week,” Mary says.

“Sleep if you want, be around your community, cry if you need to. We provide time and space and zero pressure. The new music that comes takes time. We wait and see what emerges and nurture it to some sort of output.

“It’s very artist-facing and we don’t want to compromise on that. No offence to the audience, but it’s artist first. And when the artists are happy and making amazing music, the audience will get to see something magic.”

The Fermoy native, who attended Loreto Secondary School in the North Cork town, may have built an impressive network of heavy-hitting contacts in the past few years in her work as a festival curator and events manager, but it still gives her some “pinch yourself” moments from time to time, she says.

But her children are oblivious.

“Samuel is 13 and just started secondary school and Molly’s just gone into sixth class,” she says with a smile.

“I don’t think they really realise how cool it is that they’re backstage with Arcade Fire, hanging out with The National, going to see Bon Iver. They got to hang out with Iggy Pop at a festival in Copenhagen I was working at.

“I have a shelf of 60 signed records for them and they couldn’t care less. I hope at some time in their lives they understand how interesting it is; they definitely don’t get it now.”

Originally, a music career of her own beckoned for Mary when she finished school. She moved to Cork city to study music at UCC, where she first worked in Cork Opera House, behind the bar at the Half Moon Club, then one of the city’s quality music venues.

“It was never the plan to end up at this side of the stage,” she says. “I did seven years of studying music, with the hope and intent that I’d be on the stage. I went to UCC as a piano and violin player and came out a percussionist; I studied in Ghana. I’ll always miss playing; I was teaching for years in UCC and it’s kind of therapeutic to bang a drum. But I don’t have regular time available to teach or play at the moment.”

But Mary says the insight from her own experience as a musician is enormously helpful in the career she has carved out for herself.

“It helps that I understand it from the performers’ perspective,” she says.

“You know what their needs are. In the arts, I find a lot of the better curators and producers have practiced the craft themselves, be that acting or dancing or music; they have that experience to come at it from the other side.”

Moving to Dublin following a Masters in UL, Mary worked on festivals, ran a venue, and ended up managing the critically acclaimed contemporary group Crash Ensemble.

But, having met her husband, architect Luke Hickson — born Wojtaskiewicz, to Polish parents, he took Mary’s name — when the time came to raise their family, Mary knew there was no place like home; in 2009, they moved back to Cork.

“As soon as I had my first kid I wanted to get out of Dublin,” she says.

“The crash came. My husband is an architect and we had to make a decision. When we came back, I had to get to know Cork again in a different way, as a mother and as a professional, because I had only been a student here.

“Having worked in the arts in Dublin, the thing that struck me most when I started working in Cork was the DIY mentality in the arts sector is astounding. And I feel like SFSH fits in with that.”

It was during her five-year stint as CEO of Cork Opera House that she first made contact with Bryce Dessner from The National.

“I sent him a Facebook message,” she says with a laugh.

“It was 2010 and it seemed OK to do that back then.”

To her surprise, Dessner responded, and they first met in person and hit it off when The National played at Live At The Marquee in 2013. Two years later, they had co-curated the first SFSH festival, before branching out: a new network of collaborative events called The PEOPLE Project has seen Mary produce festivals in international locations, including Berlin and Eau Claire in Winsconsin, all built around the same idea of getting like-minded musicians together for new collaborations.

This has meant an increasing amount of travel for work for Mary, and there are ever-expanding ambitions, including to launch a new independent record label based on The PEOPLE Project, but she says she can’t envisage a time when she won’t want Cork to be her base.

“Cork really is a safe harbour,” she says. “A lot of the artists are coming because they’ve heard how nurturing it is here, how little pressure and how everything is a walkable distance.

“There’s a genuine intimacy, a lack of hierarchy where everyone is as important as each other. There’s no other city in the world we could present this festival in.

“I love that through this festival I can invite all these new friends to experience my hometown. And I would call it a town. And that’s a good thing.”

Sounds From A Safe Harbour is taking place in various venues across Cork city, including a free music trail of over 40 events, from September 10 to 15. See www.soundsfromasafeharbour.com

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