Folk Weekend Oxford: An interview with Cat Kelly

Cat Kelly is the Festival Director of this year’s Folk Weekend Oxford, running from 17th-19th April, bringing artists such as Jackie Oates, Lady Maisery, and John Spiers to Oxford. I spoke to her about the festival’s history, this year’s performers, and folk music’s popular perception.

Folk Weekend Oxford rose from the ashes of the Oxford Folk Festival in 2012. How has the festival developed since then?

Folk Weekend has grown and developed a lot since the early days – it’s hard to keep up sometimes! We have over 70 events, taking place across 17 different performance spaces in 12 different venues, packed into two and a half days. Some of the most significant developments include the addition of the Oxford Village Fête, which takes place in Gloucester Green on Sunday 19th, and the particular work we’re doing to improve accessibility at the festival. This year we are running two ceilidhs for children from local Special Needs Schools, and holding a relaxed performance during the festival, which showcases the work from a pilot project using Makaton signing with folk song.

How did the festival’s collaboration with the Makaton Folk Song project come about?

It’s not so much of a collaboration, as it’s a project that we set up ourselves as part of the wider work we do beyond the festival. The project came about because I’m a Makaton tutor, and I specialise in using Makaton with music and song. Singing with signing is really beautiful to watch, and I strongly believe that it’s something our current festival audience will really enjoy, as well as hopefully encouraging some other people along who wouldn’t normally come to this sort of event.

It’s not as simple as saying that just because I’m signing, suddenly every Makaton user is going to understand what I’m singing about, but I really hope that the fact that Makaton is a core part of the performance will show that this is something Makaton users can be a part of, and not something that excludes them. For our regular audience, I hope it will be a demonstration of the fact that just because you are deliberately making something accessible, that doesn’t mean it will compromise the quality of the musical performance.

How do Jackie Oates and John Spiers aid Folk Weekend Oxford in their roles as festival patrons?

We’re very lucky to have two fantastic patrons, both of whom live in Oxfordshire. Jackie and John help us raise the profile of the festival, by sharing information on social media and mailing lists with their own fans, but also through their association with musicians at the top of their game. Both are award-winning folk musicians and we’re very proud to have their support!  In practical terms, both Jackie and John have played at fundraiser events for us, and they will also perform during the festival.

With so many events to choose from, it’s inevitable that festivalgoers won’t be able to attend them all. Are there any that, in your opinion, are not to be missed?

Well obviously I would say the Makaton performance! It’s going to be something pretty special I think, and not something that you will see anywhere else. Other than that, Lady Maisery are fantastic and I can’t wait to see them, and Boldwood always put on a stunning performance. Of the lesser-known acts, Steve Turner is absolutely fantastic; when I first saw a YouTube video of his it left me spellbound. On the other end of the size scale, there’s Threepenny Bit, who are an eight-piece instrumental band, and are playing for a dance party on Friday night and a ceilidh on Saturday. They are fantastic musicians with really clever arrangements, and I defy anyone to listen to them and not want to dance!

This site’s preview of Folk Weekend Oxford gives an overview of the festival’s concerts, its family activities, and its central fete. Are there any other forms of events taking place?

Well, for starters, there will be around 500 morris dancers descending on Oxford during the weekend! We also have a number of dance events during the festival, including two main evening ceilidhs at St Barnabas Church, and a European-style dance at the Old Fire Station on Sunday afternoon. There will be plenty of informal sessions during the weekend; some are programmed and hosted by festival artists, and some will be impromptu and will spring up all over Oxford. We’ve listed some pubs in the programme that we know are music-friendly, so if you’re looking for a session those would be the places to start. We’ve also got workshops, both in the main festival and family festival. You can come and learn some Scottish fiddle tunes with Patsy Reid, concertina accompaniment with Steve Turner, or discover interesting chords to play with folk tunes with the accompaniment section of Threepenny Bit. In the family festival you can try out some craft, singing, and even Morris dancing!

Are there any regular sessions or events held in Oxford that you would recommend to local folk enthusiasts?

Yes, dozens! Oxford is absolutely heaving with folk – sessions, ceilidhs, dances, concerts and clubs, the list is endless. We have created a folk listings website, so we’d recommend browsing around that to get a flavour for everything that goes on in the local folk scene.

Folk is dismissed by many as archaic and outdated. Have you found it difficult to appeal to a young audience with Folk Weekend Oxford, or has this been far from the case?

To be honest, that view itself is becoming somewhat archaic and outdated. Bellowhead, fronted by our patron John Spiers, released a folk album last year which went to number twelve in the mainstream album charts, so saying that folk doesn’t appeal to young people or to the masses just seems a bit silly off the back of that.

In short, no, we don’t find it difficult to appeal to a young audience. Folk is one of the few genres that genuinely transcends all ages; you can go to a ceilidh with your whole family, and everyone from your toddler to your ninety-year old grandma can join in, at whatever level suits them. In fact, our ceilidhs almost always sell out, and are often packed out with people in their twenties and thirties. It depends really on how you define ‘young’, but it’s a far cry from the bearded stereotype that continues to be pedalled out. To be honest, I think people care less and less about the label that may or may not be attached to the music; as long as the music is good quality they are going to enjoy it.

To what extent does Folk Weekend Oxford benefit from fundraising efforts?

We are not a funded event, so we rely entirely on fundraising and sponsorship in order to have any festival at all. The festival is run by a team of volunteers who work all year round to ensure that the event can take place, and we’re extremely grateful for all of their efforts. There are a number of ways in which people can support us easily. We have a fantastic Friends scheme where people can pay a small yearly subscription in return for some exciting benefits such as backstage tours and our after-show party! If you are keen on shopping online you can also sign up to our click-through fundraiser, and every time you shop online the retailers will donate a small amount to the festival. It may only be a few pennies but it quickly adds up.

Lady Maisery
Lady Maisery

Which folk artists would you be especially keen to have at Folk Weekend Oxford in years to come?

When I was in my early twenties I saw La Bottine Souriante at Sidmouth festival, and I vowed that one day I’d have my own festival just so I could book them! One of my favourite bands is Melrose Quartet, who we had at the festival in 2013 – they were fab and I’d love to have them back. I’d also love to book Eliza Carthy; she’s been one of my idols for years. It’s very easy to be self-indulgent when booking a festival and just book your own favourite artists, but the flip side of that is that I also really enjoy the process of discovering people I’ve never heard of. We get a lot of applications to perform and, although it’s hard work going through them all, it’s worth it for that brilliant moment when you click on a link to hear the music, and just go, ‘Wow.’

J. Wadsworth

Folk Weekend Oxford runs from the 17th-19th April; for more information or to book tickets, please visit their website.

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