The second edition of Sounds From A Safe Harbour (SFASH) returns to Cork city next week, Thursday to Sunday, September 14-17, with a stellar lineup including three humongous shows at the Opera House: Lisa Hannigan, the RTÉ Symphony Orchestra and Aaron Dessner on Thursday, Bon Iver on Friday, and the National on Saturday. Needless to say they’re all sold out but there’s absolutely loads on, with shows at St Luke’s, Cyprus Avenue, and Coughlan’s. There’s art, exhibitions, the final instalment of Crashlands, celebrating 20 years of Crash Ensemble, which has taken the orchestra all over Ireland, and just too much for me to even wrap my head around. There’ll also be secret gigs – and that’s not even including Ear Den which sounds like it’ll be very special. There’s a lot of people involved in something like this, but Mary Hickson towers over it. The inaugural festival two years ago was her baby and she’s back for more this year – how could she not when it became known that Bon Iver and the National would be playing. I got to chat to her in SFASH HQ eight days out from the festival. It was supposed to be for the TPOE podcast but alas, technical difficulties (bad mic leads) scuppered those plans, but I persevered through choppy audio to transcribe the majority of our 30-minute conversation. We talk about one of the best cups of tea anyone is ever likely to have, how festivals in Copenhagen and Berlin shaped her, and the moment of her musical life, which involves a Tibetan bowl, a kidnapping, and one Justin Vernon singing his biggest song. So there’s no audio of the interview, but there’s plenty to dig into below. And if that’s not enough for you, check out Nialler9’s interview with Mary for his Irish Times column, How Music Works. See you in Cork next week – and if anybody has a spare ticket for the National *nudge nudge*….

All pictures by Brid O’Donovan (Facebook | Twitter | Instagram)

Eight days out from festival – how are you feeling?
It’s like a yoyo – but it’s always like that, this short amount of time before a festival you’re thinking about the audience’s experience in one moment and then the other thinking of all the things you still have to do.

Is it a weight off your shoulders to know the three biggest gigs are sold out or is it, OK now we focus on the next tier and the next tier?
Everything all at once. The intention with this is that it’s not necessarily a hierarchy festival, it’s about everybody, everybody’s as important to us as the next. All the artists are equally important. Yes, it’s always good for the books and the budget to know the things are sold but we’re as concerned about St Luke’s, Coughlan’s, Cyprus Avenue events, making sure they get there, because the way that we’ve approached this festival has been very co-operatively led. SFASH isn’t going into all these venues presenting these events; the venues are taking on an awful lot of them directly, like production and otherwise, financially as well. This has been very much about knitting the city together. And all those venues that have ticketed events and music trail events, the free stuff, there’s an investment coming from each of those places to make it happen. So we’re as concerned about everything.

Is that different from how it was two years ago?
There was an element of it there two years ago but not to the extent that it is this year.

In terms of getting the venues more on board?
Well last time it was presented by Cork Opera House. When you have a machine like that behind you things are somewhat easier. This time it’s me and Carraig Productions. I’ve literally been one person in a room making this happen. So I’ve had to lean on a lot of the businesses and venues and bars and different people locally to help me make it happen.

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The press release says it happened over a cup of tea with Bryce Dessner in 2013 – I want to know everything about that cup of tea.
Well it goes back a step further. That was the first time we met face to face, but we started talking in 2011 when we were doing the Reich Effect, Steve Reich’s 75th birthday. I reached out, like, totally lame, I Facebooked Bryce because I knew he was involved in this new composition that Steve had written, to see if maybe we could maybe do a version of it in Cork. In fairness to him he Facebooked back, said, ‘Sounds great, unfortunately I’m not available’. Then when he was coming to Cork I think he emailed saying, I’m in town, doing a gig in the Marquee, do you want to meet for coffee? Sarah Jane Power was working with me at the time and I’ll never forget kinda screaming, going, ‘Sarah Jane get in here, look at my computer, Bryce is after emailing’. So I met him in the Hayfield for a cup of coffee; two and a half hours later we were,like, definitively doing this festival two years later.

Did you go with the plan of pitching him SFASH?
No, i just went to have a chat. Everything that I had been trying to do here and other places was resonating with him. We were kind of moving in the same circles in different ways, like working with Kronos Quartet, we’d been talking to Third Coast Percussion who did this festival with Steve Reich, there was all of these similar worlds, but by coincidence we just hadn’t met yet. But we felt like we were destined to meet. I s’pose we were interested in the same things, coming at it from the same place of just trying to support work and create new work and give opportunities to people and bring people together. We very quickly clicked really well together. Very quickly into the conversation, Bryce was like, ‘We should do something, let’s do something’. Two and a half hours later we were gonna do this festival and he was like, ‘We should wait for a while and make sure we get it on solid foundations’. So we said right, 2015. And then I went to the gig in the Marquee and he was introducing me to the band, ‘Oh this is my friend Mary, we’re doing a festival together in 2015’. We had not met like ten hours earlier. But we were so sure, instantly and immediately sure, that this was to happen. And we’ve been working with each other every since.

Was it ever with the intention that the National would play, because they’re on the lineup this year whereas they weren’t in 2015.
No it was never really about the National. I pinch myself regularly that they are coming to the Opera House. When I took that position in 2010 [CEO of Cork Opera House], I sat at the desk the minute I walked into that office, and wrote my top five artists that I wanted to get into the Opera House, and the National was on that list. But I didn’t think it was achievable, I think they’ve always felt bigger than the house. So to have them coming next week is insane. But for 2015, it was never really about trying to deliver the National, it was about trying to begin a movement and a community of people that might move forward together, and that is the case. 2015 was more about Bryce and Aaron and Lisa Hannigan, Richard Reed Parry, and at the core of it was this commission by Richard and Bryce that the Opera House got in to co-commission, the Wave Movements. So yeah that time was never really about the National. So when this opportunity arose we weren’t sure if we could do the festival, and then suddenly the National wanted to come and do their first gig since launching the album and I said Bryce, we have to do this. The festival – we pressed the green light when that could happen. We weren’t sure if we were about to do it, financially and otherwise.

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So you thought 2015 was gonna be a once-off?
When we were going into it initially it was a one-off. My contract with the Opera House was gonna finish anyway and I was so sure that whole five years, that whole contract and term, that I wouldn’t be there beyond that time, so I even told Bryce over that cup of tea in 2013 that I’ll be finished then. But it left such a resonance that we’ve been talking about it ever since and the possibility. I’ve been working on sponsorship and other means to make sure that it has a solid foundation. That’s been a huge challenge this year, raising enough to do it, but we’re doing it, it’s happening. And it’s genuinely come about because of people’s generosity locally.

So once you knew the National were onboard, you pressed the green light – when was that?
Oh god, it’s all a blur. Very soon before we announced. But then Bon Iver came in really quickly and I was like, Oh Jesus! We had a real opportunity to get the Bon Iver stuff in. I was emailing the agent back going of course, and then panicking in the background going ‘how the hell are we gonna make this happen?’ In fairness, the National and the Bon Iver events are happening because of the Opera House – the Opera House took this on. I just don’t have that kind of disposable income personally, or the company isn’t established enough to be able to go ‘yes we can take this risk’, not that either of them was going to be a risk. But they did need to be subvented. Basically supports had to be in for those. So the Opera House took those shows on, we started talking to St Luke’s and Coughlan’s and Cyprus Avenue going let’s book a programme together. Together with the curators, we’d work with the different venues on what events would work in tandem with everything else that we’re doing, just to keep a general feeling across everything. Then the next landmark was the Bon Iver team were on saying ‘Justin’s thinking of coming in early and hanging around’, so I was like answering around, going of course, that would be incredible, and then coming off the phone going like that’s 70 bed nights. That, again, all of these things have happened because of the generosity on the ground. It’s only because of the River Lee Hotel, who’s a major partner in the festival, who said instantly ‘yes, we’ll work with you and make this work’. This residency period, which has become a huge part of not only the first SFASH but everything that Bryce and I and Aaron have worked on since. We always have a period of time, we create time and space for the artists who work, and see what happens. People who come together for each of these events that we work on now, we try and just get them in a room and see what sparks, what doesn’t, and provide a platform for them to present their stuff at the end, if they want.

Was it just a case of the Dessners telling their musical friends about SFASH and Justin was just like, hmm this sounds interesting….
I never asked him to come and do it. But we did this incredible thing together, Aaron, Bryce, Justin and I and loads of other people, in Berlin back in October. It’s never gonna leave us. Because of what happened there, it’s definitely establishing a way in which we worked together now, going forward forever, I think, there’ll always be this period of time created for exchange, a private session with musicians to just see what might emerge. It was kind of an unsaid understanding… It’s not a cut and paste situation.

It was Lisa Hannigan’s album that came from that week recording before SFASH 2015…
Aaron and Lisa had been working on it a long time but they finished a lot of the pieces in Lismore Castle. Now we don’t have Lismore Castle this year and it is definitely something we’d like to deliver in the future if the festival has a life. That was incredible. That was one of the most amazing experiences, having everyone live in the castle for the week. A very inspiring place to be, in terms of encouraging any kind of creative output.

You mentioned the German festival last year, were you running it?
I was not the director, I was brought in late in the day. I think how it came about was, Justin was looking to launch his album in the Michelberger Hotel, which is this incredible place in Berlin. It started by him suggesting he might bring some friends and musical collaborators of his. Then Bryce and Aaron were like, sure we’ll come, we’ll bring some friends. André de Ridder, who’s heavily involved in SFASH next week, he invited some friends; Vincent Moon from La Blogothèque invited some friends; Michelberger invited some artists and it ended up with 80 bands exclusively in this hotel for a week, and us facilitating who should try to play with who. It’s been the biggest professional challenge of my life, for sure. Twenty hours a day just trying to figure out this matrix and what would work and what wouldn’t work, encouraging people and in some places discouraging people, cos we had very limited amount of time to deliver a two-day festival in eight venues simultaneously, but we did it. It felt like a big bang of music. I, on numerous occasions throughout the rehearsal week and the festival, cried and laughed at the same time because my emotions were so shot. It was the most powerful experience of my life, it’s really left a mark on all of us, hence coming back together for this. We came back together a month ago at Copenhagen and tried to infiltrate that programme with this generous spirit of sharing and time and space again. And it was beautiful. When those events happened in what would be considered conventional festival environment, that’s where the magic comes, those open spaces. We have a number of slots of People events this year; what’s coming out of the Berlin project is being called People, it’s just the word People, so we are going to be scheduling time for People events. Michelbergers are coming to help us get that right, so together with Aaron, Justin, Bryce and the Michelbergers we will be presenting moments of this People energy. And that will be announced through our social channels. On top of that we have some secret gigs which are straight performances by a band, but people will be collaborating.

Was this always the dream when you left Cork Opera House?
I don’t think I ever had a plan, even as a child. I was asked that recently, what do you want to be, when I was a child; I never had that ballerina moment… I feel really privileged to be in this place. It certainly feels right. In my body, in my gut, that it’s been heading this way. After SFASH we’ll take it to the next level with the People project. I’m gonna start working closely with Bryce, on his solo capacity outside of the National. That’s the next big job that I’ll take on. Since that cup of tea – what a cup of tea – it’s been moving towards this…

You’re very heavily involved in a lot of festivals. You mentioned the one in Germany last year, and three in three months this summer: Clonmel Junction Festival, Haven in Copenhagen and SFASH, and you also worked on the Crash Ensemble 20th anniversary tour.
We’re still working on that. The final Crashlands event will happen on Spike as part of SFASH. At 12 o’clock on Saturday we’ll premiere – it’s probably the biggest moment in the Crashlands series – a big composition by Donnacha Dennehy. Doireann (Ni Ghriofa) won’t be there but her work will be recited. She can’t make this one, unfortunately. She’ll be there in spirit, and she’ll get all the recordings after and she’ll still write a piece about that event on Spike. Brendan Canty will be her eyes.

Is it difficult to shift focus so quickly from festival to festival.
I think the Opera House gave me that experience of multitasking. When you’re looking at 270 events a year and producing big shows and things are always moving, it’s relentless, then you develop the capacity to take on loads of projects at the same time. Up to now I haven’t dropped any balls, majorly. We catch them on the way down. There’s panicked moments, sure but I dunno, I think I am built for this, but I certainly feel like I need a break.

Is that the plan, Monday morning?
Nah. The whole plan when I left the Opera House was not to work until – take six months off. And sure not even a month is I was like ‘Give me a job, someone’. I’m a very cerebral person, it’s all up here, it’s all happening in your head. If I’m not dreaming or scheming, I’d probably end in a cloud of depression, honestly, I’d probably get a little bit down and out. I’ve an artistic temperament so that’s my output, making things happen.

SFASH, are you thinking of it as a going concern, like another one in a year or two, or just get through next week?
We’ll get through next week and evaluate. There’s definitely a want – so many artists have gotten onto us about it. The experience people had from 2015 has definitely penetrated the scene internationally. A lot of people are talking about it. It’s left a mark and that mark will only become stronger now after next week….

Collaboration seems to be the thing underpinning the whole festival. Like even Margie Lewis and David Kitt premiering Mona Lo. There does seem to be this thing of you facilitating this and trying to get this out in the world?
It certainly feels to the artist a safe place to come and show their work. Ye Vagabonds, This is How We Fly are showing their work, David Kitt feels like it’s the right place to drop Mona Lo, which is a huge privilege. They trust the brand, they trust me, which is a great way to be. There were other international artists who were keen to do that too but we just didn’t have the resources to make that happen. We’d love to talk to them for the future. There’s lots of people coming to us with dreams and ideas and fragments of ideas that we could, with the right resources, make happen in the future. The question will it happen again? I’d hope so, it’s definitely what I’d want to do. It’s love to see it spread its wings. If needs more core support – if we had that, we’d blow all festivals out of the water, I swear. With these people onboard, deeply embedded in it, it can only go one way…

Did you enjoy yourself at SFASH two years ago or were you running around like a mad person?
It was running around like a mad thing, for sure, and I didn’t get to see a lot of music, similarly in Berlin, I didn’t get to see a lot of music. And I have to resign myself to the fact that next week I probably won’t see a whole lot of music either. But it’s not about me, and it can’t ever be about me. It has to be about the artist first and the audience second, that’s how I look at things… They did a beautiful thing for me in Berlin. La Blogothèque were filming everything and they’re actually coming to SFASH and will be filming a lot of events. They, together with Damien Rice, came up with this idea to kidnap people, blindfold people, and take them to a secret location.

Willingly?
Yeah, so the guys in the Ace Hotel would approach you and go, ‘I’m the official festival kidnapper, do you trust me?’ And in fairness, 90% of them went ‘No, get out of my face’. But those 10% who said yeah, sure, were blindfolded and taken to a private room, sat in a chair, and then Vincent Moon’s wife Priscella would put a Tibetan bowl over your head and hit it, it would vibrate down your body. She’d invite you to take the bowl and the blindfold off and any one of the artists involved in Berlin would be sitting in front of you. So Damien Rice and a 30-piece choir was one person’s experience. Lisa Hannigan, the Staves, pretty much everybody who was involved in the festival did one of these one-to-ones. They were amazing. 5 o’clock on Sunday, I got kidnapped, reluctantly. I was like, ‘I can’t go now I’m really busy’. They were like, ‘It’ll take five minutes’. I’m brought to this location, Tibetan bowl and all that craic. And it was Justin. He sang ‘Flume’ just for me, so that was my only live music experience but my god it will stay with me forever. The two of us were in tears after it. But we’d gone through such an intense experience together in those few days. We’re really close now, that bond will be with us forever, and all of us. It’s lovely when they think of you back, and the team of people who are on the stages and working who are like ‘Mary’s seen nothing. We have to give her something really special’. And Justin’s like, ‘I’ll give her ‘Flume”. He said ‘I’m gonna sing you this song, the first song that led me to you’. That probably will do me for another few years. But we’re maybe gonna have some other ones with La Blogothèque next week.

Kidnapping people?
I dunno about the kidnapping approach but there’ll be some quirky element to it… I think that’s the thing the artists are most excited about, the spontaneous stuff. It does seem to really grasp the imagination of the audience. We announced Ear Den, which is this five-hour listening club. We gave people nothing, they have no information, and it’s nearly sold out. This is, I dunno, a desire for experimentation as well from the audience. Like you said, many people have commented on the 2015 edition of the festival and said they live in Cork, they’re from Cork, they’ve been in Cork all their life, but suddenly it felt like a different place. Trish Brennan was talking about it the other day, that she’d never experienced an audience like what the festival attracted, like they were a proper listening audience. And that’s why we were like, Let’s make a listening club, and define it as you’re here to experience this and not talk through it. They want to experience it as much as we want to make it.