Music Editor Pat Rosso sat down with Artistic Director of the Fairbridge Festival, Rob Vervest to gain insight into the Perth music and festival scene, the nature of Fairbridge and what to expect for it all in the future.
Three bars, a dozen venues and accommodation options to suit everyone from budget-conscious students to lovers of creature comforts, along with over a hundred acts. Just how does this all come together?
Yes, the matrix in which we operate is very complex. Add in 700-800 individual artists, 400+ volunteers, vendors, stall holders, operational crew and staff. There are several hundred people constantly working on site to deliver the event.
My first move as the new Artistic Director five years ago was to introduce festival management software to enable a lot of processes to be handled digitally. This enables more effective information exchange and becomes a “one-stop shop” for all key staff to access. It’s been quite a big step for the Festival moving from a very manual, paper-based system to a sophisticated software package, but it enables us to pull the event together in a more efficient and integrated way.
Access for everyone is a big thing for us. It’s really important that people of all ages/demographics have an opportunity to enjoy the event. You can come for a full day for around $80, and when you consider the program is offering an international and national line-up of immense diversity, it is really great value.
How are the acts selected?
Acts are generally selected on the basis of how they relate to the genres of folk, world and roots music. We have an application process which attracts over 500 entries annually and the bulk of artists are selected via this. The genres above are constantly evolving and morphing (and so must we). We keep a pretty open mind about what we ultimately program. Actually, “Fairbridge music” is almost a genre in itself and I love it when people say that is “very Fairbridge” or “how Fairbridge is that!”. Artist selection boils down to a few things. I favour “acousticness”, authenticity and beautiful instruments played well. It’s also important that there is story and positive message in the songwriting – I want a family to be able to walk into a venue anytime and not be confronted. I want punters to feel that they too can contribute and learn musically, that the artists who play are capable of deeply inspiring people. There is no doubt that many of our punters are musicians (or aspiring ones), and given that is a significant part of our audience makeup, then we as a festival have a responsibility to nurture that. Our workshop program is comprehensive, broad, and a lot of fun. I always look closely at artists who offer workshops.
I also attend a couple of international festivals and showcases each year in order to scout for artists that I feel work well within our programming ethos. Over the last four festivals in particular, we have been able to secure some truly extraordinary artists, build relationships with international agencies, and work collaboratively with a growing list of other major Australian festivals.
Having secured extra funding to support local acts, what sort of Western Australian content and performers can we expect to see this year? Is there anyone you’re excited to be working with in particular?
We were granted matched funding through the Building Better Regions (BBR) fund to engage more deeply with artists/artisans from the regions, particularly the Peel-Murray Shires. To this end, the 2019 program will see more musicians, visual artists, craft workers from this region presenting at the Festival.
Overall though, we have consistently been a haven for a lot of Western Australian talent to showcase on stages to big audiences, engage with international/national artists and provide a bit of a “leg up”. It is a critical function of the festival to provide this rare opportunity when large numbers of people gather to listen and focus on music. This is the most wonderful thing about Fairbridge Festival, that we have a substantial audience that really listen and are musically diverse in taste. Artists adore this!
I don’t really want to name names here (we are not a headline based Festival) but there are many Western Australian acts to look forward to and the program is online for all to see. I particularly love the soul/jazz-tinged sounds of some of the young local bands, the self-effacing honesty and rawness of our emerging songwriters, and the solid foundation that some of our older musicians bring to the Festival. Fairbridge Festival is not driven by headliners, the “festival” is the headline and people come on a journey of discovery, seeking the new, exploring beyond the obvious and popular.
I understand that the visual aesthetics of the Festival have been overhauled and expanded. What can we look forward to seeing this year?
The BBR matched funding referred to above allows us to engage a broader artistic community in the local region. To that end, sculptors, craft workers and site decorators have all been developing work that will adorn the site. Expect to see art installations, entry statements to venues, visual arts displays, projections and other works on display throughout the weekend.
A lot of festivals have come and gone, but Fairbridge has always remained. What’s the secret to the longevity of the festival? Can we expect another 27 years?
I think our longevity in big part is due to the effect of a generational transit of the event. Kids who were there as 6-7 year olds in 1993 are now attending with their own families. The festival has become a cherished and highly anticipated event for thousands of people and without knowing figures exactly, I think a very high percentage of the audience has been to more than half of the festivals! That’s half of almost 30 annual events now and amounts to a reasonable chunk of “life”! Some people have been to all of them!
The fact that we place a lot of emphasis on family (small kids in particular) creates a sense of community, nurturing, tolerance and care. It all makes for a very safe and friendly environment. Trust is a big factor. Because we don’t run a headline focussed event, people have to trust that we get the program right. We listen to our audience feedback, we ensure there is good balance across the program and we do it all with a sense of fun. There is a wholesome magnetism, a very positive and universal vibe that generates from that and those that experience it are our biggest advocates for the growth of the event. People on-sell it for us, so that sort of growth is the best type in my opinion; steady, organic and natural.
It’s Western Australia’s most loved family festival for a reason, but the Fairbridge name is also synonymous with one of the darkest chapters in WA’s recent history. How does Fairbridge Festival come to terms with the grim heritage and nature of the location, while also being a stone’s throw away from the Pinjarra Massacre site? Is there any acknowledgement or understanding of this in the Festival’s artistic direction?
There is a darkness surrounding the name but we, of course, have nothing to do with the Fairbridge association linked to this disturbing past. Any perception should be instantly dispelled. Our organisation is actually FolkWorld Inc. and Fairbridge Festival is an event we run at the site.
We do however bring a great healing force and I think many people probably reflect about this at the site. When we take over Fairbridge Village, we fill the buildings and houses with an energy that is incredibly uplifting and positive. Several places are alive, jamming into the wee hours. Amazing things happen – new memories, new relationships are created, and some of the very best things about humanity are celebrated.
It was very important to me to bring an indigenous voice to our organisation and in my first year, celebrated WA artist Gina Williams became a patron. Gina and I worked together on the creation of the Djindalux venue, a name she created from the Aboriginal word for “star” (Djinda) and the latin word for “light” (lux). We continue to work to expand our relationship. My future view of the Festival is to actually describe it in terms of precincts that carry Aboriginal names – the Koort (Heart) precinct, Middar (Dance) precinct, Koorlangka (Children’s) precinct…
I think the “coming to terms” suggested alongside both points raised in the question is not solely a matter for us as a Festival. It is a matter for all of us. We, like most festivals, actively engage, participate and are inclusive of all Australians, we thrive on equality and tolerance, acceptance and fairness. Coming to terms is a process of acknowledgment followed by action and I think us (and our kindred festivals) are really proud of what we achieve here.
Editors note: due to website issues, we were unable to get this interview up before the festival this weekend. We apologise for any inconvenience caused.