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Port Fairy Folk Festival Director Caroline Moore

Wikipedia tells us that Port Fairy is a coastal town in south-western Victoria, Australia. It lies on the Princes Highway in the Shire of Moyne, 28 kilometres (17 mi) west of Warrnambool and 290 kilometres (180 mi) west of Melbourne, at the point where the Moyne River enters the Southern Ocean. In the early 19th century whalers and seal hunters used the coast in this region. The bay was named by the crew of the whaler ‘The Fairy’ in 1828.

Once a year, during the Labour Day weekend the town comes alive with the presentation of the Port Fairy Folk Festival, one of Australia’s longest running and most respected music festivals. For forty years this community-driven festival was steered in a wonderful direction by co-founder Jamie McKew. Last year, Jamie hung up the boots and a new director Caroline Moore was brought onboard to take the festival into the future. Feedback suggests that Caroline succeeded greatly in continuing the legacy of the revered event.

Ahead of this year’s festival (9-12 March), Australian Musician’s Greg Phillips spoke to Caroline about how the festival works and what attendees can expect for 2018.

Caroline Moore is no stranger to music event management and curation, having been involved in the Apollo Bay Music Festival, Melbourne International Jazz Festival and with her husband, running the much-admired Cornish Arms Hotel in Brunswick, which you could always rely on for a night of quality music. While not a musician herself, she is a “great appreciator” and has a solid grasp on what it takes to create a positive festival experience for punters.
“The key focus is to create a great event for the audience and the artist,” she says. “You’re always trying to attract an audience that really loves music. I think the one big common thing with all of the events that I have worked on and even with the venue that my husband and I had in Melbourne, is that it is very much about music appreciation. That’s always been the raison d’etre rather than the beer sales across the bar or a big wild party. None of the events I have worked on have had music as the background, it’s actually the core focus.”

Troy Cassar-Daley is performing at this year’s festival

For Moore, running the Port Fairy Folk Festival was eternally the ‘dream job’. Working in music management, it was always the festival that she tried to get her artists on. “I still pinch myself and can’t believe I’ve got this job,” Caroline exclaims. “I also used to tour and promote and manage artists and to me, Port Fairy was always the dream festival to get an artist on … everything about it … it’s respect, the festival as an organisation respects the artists, respects the audience and because of that culture, the audience respects the artists. It’s an extraordinary for a musician to perform at. You go in and you have an audience who want to listen and want new discoveries and it’s really unique on that level. Jamie McKew the founding director drove it for 40 years, which is extraordinary. So to be handed the baton to his baby is quite amazing. I’m seeing it into middle age! The other thing that is amazing is that it is run by volunteers and there is no commercialism about it at all. whatever surpluses or profit or whatever terminology you want to use, gets invested back into the community… into arts programs. That ethos of it being truly not for profit, I think really drives the atmosphere of it.”

The folk festival has been extraordinarily helpful to the local community and last year a cheque of $750,000 was presented to the Port Fairy Hospital. In addition, the festival helps to fund surf life saving clubs and smaller arts and music programs like the Koroit Irish Music Festival. “We also do workshops throughout the year with secondary and primary schools,” adds Caroline. “This year we are working on the all-abilities choir… people with and without disabilities. It is incredibly philanthropic in it’s constitution and how it really lives it’s life. The committee and myself, we all see ourselves as custodians of something really special.”

Like all of the great music festivals, everyone wants to be invited to play on the bill but obviously not everyone can, so what the criteria for artist selection?
“It’s probably one of the most heart breaking parts of the job,” says Caroline. “We get so many applications and there are so many great artists but you can’t choose everyone. For me, it’s outstanding musicianship but there’s no real recipe. It’s not like I go, I need 10 celtic acts and 3 jazz, or blues or roots. I love the application process because I really do genuinely look at every application and I love discovering something new. It’s about being great at what they do and then that organic thing rather than a recipe to be honest.”

Pauline Scanlon (Ireland)

Gender balance is something that has become a real talking point for music festivals recently. Just last week, 45 international music industry conferences and festivals including four leading Canadian events have made a pledge towards achieving or maintaining a 50/50 gender balance across their festivals by 2022. I wondered how much of a consideration this was for Port Fairy?
“I can probably say this because I am a woman … it’s about the quality of the artist,” states Caroline. “As a woman I would personally hate to be given a job or a gig just because I am ticking a gender balance box. I almost find it offensive. I understand the philosophy behind quotas and all of that stuff. I have been very fortunate, the way I was brought up, I’ve always been able to go, well as long as I am good at what I do, that’s when I will get it. It is something that I am for the first time, mindful of just because I am watching what is happening out there in the world. Look, last year we had more women than men. This year it’s about a 50/50 balance but rest assured that every female that is on the bill or participating is there because I think they are great at what they do rather than ticking a box saying I have that quota. That might be a bit controversial but we’re all people first and at the end of the day, it’s about who is great at what they do. Next year I am doing some special showcases that will focus on women but folk music has always had that beautiful gender balance and celebrated female musicians. This year we have our Women Out Loud concert that is like an institution on the Sunday morning. We have Yolanda Brown from the UK, an incredible saxophonist. We have Chris While and Julie Matthews, Gina Williams, Sophie Koh. So by the nature of sheer talent, we don’t need to tick a gender balance box because it just happens because of the talent our female artists have.”

John Spillane (Ireland)

This year’s Port Fairy Folk Festival will present 200 shows featuring 100 acts at 20 venues and will include international names like: Andy Irvine (IRL), Chris While & Julie Matthews (UK), Harry Manx (CAN), Pauline Scanlon (IRL) and John Spillane (IRL), as well as respected Australian artists such as Archie Roach, Ted Egan, The Black Sorrows, Rebecca Barnard, Shane Howard, Troy Cassar-Daley, and Tex, Don & Charlie. Making their Port Fairy debut will be Amistat, Adam Page, The Ahern Brothers, Claire Anne Taylor, The Doug Anthony Allstars, The Hillbilly Goats, Jay Wars & The Howard Youth, La Busca, Lily & King, Lost Ragas, Melbourne Ska Orchestra, Stella Donnelly, SugaTree, The Teskey Brothers, The Thin White Ukes, Victoriana Gaye and many more. Caroline suggests that you be adventurous in your festival choices, with some of the lesser known artists just as likely to blow you away this year.
“I think Violons Barbares will be amazing, a Bulgarian, Mongolian, French act that play ancient instruments, throat singing and reinforcing that folk music isn’t just celtic,” she says. “Each culture has its own traditional folk music. Exile-Songs and Tales of Irish Australia is going to be wonderful one-off collaboration that we are presenting two times over the festival. It features Andy Irvine and Troy Cassar Daley and many others. Then there’s The Brothers Comatose, the Ten String Symphony. The Eskies from Ireland I think will be incredible. I stumbled across them online and got quite mesmerised by them. What I love about it is that artists get to meet, friendships are developed and those artists help and facilitates artists in their own countries.”

As well the fine array of musicians that you can enjoy at Port Fairy, there’s also the annual instrument makers component to the festival. Caroline views that featureß as integral to the spirit of the weekend. “It’s really, really important and it is one of the biggest instrument makers exhibitions in Australia,“ she tells me. “It’s seeped in tradition but giving it a contemporary relevance. You get to see these fantastic crafts people from Australia and the Makers Made and Played concert is beautiful and we field performers from around the festival to play these handmade instruments. The audience love it as well. There’s no commercialism about it. We are so confronted by that in our lives but at Port Fairy you choose what you want to do and where to go, nothing is forced on you.”

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