Review: Barn On The Farm Festival
- Credit: Archant
Joe Meredith attended Barn On The Farm, the three-day music festival bringing together talented artists to its location in rural Gloucester. With the likes of James Bay headlining, expectations of the event have never been higher; so how did it go? The verdict - PLUS interviews with Samm Henshaw, Foy Vance, Lauren Aquilina and Rhodes
The last time I was at Over Farm, ghoulish apparitions were stumbling through the night after me. Returning this July, the scene couldn’t be more different. Festival volunteers have replaced the ghouls, shrieks of delight have replaced shrieks of terror, and the entertainment is of a wholly musical variety. This is Barn On The Farm festival.
Set up in 2010, the award-winning event is now firmly established in the musical calendar of Gloucestershire, attracting thousands of revellers each year to the rural location two miles outside Gloucester City centre. Festival director Josh Sanger and his small team have been careful to curate a mood of intimacy, and Over’s rustic charm lends itself perfectly to it; as he explained to me, “I think the rough and ready nature of the site offers something quite honest, and is integral to the feel of Barn on the Farm.”
And that’s the impression you get, wandering between the stages, passing festival goers clad in summer dress. There’s an honesty about Barn On The Farm, a certain innocence often absent from larger festivals. This is an apolitical, family-friendly experience that puts music centre stage and dispenses with the clutter.
That’s a draw for the artists as much as it is the audience.
“It’s a lot more chilled out here compared to some festivals, there aren’t any crazy women coming up to us on coke, and you can tell everyone’s here for the music,” explains Samm Henshaw, an upcoming artist whose sound leans heavily on the side of soul. I’m speaking to him and his manager Ian in a cornfield beside the festival. Samm just arrived ahead of his turn on the stage, and is due to play Wireless the following day.
“Do you know what - I was looking forward to this more than Wireless. First of all because the idea of a festival on a farm is great. And second, because of the line-up.”
“Who on the line-up are you looking forward to?”
“So many people. Foy Vance. JP Cooper. Jake Isaac. Jack Garratt – Oh my gosh I’m devastated I’m going to miss him! James Bay - but he’s tomorrow so gonna miss him too.”
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“James Bay’s got the hat. Foy Vance has the moustache – are you developing a ‘thing’?”
“I’ve been trying to grow a beard for like, twenty one years, but it’s not going well. I need a thing – what’s my thing?” Samm looks at his manager Ian, who declares that he finds his desperation to grow a beard disturbing and isn’t willing to suggest a ‘thing’. Thankfully, a festival volunteer – noticing Samm is wearing mostly green - chimes in.
“Green could be my thing! I could come on stage with leaves on me. Or in one of those green lycra suits zipped right up over the face, then on stage just unzip.”
“And the crowd cheering as you emerge – I can see it now.”
“Or just an awkward ‘Er…’ from the audience.”
Samm’s preparing to put out his first EP, the Sound Experiment, later this year.
“It’s pretty much an album, but we found out on iTunes it only counts as an album if it’s a certain time limit, so even though it’s ten songs, it’s classed as an EP. It’s coming out in September… September! Jesus! But we’re doing an EP launch in London on the 22nd of July.”
Ian, promotional hat firmly on, chips in, “We’ll have special gifts for whoever comes to the launch.”
“What sort of gifts?”
Samm keeps shtum.
“Oh I can’t tell you that!”
“As this will be your first EP - are you feeling the pressure of expectation on you?”
“I think I’ve always felt the pressure. One of the problems for me is – because the singles like Only Wanna Be With You are doing so well – there’s the worry that the other songs won’t live up to the hype. But you’ve just got to hope and pray that everything goes right.”
Well, luckily for Samm there’s no better omen than an appearance at Barn On The Farm. The festival has a habit of catching artists on the cusp of success, those in everybody’s ears and on everybody’s lips just a year later. George Ezra, Catfish and the Bottlemen and Gabrielle Aplin have all played here, and the festival alumni includes Brit award winners Ed Sheeran, Ben Howard and Bastille, with this year’s headliner James Bay picking up the Critic’s Choice award in January.
Ed Sheeran was perhaps the first instance when the festival championed an artist on the edge of making it big. A few months after appearing on the main stage, he released his debut album ‘+’, which has since sold close to two million copies. Foy Vance, a musician from Bangor who has been impressing critics with his impassioned fusion of American and Irish folk music, toured with Ed in 2012. I had a chat with him before he played the Wooden Barn Stage.
“How are you feeling about performing later? Nervous?”
“I’m feeling chilled, just enjoying my second time here. I never get nervous before performing.”
“Do you think there’s been a renewed interest in folk music in recent years?”
“No I think there’s always been an audience for that kind of music. I toured with Bonnie Raitt, you know, and every place we played was packed with music lovers. I don’t think that audience has ever gone away.”
“What music are you enjoying at the moment?”
“I’ve just come back from the States, so I listened to a lot of Willie Nelson. It’s the perfect setting to listen to real country music. But there’s so much good music out there now. You can just jump on something like Spotify, listen to related artists and discover bands you’ve never heard of before.”
“Speaking of country music, you followed in the footsteps of the legendary Johnny Cash by performing in prisons. How did you find that experience?”
“It was surreal! I performed at Belmarsh among others, and the prisoners loved it – they even started dancing. I would’ve liked to run song writing lessons for them, because I think if I didn’t have music, I’d be f*cked – something like that can help turn someone’s life around. But I was too busy touring at the time,” Foy paused and, with a wry smile under that distinctive handlebar moustache, added “…also I thought… F*ck them, they’re in prison for a reason right?”
”Are you working on a follow up to your album Joy Of Nothing?”
“Yeah I’m about to start recording the next album, although I haven’t decided on a name yet. We’re hoping to have it ready by late next year, but we won’t put it out before it’s ready. I’m also going to be touring with Elton John – rock god – around stadiums in Australia later this year. It’s going to be great.”
Another appeal of a small festival like this is you rarely feel like you’re missing out. Josh and his team arranged the program so it runs with little overlap and it’s easy to hop between the three stages depending on your preference. An irksome wrinkle that could be ironed out is the decision to withhold details about when and on what stage artists are performing except from those who pay £3.50 for a paper program. I’m all for merchandise, but people who have already forked out for a ticket shouldn’t be taxed for the privilege of knowing when and where their favourite band will be playing.
However, sometimes by not knowing, you stumble upon some hidden gems. Before I have a chance to buy a program, I wander up to the New Stage where Martin Luke Brown is introducing the audience to his latest single Scars On Scars, delivering his textured, soulful vocals with a look of genuine joy. The Leicester-born musician abandoned his hometown for London partly to study, but primarily to pursue his music career; it seems London is to aspiring musicians as Hollywood is to aspiring actors – a centre of gravity drawing those with ambition from across the country into it. And judging by the enthusiasm of the crowd as they sing the lyrics of his catchiest single ‘Nostalgia’ back to him, there’s reason for Martin to be optimistic since the move, as well as for those looking forward to his debut album. Definitely one to watch.
Another act to keep an eye on and a personal highlight from this year’s festival is Nothing But Thieves who played on Sunday. The band’s greatest weapon is Conor Mason’s vocals; evocative of Jeff Buckley or Matt Bellamy, depending on your frame of reference, the power and range of his voice is a welcome kick in the ears. As indeed are the heavier singles in the Thieves’ catalogue, with drummer James, guitarists Joe and Dom, and bassist Philip providing a satisfyingly crunchy alt-rock sound for Conor’s voice to dance over. The band from Essex certainly seem comfortable on the main stage, and, with the likes of Royal Blood proving there’s still room in the British charts for chest-thumping rock’n’roll, it’d be great to see them make waves with their forthcoming debut album.
Sometimes a band’s sound is too small for a big stage, though, and Saturday’s headliners The Staves were perhaps the only chink in an otherwise perfectly assembled program of music. Despite the three sisters from Hertfordshire performing pretty much impeccably, with tight vocal harmonies and a distinctive folk rock sound, somehow the energy at the festival took a tumble as their set wore on. For me, they couldn’t quite muster a big enough or confident enough sound to justify the headline slot. However, on the smaller Wooden Barn stage I think they would have shone, as singer-songwriter Lauren Aquilina did on Sunday.
Lauren, who played Barn On The Farm two years ago, has been toiling away since her early adolescence honing her craft. Recently signed to Island Records, she’s now working on her debut album, as she explained to me before her performance at the festival.
“The album is almost done – it’s been a very slow process. I spent a lot of time hiding away, trying to ‘find myself musically’ or whatever artists say, but it’s a whole new progression for me that I’m excited for people to hear. It includes one song on the album I wrote when I was fifteen, and one as recently as four months ago, so it’s been written over four years and documents my time growing up.”
“Is it strange to see what you wrote when you were fifteen, now you have the benefit of hindsight?”
“Yeah – it’s interesting. The song I was talking about, called Fools, is basically me questioning what would happen if I entered into a certain relationship, and now I’m twenty, I know exactly what happened. So singing that song is quite weird, it seems naïve but it’s also nice to know that’s how I felt at the time.”
Lauren’s father is Maltese, and that Maltese connection has been celebrated by the small Mediterranean country.
“Malta has no music scene whatsoever – there are no venues really, and only a few bands. But the Maltese are really patriotic, so they see me as flying the flag for Malta. When I performed there last year, I had no idea four thousand people were going to show up at the airport and treat me as if I was something amazing! It’s my favourite place in the world and it’s always nice to go there and feel that much love and support.”
“Is there anyone on the Barn On The Farm line-up you’re excited to see?”
“I missed JP Cooper, but he’s amazing. Amber Run I missed as well, but I love them; good friends of mine. There are always so many amazing artists on the line-up - you can guarantee that one of the people playing will become the biggest thing next year. I’m excited about Jack Garratt, too.”
I heard about Jack Garratt last year when Water, off his first EP Remnants, became a bit of an earworm for me. The singer and multi-instrumentalist from Buckinghamshire is on the rise with his brand of electronica-infused R’n’B, a more accessible but no less enjoyable take on the style James Blake is famous for.
He came out on stage with his trademark beard (Samm Henshaw must be jealous) to an excited audience, and quickly made his mark. The subwoofers were working overtime, and in a festival predominantly characterised by folk and acoustic balladry, it was like waking up from a nap to find myself in London’s Plastic People nightclub at the birth of dubstep. Every nostril-vibrating bass note was contrasted wonderfully by Jack’s emotive vocals, and his effortless instrument swapping – from midi drum kit to electric guitar – meant there wasn’t a dull moment in his set.
He reminisced with the audience for a moment: “Last year I performed here, nobody knew who I was. Now I’m playing the main stage. I’m trying not to swear as this is a family festival, but this is crazy!”
Another artist who took to the stage last year and has followed a similar trajectory to Jack from unknown to festival favourite is Rhodes. Rain on Sunday hadn’t managed to dampen the mood, but it had dampened the grass, so I spoke to Rhodes under shelter in a slightly incongruous office hidden around the corner from the main festival area.
“You’re from Baldock in Hertfordshire originally – which is only five miles away from Hitchin where James Bay grew up. Would you say Hertfordshire is becoming a hotspot of creativity?”
“It’s always been a very creative area. When you get to London you see open mic nights everywhere, but where we were from there was one club, Club 85, and everyone used to go there every Sunday for the open mic. There were a few pubs you could play in, and it was always the same people going to every gig. And it felt very free, like you could get up on stage and do anything you wanted – and that’s so important in terms of being creative.”
“You’ve got your debut album coming out later this year – are you excited about it?”
“Yeah – it’s been a real journey over the last few years. Before I was doing this, I was in a band playing bass, which is a completely different experience. I was with all my friends back then and it was leaving that life behind, starting something new. That change really fuelled the creative process for me. It’s been two years of really learning the craft, and in that time wrote about thirty songs, then spent six months recording with producer James Kenosha. It’s quite scary to think it’s all there now on this thing.”
“It’s quite easy as a bassist to blend into the background. Is it hard to be the focus of attention, to not be able to hide behind band mates?”
“Totally – that was something that was hard to come to terms with at first. You feel almost naked when you’re on stage – it’s a very exposed feeling. I do have a band with me now, though, so I can still have that camaraderie on stage. And you should see my bassist – he’s certainly a focal point!”
“Did you find it difficult to pick out of those thirty songs which should make it on to the album?”
“It was clear to me which ones should go on the album, as I wanted there to be a loose narrative and certain songs stood out more than others. I was also very conscious of it being under fifty minutes, because I like to be able to listen to a whole album in one go – if it’s too long, you can’t just sit and listen to the whole thing. There is also a deluxe version with eighteen tracks for people who want something longer.”
“Is there anybody you’re looking forward to seeing at BOTF?”
“Jack Garratt. Also The Intermission Project. I’m gutted I missed Amber Run yesterday.”
Amber Run was a surprise for me. I had listened to a number of their songs before the festival and been thoroughly underwhelmed. But watching them confidently perform their anthemic indie pop on the New Stage I was quickly converted; there was a palpable energy to their set, and the crowd packed with passionate fans screamed lyrics back at lead singer Joe Keogh. Somehow, whatever had dulled the impact of their music on record was entirely absent from the live performance. They captured a mood, which is exactly what Josh Sanger considers an inherent facet of Barn On The Farm: “The festival is not about putting music on a platform - it’s about a connection, a moment in time, a happening.” Amber Run capitalised on that connection, that moment in time, and it in turn elevated them.
And the festival is peppered with these moments. It manages to marry the atmosphere of an open mic night at a bar with the kind of talent you expect to see at the biggest and best festivals the UK has to offer. There’s on-site camping, food and drink available, plus the dreaded festival portaloos… It’s the little brother to the likes of Glastonbury; small and charming, bound to appeal to anyone in love with folk, acoustic and indie music.
The Barn On The Farm experience was neatly rounded off this year by James Bay’s set on the main stage. The lyrics of Let It Go and Hold Back The River were reflected back with equal fervour by a vocal crowd and everybody at the festival packed in tightly to enjoy the 24-year-old musician’s pop balladry. The cherry on the cake.
So what does the future have in store for Barn On The Farm?
As Josh explained: “In the past we’ve taken it year by year and hoped our festival family would grow steadily. Now we’ve got a large demand and it’s allowing us to explore ideas that we never imagined we could try out. Some really exciting plans are in place but we’d like to keep them behind closed barn doors for now!”
Thanks to Josh Sanger, Caroline Trout, Daniel A Harris, Rhodes, Port Isla, Lauren Aquilina, Foy Vance & Samm Henshaw.
For more about Barn On The Farm, visit the website.
If you’d like to vote for Barn On The Farm to win the AIM Independent Music Awards 2015, click here.
Read my full Q&A with Barn On The Farm director Josh Sanger
Read our list of the best music festivals around Gloucestershire