Cancer runs through my family, you think I’m not going to sit around says FolkEast co-founder
PUBLISHED: 14:00 18 August 2017 | UPDATED: 16:12 18 August 2017
One of the Guardian’s top festival picks, FolkEast returns to Glemham Hall today. We sat down with organisers Becky and John Marshall-Potter.
Q: You’ve invested a lot in the festival over the last six years...
John: It’s not easy in this day and age to get a new festival off the ground and we said it’s probably going to take five years before it goes into profit or breaks even. Each year the amount it’s lost has shrunk. We’ll definitely pass the break even point this year which is fantastic; it was very close.
Becky: We sold our house in Halesworth, which we’d built ourselves, to do this. That’s why we got our boys’ blessing. We said this is a huge gamble, we’re going to do something a bit insane, but they’d grown up with it. Both said it’s up to you, that gave us the feeling okay, we can do this.
It was a big decision but, I can’t explain it, it wasn’t even a question; you just go let’s do it. The sleepless nights came originally when we went we’ve got to get our investment back. I think there was an initial reaction, with everything else going on in the world, of what a frivolity but people who work within the event love being involved and you go okay, it’s not.
John: It sounds bizarre having (given up) what a lot of people would term your security but there’s no reason why it won’t give us security for the rest of our lives, we won’t make a fortune out of it but apart from anything else we’re both following a direction now. It’s not a frivolity now in the sense it’s playing on the national stage, it’s up there with four or five of the other big folk festivals and we’re regarded by our peers. We haven’t yet got their audience but we’re going in the right direction.
Q: Why take such a risk...
John: For me it was getting older. You think okay, I’m going to start calming down, (stop) going away and staying in hotels in different parts of the world working for other people but I don’t really know anything else having been freelance all my life. I’ve got rubbish pensions and all that sort of nonsense. I thought the one thing I can do probably till the day I drop is organise events, even if I couldn’t physically get on site I could still put the event together as long as I can still use a phone and a computer. If we get something off the ground that’s fairly low level but would give us enough income to carry on doing it as it builds... that was I suppose the drive. Am I going to do keep relying on people phoning me and saying can you come and do a job for us?
Becky: There was also both our boys had got to that point of leaving home... (you think) I haven’t reached THAT age yet, you get to that point where you think I have a choice here and Gig in the Park, in Halesworth, which we were involved in for many years, was coming to end for us anyway.
Cancer runs through my family. I’ve outlived virtually every female member of my family and you get to a point where you think actually, I’m going to do something. My sisters died, one at 42 one at 52; my mother died at 58. I’m that age. They all felt unfulfilled and I think there is a part that goes I’m not going to sit around.
Q: Does staging the festival get easier...
John: We get more confident because it’s just a matter of time before it starts to... I wouldn’t say re-pay the investment because I don’t think we ever expect to get what we put into it back but it gets to the point where it’s just paying us a living. I’m still going away, doing the occasional job for people; Becky still does a bit of teaching. We feel fairly secure with Glemham as a site, certainly up to I think 2020 which is far enough ahead.
Becky: We feel more like facilitators, we don’t tell people what to do, they come to us and go we’ve got a bit of an idea - that’s when the sleepless nights come in but that’s the joy of it too.
John: The relationships we’ve got now with some of the artists, their skills, how willing they are to share that; how they trust us and we trust them and a huge amount of that goes on. This is a place that if you want to try something out you can - and it works.
Becky: There’s a young lad, Otis Luxton, who is an instrument maker who lives on a boat down the road. He came to us two years ago and said he’s always wanted to have a gathering of instrument makers, so we said right there’s a space you do what you do best. The first year he had eight or nine people, last year it was double. It also means if something goes wrong like Sam Sweeney’s fiddle just before Bellowhead...
John: That’s right we had the where with all to get it fixed, there was this emergency backstage before he went on. I said to Sam hasn’t Jon got a spare one, he said yeah he has, I don’t really like it, it’s a bit manky. Having these top instrument makers on site is phenomenal.
Becky: We have lot of artists staying round the site all weekend, Peter Knight, John Spiers... The festival is incredibly inclusive... you talk about the traditionalists and what have you but you sit in the evenings and anybody with an instrument will sit and play. That could be the person you’ve just seen on stage or it could be somebody of 12 who’s just bought their guitar. Last year there were two children with a busking hat... I love that kind of madness..
John: – A couple of years ago it was just starting to quiet down, we were in the Cobbold Arms at the top of the hill and the Peatbog Faeries had just finished their manic folk trance set in the tent to end the festival. I was talking to somebody, there were some local musicians sitting in a corner playing and I suddenly became aware the music behind me rocketed and I turned round and Ross (Couper) the fiddle player from Peatbog Faeries had walked straight up the hill with his fiddle, saw them, got it out again and joined in. He was last seen the following morning walking up the road carrying his fiddle looking very hungover.
Q: There’s a bit of a Bellowhead reunion...
John: We’ve done two or three really good collaborations, one of which was the pairing of Peter Knight and (Bellowhead’s) John Spiers that went off like a storm. They’re going to do it again this year. Next March they’re bringing an album out and touring and we’re going be their Suffolk leg.
Becky: John has a background in sciences and last year we enticed him to be on the panel of this thing we run called Gardeners’ Corner, which is our equivalent to Gardener’s Question Time. He knocked our socks off. This year we’ve got Pete Flood, who’s the drummer of Bellowhead, who has got a certificate in species identification and plant life, going to do nature walks.
John: It crossed my mind we’ve got Jon Boden on site this year too, we might get an impromptu something out of them.
Q: It’s another strong line-up...
John: I absolutely love the programming side and we continually get from our peers you’ve got another great programme, how do you keep doing it? I go I don’t know. We have quite a lot of the 2018 line-up in place. Partly because if you go after a particular set of people or you have a rough plan for a line-up you start seeing who is going to be available and quite often if they’re not the discussion goes to but we’d like to do 2018.
Becky: There’s always the element of space, a little bit of last minute changing... It’s a very different way of doing it but I think for us that’s what makes the festival work.
John: A few weeks ago, the programme’s sorted and I got copied in on an email from somebody connected to Terrafolk who haven’t been in Britain for 10 years but are looking to reconnect with their UK fans. They’re going to be in London for August and does anybody want them to do a concert? I immediately fired one back and they’re going to end Friday night in the big tent.
There’s also a lot of brilliant stuff out there that’s just bursting through; there’s a great local group called Alden Patterson and Dashwood and they are definitely going to go places.
Q: You’ve described FolkEast as the antidote to overcrowded, overpriced festivals...
Becky: Boutique is the most terrible word on the planet, we’re small and perfectly formed. We listen to our visitors and it’s quite intimate - we meet people on the gate and we’ve been running a quiz for anybody who camps on Thursday which is a bit mad. We’re the last two doing the litter pick up...
John: It will be like that for a few more years.
Becky: Until we can’t bend down anymore. The crew are very involved as well, taking a real personal approach so that’s where it works.
John: We’re getting to know our regulars, people from all over the country; we’re building a relationship which is really quite nice. (Maybe) it’s an age thing. We’re putting on a festival we would go to and we’re finding a lot of people are searching for that kind of thing; there’s a lot of small festivals that are doing really really well. We’re looking at maybe 6,000 weekend tickets maximum, the site will easily deal with that and it’s got that lovely safe feel.
Becky: The way we were looking at FolkEast was room to roam and space to breathe. If you want to bring a blanket and just sit at the top of the hill and watch the sunset come and do it.
Q: You pride yourselves on trying to source everything locally...
John: 100% as long as the quality’s what we need. The only equipment onsite that isn’t Suffolk-based is the main stage PA system, but I use Transam Trucking who are Suffolk based to bring it here. The whole concept is FolkEast keeps that money in the local economy in someway; probably 80%.
Q: You have a fantastic backroom team, many of whom work around the world...
Becky: Family is an overused word but it really is. They are extraordinary. All our crew, stage management, sound engineers, everybody does it for nothing which is quite a big one to get your head round. They have their specialisms but they also throw themselves into everything else. FolkEast is run on passion.
John: The core crew, who build and run everything is probably less than 30. When we get to the weekend we obviously get a lot of volunteer stewards. There are people who run the venue too. We look after them all really well. It’s a working holiday but it’s social as well and they work solidly for beer money and food.
Becky: It’s a collective. I sometimes feel there’s so much onus on what we’ve done but there’s no way this would have happened had we not had this incredible support and working with people who believe in the set-up, their madness and creativity.
Q: You’ve managed to please traditional audiences and attract a younger one...
John: It’s building unique areas that you wouldn’t have if it was all coming from us... having somebody like Amy Wragg who brings her brand of stuff into the event... it’s really interesting seeing comments from what I call some of the more traditional folk fans who go we saw some amazing young man in there and they’re the sort of people you’d think would go oh I say, that’s not for us. There’s an awful lot of humour with FolkEast (too).
Becky: Somebody quoted us as saying it’s is a local festival with international appeal and I think that’s been our strength. If you come to FolkEast you know you’re in Suffolk. Many years ago there was a template for a folk festival and we’re very new on that circuit; it’s almost we’re not a folk festival but we are...
John: I don’t regard us as a folk festival I regard us a gathering of people with music. The reason it’s called FolkEast is it’s about the folk in the east - our history, the culture, the food.
Q:What does the future hold...
John: We’ve already talked succession.
Becky: (Our sons) Tom helps with marketing and PR and Barney runs the site. All the young ones coming through who have all got their input into the festival one way or another... you can see it when it’s their turn or when they want to take it on. We’re not here for the short haul.