You’re welcome back at Maverick Festival any time - founder’s invite to Suffolk popstar Ed Sheeran
PUBLISHED: 14:49 29 June 2017 | UPDATED: 09:20 30 June 2017
Celebrating the best of Americana, The Maverick Festival turns 10 this weekend. Founder Paul Spencer spoke to entertainment writer Wayne Savage about those first difficult years, how it’s evolved and issues an invite to Ed Sheeran who made his festival debut there.
Q: Does it seem like 10 years?
A: In some respects it seems like a blink of an eye, but if I allow my memory to take over... we’ve always prided ourselves on having multiple stages so when I look back it’s a kaleidoscope of hundreds of artists.
Q: Does the challenge to keep it fresh get easier or harder?
A: It changes. We’ve got a really great team and know what we’re doing. The real pressure is staying creative and fighting for a good audience share because there’s a lot of competition. The struggle is to bring back the things people love about the festival - keeping it small, the attention to detail, etc - and have enough people come t o make it financially feasible and allow me to keep coming up with new ideas and bring in new artists from America, Canada and so on. I hope nobody ever comes and says “well that was great, but it’s kind of what you expect at Maverick”. We’re constantly trying to push the envelope and that’s what we’ve done this year. In terms of the number of artists I think we’re up to 52. I know quantity isn’t everything, but we want everyone to find something they hopefully fall in love with.
Q: You’re spoken in the past about keeping it a boutique festival free of overly long queues?
A: If you go back to the first two years there was a young man called Ed Sheeran who was just leaving school and did his first ever festival at Maverick in 2008. He came back in 2009 completely unknown. People say “we see Ed in Fram, why not ask if he’d like to come back”. We’d love him to come as a guest, do a surprise couple of songs; but I wouldn’t want to advertise Ed because it would shift the whole flavour of the event.
Clearly it would bring in hundreds more people but clearly they wouldn’t be people who would enjoy the whole programme. We very much take that holistic approach, to get people who buy into the whole Maverick experience. We’re very lucky we have a loyal audience. We do inch our numbers up a little bit but not too many people so that it spoils the vibe which is key.
Q: Maverick’s profile has risen over the last few years?
A: This year we were chosen by the Telegraph as its best family festival in the UK so that was a huge accolade. We’ve had accolades in all the major broadsheets and some of the tabloids. We rely heavily on word of mouth. I decided I’d throw my money into the quality of the event and the music we put on and just hope people would evangelise once they’d been. It’s worth pointing out there’s a large percentage of our audience who wouldn’t necessarily identify themselves as Americana fans - they’re Maverick fans who once a year put themselves at my mercy. They discover new music but when they go away I suspect they revert to whatever their own particular tastes. If we did a survey and said “would you characterise yourself an Americana fan” they’d probably still say “oh no, I don’t really know what that is”.
It’s very much experiential, family friendly, manageable; Easton Farm Park is beautiful and the vibe’s great so there’s a lot to lure people in. We were the first Americana festival in the UK and we’re arguably the finest. We have the best reputation in the music business but that doesn’t necessarily bring in legions of people. But it gives us credibility with the artists we want to present and within the industry.
We’ve been lucky... I’m thrilled and proud of the event but if I’m honest my only slight frustration is it’s taken us so long to get where we are but that probably reflects what a highly crowded market it is.
Q: How did Maverick start?
A: When I lived in America I was a big fan of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival which, despite its name, was very much an American roots music festival. I went every year for the 12 years I lived in America and I loved it - multiple stages, great food and drink, not too big, you could move around and just dip in an out of all this wonderful music. You had a programme and there might be one or two things you highlighted but the rest of it you’d wonder around, you’d hear a nice sound, you’d go in a room. That was very much what I wanted to create when I moved back to England. English folk music was making a huge revival at that time and has gone on to be a massive part of the musical landscape in England and I wanted the American roots music equivalent to have the same.
Q: How hard were those early years?
A: Incredibly. The initial difficulty was persuading people in the vicinity of the festival that it was actually going to be a family friendly and well-behaved cultural type of event; that it wasn’t going to be some kind of rave or Glastonbury which naturally people were very nervous about. Then what stymied me was the fact people didn’t know what American roots music was. When I started Maverick the term Americana didn’t really exist and if it was mentioned it always conjured up American cars and people dressed as cowboys or native Americans. Now it has its own chart and we have the Americana Music Association in the UK which I was one of the founders of.
Getting the numbers through the gates to make it financially viable really was touch and go. The first few years weren’t for the faint-hearted. I had no backing so it really sucked all my money away the first couple of years. Hugely painful and significant losses were made in the first four years and then it turned a corner, became barely profitable and then has inched along. Now I have a future with it. My ambitions for it are modest; my idea of success isn’t making loads of money and having thousands of people, it’s having a couple of thousand people who pay a fair amount to get there, pay a fair amount to drink at the bar...
Paul’s top picks
• Anything on the Southern Sounds at the Moonshine stage Friday night, Saturday afternoon, Saturday night and Sunday morning; the atmosphere and music is going to be great.
• Sierra Hull. She’s in her early 20s and played at the The Grand Ole Opry with Emmylou Harris when she was 12. She’s a virtuoso violin player which may sound boring, trust me it’s not. She’ll be making exquisite blue grass music that will cross genres; people will be talking about her for a long time.
• Albert Lee, who I’ve been aware of as a musician all my life; since Head Hands and Feet and playing with Emmylou Harris’ band in the 1970s. He’s the guitarist’s guitarist. He’s so modest, quiet and unassuming. When he gets that red Telecaster in his hands... I’m a drummer and I’ve learned to hate lead guitarists over the years playing in bands (laughs) but this guy is fantastic.
• Justin Townes Earl, who is Steve Earl’s son, has emerged as the young voice of Americana. He’s getting loads of attention and we’re really lucky to get him; he’s only doing half a dozen dates in the UK.
• Amy McCarley has been tipped by the roots music scene in Nashville as being the Alabama artist to watch.
• The Hank Williams tribute. A famous son of Alabama, I’ve reached out to people and we’ve got 12 or 14 songs being performed by 14 different artists who will madly rush into the Peacock on Saturday night after or before their shows. It’ll be an hour of bedlam but the audience will love it.
Q: How has the festival evolved over 10 years?
A: The music has always remained at the heart of it. The genre has become more popular which has meant more Americana artists are coming to the UK from the states, Canada - we’ve got two from Australia this year - which presents with me more opportunities. I tend to get sent a lot of stuff now and invited to a lot of stuff; I don’t just wander the streets of London or wherever sniffing out Americana or looking for people in cowboy hats. Some of it’s not great, most of it’s very good and some of it’s exquisitely good. I make a beeline for the ones I fall for and try to persuade them to build a tour around Maverick because I can’t afford to bring them just for our festival but I can offer them a good show and a high-ish profile in the Americana world.
In 2008 it was more going out, hearing stuff, people saying “ooh have you heard that album by so and so” and then trying to find out who their agent is. Now information technology has meant it’s relatively easy to check out somebody. I’m sure there’ll be conversations in the green room this year where someone will say to me “oh you’ve got to try and get so and so he’s brill”.
There are still people who say to me 2008 had the best line-up, which is great but when I look at the poster for that year I think we had about 20 acts. We have pushed out into more stages as we’ve explored Easton Farm Park and discovered these little cubbyholes. This year we have the travelling medicine show stage which is essentially a pop-up by one of the bars. We have the Jimmie Rodgers busker stage, our film theatre in one room, our workshops in another... this year we’ve an exhibition by three of the main photographers who have worked at the festival over the years in another little room I discovered recently.
We’re up to six stages... the landmark for me this year is with the advent of my new partnership with Southern Comfort I’ve been able to recreate a little piece of New Orleans in Easton Farm Park with the new Southern Sounds at the Moonshine stage. We’re making it as authentic as we can. We’ve got some real New Orleans musicians coming... we’re going to have a New Orleans traditional street band welcoming people on Friday afternoon... that stage is my attempt to keep it fresh, to surprise people who know the festival.
Q: And if Ed Sheeran’s reading this?
A: He’s got my email and knows where I live. As long as he’s prepared to not tweet about it we’d love him to pop along (laughs).