Tubby’s Farm nestles in the rolling countryside outside Hillsborough and at first sight, there’s little to distinguish it from any other working farm. Look closer, however, and you start to notice the little things – hand painted signs saying “main stage” and “family camping.” It’s here that Sunflowerfest takes place, and the farm, like the festival, is run by Michael and Vanessa Magowan.
Gigging NI had the pleasure of visiting the farm on a warm and sunny July afternoon, just three weeks ahead of the festival. We were able to catch up with Michael and Vanessa, after Vanessa had finished giving the prospective festival volunteers a tour of the site, and Michael had applied the finishing touches to one of the many wooden cabins dotted around the festival grounds.
Gigging NI: Can we start at the beginning? How did Sunflowerfest start? Where did the idea come from?
Vanessa: Our eldest son wanted to raise some money for charity and he’s quite musical – we put the first festival on with 16 bands at the same time as the Hillsborough Oyster Festival. It was a great success and the bands were so appreciative of having a platform to play live to a big audience. The first proper festival was in 2010. Michael had also been to Glastonbury and came back wanting to share that experience.
Michael: It was my antidote to all the shite in this country. I recall the troubles in the 60’s and 70’s and when I went to Glastonbury I thought “Northern Ireland could benefit from this.”
Gigging NI: How much work is involved in organising a festival of this size? When does it start?
Vanessa: It’s all year round – you finish one then start straight onto the next. There’s always meetings, working with sponsors, listening to bands and artists, evaluation reports and the dreaded ‘books’, the accounts.
Michael: There’s always something that needs done around the farm too. The clear up is a big job; and the planning for the next year’s festival begins in earnest.
Gigging NI: Having attended Sunflowerfest a few times over the years, I’ve always been struck by the themes of family, community and the environment that are present; why are these important to you?
Michael: It’s how we live our life.
Vanessa: We don’t like to use the word “educational” – but we do try to excite and inspire all our visitors at the festival and try to show them what is possible – new ideas, new ways of doing and seeing things. Our compost heated showers are a great example of this. People are amazed to have hot showers at the festival that are heated by grass cuttings and wood chip which heats up and in turn, warms the water inside a long (100m) hose pipe.
Michael: We like it to be thought provoking.
Vanessa: It’s about letting people shine their light – not just our artists and performers, but everyone who tries something new, or gets involved in the many activities around the site, the youngsters in the KidsZone, our volunteers, the open mic, the poetry slam, the group meditations and yoga, the drumming circles, the story telling, the circus workshops. You name it – we try to fit in as much as we can, not just music, but art, theatre, cinema and lots of other creative fun.
Gigging NI: You’ve always had a particular theme for Sunflowerfest each year; in the past it’s been Steampunk, Vikings, the Giants of Northern Ireland and so on. What is this year’s theme and how did you choose it?
Vanessa: This year the theme is “One Earth.” We felt like we wanted to get back to our roots with emphasis on our natural environment, sustainability and community. There is only One Earth and we need to look after it for generations to come, like we do with this farm – we’re just the caretakers.
Michael: Hard work is the only way to achieve this – we’ve planted over 7000 trees on the site and now have somewhere between 30 and 40 species of birds on the farm. Last year I sat here and watched a family of stoats playing on the bank behind the moot. If you give nature a chance, it will give back in abundance.
Gigging NI: What are the best and worst things about running a music festival?
Michael: Definitely the lifestyle!
Vanessa: (laughing) Is that the best or the worst? For me it’s the stress and the administrative stuff that’s the worst. The best is actually the lead up to it with friends and family (both our own family and our volunteer family) helping to create the site, the magic in the middle. It’s nice painting to music, having BBQ’s and cups of tea with homemade cake and raspberry or gooseberry jam from our very own community garden!
Michael: The hours that Vanessa spends in front of the computer!
Gigging NI: Apart from this year’s line-up (obviously) what have been your favourite acts over the years?
Michael: For me – Dreadzone, King Kong Company and Mr B the Gentleman Rhymer
Vanessa: We both love King Kong Company. I really liked the Barley Mob (they have reformed as Topso now); Le Boom are really good, Mute Fish (unfortunately not playing this year) and I loved Coco and the Butterfields when they headlined. The Rubber Bandits are great too – their lyrics are actually quite profound and thought provoking ..once you get past the plastic bags on their heads.
Gigging NI: What would we find in your personal music collection?
Vanessa: I love a real mix of music. I love The Eurythmics, The Pretenders, Bryan Ferry, (showing my age) and lots of reggae – we both like reggae. I also love classical music. Played a lot of classical when I learnt the flute.
Michael: I listen to a lot of reggae – if I had my vinyl stuff – Django Reinhart and Elvis Costello.
Gigging NI: What would be your fantasy line-up for the festival be?
Vanessa: the aforementioned bands, Bob Marley and Annie Lennox.
Michael: I’d like to get some classical music – maybe Offenbach.
Gigging NI: What are your aims for the festival? Where do you see it being in 5 years from now?
Michael: I ask this all the time – it’s a hard question to answer. Maybe running Sunflowerfest Australia and Sunflowerfest on Tubby’s Farm :)
Vanessa: I just try to live in the moment… can’t plan for 5 years time… we may not even be here then.
Michael: Ploughing on I guess – we’re still working to establish Sunflowerfest – we’re flat out trying to keep it going. Every year we try to add something new, try to keep it fresh and exciting. This year we have a new field opened up for campervans, glamping and pre-pitched tents.
It’s busy on the farm today, Vanessa has to rush off to get the barbecue going to feed the 30-odd volunteers that are here, Michael has to get back to his hands on work around the farm, and time is ticking away until the gates open. The site is being prepared and the volunteers are being inducted.
Sunflower fest runs from the 27th – 29th July and headline acts appearing include Utah Saints, The Outcasts, The Sugarhill Gang and Melle Mel.
Local bands and musicians to look out for at this years festival include Mosmo Strange, Sam Wickens, The String Ninja’s, Beauty Sleep, Aoife, and headliner Joshua Burnside.
For tickets and more information visit www.sunflowerfest.co.uk