The countdown is on to one of the biggest weekends in the local live music calendar with Stendhal Festival opening the gates to its beautiful site on the 30th of June. The spread of talent is as tasteful as ever and features some incredible headline bookings like Sister Sledge, Villagers and DJ Yoda.

Natasha Rainey spoke with founder John Cartwright about the growth and struggles of the festival, acts to keep an eye out for and the plans for the future.

Stendhal just seems to be getting bigger and better year on year – what does this year’s Stendhal offer that we haven’t seen before?
While we have always strived to be bigger and better every year, realistically this year is still about survival for us. The effects of Covid are still reverberating around the industry, one only has to cast an eye to Hillsborough and the unfortunate news about Sunflower Fest to see that the current climate is still incredibly difficult for independent festival promoters.

So this year isn’t about being bigger and better for us, it’s still about getting back where were in 2019, pre-covid and stepping it up a little bit from our two socially distanced events last year.

So we have a few things we are bringing back like our art gallery, we have upgraded some of the grounds and gardens, have a little bit of a new stage set up but ultimately, we simply aren’t in a position this year to whip out a whole load of brand-new areas or attractions.

That said, we are still offering a load of excellent bands and performers that have never played at the festival before and we have loads of first-time ticket sales so for a lot of folks that are coming, everything will be brand new anyway.

The festival is not “split” this year, I assume because covid restrictions being eased and caps on numbers last year. Will this finally be the festival with things fully ‘returned to normal’?
Ha, yeah just one this year and yeah due to the fact that we have no covid restrictions and therefore no cap on audience numbers. We hope that this will be a totally back to normal festival, we don’t see any reason why it won’t be, there are no laws enforcing and covid measures so we plan on running as we would any other non-covid year.

The line-up is boasting some big names but a common issue with festival line-ups is the lack of women / queer / POC artists – do you think the line-up is representational / gender balanced?
We have always booked on merit first, are you a good performer, singer, band, have you been putting in the work and will you be a good addition to our line-up? Those are the things we ask when we are booking bands.

Happily, for us, we have always seemed to have a far higher male/female balance than other events – According to rolling stone this year only 13% of headliners are female across all UK festivals, at Stendhal this year that rises to 37.5%. Across our overall bill 39% is either female fronted, all female or has female involvement, higher than the 27% UK average in 2021.

Ultimately our headline act, Sister Sledge, a Female Fronted group made up of people of colour, who are widely loved by the LGBTQ+ community should hopefully go a ways to show that we of course welcome inclusivity for all and every year we try to grow that as best we can.

Other than the big names – what newcomers are you excited to see grace the Stendhal stage?
There’s quite a few actually, BECAH is an act we think can certainly go places. Their submission was one of the standouts of the application process this year.

Harley and the Wolf are rock band we can’t wait to hear live, while Winnie Ama, Fya Fox and Travi the Native are all first timers that we believe will turn lots of heads this year.

I could literally write every debutant here, as I mentioned, we book on merit and everyone on the bill, we believe, adds something different and special to the line-up.

What do you think Stendhal does for Northern Irish music that other UK based festivals may not?
I think primarily we can platform a lot more Northern Irish music than anyone else. We are a fantastic opportunity for bands to get festival experience and understand how to play a festival before they hopefully go out and step onto bigger stages. Cherym for example played us a few times before they got to go play 2000 trees last summer. There have been a few acts like that, I think we were Ryan McMullan’s first festival for example.

It’s also a bit like a busman’s holiday for the performers. It’s a great place for acts from here to meet up, have the craic and potentially collaborate on things going forward.

I know that we have had a few acts signed after Stendhal performances too, so ultimately yeah, giving the highest number of indigenous acts a platform is probably what sets us apart.

Do you see Stendhal ever having a line-up with less NI / ROI acts and more international acts? Basically a line-up with no biases based on location.
No. I don’t think biases is the word there. I think that people are quick to forget just how young that any type of professionalism the NI music industry is. It wasn’t even 25 years ago that there were no independent music festivals here in Northern Ireland until Paddy Glasgow and his crew put that right. If it wasn’t for the likes of Glasgowbury and all who followed such as ourselves, Sunflower, Pigstock, Sounds of the shore, Our back yard, Lark in the park and Tanglewood, it unfortunately would be really, really difficult to get a large numbers of NI acts on festival stages.

Also consider how many of those festivals I have just mentioned are still operating, it’s not easy.

Even in the future, as our industry evolves in Northern Ireland and acts can get greater access to mainland gigs and labels and management, I think there will always be a need for showcases for indigenous talent. If we can’t hold our own high up and say look and listen to these, they are class, then there is something badly wrong, particularly when you consider how very good the majority of our indigenous acts are.  

We are incredibly proud to shine a light on the creativity blossoming in our wee part of the world and that will always be a major part of what Stendhal is all about.

You’ve just announced a partnership with BBC ATL – how will this help the festival / coverage for those who cannot attend?
We’ve worked alongside the good folk at BBC Radio Ulster and BBC NI for a few years now and this year, as they have done the past few years, they will be broadcasting loads of the festival live across loads of shows on Radio Ulster over the weekend. The inclusion of the new BBC Radio Ulster ATL Introducing Stage further cements what is a great working relationship, allows us to work side by side in trying to highlight talent that both organisations have faith in and want to broadcast to the wider world.  
Other than music, what can we expect from Stendhal 2022?

A cavalcade of creativity.

Comedy from Reginald D. Hunter, Micky Bartlett and our largest ever selection of Northern Irish Comedians. Dance, poetry, art of all kinds, top class food and drink, a dedicated family programme, banter, good people, muck and madness. It’s going to be a good one.

If this year goes well – can we expect an even more brilliant (if it’s possible) Stendhal next year?
Ha, we’ll have to get this year over us first, as an independent festival we literally live year to year. One bad year could be the end of us and we never know how things are going to turn out until we have everyone off site and all the counting done.

That said, things are looking ok at the moment and should all go to plan we will be back in 2023 and the plans will still be based on recovery but also on how we can start to think about again moving onwards and upwards and getting bigger and better.