Going Pop: How the EIF learned to love contemporary music

Since Fergus Linehan took over as artistic director in 2015, the Edinburgh International Festival’s contemporary music strand has become increasingly prominent, and this year it presents its most extensive and eclectic line-up to date. Fiona Shepherd looks back on some of the more memorable gigs of recent years, and speaks to two of this year’s performers – Nadine Shah and Kathryn Joseph – about what playing the EIF means to them

King Creosote plays Leith Theatre as part of the 2018 Edinburgh International Festival PIC: Ryan Buchanan
King Creosote plays Leith Theatre as part of the 2018 Edinburgh International Festival PIC: Ryan Buchanan

Was there a moment when contemporary music truly arrived on the Edinburgh International Festival? There were isolated incursions over the years – iconic New York punk performer Patti Smith joining forces with composer Philip Glass to pay tribute to beat poet Allen Ginsberg, Fringe doyenne Camille O’Sullivan crossing the tracks to perform Shakespeare’s The Rape of Lucrece – but these were curious kinks in an established landscape of opera and orchestral concerts.

The focus and fortunes of popular music shifted dramatically when incoming festival director Fergus Linehan took over the reins in 2015 and announced that FFS, the playful conflation of Glaswegian indie rockers Franz Ferdinand and enigmatic fraternal duo Sparks, were booked to play the Festival Theatre. Here was a different proposition entirely – an act with mainstream pop chops to match their progressive, leftfield credentials.

This satisfying artistic tension was also present across the rest of the festival’s inaugural contemporary music strand, from dynamic diva Anna Calvi to respected songwriter Sufjan Stevens, and a strand became a full programme by the following year with acclaimed artists such as Icelandic post-rock pioneers Sigur Ros, transgender singer Anohni and cult Canadian ensemble Godspeed You! Black Emperor providing international heft.

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    Nadine Shah PIC: Fraser Taylor

    That same year, the indie kids of 1990s Glasgow came of age with appearances by Mogwai, Emma Pollock and Arab Strap frontman Aidan Moffat.

    But arguably the moment which best exemplified the festival’s espousal of contemporary music was the blistering, uncompromising presence of homegrown heroes Young Fathers in the grand environs of the Festival Hub on Castlehill. This Mercury Prize-winning trio could trace their origins a few hundred metres and a cultural world away down High Street to DIY arts space the Bongo Club, where they first met as teenagers at an under-18s hip-hop night.

    Rapper/producer Graham “G” Hastings grew up in the Drylaw housing estate in northwest Edinburgh where, by his own admission, any hint of aspiration to one day perform at the city’s most prestigious performing arts festival would typically be met with derision. Yet here he was, owning that stage with his bandmates. There was no better advert for Linehan’s intention to give popular music the respect it deserves at the festival.

    With new artistic blood came a new audience, drawn by esteemed pop performers such as PJ Harvey, St Vincent, John Grant and Benjamin Clementine – all idiosyncratic leaders in their field, all renowned for putting on a show. Tribute was paid to the music of the Incredible String Band, arguably the most influential band to emerge from Edinburgh, who had made their own impressive transition in the 1960s from the old Crown Bar on Lothian Street to the main stage at the Woodstock Festival.

    Kathryn Joseph

    A number of performers made the most of their theatre venues. Jarvis Cocker and piano virtuoso Chilly Gonzales invited us into Room 29, a playful, play-acted song cycle about the seedy history of a room in LA’s Chateau Marmont, while droll New Yorkers The Magnetic Fields played the entirety of their 50 Song Memoir box set over two nights on a meticulously dressed stage.

    Within a couple of years, the contemporary music programme had outgrown the Hub and found a new home in Leith Theatre, building on the groundwork of the grassroots Hidden Door festival, who first revived the venue in 2017, to invest further in this long dormant community space.

    Its atmospheric auditorium and dog-eared decor was perfect for the festival’s Light on the Shore series of concerts curating the best of Scottish pop music and culture, from Neu! Reekie!’s gonzo pop cabaret to Karine Polwart’s Scottish Songbook and Carla J Easton’s celebration of the nation’s unsung girl groups. Meanwhile, composer Anna Meredith straddled the spectacle of festival opening event Five Telegrams and a rocking concert in Leith.

    By 2019, full pop immersion was achieved, with exultant gigs by Neneh Cherry, Sharon Van Etten and Festival returnees Anna Calvi and Jarvis Cocker. It is a mark of how wholeheartedly the festival has embraced popular music in many forms – from global superstars Youssou N’Dour and Anoushka Shankar to local heroes Teenage Fanclub and King Creosote – that audiences are now not just acclimatised but expectant of a strong contemporary music programme.

    In straitened circumstances, the festival this year presents its most extensive and eclectic music line-up to date, from charismatic divas such as Laura Mvula, Nadine Shah and Fatoumata Diawara to sister acts The Staves and The Unthanks via mainstream crowdpleasers such as Celtrockers Tide Lines and indie upstarts The Snuts, who are more used to the kind of festival which takes place in a crowded field.

    The contemporary music programme will play out on the festival’s Edinburgh Park site in the west of the city, where one of the hottest tickets is a bespoke show from Blur/Gorillaz mainman Damon Albarn. The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure the Stream Flows is a new work for band and string quartet, inspired by the landscape of Iceland, a country which has become a second home for Albarn over the last two decades.

    Not to be outdone, Orcadian composer Erland Cooper presents his evocation of his native landscape and there will be atmospheric and dynamic soundscapes galore courtesy of crossover jazz and electronica artists The Comet Is Coming. Floating Points, black midi, Kokoroko and drumming ace Moses Boyd.

    Anna Meredith notches up another festival appearance, while Neu! Reekie! also return with a bill topped by Scottish pop icon Edwyn Collins. Most artists are UK-based but Canadian composer Caribou and Californian experimental pop duo Tune-Yards beam in from overseas.

    The traditional music programme in the Old College Quad is a who’s who of Scottish folk music – including singers Siobhan Miller and Karine Polwart, multi-instrumentalist outfits Fara, RURA, Breabach and Kinnaris Quintet, power trio Talisk, Highland fiddler and composer Duncan Chisholm – plus international guests such as kora/cellist duo Ballaké Sissoko and Vincent Ségal and trailblazing female kora player Sona Jobarteh. Fiddle player Aidan O’Rourke has curated a mini-season of shows, called A Great Disordered Heart, exploring the symbiotic folk traditions of Scotland and Ireland.

    In many cases, their festival appearances will be the first time these artists have played live to an audience in 18 months. Singer/pianist Kathryn Joseph, without whom the Scottish music scene would be a much poorer place, has barely engaged with the pandemic alternative of the livestream concert and longs for in-person communication.

    “I felt very afraid of the stream-from-home situation, I wouldn’t have felt comfortable at all,” she says. “What I love about live music is it happens and then that’s it, it’s over and there’s often not a record of it and it’s all about that moment mattering. The whole livestreaming thing is the very opposite of that for me.”

    Joseph is far more at home when she can eyeball an audience, which makes her a natural choice for the festival, a shortish hop from her new base in Dundee. Her concert on 8 August will be her first ever appearance at the Festival, an opportunity to see her on electric piano rather than her trademark upright.

    “I’ve come away from dragging a piano around with me but I will play the old so-called hits,” she reckons. “The thought of anything live I just can’t wait for but the International Festival is the one that I’ve always felt was a special treat. And the programme’s amazing, it’s all people that I want to see.”

    Joseph plans to check out Anna Meredith, Erland Cooper, Caribou, “and definitely Nadine Shah, another Capricorn.”

    Shah is such a perfect fit for the festival, it is a wonder she has not featured already. This year, there is a particular imperative for her as her festival appearance will be one of only two shows where she and her band perform her audacious 2020 album Kitchen Sink in full.

    “This might be the last opportunity that we get to play this album because now I’ve got to make a new album,” she says. “The Edinburgh Festival is going to be a real treat. It’s only a stone’s throw away from where I grew up in Newcastle and it’s a city that I love, so I’m chuffed to pieces to be able to play the album there.”

    Like Joseph, Shah has her own wishlist of festival concerts to attend and is keenly aware of what the return of live music means for everyone in the room.

    “I’m just chomping at the bit to get out and play again,” she says. “I tend to give it every fibre of my being, so I felt a lack of purpose last year cos it’s what I do. It’s going to be super-emotional – for audience members as well, not just for the players. I went to a gig for the first time last week and I was in floods of tears just being among music lovers in a venue watching somebody play. It’s a really special thing.”

    “We all know that we’ve missed it,” agrees Joseph, “but it’s so strange, the need for it in your life. I think I’ve gone back to dreading the thought of being live and stressing about what I look like – and then suddenly when you’re doing it, all of that goes away and the excitement of getting to play is all.”

    For full programme details, see www.eif.co.uk

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