Any Irish festival-goer worth their salt will have attended Body&Soul in the past, and will know it’s a special experience. These gatherings have a lot of moving parts and take months upon months of planning. So we sat down with Jenny Wren, head booker of Body&Soul who chats with Hannah O’ Connell about the festival’s eight year history, its conception and much more.
Listen to it below and read some of the highlights transcribed too.
Tell us a bit about your background, how did you start off?
I was an art director for fifteen or so years, I lived in London for many, many years and that was my day job. I’ve said this before, my day job really kept me in shoes and records.
Music has just been one of those vocations I keep going back to. I was immersed within the dance scene as a consumer and once I fell out of that I looked for ways to access music through other mediums. Radio was a big thing for me. In London I was presenting a hospital radio show. When I came back to Ireland I started working on Jazz FM… Around that time friends of mine began discussing with me if I would manage a band. I didn’t have a clue how to manage a band but I was kind of helping people out.
Avril Stanley, we went to school together, was doing a healing area at the Big Chill in England and was approached by Electric Picnic to come back to Ireland and set up a healing area at the festival. So she did that year one and year two, knowing me and we swapped music as kids, asked me did I want to bring down some bands to a stage and here we are.
You’ve been ten, eleven years in Electric Picnic now?
I think twelve. I go on how old my kids are. My eldest son is going on eleven and I know I breastfed him down there.
You started to do this when you had quite young children?
Year one I think I was probably pregnant and didn’t realise it and year two I had baby Bo with me, he was just a few months old.
It’s very encouraging to hear that even though you were pregnant and had young children that you were still heavily involved in the music industry. It’s something that holds a lot of women back.
I hope it’s encouraging but it’s not necessarily easy. It really isn’t easy and if we could all just reach out to each other and swap a few babies around… We’ve just confirmed the lovely Joni for Body&Soul Festival who has just had her second child who is six weeks old. It is possible but it’s not to say it is particularly easy.
That really encompasses the ethos of Body&Soul… It’s not just music.
No, it’s not. What I do is part of an incredible tapestry and if that tapestry wasn’t there then the music wouldn’t be as interesting. We spend ages programming when an act should go on, the vibe of Friday in comparison to Saturday and Sunday, you want to get it right. The ethos is integral to what we do.
Was is a decision to break away from Electric Picnic, did someone approach you about it?
You know when you start doing something and there’s an energy there? You know you’ve got something and there’s a great team of people. There’s an impetus to keep going forward although you’re not fully sure of the future but the energy was right. We really had learned our trade at Electric Picnic and built something beautiful and it just seemed the right thing to do.
What was the transition like, from hosting an area at a festival that was already established to growing your own from the ground?
For me it was great, I just got bigger budgets but I’m not dealing with the stuff that the rest of the team is dealing with. Of course it’s very scary. I often get down on site and you’re so involved in the Excel sheets and your emails and then all of a sudden you look out the window and you see these little tents pop up and you think ‘Oh yeah, there’s people coming!’ It’s like when you’re studying for exams and it’s not until you lift your head that you think we’ve done this cool thing! Avril (festival director) would answer that differently. There’s huge financial pressure, finding the land! It’s not for the faint hearted.
How big is your team?
We’re actually pretty small. When you consider what’s put on at the weekend we really are a small team. Really the core team is about four or five people and that grows hugely as summer draws closer. On site we have a fantastic team of volunteers that come back each year.
What does a typical day look like for you?
Earlier in the year it’s a lot of headphones on and listening to stuff which is my favourite bit and around now you’re getting into a lot of admin which has to be done. There’s no real rhythm to a day because you can be bouncing between stuff but often you’re either chasing acts that you really want and responding to acts. There’s a hell of a lot of emails.
I’m sure there’s lots of people who look at your job and think it’s the best job ever. Are there unexpected aspects to your job and do you find it stressful?
I think I can get anxious about it. I often get that syndrome of that child who has been given money to go down to the shop to get sweets and you want those sweets but you can’t have them and it’s letting go of the act you could have got over the line. It is a cool job of course but you have to remember within ever job that are difficult elements like admin and Excel files. Particularly for me when I used to be a designer for many years using Illustrator and now I’m using Excel files it’s like I’ve gone to the dark side.
I think anything can look cool from the outside. I would not suggest somebody to get into this because they thought it was cool. I have no time to try and be cool, I think I gave up trying to be cool when I was about 8. You have to come from a place of honesty and you have to come from a place where it is a genuine vocation. Don’t get into it because you think it’s cool. Get into it because you absolutely love it, because it’s that driving passion.
Do you have a method to finding an act or a method to deciding who should go on the line up?
I always trust my gut. You know, to say I don’t look to the audience will sound like I’m pushing them aside however I think you can get very swallowed up in what people might want, trying to please people. You can’t necessarily please people and we have always come from a real place of honesty in saying this is what we have listened to and this is what we think is just fantastic and if you don’t like it then that’s fine. I have this real irritation and maybe it’s because I grew up pre-internet with ‘oh I like that, I like that’. You don’t have to like everything. You can have valid experiences getting really angry at a piece or music or getting upset at it but as long as it jolts the cells within yourself I think it’s done it’s job.
Everyone that we put on there really is coming from a very honest place. We’re not trying to bet that they’re going to be the next big thing, they’re just great artists. We try and make sure it’s considered and that there’s equality on every level as best we possibly can based within the three day window you have over an artist’s entire touring year and that there’s difference. We’re not just wheeling out all electronic or all any one thing and there are times when I will step away from an act because on the particular bill it doesn’t work or we’ve answered that sound so there is a bit of cooking involved. It’s very considered in that respect.
Not to take away from the amazing lineup this year and in previous years, but are there any bucket list bookings that you have?
Probably best not to speak about them because we’ll never get them. We’re a small independent festival and we don’t play with massive budgets and the budgets really work within the site. Every year I write down Kate Bush and every year I write down Björk to just put it out to the universe and maybe one day they will come and have a drink with us. One person that really stood out for me was Nick Cave. That was just… Wow. It didn’t make any financial sense but he’s just an artist, it was incredible. So to have him and PIL, they were another one. So there are people you aspire to but they may just remain on your pieces of paper.
Who have been your highlights over the past eight years of Body&Soul?
It is like choosing between the children isn’t it. I have already mentioned Nick Cave, for him I had to sit by myself and have a little drink of brandy afterwards. He was amazing. PIL were huge for me as well. I’ve been a John Lydon fan since as long as I can remember. There’s honestly been so many. It’s wonderful also to see fantastic Irish acts come in. You know year one they’re on a smaller stage and then to see them taking a stage, it’s really gorgeous. Just to be a tiny part of their story because there are lots of great Irish festivals that offer acts platforms and we’re just one of them but I like to think we offer them as good a platform as we can but just to be a tiny part of that story is great. It’s very cool.
You can access this year’s lineup and we’ve just released more names today and really one thing that stands out for me is the weight of the Irish influence and how incredible all of these artists are and how ripe they are for taking a stage anywhere and to be part of perhaps their journey, I think it’s amazing and not just the music and artists. These are people who are doing incredible work up and down the country all year round and to be able to bring them together for one weekend, that feels very special and it feels very humbling to be a part of it to be honest with you.
How important do you think festivals are in our culture and for our small country?
I think they are important. When I left Ireland I probably ran out of here screaming. I’m a very open minded person and I couldn’t handle the old Ireland and the small thinking and to come back and see all these incredible young people, I mean I’m not 900 but I’m a little bit older and to create an area for likeminded people of qualities and thoughts of varying ages from the little ones including my own kids amused looking at older dudes with glitter and fairy wings on and I think that’s really great because it reminds us all of how connected we can be and how fucking great we are. We have moved on from old Ireland and the weight of the Catholic Church, although we are fighting lots of stuff. We do offer a space over a weekend to leave your nine to five at the door and to come in and just get your glitter and your wings on if that’s what you want to do or not. Some people come to the festival and hang out in the healing area. It’s a village for the weekend where you can be who you want to be.
What do the next couple of weeks or months look like for you?
We’re fairly close to wrapping up the programme for Body&Soul Festival. I’m a little bit early this year. We have an area in Latitude in England so that will be underway and obviously we have Body&Soul Village at Electric Picnic. So from here on your crossing t’s and dotting i’s and making sure information is carried through correctly, and in some respects you’d be highlighting stuff for next year which sounds nuts. It’s very un-zen and not in the moment at all!
Is it weird for you that unlike other bookers you don’t get to relax after Body&Soul because you have to look towards Latitude and Electric Picnic?
I think other bookers are probably doing other stuff as well. I don’t think anybody is fully resting on their laurels. I do later in the summer. I need to step out of it and almost not listen to a thing for a week and be fully with the kids. You know from the beginning of the year while the full focus is the Body&Soul festival you are watching acts who will come through for the other things as well. I’m a terrible person for scribbling things on bits of paper and post it notes. It can be a little bit hard and it’s around now that you feel like you should be chilling out on a beach somewhere but it’s now that you need to grit down.
Do you book differently for Body&Soul at Electric Picnic compared to the standalone festival?
Yes and no. I think Body&Soul at Picnic is us but on a smaller level. We go for similar music, I suppose it is a bit different. I’ve never looked at it in an analytical way or stood back from it’s just kind of natural. I do think they speak differently I just know those voices well so maybe I’m able to slip in and out of it.
Where do you want to take Body&Soul? You’re moving into Latitude now, do you want to have sections in lots of festivals? What does the future hold?
There’s nothing set in stone. I very much like to get things right but it would be nice to look at partnerships that work with us and worked with how we do things but everything would need to be very considered because we are a small team and there’s only so many hours in the day and you don’t want to compromise. It would need to be very carefully done but there’s always room to grow a little bit. Body&Soul is obviously staying as is. Every year we do Body&Soul festival all the team take a lot of time looking back at how it worked on the site, the feedback from people. We don’t want to grow the size of the festival, certainly not. I know people from last year were questioning the size but I liked fifteen thousand. We never wanted to be a twenty five thousand, thirty thousand festival. It’s not what we want to do at all. Just that little bit bigger means you can run off and do your own thing for a while and still come back and meet people, still have that core thing going on.
It’s big enough to get lost in if you want but small enough to still meet people. So Body&Soul isn’t growing, it’s staying as is with just more work continuing within the site, within the infrastructure and within the smaller areas. There’s so many fantastic smaller areas and they’re a lot of the joy.