One of the boldest new innovations on the Irish scene in years, Ensemble are a collective of like minded individuals from across the musical spectrum. As they prepare to launch their own monthly night, we spoke to Rob Farhat about crossing boundaries, the state of Irish music and what inspired them in the first place…
“We felt that, while there’s a huge amount of amazing music coming out of Ireland, a lot of it doesn’t get the support it deserves. When you look at the Irish acts doing well abroad, barring a few exceptions they’re mostly relatively commercial, radio-friendly acts. Not that there’s anything wrong with that kind of music doing well, but we just think there’s room for more success stories for more unusual artists too, and we want to help make that happen”.
How did your previous experience influence the idea?
“We’ve been working together since college, where we ran the Trinity Orchestra and did stuff like this and this. We’ve worked on a few other projects together since then, but after college we spent a couple of years working at the Dublin Web Summit (Rob Farhat) and Riverdance (Rob Kearns). While there we both got some seriously high level marketing and production experience respectively, giving us the skills to be able to run a (hopefully) solid business and in some respects be ahead of the curb, for example when it comes to using online marketing where the music industry is still quite behind the times.
Individually, prior to that we both studied classical music to a fairly high standard, and considered pursuing it professionally but were put off by the elitism and formality around it. As we worked together we found our feelings on this were pretty mutual, and as such it’s influenced the kind of music we work with and how we present it. More on that later”.
You felt that the Irish music industry wasn’t reflecting enough of what was really happening?
“Yes. For the most part, the Irish acts that have good management and label support here are fairly “safe”, while acts that are producing more “risky”, left-of-centre stuff have to self manage or set up their own small labels on the side. We’re trying to combine the best of both worlds.
It’s especially apparent when you look at what Irish artists are getting international label deals – they’re mostly with the majors whose tastes are naturally rather conservative, while the more unusual Irish artists that get signed to smaller indie labels tend to be once-offs who’ve gone down a road less travelled. But there’s not nearly enough of those examples, for the most part Irish bands/artists that are doing really innovative things are struggling to get attention beyond their core following here”.
Is that mainly for certain types of music?
“Broadly speaking, we like to work with artists who “cross genre lines”, and for the most part that means artists with a classical or jazz background (like ourselves), who use that to influence the music they write. For example Loah, who is a soul singer with classical training and African roots. The idea of a “genre” is becoming less and less relevant as musicians don’t really think in those terms any more, and audiences are becoming more genre neutral too. But the musical “establishment” (the major labels, promoters, etc.) still thinks in those terms, preferring to box music into predefined corners. They need to catch up.
One particular focus of ours is putting on classical music in non-traditional settings. It’s the music we both grew up deeply engrossed in, but the classical music world is largely failing to engage with our generation because it’s so stuck in it’s old ways. What we find is that for people our age who consider themselves “music aficionados” but haven’t got into classical music, it’s not because of the music itself but the presentation. They’re put off by the formal rigidity of it. So we try to put on classical events in more modern spaces, do away with strict seating arrangements, bring in interesting lighting, visuals, and the like. So far it seems to be working and we’re getting a much younger audience coming to classical events that you’d see in the traditional classical venues”.
The Irish underground seems to have a lot to offer, what do the artists need to do to make themselves heard?
“Irish bands need to avoid focusing just on Ireland too much. For any small country, there’s always the risk of becoming a big fish in a small pond and then struggling to go beyond that – it’s an issue that’s not unique to Ireland and it’s not unique to music or the arts either. I see Irish bands who do really well within Ireland, but then struggle to translate that abroad, and I think if you become super successful in a small country then when you try to bring that abroad afterwards, it’s almost too late – people wonder why they haven’t heard of you and think your appeal must be unique to your locality. That’s why it’s important to try and get yourself out there at least in the UK from an early stage – you look at some of the recent success stories like Girl Band and they’ve done just that, and they’re almost more popular over there than they are here even though they’re still to release an album.
I also think Irish bands need to avoid making their “Irish-ness” their biggest selling point in their marketing. I go to showcase festivals abroad a good bit and the most talked about Irish bands over there are getting attention for their music, not for where they’re from. The fact that they’re Irish is irrelevant. Whereas in my opinion bands that heavily emphasise their Oirish-ness don’t get taken quite as seriously – rightly or wrongly. This may sound a bit unpatriotic, but it really isn’t – what I’m saying is that Irish musicians deserved to be judged on their merits, not on their geography.
Other than that, I really just think that both from a musical and marketing POV, bands need to embrace their individuality and not try to copy from other examples what think might be a path to success. There is just so goddamn much music out there, you really need to try and set ourself out as something unique, and besides, by trying to emulate others you might not be playing to your strength. Having influences is of course essential and part of the creative process, but make sure those influences are genuine rather than based on what you see as being successful or trendy right now. Take a risk, it might not work out but you’re far more likely to stand out”.
You’re tying together the creative and industry side of things…
“Yeah, well I guess we’re trying to combine the best of both worlds – applying the good management, marketing, and production of the core music industry to the most creative musicians, while taking a very pro-artist approach. Our relationship with the artists we work with is very much a collaborative one – we don’t tell them what to do, we make decisions with them on every level: gig venues, ticket prices, artwork, social media… the works”.
What’s the plan for the monthly gigs?
“The idea is to serve as a testing and tasting ground – for new and established artists to preview their new material, and for audiences to get a little taste of what bigger things are in store down the line. Most of the artists that play at it, we’ll be doing something more major with in the coming 12 months.
Each concert will revolve around a loose musical theme or sub genre. Our first one this Friday, which features Niwel Tsumbu’s RiZA (pictured) and Tommy Hayes + Matthew Noone’s AnTara, sees two ensembles who combine the influences of music from a far off land with roots that are closer to home. Our next will feature a few very exciting solo electronic artists, and the following a few acts whose music uses the violin in unique and different ways.
Also joining us is the one and only Donal Dineen, who’ll be interviewing Niwel at the start of the evening. For now it’s just a small part of the event, but later on the plan for it is to become a standalone session where Donal hosts a public discussion on Irish musicians and artists’ creative processes. We’ll have more on that soon…”
What else is happening for Ensemble?
“A lot. Later this year we’ll have our first release as a label – on vinyl and digital. From the start our main intention was always to be a record label, but we didn’t want to rush into it until we learned a bit about the industry and our artists developed enough to justify it. We’re also starting a membership scheme, for whom we’ll be organising workshops and advice sessions and the like, as we really want to build a community of musicians and music lovers. Plus we’ve got a number of large scale gigs in the works, curating stages at a couple of festivals, as well as starting a small city festival of our own… We have a tendency to take on too much but hopefully you’ll be able to come back to me in a year’s time and we’ll have all those boxes ticked…”
Ensemble’s first monthly residency gig in BLOCK T – the ENSEMBLE ASSEMBLY – is on tonight, featuring RiZA, AnTara, and Donal Dineen. Full details + tickets here.