On the talent trail at Other Voices 2012

From the Staves to the Strypes, this year's festival on the west coast of Ireland featured an impressive array of young artists

Aidan Gillen, who plays Lord Baelish in Game of Thrones and mayor Carcetti in The Wire, is telling Rachel and Becky Unthank about the benefits of a turf-driven cinema. The 150-seater Phoenix on Dykegate Lane, Dingle, is one of the only family-run picture houses left in Ireland; "it used to run off a patch of grass at the back," says Gillen, who lived in the fishing town for four years and has somehow got himself caught up presenting numerous broadcasts from the Other Voices festival. The Unthanks have just performed the West Indian sea shanty John Dead, against footage of the bay in winter. They've just arrived from one of their Northumberland singing schools and have never been to this part of Ireland before.

Walk down Dingle's Main Street and you'd never know there was a festival on, though photos of previous guests Daniel Lanois, Spiritualized and Jarvis Cocker stare out surreally from the windows of wool shops and ironmongers. Behind the doors, in pubs, backrooms and pop-up literary "salons", things are swarming, and keeping track of all the events is impossible. Other Voices, now in its 11th year, takes a festival's most powerful ammunition – the secret gig – and sends you barrelling round town on a kind of musical Bloomsday trail, chasing after rumours, fortified by vast quantities of stout. It's like waking up in a friendly, Celtic version of The Truman Show, or Later … with Jools Holland, without the inane chat.

Reading on mobile? Watch here

The festival's organiser, musician and film director Philip King, talks about "tradition, translation and transmission", but Other Voices isn't all pipes and penny whistles, and only half the acts are Irish. The main "arena" is the tiny protestant church of St James, which seats 80 people, packed into the pews and choir loft. It's more about the thrill of seeing famous people in tiny spaces, and catching bands before they get huge. Florence Welch played here in December 2009, along with the xx; Amy Winehouse came to Dingle in 2006 after the release of Back to Black and performed with just bass and guitar. Director and editor Maurice Linnane recalls a girl "at the height of her powers, even though she wasn't supposed to be there for another four or five years".

To call it a festival is a bit of a misnomer. You can't get in to the church as a member of the public, unless you're a competition winner or one of the hopefuls who queue outside night after night in the rain for a handful of places. That's why the town doesn't get overrun, despite the potentially huge draws on stage – instead, bands come here to hear themselves think (after her 2010 performance Ellie Goulding returned for a two-week holiday). The principal performances are shown live on screens in pubs and hotels throughout the town, footage also carried by the Guardian and RTE in Ireland.

In 2012, the Other Voices lineup displays an alarming number of talented adolescents. Derry-born Soak, AKA Bridie Monds-Watson is a mesmerising 16-year-old with the untrained voice of a little boy, whose mature, diaphanous songs of alienation and heartache make her sound rather more tortured than she actually is (she grew up on Abba and Pink Floyd, her mum drives the nine-hour journey from the north). Across the town in O'Sullivan's Court House, 17-year-old Riona O'Madagain performs her take on Gillian Welch's Everything Is Free – often interpreted as an anti-piracy song – which sounds particularly defiant coming from someone her age.

Of all the mini-pops on display, the Strypes take the cake. Four Irish boys modelled on Cavern-era Beatles and early Stones with outsize feet and perfect small-man suits, it's a bit like watching a mod-era Bugsy Malone. The confidence is startling – what other 14-year-old would dare wear his bass guitar so high up his chest? It may be pastiche, but it's real for them. Apparently they got The Call from Elton John the other day, at school.

Reading on mobile? Watch here

Watching the acts from the church is strange. Because it's a broadcast, there's a certain amount of stopping and starting, and ample opportunity for musicians to execute their perennial right to be picky. Dingle's favourite son, Conor O'Brien of Villagers (he's from Dublin but he's played here four times) adjusts the balance after every song – "two decibels less on the acoustic, please". O'Brien has a particular sense of song structure and a poet's knack for surprise: on the forthcoming album (which they play tonight), a newborn baby is "heavy and viciously free" (New Found Land); elsewhere, his glowing imagery and owl-eyed portrayal of emotions recall the visions of film director Neil Jordan. There's even a new song called Earthly Pleasures that sounds like Jacques Brel doing Ernie (The Fastest Milkman in the West). In short – Villagers' set is so good, O'Brien can be as fussy as he wants.

If you’ve been affected by any issues raised during Paul Buchanan’s #OtherVoices performance, contact the Samaritans on 1850 60 90 90.

— Jack C (@cackjollins) December 2, 2012

Less overwhelming on Sunday is Paul Buchanan (of the Blue Nile), who performs to a polite but slightly baffled crowd. The voice and piano ballads from his recent solo album Mid Air are so luxuriantly sad – dramatic ruminations like spectral showtunes, about dashed hopes, and his concerns over being a good dad and husband – that someone tweets, "if you have been affected by any of the issues raised in Paul Buchanan's Other Voices set please call the Samaritans on 08457 90 90 90." It's only later, in the pub, that someone points out Buchanan doesn't actually have any children, and his work is cast in a different light.

On the Monday night, the Staves bring their Watford harmonies to Dingle – after a live broadcast in the home of taxi driver Dolores Begley. They've been here before, first as children – the main Stave recalls learning to drive on the beach – and then two years ago, when they performed to a coachload of pensioners. But every night seems to have a golden moment, and though they resonate longer than buzz-band Palma Violets, it's the Unthanks who best address Other Voices' dual concerns of history and innovation. Their impressionistic scenes of pig iron and coal – in particular, a singalong version of Elvis Costello's Shipbuilding – add a modern complexity to a festival staged in non-industrial Ireland.

Just up the street is Foxy Browns, Dingle's now legendary hardware-store-cum-pub where pints of Guinness are served across the counter from flange nuts and Endomice "premium mouse killer". In the packed back room, in front of a huge stone fireplace, Dermot McLaughlin, director of Derry's 2013 City of Culture celebrations, reflects on north-south and east-west relations with occasional recourse to his fiddle for light relief.

Reading on mobile? Watch here

In February, Other Voices will go north to Derry for the first time. In April, it will come to London, for a series of shows at the Wilton Music Hall co-hosted with the Barbican. Though the difficult past won't go away – the proverbial "fart in the spacesuit", McLaughlan says – the festival will soon represent a cultural trade route, a golden triangle, between different parts of the island's history (there is already an Other Voices New York).

For the rest of us, it's the only festival where you can watch pioneering music from a warm, seated, lubricated position. A local man, who's already been at the mahogany for a few hours, reflects on the closure of Dingle's pubs. There used to be 53, he says mournfully – now there are only about 30. The town has a population of 1,200.


Kate Mossman

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Other Voices festival 2012: day three in pictures

The Unthanks, the Staves, Palma Violets and Josephine Oniyama were among the acts taking to the stage as the Other Voices festival in Dingle on the west coast of Ireland drew to a close this week. Here are images from the event, onstage and off

Sean Smith

05, Dec, 2012 @3:20 PM

Article image
Other Voices 2012: the world's most intimate festival – days one and two in pictures

The Other Voices festival takes place every year in Dingle on the west coast of Ireland, with acts playing in pubs and bars and in the tiny church of St James

Sean Smith

02, Dec, 2012 @6:56 PM

Article image
Other Voices festival 2012, day two – video

It is the second day of the Other Voices festival in Dingle on the west coast of Ireland on Saturday

02, Dec, 2012 @2:24 PM

Article image
Other Voices festival 2012, day three - video

In our latest daily visit to the Other Voices festival in Dingle on the west coast of Ireland, host Aidan Gillen talks to Villagers' Conor O'Brien, This is the Kit discuss the rise of folk, and Dylan Haskins reveals more about the inner workings of the world's most intimate festival - video

03, Dec, 2012 @5:49 PM

Article image
Other Voices festival 2012, day four - video

Dylan Haskins talks to Josephine about her new album, while music journalist Kate Mossman reveals her highlights from the bill. Plus, performances from David Kitt and the Staves

04, Dec, 2012 @5:39 PM

Article image
Other Voices festival 2012, an introduction - video

Other Voices moves to Derry and London in 2013. The festival has previously seen acts including Amy Winehouse, Richard Hawley Jarvis Cocker and Elbow play in the tiny church of St James in Dingle on the west coast of Ireland. Get a taste of 2012's festival here.

01, Dec, 2012 @12:22 PM

Article image
Other Voices – review

Superb sets from John Grant, Dexys and Matthew E White in beautiful Wilton's Music Hall gave Other Voices a London debut to cherish, says Kate Mossman

Kate Mossman

09, Apr, 2013 @4:59 PM

Article image
Other Voices day one - review

From traditional Irish music to St Vincent and the Frames, the first night of this intimate festival spoke to myriad traditions

Caspar Llewellyn Smith

02, Dec, 2011 @1:32 PM

Article image
The many sounds of Other Voices – video

On day two of the festival Guardian music editor Caspar Llewellyn Smith looks forward to a varied programme of music, and Dylan Haskins talks to up and coming Irish band Little Green Cars

03, Dec, 2011 @2:17 PM

Article image
Other Voices festival goes to Derry – day three in pictures

The last day of the Other Voices festival featured performances from Beth Orton and James Yorkston

11, Feb, 2013 @4:21 PM