In the weeks leading up to the festival, we’ll be introducing you to some of the people working on the festival behind the scenes. To kick things off, we sat down with the festival’s creative director, Lewis Smith, to find out more about his role within the festival and his plans for this year.
How did you get involved with the festival?
LS: I first got involved back in 2015, when the festival was in a different format. At the time, the organisers were looking for new people to come in with fresh ideas. I suggested a change of direction – new name, new mission statement, etc – and helped develop ‘Kenilworth Arts Festival’ as it is today.
What was the thinking behind the new concept for the festival?
LS: I think there were two main things. Firstly, there are some really unique venues and settings in Kenilworth, and I thought it would be fun to see if we could use these spaces to put on special, one-off events. The first time I visited Kenilworth Castle, I walked into the café and remember thinking: this would be the perfect setting for an acoustic gig!
Secondly, we wanted to try and bring something different – something ‘extra-ordinary’ – to Kenilworth and Warwickshire more broadly. There are lots of great community-oriented events in the region, and some fantastic large-scale festivals with megastar headliners, but not so many opportunities for people to access high quality arts events in slightly more intimate settings. So that’s what we try to focus on: bringing internationally acclaimed, prize-winning writers, musicians and visual artists to the town for one-off events in small, atmospheric venues. Hopefully in doing so we can offer something new to people in the region and, perhaps just as importantly, attract people to the region. We’ve had people travel from Leeds, London, Nottingham and even Ireland to attend our events over the past couple of years, which is fantastic.
What’s your role within the festival?
LS: Ha, what *isn’t* my role? Officially, I’m creative director, which essentially means I’m responsible for thinking about the overall vision of the festival. In practice, that means overseeing the programming, the branding, the comms strategy – that kind of thing. But I’m also involved in lots of other aspects: funding applications, design work, copywriting, chairing events, carrying chairs across muddy fields… whatever needs doing, really.
Which events are you most looking forward to this year?
LS: That’s like asking a parent to choose their favourite child! Though I suppose most parents probably do have a favourite, secretly… If pushed, I’d say I’m particularly excited about seeing S. Carey & Billie Marten on Saturday 29th Sept. I’ve been a big fan of S. Carey’s music for a long time so it’s brilliant to have him involved. It’s quite surreal to look at his UK tour schedule and see Kenilworth sandwiched between iconic venues like the Brudenell Social Club in Leeds and Cecil Sharp House in London.
I’m also really looking forward to hearing Ruby Tandoh speak about her new book, Eat Up!, with Professor Rebecca Earle. It should be a fascinating discussion about food, identity and culture. The literary weekend is also going to be amazing. And Erland Cooper’s concert in St. Nicholas’ church will be very special… Erland’s debut solo album, Solan Goose, is one of my favourite albums of the year so far. It’s a mesmerising mix of classical, alternative and electronic music – for fans of Nils Frahm – and was borne out of an urge to create a moment of balance and calm in this fast moving world. It’ll be fascinating to see it played live.
But there are so many highlights this year. I think it’s going to be a really special ten days.
Do you have any goals for the festival, longer term?
LS: I think there’s a lot of potential to grow the festival, particularly with the Coventry City of Culture celebrations on the horizon. Hopefully we can keep expanding the programme and get more and more of the town involved.
Over the next few years, I’d like us to be commissioning more new work and supporting brand new collaborations – particularly between artists from different disciplines. I also want to commission a giant mural in Kenilworth at some point, but we’ll have to see about that one…
Aside from Kenilworth Arts Festival, what’s in your events calendar for 2018?
LS: I was in Canada last month and was lucky enough to catch the tail-end of Montreal Jazz Festival. It blew me away; the scale and the vibrancy of the event, and the way it seemed to envelop the entire city centre, it was really incredible.
Later this month I’m going to Green Man Festival, which will be brilliant. It’s probably my favourite festival (aside from ours, of course): the setting is gorgeous, the atmosphere is wonderful and the line-up is always fantastic. This year there are so many of my favourite bands playing: Fleet Foxes, War On Drugs, Courtney Marie Andrews, Marlon Williams… plus a few people who have appeared at our festival over the last couple of years!
Beyond that, who knows.
Q: What are you reading / listening to at the moment?
LS: I’m currently reading Crudo by Olivia Laing. I’m a big fan of Olivia’s non-fiction writing and had been looking forward to reading this book, which is her debut novel and was written in a seven-week blaze last summer. It’s experimental, clever and often hilarious, and it’s fascinating to read a novel where the dark cloud of Donald Trump looms on almost every page.
In terms of music, aside from this year’s festival acts, I’ve been listening to a lot of This Is The Kit recently, as well as a band called Horse Feathers, who have just released a new album. I’ve also just received an advance copy of Kitty Macfarlane’s debut album, Namer of Clouds, which is due to be released in September. I’m a huge fan of Kitty’s music – she’s played at the festival a couple of times – and have been eagerly awaiting this release. It doesn’t disappoint.
Q: You work on the festival part-time. What’s the ‘day job’?
LS: I’m doing a PhD at Warwick University, looking at charitable food initiatives (soup kitchens, food banks, etc) in Britain from the 18th century to the present day.
You can find Lewis on Twitter: @lewisjsmith. More often than not, you can also find him in The Almanack in Kenilworth.