Dingle, on the wild west coast of Ireland, is known for being untamed and beguiling. Five years ago this weekend the little town provided both a backdrop and sanctuary for a young talent that was to prove its match.
Amy Winehouse, on the cusp of worldwide fame, had been booked to perform at the Other Voices music series that takes place each year in venues around Dingle’s fishing quay and the small marina.
Startling footage of the singer’s short time in Co Kerry, including a revealing interview and an intimate concert staged in a small church, is to be broadcast on BBC2 early in the new year.
“These unexpected experiences, when a musician or performer is placed for a while in a new situation, can often be very telling, a bit like Bob Dylan’s first visit to Britain,” said Anthony Wall, the veteran editor of the BBC’s Arena arts programme, who has made the documentary using film shot during Other Voices in 2006.
The singer from north London was 23 and had released her second album Back to Black less than two months earlier. Accustomed to the fast pace of the music industry in London, she was unprepared for her visit to a place that is not so much locked in the past as existing in its own time.
Dingle had an immediate visual impact, too, surrounded as it is by the sea, with the deserted Blasket islands distantly visible.
“It is not just the beauty of that part of Ireland, it is that little town, too,” said Wall. “And the interview with her really manages to capture her in a relaxed mood.
“There is no side to her at all in the interview. In fact, there is a black hole where someone’s ‘side’ might usually be. She is so straightforward.”
Those who met and worked with Winehouse at Dingle remember how the late star gave one of her most powerful recorded sets that night in the St James’ church.
As a result, the new Arena programme hopes to offer a gentler tribute to her lost talent. “It is not that her performance there is so much more valid than all her later performances or anything like that,” explained Wall. “It’s just that watching it might inadvertently be an antidote to some of the stuff that has come during her last months and since her death.”
Winehouse performed at Dingle with just two guitarists, because her drummer had been held up by bad weather. Wall believes this prompted a particularly striking show. “Without a drummer there was nowhere to hide. She simply had to sing out,” he said.
After the gig, and before consuming a plate of oysters, Winehouse was interviewed in Dingle’s Benners Hotel by the presenter of Other Voices, John Kelly.
Made up with her trademark eye-liner and beehive hairstyle, Winehouse initially gushed about how talented her boyfriend was and then made fun of herself for being so gauche. The singer, who died this summer at the age of 27 after a struggle with drink and drugs, also talked at length about her growing interest in gospel music.
“There is nothing more pure than your relationship with your god, apart from with your music. So gospel to me is very inspirational,” she said, going on to talk about her early experiences of listening to music at home.
Soul music, too, she confesses, is a relatively recent love for her, following years of listening to jazz classics and hip-hop: “It took me a while to get around to it.”
This weekend sees the tenth anniversary of Other Voices, which is presented this year on Irish television by the actor Aidan Gillen.
“I only became an actor in the hope of one day getting on Desert Island Discs and playing records – this is way better,” he said. “I’ve spent a large part of the last few years at the end of the Dingle peninsula and witnessed first hand how well this festival fits this place.”
The bands and performers at the Other Voices festival this year include Frank Turner, Jimi Goodwin of Doves, Lisa Hannigan, Spiritualized, The Coronas, The Frames and Wild Beasts.
A new festival of light, or Féile na Soilse, will run alongside the Other Voices events to celebrate the culture, music, food and community of Dingle, with open-air farmers’ markets and Christmas carol choral competitions and a children’s lantern parade through the town.
Those unable to squeeze into the church venue can watch the performances on screens in some of Dingle’s pubs, and tomorrow the Irish Music Rights Organisation will be providing a platform for Ireland’s best up-and-coming artists.
“We have a truly exciting bill this year, some close old friends will join with some of the most cutting-edge artists out there, to build a wonderfully vibrant musical feast,” said Philip King, the creator of Other Voices. “We have been hoping to lure Jimi Goodwin for many years now and we are truly honoured to welcome songwriter extraordinaire Edwyn Collins.”
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