Written by Nelson Phillips
Photography by John Fearnall/Good Noise Photography
Josh Richardson is the co-founder and Artistic Director of one of Ontario’s top 10 best music festivals of 2014, Owen Sound’s Mudtown Music and Arts Festival.
The MMAF’s are known for drawing an eclectic array of cosmopolitan talent, and blending them with the rustic, rural sensibilities of southern Georgian Bay’s largest port town. Amidst the #1 ranked retirement destination north of the 49th, Josh and the rest of the Mudtown crew are partially responsible for sparking the budding young arts revolution in this neck of the woods, and speaking up for the legions of younger lifeforms in the area, whom up until 2010, had to head south to catch a fresh new band. There’s life in between the rolling sand bars of Sauble Beach and the four-season slopes of Blue Mountain. It’s in Owen Sound, being “scraped from the boots of Grey and Bruce counties,” so says Richardson’s record company mantra.
In the Kathmandu Cafe on the main drag, sitting at the bar overlooked by Tibetan peace flags, photographs of Kaytoo, Everest, Sherpas, as well as the occasional raccoon portrait, we interviewed Josh about the history of the Mudtown movement, doing business with City Hall, and the evolution of the festivals identity.
ML: I seem to remember a bit of commotion between the City of Owen Sound and your group, regarding this festival getting off the ground. And a few publicized discussions with another local festival. Can we clear those up?
JR: Oh, there’s nothing to clear up. What happened was, I wrote a letter to the Editor of the local newspaper, complaining – or criticizing – about what I saw as our City’s festival, which is Summerfolk. I kind of said I’d like to see some death-metal or something; something a little adventuresome. But it’s a folk festival, it’s not really going to change that much, it can only change according to its mandate, I guess. And then someone said, why don’t you do your own festival, in the back-and forth. I don’t think we’re really competing for the same demographic.
ML: So OTHERfolk; was that a direct…
JR: Yeah, yeah. It was a pun on Summerfolk (laughs).
ML: Why is it important to bring that type of opposite culture here?
JR: Well it exists here, we’re looking to attract those people who want to hear hip-hop, alternative music, and there are people who want to hear that type of music in a cool location during the summer. Owen Sound is a great place to live. It’s got tons of great stuff to offer, not only scenicly, but in its institutions too – those things continue to develop.
ML: When you were writing to the Editor, I saw a piece you wrote about re-vamping youth culture in the area. A kid wrote to you, saying that the festival had done so much to teach him he could stay here.
JR: Right. The paper hadn’t done any coverage of the festival. They let me have my chance to sound-off. It was more of an advertorial, I guess. Someone told me it was more of a fluff piece – which it kind of was – but I thought it spoke to what we had achieved. It’s a large group of people that put this together, it’s not just me obviously.
ML: This is literally one of the highest ranked retirement communities in the country. Ranked. I think it’s #1 or #2. How does that play a part in bringing such a diverse group of people up from urban centres and surrounding communities? Does that affect your relationships with people, local businesses, the community?
JR: You know, that’s always been the case; that particular aspect of Owen Sound has been highlighted since I can remember, being a youth here myself. The core of the group started doing events in high school because the adults didn’t really focus (laughs) on us – and I think that has just continued; the young at heart.
ML: Your volunteers; this festival is getting bigger and bigger every year. There’s an army behind this, I’m sure.
JR: There’s a certain amount of growth. I think we’ll always be a small festival, but our reach has extended for sure. Our survey from last year tells us that at least 50% of attendees are from outside Grey Bruce. So, we’ve stepped up our effort this year to attract more people from elsewhere, because that’s where our growth will be.
ML: And because of that: there’s such a cosmopolitan influence, is it a big aspect to this festival? Blending the rural personality of here, and bringing the city in?
JR: You say it really well. That’s what we want – what I want to do with it; have that cosmopolitan ethos or philosophy come through. Owen Sound is pretty eclectic and the area is pretty eclectic. Even though we have this pretty significant retired population, it’s bolstered and enhanced this undercurrent of young families, and people who are trying to escape the city and set up in the country and whatnot. The retirement community is really supported by, and serviced by young people, by the workforce.
ML: With City Hall always campaigning for that type of retirement community, the Mayor was at the show last year, front-row centre – dancing to Vag Halen.
JR: The City has for sure been there every year, supporting us in the ways they can. We’re certainly not financed by the City, but there are different ways that their already existing infrastructure can help get the word out. I think the whole council has been supportive – not just of OTHERfolk, or Mudtown, but they officially endorsed Lupercalia. I think they recognize we’re doing something for the City, and for a demographic that may not always get highlighted. I have heard some talk that the City realizes they do have to target people our age, who are small business owners, IT specialists, y’know? Who can relocate to OS and help it grow.
ML: You mentioned Lupercalia there. How did the decision come about to replace it with the Mudtown concert series?
JR: We were just overworked! (laughs) And because we’re micro-funded – we rely on small business donations. Last summer we got a grant, but as an arts organization, you can never base your programming on your grant funding. Those people who were helping fund us; we’d finish up one festival and then we’d be knocking on their doors again. We were already doing one-off concerts through the year, so it seemed kind of logical to brand it and give it a more of a theme.
ML: What are you most excited for this year?
JR: The programming, I’m really excited about this year. We’ve really honed what’s happening at each venue. We’ve kind of themed it. There’s going to be a Southern Souls venue, Wavelength – these are our partners from the City. Exclaim! is co-presenting the main stage on Saturday night. The art, the music – all of it.
ML: Has the festival found its identity? Is it still evolving?
JR: It’s always going to evolve. It’s evolving. Certainly, the character is becoming clearer. And personally, I’m becoming more secure picking who plays. It’s funny, listening to people talk about the different line-up’s from year to year. Everyone’s opinionated about the general overview of it, and then over specific acts. I like hearing that. No one is ever like, ‘oh, that sucks,’ but I appreciate the criticism. It helps with improving the programming.
ML: At first, it was hard picking a line-up?
JR: Well, I was a little more self-conscious. I’ve said this before: This is the festival I wanted to program. As I see it, there are two kind of modes to the fest this year. A Dionysian revelry which is a little crazy, and there’s this approach to transcendence – so people will be able to have ecstatic fun, and they’ll also be able to get heavy and contemplate beauty and do all that good stuff.
ML: Where do these bands come from? I mean some of them have become mainstays of my playlist at home after seeing them here. Where do you find them?
JR: (Laughs) Listening to the radio? CBC, and keeping my ear to the ground, on the internet. We have an application process so people can apply to play. I like to go to shows; other festivals – I see some of them there. People bring stuff to me, there’s a variety of different ways.
ML: If you could do anything, have anyone play, have any venue, sky’s the limit – what’ll it be?
JR: That’s a good question. I’m pretty comfortable with the artists that we have. I wouldn’t want to have anyone bigger. It’s not what I want to do, particularly. What I would like to see, is people getting their tickets right when they come out, prior to seeing the line-up. That’s what I’d like to see, that anticipation factor.
ML: How about the name? Mudtown is local slang terminology, if you will. It’s a neighbourhood on the east shore. Why Mudtown?
JR: The record company and production company that produces the festival is called Mudtown Records. The other fella who initially founded it with me, Charlie Glasspool – kind of convinced me to do it (laughs). Our first performance together was in Mudtown, in the neighbourhood, in what was Mudtown Pottery at the time. He was like, “You should call it Mudtown.” And I thought, OK – Mudtown, like Mo-town.
ML: Any last words?
JR: No. Thanks to Mountain Life, thanks to you.
The Mudtown Music and Arts Festival is being held on August 8th and 9th in Owen Sound, ON. This year features Thee Silver Mt. Zion, Yamantaka // Sonic Titan, Bry Webb, Odonis Odonis, Fresh Snow, and much more. Check out www.mudtownrecords.com for more info.
Click here for the Highlight Reel of the 2013 Festival.