Today, we are releasing the third episode in our series titled ‘The Art of Booking’ where we speak with Artistic Directors of music festivals from across Canada. In this week's episode, we chat to James Keelaghan, the Artistic Director of Summerfolk Music and Crafts Festival in Owen Sound, Ontario.

James chats to us about what he looks for when programming the lineup and booking artists for the festival. He also shares how his career as a touring musician has taken him to festivals around the world, allowing him to gather inspiration to incorporate into the fabric of Summerfolk - elevating the overall experience for all attending.

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James Keelaghan, a Juno award-winning singer-songwriter, seamlessly channels thirty-five years of touring experience into his role as Artistic Director of the Summerfolk Music and Crafts Festival in Owen Sound, Ontario. His musical journey enhances the festival's programming, especially his curation of daytime workshop stages, a signature feature of Summerfolk.

Presented by Folk Music Ontario
Hosted by Rosalyn Dennett
Produced by Kayla Nezon and Rosalyn Dennett
Mixed by Jordan Moore of The Pod Cabin
Theme music “Amsterdam” by King Cardiac
Artwork by Jaymie Karn

What is ReFolkUs?

Introducing ReFolkUs, a new podcast by Folk Music Ontario, where we talk to artists and music industry professionals about building sustainable careers as creative workers, with a focus on folk.

[00:00:00] Rosalyn: Hello, and welcome to season two of ReFolkUs, where we talk to artists and music industry professionals about building sustainable careers as creative workers with a focus on folk. I'm your host, Rosalyn Dennett.

[00:00:27] Rosalyn: Hello, and welcome to ReFolkUs. [00:00:30] Today, our guest is James Keelaghan a Juno award winning singer songwriter, and he seamlessly channels 35 years of touring experiences to his role as Artistic Director of the Summerfolk Music and Crafts Festival in Owen Sound, Ontario. His musical journey enhances the festival's programming, especially his curation of daytime workshop stages, which is a signature feature of Summerfolk.

[00:00:52] Rosalyn: Here's our conversation with James Keelaghan.

[00:00:54] Rosalyn: [00:01:00] James, thanks so much for joining us today. How are you doing?

[00:01:02] James: I'm doing good. How are you doing?

[00:01:04] Rosalyn: Very well. So excited to chat with you. This is our series about, artistic direction and, kind of diving into, the meat of, of how you book your festival and you have an absolutely brilliant, wonderful festival that is very, near and dear to my heart the Summerfolk Music and Crafts Festival. I'm wondering if you can tell us a little bit more about your wonderful event.

[00:01:27] James: Well, we're going into our 49th year, so old enough to [00:01:30] be out on our own and it's happened in the same park, in the same place what's now, Kelso beach at Nawash park, Owen Sound, and it was started in,1974, by the Harrison brothers. Uh, and then shortly after that, the Georgia Bay Folk Society was formed and they took over the running, of the festival and it's got like one of the best sites on the planet, I think maybe Vancouver, but, we're right on the shores of Georgian Bay. So right behind the amphitheater stage, there's a [00:02:00] sandy beach and there's sandy beaches all the way along. And, performers hang back there and go swimming and, and you just, there's these stunning views everywhere you turn.

[00:02:08] James: So you've got that nature thing, and then you turn and you've got the sort of industrial thing with the grain elevators and the location is the uncredited headliner of the festival. The setting is in fact the headline when you're sitting in the amphitheater at night, especially if you're on one of the upper decks and you're sort of looking down at the stage and then behind the trees that are all lit up and the lake and the boats on the lake, it's just [00:02:30] fantastic.

[00:02:30] James: uh, I wax poetic about the site. It's always had a concentration on, highlighting, local acts as well as bringing those acts together with more seasoned performers. It's always had a reputation for having a great after party kind of feel at the hotel. There's a lot of jamming and playing that goes on there.

[00:02:49] James: We really encouraged that and it's always been a festival that's been built on that sort of Estelle Klein model where you have daytime workshops and then you have a main stage in the evening. We have, in fact, too main [00:03:00] stages, the amphitheater and the down by the bay tent, which is a tent that seats about 2000 people.

[00:03:05] James: And then we run on the, on the daytime stages, the five daytime stages we run, traditional workshops where you put a number of different performers together, give them a theme and let them work it out over an hour and a half or so and so our audience has always loved seeing people, that are up and comers.

[00:03:20] James: Like the number one thing that we get on the audience surveys when we do them at the end of the festival is people saying how thrilled they are about this new act that they've [00:03:30] discovered. Our audience really loves participating in the joy of discovery of seeing things they've never seen before and embracing them.

[00:03:37] James: So it's just a fantastic festival with a fantastic ethic.

[00:03:41] Rosalyn: So can we go into a little bit, uh, you mentioned the Estelle Klein model and workshops. Do you have a method to the madness of putting those together? Do you go in with an idea of how you're going to do it?

[00:03:54] James: Generally I do but starts sort of way back in the booking process because one of [00:04:00] the things that, I try and do if I have the budget, is if I'm booking one band from a place, say a band from Winnipeg or a band from Vancouver, I'll try and book two bands from that town on the supposition that in a, local scene, these two bands probably know one another may have done work together before They've already sort of built a, rapport with one another, which then can be, implanted into the festival and used as like sourdough, to help grow whatever scene is going to happen.

[00:04:25] James: If you have three acts on stage and two of them, you know, sort of know each other's material[00:04:30] and they're open enough to inviting the band along. It's like the third band has this beautiful pad that they get to, sort of launch into the same with the songwriter crowd, although the songwriter crowd tends to know each other way more across the entire country.

[00:04:43] James: Sometimes it starts in the booking process and then some people know that I'm also a performer. I've spent 35 years going all over the world and playing clubs and festivals. And I've just seen all these things at all these festivals that I go to, yeah, that would be a good thing to do here. Like with Summerfolk, it's like I've been [00:05:00] doing a lot of touring in Australia and what I loved about Australian festivals was the wine bar.

[00:05:04] James: And so I didn't know a festival in Canada that had a wine bar, so I stole that idea and we instituted a wine bar, at Summerfolk, which now over 10 years has grown into its own kind of venue within the festival that people actually line up for and they'll spend the whole day in the wine bar. So I see things like that, but in terms of the actual programming, I've been lucky enough to be out as a performer at Celtic Colors numerous times, when the artistic director was Joella [00:05:30] Folds, she had a soft spot for me and, brought me in again and again, for those of you that don't know about, Celtic Colors, it's in Cape Breton and they use everywhere.

[00:05:39] James: In Cape Breton, you're all based in Pidaic, but you might have an hour and a half drive to where the gig is that night and they drive you and then bring you back. But there's also with the gig, there's usually like three or four performers and then there's a meal that happens. Usually the local, women's group will, will do a meal.

[00:05:57] James: If you're there for the first weekend, it's [00:06:00] Thanksgiving meals. You get three Thanksgiving meals in a row. but Joella, this was the last year that she was AD and had me out there.

[00:06:23] James: I'm unfortunately unilingual and I'm looking at this thing going like, what am I doing there? And I, [00:06:30] expressed it to, to Joella. I said, why am I here? And she goes, you'll figure it out. And just like, and then I'm, you know, in the van and off we go. so we're in the. green room, the whole bunch of us, and everybody's doing their sound checks and stuff.

[00:06:43] James: And this one fella sort of pulls me aside, and he goes, So, do you know what a faidodo is? And I said, Yeah, you know, it's the party, it's when you've sent the kids upstairs to sleep, and then you have the party downstairs. And he goes, Yeah. And he goes, You know what's an essential part of any faidodo? And I [00:07:00] said, No.

[00:07:00] James: And he goes, The storyteller.

[00:07:02] Rosalyn: Hmm.

[00:07:04] James: and I went, Oh God, I'm the storyteller. so it just whacked my head around and the evening turned into the, it was amazing. It was just like one of the top five experiences of my life being in that room that night and participating in that.

[00:07:16] James: And I came back to the after party at the hall and I walked in and the very first person I saw was Joella and she was leaning up against the wall with a beer and she looked at me and she went, so how was it? And I went, it was fantastic. And she goes, see, [00:07:30] and that just really made me go, yeah.

[00:07:32] James: You know, sometimes there'll be performers that you can say, I'm going to make you a little uncomfortable. but what comes out of it from that uncomfort is just this amazing thing. So you're taking a bet, you know, like who are the people that are going to be comfortable with being uncomfortable?

[00:07:45] James: and I have, people in workshops who I call spark plugs, you know, when I said about the, two bands from another town, the other thing is higher spark plugs. and there are people who you can put on any stage with any group of performers and they will figure it [00:08:00] out.

[00:08:00] James: They'll figure out how to bring everybody together.

[00:08:02] Rosalyn: That's amazing. And I think that your story about Celtic Colors is kind of like that testament to the art of it all, right? Because that's beautiful when you can create those moments. And those, in my opinion, are some of the most incredible, magical moments for both the performer and the audience to be witness to this one of a kind event probably will never happen again with this convergence of, of artists and it's, truly an art to put, that together.

[00:08:28] James: And we really sell that as part of [00:08:30] the festival. And that's always been sold because the thing with Summerfolk is it has always had that ethic, no matter who's in the artistic director's chair, everybody groks the idea of workshops and that whole sort of concept. And I feel like I'm just sort of carrying on the tradition. of the festival, the point we sell every year is if you're not there, you don't see it. And if you're not in that spot for when that magic happens, then you're never going to have the magic. So do you want to miss the magic or do you want to see the magic?

[00:08:56] Rosalyn: So a question then I have about when you're finding your spark [00:09:00] plugs or folks you want to bring in to, create that, magic on stage, you know, there's, many artists that maybe that's not their forte, but, but many that, could fit that bill. How can they show you that they can do that? Or that's something that's interesting to them if they haven't played Summerfolk before.

[00:09:15] James: That's where I'm just, happy to be in a position that I get to go around and, see other festivals by playing at them. Or as is the case with many artistic directors, it's like, you want to come to our festival? Come have a look. So, I'll not only go to the festivals I'm [00:09:30] playing at or the festival that I'm running, but I'll also go to other festivals during the course of the summer and just see people and, and, you know, I may be seeing people that I've booked for my festival and I'm going, oh yeah, I got to make a tiny little revision to the schedule because, you know, I'd like to see this happen. So to be an artistic director, to be an effective artistic director, I think you have to be watching people performing.

[00:09:52] James: In the showcases and stuff, FMO, Folk Alliance, things like that do show you the caliber of the [00:10:00] performer as a performance artist. I think maybe as, as an artistic director, I'd sort of want FMO to maybe give me a little bit more of the workshop experience but it's never, no matter what showcase that it's going to be, it never replicates putting people in front of a, real live audience at a festival and see how they, work.

[00:10:17] James: And that's, that's nothing against, against FMO or, or FAI or anything else. It's just

[00:10:20] James: that there's a different model going on..

[00:10:21] Rosalyn: Yeah. Honestly, I will say that that's something we have talked about at the programming level. I'm like, how do we showcase that? How do we showcase that thing that [00:10:30] a lot of Canadian festivals are looking for?

[00:10:32] Rosalyn: But it's an interesting question because it is something specific to festivals that follow that Estelle Klein, Mitch Podolak model of, stuff, you know? Other festivals are not necessarily looking for that.

[00:10:43] James: Well, it is, and, and that is true, but I think that there's a further thing in a conference situation that might be useful is getting younger performers into the idea that it's okay to, jam and open up on stage, because that's not just about playing festivals. That is [00:11:00] not just about FMO or anything else.

[00:11:02] James: That's a basic skill as a musician. Are you jamming? You jamming with people spontaneously? I lived in Calgary and lived in Winnipeg and it was said of Calgary that musicians only ever got together to rehearse. Whereas in Winnipeg, musicians got together to jam, and so the implication being, you know, in Calgary, if there wasn't a gig, then people didn't get together like, the gig was the reason to get together and work out this material. Whereas in Winnipeg, I moved in and, you know, within two hours, somebody knocked on my door with a banjo and [00:11:30] walked in. And started playing. So it's about the culture of the jam and maybe for festivals and for FMO and other people when you're talking about it, instructing or about mentoring youth. I think one of the things that we maybe neglect is that, you know, like you got to play with each other.

[00:11:47] Rosalyn: I think that is something that is unique to, FMO and, and kind of Folk Alliances, NERFA, like the, the hotel model of, showcases where the neat, plus side [00:12:00] to being all stuck in a hotel together as I think that it does encourage that jamming and, the last two years at FMO, central inside of the conference, we've had campfire.

[00:12:10] Rosalyn: So it used to be like the folks who ran the campsite room, when we did the private showcases, and we just basically took that out into the middle of the conference and have just a running jam that's going all day. You know, we're kind of hoping that that's the spark to show the folks that are there like, oh, it's cool to jam.

[00:12:26] Rosalyn: You have a unique perspective because you are, as an artist, going out [00:12:30] to, festivals, and just as a enjoyer of festivals you're seeing a lot of, stuff, you're getting a lot of inspiration for your booking process through there.

[00:12:38] Rosalyn: What about, if somebody maybe hasn't encountered you at something and they are interested in playing the festival. Do you have like an open submission process? How would you, recommend that folks get in touch if they're

[00:12:51] Rosalyn: interested?

[00:12:52] James: We do have an open application process. It's on, the website, on the performer's page, at the very top of the performer's page, it says, you know, if you're interested in [00:13:00] performing, click this link and that takes you to a form that you fill out with everything that gets to me, I have a look and I assess, and I really do try and look at everything that comes in. In the before time, it was like the box of CDs that came after conference, now, you know, sort of in the world that we're, with, if you're making a submission, a cold submission to us, uh, I want to see some live video, I want to know what you are like live.

[00:13:27] James: I want to see what the quality of your photos are [00:13:30] just because the publicity photo is an art form in itself. Are you paying attention to that? Cause that has to go on my site. I ask for like, I think three MP3s so that we get an idea of what you like recorded.

[00:13:42] James: I just want the broadest perspective on you because I've never heard of you and I've never seen you and, partly because of where I live, I'm not all that open to, Hey, we're playing at this place. Can you come out and see us? Cause I'm in Perth from going into Ottawa.

[00:13:55] James: That's like an hour drive, hour drive back. If you're playing in Perth. Chances are I'll go see you, [00:14:00] or if I'm down in Toronto or in Ottawa for a night and there are gigs on, I'll go see, I'm, I'm sort of more attached to, to clubs, like there are clubs that I like to go to, where I might be able to find the music that I'm looking for.

[00:14:12] James: So yeah, just on the, on the raw, out of the gate, never heard of us. Then yeah, you just go to the webpage, you hit the form, you fill it out. I see it. and, if it strikes a note with me, then you'll get an offer.

[00:14:23] Rosalyn: When you say live performance or live video, live footage, because there's like different kinds of [00:14:30] live videos now. Do you want to see an actual video of someone performing on stage or is like, you know, the kind of, style where, where people are just like playing and there's a camera around, but it's like recorded live.

[00:14:42] James: Recorded live, I think is the thing. And so the first year that I was in Summerfolk in my box, there was this CD yellow in color. And it was from this group called the Lemon Bucket Orchestra. So this is like 12 years ago and I put it on and I was going, wow, I love, Baltic, Balkan, [00:15:00] Ukrainian music.

[00:15:01] James: It just like, it goes right to my soul. And when it's done, right. It just like, Oh, I dig that. And so I put the CD on and it was like, wow. And then I started to hunt for video and they were just like, this was the first album. They were, they're almost brand new. And there's very little video out there, but there's this one video for the song Tamu and it's all of them, and they're in, obviously, what is a very cramped living room, and it's all lit by [00:15:30] candles, but then the, voice comes out, the da, da, da, da, da, da, da, and they played the song in this living room, and I was like, you're kidding me.

[00:15:38] James: And then I asked around, and I was saying, you know, ask this person, do you know this band? No. Do you know this band? No. And I finally found it, so I finally got a hold of Mark. And Mark will probably tell you the same thing. He left a message, he phoned back, and the very first question I asked him was, Do you really sound like this? [00:16:00] And he said, what do you mean? And I said, like, if I bring you up what I'm seeing on that video and what I'm hearing on the record, is that what I'm going to hear? And he goes, yes. I hired just that little living room video. You could see the musicianship of everybody.

[00:16:17] James: You could see that everybody was working together, that they'd, they'd worked out parts and everything else. It was like, wow. So it doesn't have to be like a professional concert video. I just want to know what you, sound like if I was to just stick a mic in front of your [00:16:30] face and go sing, play,

[00:16:31] Rosalyn: That's very cool. Do you book artists that don't have representation? Do you book independent artists?

[00:16:36] James: yeah, all the time. Sometimes, you know, I discover somebody because, an agent has sent me a roster or an agent knows what we do and, cherry picks from the roster and says, these are people that I think will fit.

[00:16:47] James: So yeah, I, I hire, with agents, I hire. independent artists by signing them with themselves. We always have a really strong showing of people who don't have representation. And I think a number of people after, [00:17:00] playing a summer of festivals with no representation, if they've had a really good year, generally by the end of that, season, they'll get representation because somebody's gone, there's something going on there.

[00:17:09] James: and they may be reaching the point where it's like. We can't do all the work ourselves anymore. We need somebody to have this. So a lot of artists, I started out booking them as independents and then ended up booking them from an agency. Sometime later, it makes no difference to me. I'm interested in the artist, I don't have a rule that says I'll only do this or I'll only do that. I only just want to hire good artists.

[00:17:29] Rosalyn: what kind [00:17:30] of range, would you say, of genres are you looking at when you're booking?

[00:17:33] James: Pretty broad.

[00:18:43] Rosalyn: How many artists do you typically book for your festival in a year

[00:18:51] James: less now than, when I started, when I started the roster was like 68 acts, there were seven daytime stages. and the format was [00:19:00] basically on the. Amphitheater stage, everybody got like 35 minutes. and that just kind of breaks my heart as the performer in me anyway. So over the years I've been whittling it down, whittling it down so that I can, put more focus on people, give them a longer period of time on stage and pay them more.

[00:19:16] James: So where I started at 68 last year, we were down to. 40, and I'm probably going to bring it down to about 35 this year, just because of the financial climate.

[00:19:27] Rosalyn: do you have a percentage of who [00:19:30] you would call kind of headliners or, or marquee artists versus, artists that are less well known.

[00:19:35] James: you know, in a best budget year, we had like a headliner for each night and then the rest of the roster is other people who are, let's call them acoustic famous, within a folk or acoustic music community, they're well known. You know, and have their own draw and, bring in an audience.

[00:19:53] James: And then we have maybe about a third of the group who are people, that my audience just doesn't [00:20:00] know at all. and that can be everybody from the youth discoveries people that we're bringing up to, last year, nobody in my audience had heard of Wynnborn. so although wind born is, you know, like established and, has a reputation out there to our audience, they were just not known,

[00:20:16] Rosalyn: nearing the end. I'm wondering if you can leave us with some, parting words of advice for either, folks looking to, play at more festivals, play at your festival, or just some general advice for folks toiling out there.

[00:20:28] James: gain reputation [00:20:30] for showing up on time. do not ever mistreat a volunteer. just always to the best of your craft and be open to. Experiences with new people. I think, on that kind of level, that's one thing, and the other thing is like, send me what you think is the best.

[00:20:46] James: of what it is that you do. and I can make a decision also, there's a mea culpa in here, but, 35 slots at a festival on the weekend when. We probably get two, three hundred, [00:21:00] cold submissions to the festival. In addition to the people that I'm head hunting, that's not a lot of spaces.

[00:21:05] James: There's going to be a lot of nose for me and for the rest of the artistic directors, what I have to be better at is saying no. immediately when I need to say no. because it's an unpleasant task to say no, and sometimes we, put it off rather than just go in there. So for the artistic directors, myself, first among them, if it's no, say no.

[00:21:25] James: Before artists get used to the fact that there's going to be nose and it's not [00:21:30] necessarily a reflection at all, of the music you do. It's just not something that's going to fit with what I'm doing this year.

[00:21:35] Rosalyn: Great. Thank you so much, James. And I do recommend, know folks check out, the festival, go to Summerfolk. It's truly one of the gems.

[00:21:43] James: It's a gem and it's magical. And, uh, it's its own thing. There's spirits or something in the woods or sirens on the boats or something. It's just

[00:21:51] Rosalyn: Absolutely. It is a music and crafts festival. Come with a bit of money in your pocket to spend. I do a lot of early Christmas shopping. There's a beautiful craft zone. And I, I [00:22:00] truly think that your experience as sn artist of many festivals has, turned Summerfolk into a, festival that, for the artist experience is, absolutely as magical as the experience in the audience because it's, it's a delight to play as well.

[00:22:13] James: Well, I'm just one of many artistic directors who have done that for the festival. We all have the same ethic.

[00:22:19] Rosalyn: Thank you so much, James. And see you around soon.

[00:22:21] James: You bet.

[00:22:28] Rosalyn: That's all for this episode. [00:22:30] friends. The ReFolkUs Podcast is brought to you by Folk Music Ontario. Find out more by heading to That's R-E-F-O-L-K-U-S. The podcast is produced by Kayla Nezon and Rosalyn Dennett and mixed by Jordan Moore at The Pod Cabin. The opening theme is by King Cardiac, and the artwork is by Jaymie Karn.