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An Interview with Hugh Phillimore

Cornbury Festival turns 16 this year, set to be filled with hand-picked, top quality musical acts including headliners The Beach Boys, Keane and The Specials. We chatted to Hugh Phillimore, the founder and director, about what's coming up...

Daily Info: Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us at such a busy time in the run-up to the festival! As a newbie to Cornbury this year, what should I expect?

Hugh Phillimore: Oh my god! Well basically I think Jools Holland summed it up very well - the festival's small enough and friendly enough to be lovely but big enough that you can see big bands. Essentially it's a sort of glorified village fête. It's very good for people that haven't been to festivals, or who don't like the big festivals, because it's easy and relaxed - if you say 'excuse me' enough times you can get down to the front barrier pretty easily, the police don't come any more because they were too bored - we've only had one arrest in 16 years. It's a farmer's market with a dance floor, a village fête with a rock 'n' roll twist.

DI: Sounds lovely! What top 5 things would you say people attending absolutely shouldn't miss?

HP: Well, the Hairy Bikers is pretty unique - it's the second year we're doing it, no one has put on a restaurant actually hosted by Dave and Si, where we produce a menu from one of their cookbooks and we feed about 1000 people over the weekend. It's really lovely - the food, the ambience, the service... this year they're basing it on their book British Classics, so I'd definitely do that. We're really excited we've got The Specials on Friday Night, who've just had a #1 album after 39 years. We're one of the few festivals to get the Specials so that's really exciting. I really love Lost Voice Guy who won Britain's Got Talent, we've got him appearing on the comedy stage on Friday. There's a big Latin superstar called Mon Laferte, who's somewhere between Imelda May and Amy Whinehouse - she's a huge South American artist, winning Latin Grammys all over the place. Cornbury will be her first UK festival on Sunday.

DI: So Cornbury-goers might be seeing the next Shakira?

HP: Well exactly - she's got a few more tattoos than Shakira but we're on the same lines... I rather like a very sweet father-and-son duo called Jack and Tim who got a Golden Buzzer from Simon on Britain's Got Talent, they're playing on the Caffè Nero stage. Keane are playing for the first time since they had their hiatus 6 years ago - they played Cornbury in 2013. And it's the first time at Cornbury for the Beach Boys, so I'm really excited about that; we've got Mike Love and Bruce Johnson from the original Beach Boys, they've been selling out the Albert Hall and places like that for a while, and this is the first time we've got them. We've got a new burger restaurant called the Blistering Burger Bar, run by the people behind the scenes who run the Hairy Bikers, so they're pretty serious caterers - loads of stuff really! So I'd love to know what you think after your first time. I'm rather looking forward to my massage which I missed last year. On Sunday morning when the tension in my back has turned me into Quasimodo, my director's treat is that I get a half-hour massage in the holistic massage area, and last year I missed it, so I've got endless alarms and it's in everyone's schedule that I get half an hour for my massage. I went back after I'd missed it and I said 'surely you could fit me in, have you any idea who I think I am, and they said 'well sorry Hugh we're fully booked' so that was a bit rubbish...

DI: So having the massage tent there is an inspired idea!

HP: Well, we're a pretty laid back bunch, and the idea is to take time out from the hustle and bustle of daily life, and just sit quitely and enjoy some great music. One of the things I'm really excited about is Elkie Brooks, an American Blues singer who's in her 70s and who I've always wanted to work with; she's taken a lot of persuading but finally she's coming, there's stuff like that... there's a great musical mix as well as a beautiful place, some lovely glamping, and lights out by 2 in the morning!

DI: As an experienced promoter, how much of the line up do you curate yourself? Does the rest of the team get involved?

HP: Not really, they occasionally go 'who the hell is that?' because they're not old enough to know! The way it works is in early autumn you find out who might be around, with a wish list of what you've always wanted to do, then once you find out who's about you start trying to think 'I need to put something together that holds together'. I want people to look at a Cornbury bill and think 'someone's thought about that, someone's thought, "does that go with that?"'. I hate line ups that look confused and like you've taken a dart-board approach to booking. So we always make sure there's something that holds together and that there's some kind of theme to it. Obviously I've got most of next year's line up in my head, but it never quite turns out like you hope. Then I have a comedy booker, the lovely guys from Charlbury Riverside festival who book the riverside stage, Caffè Nero book their stage. We're celebrating ten years with Caffè Nero and they've got some really interesting things over the weekend, including Chris Difford from Squeeze who'll be playing a solo thing in Caffè Nero on Sunday. So it's a combined effort but the main stage is still me and it's all my fault.

DI: Well it sounds like you know what you're doing!

HP: I put my first gig on at school when I was 16 so I'm past 40 years now, God help me. We don't really appeal to anyone between the ages of 16 and 26 - it's almost designed like it's so it's so uncool it's cool. I'm not sure about that but it's meant to be cosy and sweet. When my stepchildren found out it's the most uncool festival in the UK they wouldn't go near it for a few years... It's meant to be a gentle festival experience, we do discounts for children and for the over 70's - we're the only festival in England that does discounts for older people, on the basis that I think if you're over 70 and you want to come to a festival then that should be encouraged, why shouldn't you get a discount?

DI: Absolutely! I've heard that some acts on this year's main stage have been hand-picked from the smaller stages - does this mean you spend the whole weekend thinking about next year's festival or do you get to enjoy some down-time yourself?

HP: I think it's important because the agents will bombard me with suggestions, but I listen to Radio 2 and 6Music every day I read the music papers, I go to gigs, I'm interested in what's going on, so when an agent says this is the hot new act and they're played on 6Music I know if they're lying... Pathetically, I'm still as excited as I was when I was 16 about great live music, it's life changing and emotionally charging. I'm a fan and a trainspotter who's invested an absurd amount of money in this sweet little beast that I can't seem to shake. Financially it's a really scary ride, you don't make money very often and when you lose you lose your house... Do I enjoy the weekend? I don't know really, it's very tense, I have to make a lot of decisions very quickly, there's always someone who thinks I'm just printing money somewhere and is furious about not being allowed to bring their dog... It's tough, but yes the sense of satisfaction of getting to Monday morning and having delivered a safe, lovely show, hopefully drenched in sunshine and people going away saying how lovely it was. It's not cheap, for a lot of people it's their holiday of the year, so it's my responsibility to deliver that safely and successfully.

DI: So do you then go off on your own holiday afterwards?

HP: Not really, I lie in a darkened room for a bit, and then I go off and work on my day job, booking band for private shows and corporate events, so I've got gigs in September, November and December including a NYE show. And in fact I've got a show in London this weekend!

DI: Wow! What are the best and worst things about creating a festival like Cornbury?

HP: The worst thing is something terrible happening, and constantly anticipating that - walking onto the site knowing you're going to lose £100k is not a great feeling, but the best thing is a great live performance and a bunch of people walking away having had the best weekend of their lives. Lots of other things, including charities having great success. We've had a relationship with Médecins Sans Frontières for quote a few years and they come to Cornbury because the audience is the most engaged of any audience they've met. Per head, the audience is more engaged with Médecins Sans Frontières than at any other festival, how cool is that? Even if they're signing up for a small amount, a lot of people do it so it all adds up, and Médecins Sans Frontières are the coolest, bravest charity in the world.

DI: It's great to think that an event like this could inspire people in such a way, and I'm really looking forward to checking it out myself. Thanks so much for sharing all this with us!

Cornbury Festival takes place this weekend: Fri 5th - Sun 7th July. Day and weekend tickets are still available from

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