The inside track on Meltdown
David Bowie and Massive Attack are among its former guest directors and this year it’s the turn of Antony to curate the Southbank Centre’s annual Meltdown Festival (1-12 August). The Artful Diner caught up with head of contemporary music Jane Beese over lunch at Skylon to find out what they’ve been cooking up this year…
There are two great and, for Jane, nerve-wracking moments every year with Meltdown. First, announcing the director and second, releasing the programme. By inviting a different musician to curate the festival every year, the Southbank Centre ensures no two Meltdowns will ever be the same. Essentially, free rein is handed to the artist to express him or herself. So in the past it has been autobiographical, political or simply about that person’s favourite music – sometimes all of those things.
Antony (he of the Johnsons and the Mercury Prize-winning 2005 album I Am a Bird Now) has put together a line-up for 2012 that features the likes of Lou Reed and previous Meltdown director Laurie Anderson. He has been very hands-on with the whole process, according to Jane, and the results make for an exciting festival.
“There are probably more women on the line-up for this Meltdown than there ever have been,” she says. “We’re really proud that there are a lot of great female artists, but I also think it’s really about voices, not just extraordinary musical vocals, but also extraordinary political and spiritual artists who have never been afraid to be political through their work, to be very forthright and opinionated.”
Environmentalism is a hot topic for this year’s Meltdown, but there’s also an approach, taken by Antony and many of the New York-based artists performing this year, that they term Future Feminism. According to Antony’s website they are people who “reject patriarchy in its myriad virulent and apocalyptic manifestations, and who advocate for a fundamental shift towards the feminine in all our systems and structures of governance”.
“I wouldn’t like to speak for Future Feminism, but I guess they recognise that a little more oestrogen in the world might solve a lot of our problems,” says Jane. Certainly, there are artists like Kembra Pfahler, a mainstay of the New York performance arts scene for many years, the girls from CocoRosie and other female voices like Buffy Sainte-Marie and Liz Fraser, once of the Cocteau Twins. “You are kind of asking someone to wear their heart on their sleeve,” says Jane of the director.
Originally from Manchester, she’s worked on the festival since 2001. Has it opened her eyes to anything? “I think it’s introduced us to a lot of artists that we wouldn’t necessarily have come across before. One thing about Meltdown is we do have this history of bespoke, unique multi-artist evenings that are based around a theme or maybe a tribute to somebody. On Patti’s [Patti Smith] Meltdown we had a tribute night to Jimi Hendrix, for example. You get very different musicians and a sense of collaboration and uniqueness – you might never see this group of people together again.”
It’s so important now to give artists the “breathing space” that the traditional music business doesn’t really allow them anymore, she says. It’s a philosophy that the Southbank Centre tries to follow, both with festivals like Meltdown and its artists-in-residence programme. “We do live in this kind of very X Factor state now don’t we, which is very uncaring.”
Sitting by the window at Skylon looking out across the Thames is a reminder of just what kind of space the Southbank provides. As we eat – me wild black sea bream with courgette ribbons and aubergine cream, and Jane red mullet with heritage tomato salad and sautéed baby squid [below] – our meal is punctuated by the wonders of Southbank life. A man wandering around with a football on his head and, a few minutes later, a group of people dressed as pandas walk past carrying their heads (it’s a hot day, Jane and I concur).
With so much going on, Jane’s time is limited, so it’s one course and no wine for her (“that was the 90s, oh I could tell you some stories!”). With time for one question left, I want to know who’s on that Meltdown wishlist. Will she tell me? Well, of course not. “It’s probably really obvious who those great iconic musician artists are whether it be… I won’t name names. But I think iconic means a great body of work that’s changed the world somehow and an artist we perceive to be collaborative. You look for somebody you feel will learn from the experience and we’ll learn from them.”
We’ll have to watch that space then, but in the meantime it certainly seems there will be plenty to discover at Meltdown this August.
See the full line-up for Meltdown.
OFFER: Meltdown ticket holders will get 10% off lunch in the Skylon restaurant and grill (Monday-Friday, 1-31 August).
The Artful Diner also tried out Skylon’s new Meltdown cocktail [below], made with kaffir lime and elderflower liqueur and including a lime and basil “melting” ball of granita. Find out more about the Skylon cocktail and food menus.
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