With a debut solo album that sees favourable comparisons to the likes of greats such as Janis Joplin, Amy Winehouse, Adele and Florence Welch, and that captures the attention of U2’s Bono, you just know powerhouse Susan O’Neill is a force to be reckoned with.
All the way from Co. Clare, Ireland, the prodigiously gifted soulful and husky-voiced performances are truly something to behold. With witty and charismatic songwriting, a striking attitude, guitar, harmonica, trumpet and loop pedal, O’Neill, who works under the stage name of SON, delivers a powerful blend of the old soul with a new edge, time and time again.
With a rich musical history collaborating with festival favourites King Kong Company and Propeller Palms, O’Neill is no stranger to the stage and will be bringing her gritty vocal and emotionally charged musical experience to Australia for an extensive run of shows, including a stint at the glorious seaside village of Port Fairy for the 44th Port Fairy Folk Festival in March this year.
“There is a special energy in Australia, a beautiful appreciation for music and a thriving folk scene,” O’Neill says ahead of her voyage down under. “It is a dream to meet the people and experience the country while on tour there.”
O’Neill will be making her solo debut at the festival this March, having only previously performed at the festival for the first time with Irish trad superstar Sharon Shannon early last year.
“I feel truly blessed to playing as a solo artist this year. Solo performances push the body into new areas, while collective music making tends to be very healing and beautiful too. I feel that they allow you to express different sides of the soul. Entirely different things happen during each and I hope to always find a way to do both.
Since its onset in 1977, the festival has evolved into an intricate piece of the coastal Victorian town and has earned Port Fairy global recognition in the world of folk music, continuously creating a beautiful spirit that you can’t buy or brand.
“There was a beautiful feeling amongst the volunteers, site, musicians and festival-goers,” she explains of the well-loved annual festival last year. “Every festival is unique and [has] its own entity. I felt the people and the volunteers, organisers, production crew had a lot to do with PFFF’s vibe. Friendly, kind and lighthearted. There was a general sense of love around the site.”
Promising to be a vibrant celebration of music and culture, the charm of this festival comes from its focus on exemplifying the great folk/roots traditions of many cultures, regions, communities, and countries – from Ireland to Port Fairy, Johannesburg to New Orleans, Prince Edward Island to Northcote, Celtic to Bluegrass, Indigenous to Latin and glorious folk fusions.
Alongside O’Neill, Patty Griffin, Archie Roach, C.W. Stoneking, Yolanda Brown, The Blind Boys of Alabama, Jeff Lang, Chitra, Dan Sultan, and Emily Wurramara are among the 103 incredibly talented musicians completing the unmissable lineup of artists from all around the globe representing folk music, many of whom are making their Port Fairy Folk Festival debut.
Much like the festival lineup, O’Neill is not bound to one genre, with songs fusing Irish folk with rock, soul, gospel, and blues through the use of guitar, harmonica, trumpet, and loop pedal. Paired with the amazing range of her husky, unique vocals, you’ll soon understand why her live performances have been described as quite simply electrifying and mind-blowing, wowing audiences everywhere from Stradbally to Sydney, Glasgow to Glastonbury, Manhattan to Milwaukee, and many places beyond.
“I love so many genres, from folk to from classical, to meditation music, gospel, blues. It is quite hard to pinpoint where direct influences come from; Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Joni Mitchel, Janis Joplin,” she explains. “I try not to sound like these people, however, just appreciate what they do and try to create my own sounds.
“I began playing trumpet in the Ennis Brass band at a young age, around 11,” she continues. “Guitar came later at around 13 and I learned my first few chords from a book. It was an outlet, unlike anything I had ever felt before. [As for] singing, I think I was always singing. As soon as I could walk, a very feral child, always making noise,” she laughs. “Harmonica was the latest addition coming into my twenties, Bob Dylan and Mr. Neil Young had a bit to do with that.”
While O’Neill and her festival peers are obviously the main draw of the festival, there are several other reasons to head down to Port Fairy during these dates, such as two late-night screenings of A Mighty Wind (with a guest appearance from Harry Shearer), an array of workshops, a curated children’s program, and a number of themed concerts including the Big Sunday Sing Out, and First Nations in Songs & Stories. Hosted by award-winning Gina Williams, this illuminating event will feature First Nations artists Archie Roach, Ego Lemos (TL), Hubert Francis (CAN) and Mihirangi Fleming (NZ), and explore in conversation and in song, the similarities and differences of being a First Nation artist, the path to reconciliation and the role the arts and music can play in aspirations for the future.
A real highlight for us though is that Port Fairy Folk Festival, in conjunction with Moyne FReeZA are putting the spotlight on emerging artists and helping them thrive in the industry. The like-minded, passionate festival know there is so much untapped local talent just waiting to be discovered, and this local artist showcase is a good place for artists looking to get to the next step of their career – and there’s even a Fender guitar up for grabs for the best act of the day. Punters will be treated to a performance from last year’s winner Kessia Brooke, an exceptionally talented 20-year-old musician based in Horsham, Western Victoria, as well as a performance from Port Fairy Folk Festival’s 2020 Emerging Artist of the Year, Ruby Gill, whose immense voice, heavy piano and vulnerable stage presence have been appearing on festivals around the world from Oppikoppi to Woodford.
When we asked O’Neill who she was most excited to see at the upcoming festival, she summed up the long-running festival in three simple sentences: “All of them. They are all so fantastic in their own right and that is the wonderful thing about festivals. There is the chance to soak in such a diverse and wide range of acts in a short time.”
With a convivial and inclusive atmosphere and a diverse range of local and international artists on offer, the Port Fairy Folk Music Festival is an essential annual event for the dedicated music lover. You won’t want to miss this epic long weekend.
The 44th Port Fairy Folk Festival takes place on the Labour Day Long Weekend from 6-9 March 2020, in Port Fairy, Victoria. Tickets to the Port Fairy Folk Festival are available now at www.portfairyfolkfestival.com
O’Neill will also be performing at Lauriston Town Hall, Lauriston – March 5 & The Potato Shed, Geelong – April 2.