Aengus Finnan was born in Ireland, raised in Canada, and has traveled extensively, primarily as a musician but also on the boards of a variety of organizations devoted to humanitarian issues and the arts and music.
Since 2014, Finnan has been executive director of Folk Alliance International, the largest annual conference for the world’s folk-music industry. From 2014-18, the conference was held at the Westin Hotel Crown Center. The conference has moved to other cities—Montreal in 2019 and New Orleans in 2020—but the alliance has set up permanent headquarters in Kansas City.
Finnan recently answered questions from IN Kansas City about how the alliance has navigated the pandemic, what the festival plans are for 2021, and why Kansas City is an ideal home for him and the alliance. He also revealed when the conference will return to Kansas City.
What was 2020 like for you from all angles: as a loyal music fan and as the executive director of an international music festival?
Live music requires an audience, and every artist and their support teams—agents, managers, publicists—lost everything instantly. As an expensive entrepreneurial gig-economy there are few safety nets, no employee benefits, and rarely savings, so everyone was hit hard.
Artists are creative and resilient, so they were quick to jump into action. When the industry stalled, things just got punk, and it was a bit of an online playground of people experimenting and expressing; some were able to monetize that or fund-raise, and the community globally was quick to support them.
But for many, the pandemic has carried a more existential weight: “Who am I if I am not on stage, if there is no applause, if I have to stand still and look around at where I am?” That has been hard to navigate but has also led to reinvention for many about how they make a living and, in some cases, complete life and career shifts.
Running a charity designed to support an already underdog genre, when we are trying to ensure our own survival this year, has been pretty stressful for our whole team. But this is what we do, and we’re excited by some of the new approaches we’re taking, and proud of the nimble shift.
Personally, I listen to more music now than I used to because I’m working from home, so that is nice, and though I had kind of hit overload on live music over the past decade—mostly the politics and business of being at events—I finally miss just being in the audience again.
You were able to get in the 2020 FAI in New Orleans in January, but in April you canceled the 2021 conference, which was supposed to be in Kansas City. What, if anything, in all your experiences prepared you for what unfolded in 2020?
Well, I didn’t study business or economics or management, and I certainly don’t know about global pandemics, but I know community; understanding how we could serve, support, and inspire was my primary interest. Spending all our time planning an in-person conference of 3,000 delegates would have been a colossal loss of resources and would have severely deflated our morale. Our staff and board are amazing and dedicated to our mission, not an event, so we just had to take a deep breath, study the facts, consider the risks, map out worst-case financial scenarios, and make some bold choices.
Some folks thought we were crazy to cancel a February event in April, but it allowed us to immediately focus on learning what the community needed in real time and responding accordingly.
What have you heard from the musicians/artists who are part of the folk music world? How did some of them adapt to 2020?
I don’t want to downplay the real pain, frustration, and isolation of a community that has lost its livelihood and relies entirely on mass gatherings in close proximity. That’s a real and deep crisis on top of the health and financial concerns. But I do think folk artists have always had a grassroots, figure-it-out and get-it-done attitude of creative problem-solving. They didn’t go to school to learn how to be touring folk musicians; they just did it. They learned from their elders, they adapted, they took risks, and they leaned on each other. This was just the most extreme calling on their creativity, and some beautiful work, collaborations, and innovations have resulted.
Can anything good or beneficial come out of this situation? Have there been silver linings?
Absolutely. Lots of people are taking time to re-evaluate many things in their lives and explore things that had been set aside on “one day” lists. Organizations have had to continue to function but have been able to move some back-burner items to the fore in the wake of canceled events.
I don’t like the intensity of diminished teams having to hold it all together from home, so I worry about the low-level, long-term impact of that sustained adrenaline. But I think many teams have benefited from having to focus on how they communicate and convene to stay on course at a distance.
The big silver lining to me is seeing art and music in the hands of the public again. It’s not just professionals showing up online with art. People who stopped drawing or dancing or acting or singing as early as high school because they didn’t think they were an “artist” are playing and creating for fun and sharing it publicly. That to me is where art belongs, not as a profession, but as universal human expression.
Without an in-person conference, what will 2021 look like for Folk Alliance International?
We are as busy as always, and still holding a conference this year, but virtually from February 22-25 with all of the standard elements of the in-person event. It’s called Folk Unlocked because we’re opening it up to anyone to attend, literally providing a $0 option for artists and industry who can’t afford anything else at this time.
We’re also inviting the public and music fans to join us for the showcase festival portion by donating to our Village Fund to support artists and industry in need. Beyond that event we’ll continue to produce online content year-round (folk.org/resources) and we’re undertaking a yearlong staff and board training to inform our next strategic plan. Of course, we’ll start planning the 2022 conference as early as March 2021. Speaking of which: We are confirmed to mount the event here in KC in 2022-24.
Let’s get into your background. You were raised in Grafton, Ontario, about 80 miles from Toronto. Talk about your childhood and how it shaped you.
I was born in Ireland, but I grew up in Canada on a cooperative organic vegetable farm made out of recycled telephone poles powered by wind and solar power. It was a wonderful childhood, but intense when I compare it to other stories of boyhood. We’d have retreats and seminars at home for the public about composting, vegetarian cooking, meditation, past-life regression. You name it.
I thought that was how everyone lived. It led to being a bit of an outspoken young activist touring to speak at schools and public events, organizing publications and demonstrations. Ultimately, I was on organized tours away from home and school by age 13 and left home permanently to attend an international peace and development school at age 16. My parents had a big view of life and the world, so it all seemed normal to me. But I suppose I missed out a bit on just being a kid.
When did music become an important part of your life, and who was part of that process?
My mum would sing these really beautiful sad songs like The Little Boy that Santa Claus Forgot and Dona Dona and my dad would sing old Irish airs and songs like Scarlett Ribbons, and the earnestness and soft sorrow in each song really moved me.
We didn’t have a TV, but we had a record player, and people who stayed with us would leave records. I’d pop on those big pilot headphones with the curly cord, and I’d disappear into all the music without knowing who was famous or not, just that the stories captivated me. Gordon Lightfoot was definitely at the center.
There were only ten in my elementary class and only 127 at my high school, so there were no music classes, but my parents often hosted events with music, and eventually my dad ran a theater, folk club, and festival where I would set up chairs, work the follow spot, or document the shows. So, it was kind of omnipresent in my life as the main art form I had access and exposure to.
You are a songwriter, musician, and recording artist yourself. Describe your music and its influences. Which of your recordings are you proudest of and why?
I toured internationally as a singer-songwriter for a decade. I write in a pretty old-school narrative folk style and approach it through the lens of a camera, with verses acting like scenes with the Fourth Wall removed, allowing listeners to peek into others lives. Irish folk songs and their influence on North American traditional music were definitely a heavy influence, but I like to tell stories about the people I meet and the places I visit or the stories I uncover.
I wrote a lot of epic drama that doesn’t end well: abandoned sons, separated lovers, sunken ships, aging farmers torching their farm before the auctioneer comes, futile efforts to save historic buildings as commercial progress buries the past, a broken ballerina turned stripper—you know, the stuff that make you want to drink or cry, but fills you with a sense of what is right, despite the outcome.
Of my three recordings, while I love North Wind, I think the Fool’s Gold record was a real all-or-nothing statement and a nod to all the musical influences in my life. And if I had to point to a song it would be Fly Away, inspired by a young student of mine who hit me and called to apologize and explain he was missing his dad who he’d not seen in years. (Ed: Find Finnan’s music at soundcloud.com/aengus-finnan or on Spotify)
What bands/artists did you listen to growing up? Who do you listen to now for recreation or to relax?
Growing up, I was drawn to storytelling legends like Gordon Lightfoot and Harry Chapin and the traditional music of Fairport Convention and the Dubliners. In my teens it was U2, Burton Cummings, the Smiths, New Order, A-ha, Everything But the Girl, and my intro to EDM (electronic dance music) through Jean-Michel Jarre.
My university years in Montreal drew me to the intensity of Stan Rogers and the lyrical poetry of Francis Cabrel, and by my mid-20s I was deep into the contemporary Canadian folk scene—Stephen Fearing, Ferron, James Keelaghan, Laura Smith—and eventually their U.S. counterparts: John Gorka, Eliza Gilkyson, Martin Sexton. But to relax I actually like ambient rock bands like the Shins, Pernice Brothers, Midlake, and Mute Math. And when I cycle, I listen to a lot of Rosalía (a Spanish hip-hop flamenco artist) and French songwriter Christophe Maé.
What are some of your favorite live-music experiences? Who have you not seen (alive or dead) that you’d wish to see most?
Folk festivals are definitely my happy place, where it’s less about who is on the lineup and more about great music, workshop stages, local food, an artisan village, great people, and camping. Strangely I do less of that in my current role.
In terms of favorite moments, this is a bizarre full-circle flip scenario, but I had a performance moment in Toronto where I sang my song Lightfoot at the release of his tribute album and [Gordon Lightfoot] came up from the audience to shake my hand. That was epic. I’d love to see Stromae in concert, and I dream of seeing a Smiths reunion I know will never happen, as I was too young to get to a show when they were together.
In another interview, you said if you weren’t in the world of folk music, you’d be involved in human development and human rights. Elaborate on that.
What moves me most is bridge-building and figuring out how to rally people around common causes for greater good. I am very fortunate to have the education, experience, and freedom I have, and at some point I want to offer my full potential by putting my energy and vision to work in a way that changes lives.
I love what I do, and it is culturally significant, but I’d also like to bring the creativity of this work and community into the humanitarian field, perhaps connecting the profile and network of artists to the social causes that impact the communities they live in or care about.
Or maybe first I’ll just run a little surf shack and café somewhere for a while and decompress if I can figure out how to slow down and set ambition aside for a while. Who knows?
You moved to Kansas City in mid-2014. You have elected to live in Kansas City and keep it as a base for Folk Alliance International as the conference itself changes locales. What about the city keeps you here and why is it a good place for a headquarters?
Folk Alliance is here to stay in Kansas City, and we couldn’t be prouder to call this city home. There is a great spirit here, a positive view of the future, and a healthy pride that is not about competing with other cities or being something we aren’t.
For me personally it’s the people that make a place, and everyone has been so welcoming. That, combined with all the great restaurants, a wonderful cultural scene, and our incredible sports teams make this a potential world-class city.
The outstanding work we all still have to do to get there: addressing some serious truth and reconciliation about the red-lined roots of racism and inequity here; abolishing the wildly inappropriate chant and chop at football games; initiating land acknowledgments at all public events to recognize the Osage, Kansa, Kickapoo, and Očhéti Šakówin nations on whose traditional territory we all live; and recycling. We are decades behind on this, especially at bars, restaurants, and events. There is really no excuse. We can do better on all of this, and I think Kansas City has the heart and guts to get it done if leadership and business owners acknowledge these as significant social priorities.
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