18 years ago, Kingston’s Wolfe Island Music Festival was simply a dock party with a hay-wagon for a stage.
As the city’s signature music festival grew in popularity, it began to attract emerging Canadian talent, eager to reach a new audience. But all the progress was stymied when an interruption to the ferry service forced director Virginia Clark to cancel last year’s festival.
In the earlier days of Clark’s career and of the Wolfe Island Music Festival, before its success and recent hiatus, all of the current festival’s infrastructure — the fencing, security, first aid and walkie-talkies — was absent. Clark remembers losing her voice in her early days as director, running back-and-forth to organize the festivities.
“I couldn’t even talk anymore,” she said. “There’s no boot camp for this. There’s no class you can take in university. You just kind of learn organically. It’s all self-taught and it’s all from the passion of bringing people together.”
Nonetheless, Clark admits taking sociology and philosophy at Queen’s helped. “Good for dealing with the general public,” Clark said about her degree, joking that she was a “Queens-y townie” after growing up in Kingston.
It was Clark’s return to Kingston in the mid nineties that eventually led her to her involvement in the festival business. After graduating from Queen’s, Clark had a stint tree-planting in British Columbia, before she came back to Kingston to visit friends on Wolfe Island. One of them was moving out and with the now-vacant room, Clark began to wonder: why not stay?
“I just fell in love with the place,” Clark said.
She soon began assisting local organizer Sarah McDermott to host the parties on the island’s docks that would grow into the full-fledged festival it is today. Clark already had previous ties with local breweries and bands; it was just a matter of reaching out.
Clark said their main competition and the only other festival prioritizing alternative and indie music was Lollapalooza in Chicago.
“That’s how long ago it was,” she said. “Now [festivals] are everywhere.”
After McDermott stepped down roughly 10 years ago, Clark took matters into her own hands.
“It was less of a party,” Clark said. The days of local parties and bands playing baseball diamonds and hay wagons were disappearing as the festival grew, the logistics became more complicated, and the time commitment ballooned.
“It’s still an awesome party vibe,” Clark said.
Meanwhile, the festival became increasingly concerned with getting bigger acts that could draw a crowd. Clark remembers pulling Montreal Indie rockers Wolfe Parade as one of the first.
“Who’s my marquee?” she recalls asking herself repeatedly — who was the big band that would ensure the festival’s success?
She questioned whether she could even afford it, considering insurance and artist fees.
“And I said ‘wait it’s not about that’. It’s about strong programming and strong artists. It’s diverse. It’s about those up and coming artists not that big name,” Clark said. “You know what? The bands you’ll see are going to be the big bands.”
She said she was more interested in attendees discovering new music.
Indeed, two-time Juno Alternative Album of the Year winners in 2015 and 2017, July Talk played an early show at Wolfe Island in 2013. It was a mid-day time slot and most of the crowd milled around waiting for later acts. Demonstrated in a YouTube video, the band’s Wolfe Island performance draws a significant crowd in the space of their opening song — attendees seen running to the stage to listen.
Nonetheless, the festival ground to a halt in 2016. Despite promises by the Ministry of Transportation, ferry maintenance slated for completion in May took until November, interfering with the festival’s operation.
“And the ferry didn’t even come to the destination,” Clark added, explaining that it went to the Winter Dock — a fair distance away. “It was just a nightmare. It was a small boat too and it crippled us.”
Citing financial troubles in a facebook post, Clark promised to regroup and refinance in time for this year’s festival.
“We’re not a big corporate festival so we don’t have deep pockets,” Clark said.
Making up for the deficit,, a five-part concert series fundraised to bring the festival back. Efforts were capped off with a “Winter Ball” held in Toronto’s Grand Hall on Oscar Night this year. The event included a silent auction featuring vinyl donations from record labels and bands, along with signed copies from the likes of Sam Roberts.
She chalks up the recent progress to the loyalty Wolfe Island engendered to its programming, focusing on newer Canadian artists.
“It’s a large country but a [small] music community,” Clark said. “We support each other. It’s the only way it should be.”
After its yearlong cancellation and a groundswell of fundraising, Clark has ensured Wolfe Island Music Festival’s return this August.
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