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Secret Garden Festival 2015 Hits It Out of the Ball Pit

Pillow forts, giant jellyfish and kissing booths — this independent festival has and always will be built by and for the people.
By Zacha Rosen
March 04, 2015

Secret Garden Festival 2015 Hits It Out of the Ball Pit

Pillow forts, giant jellyfish and kissing booths — this independent festival has and always will be built by and for the people.
By Zacha Rosen
March 04, 2015

Secret Garden by the numbers is a pretty impressive feat. With around 6000 tickets sold, around 60 bands, producers and DJs, over 80 artists and creatives, an epic team of staff and around 300 volunteers, there's a significant amount of people power involved in one of Australia's most unique festivals. Snuggled amongst acres of the Downes family farm, not far from Campbelltown and Camden, Secret Garden sprawls across two days: small Friday and big Saturday. Local newcomers, homegrown favourites and international stars played across four stages this past weekend, from Friday, February 27 to Sunday, March 1. But the music isn't the sole star of the show. Secret Garden feels like a giant, outdoor Jurassic Lounge that happens to be a music festival. And, like the Lounge, it's not just the entertainment that makes it. It's the art and the play that make it. And especially, the audience.

The role of art and audience participation is a huge priority for Secret Garden, a fact reflected in the lead-up to ticket release time. The festival keeps its lineup secret, even after tickets go on sale. "[Festivalgoers] don't know who's playing [until after tickets are sold out]," says assistant volunteer manager Sebastian Scott. "So the people that are coming are attracted by the sort of art that they're going to see." Attendees see immersive, artistic environments and activities littered throughout the farm. There's a faux Chinatown, laid out in red fabrics and, after dark, glowing red lights. There are strange, pink jellyfish creatures hovering over the tiny Fern Gully stage. A 'Pillow Fort' draped soporifically in quilts and bed sheets. A lonely kissing booth. A game show arena littered with paper maché giant landmarks. These environments are made by volunteers, pioneered by creatives, artists and the production crew purely for the festival.


About 80 professional architects, designers and prop makers work on these creative areas, according to festival co-founder and director Clare Downes. Year round. Then there are 300 volunteers who do a four-hour work shift in return for a ticket. Secret Garden started out as a family affair and Downes say this is the reason SG's stayed different to other festivals. "We're not trying to gouge them with huge drink prices. We're not concerned with a big festival bottom line." The festival's more concerned with not taking itself too seriously. "What we want to create is something that's just playful and fun. And we just want to make people laugh."

It shows. The first night, as I type up my notes at the back of one of the stages, a man swoops over and puts his arm around me. "You look like my FRIEND." he says. It sums up the festival vibe neatly. He takes a selfie of us. A little later I run into him with his mates at a smaller stage. I really do look like one of his friends. We take another selfie.


Music is undoubtedly the main event, however. Friday night highlights include legendary kids entertainer Peter Combe crooning like the Frank Sinatra for under 5s. His backup band skips across styles — metal, pop, Led Zeppelin. Aussie duo Tees explode in a burst of fog and bass, Lizzy Tillman’s vocals floating dreamily over Sean Duarte's mesh of notes. Then there's Gang of Youths; rough-shouldered, hirsute and handsome. They sing soulfully and bop like teens in a mirror. Little Bastard follow with pure, energetic fun. The audience shifts while Little Bastard on stage: from mere excitement to an unabashed, dorky joy.

Saturday sees the bigger stages open. Sydney outfit The Morrisons are first up, playing big band folk, like a mash up of the both Inside Llewyn Davies and O Brother Where Art Thou's T Bone Burnett. The Gooch Palms get lead singer Leroy Macqueen naked again. "This is the last chance you’ll get to see this for a year!" he advises. "Is he doing that?" Someone in the crowd asks. "Penis!" Yells someone else. MacQueen sings lost Novocastrian pub punk, with ocasional muscular, Michael Stipe falsetto. Sans pants.


Little May’s rich, ethereal emotion keeps the crowd moving, while a criminally small crowd at Sharon Van Etten's slowly increases acceptably. Amid her band's warps, wefts and walls of sound, Van Etten shakes about like a super-expressive Cat Power. Back near the pink jellyfish, Remi's got a drummer, he's got beats, he's got moves. But, most of all, he’s got THAT voice. Smooth and limber, his vocals fly. Up next, it's Fishing; dressed in sepulchral white masks and shrouds, they drag the crowd into rapturous dance, from one end of Choy Lin to another.

By the end of Saturday night, that lonely Kissing Booth — long unstaffed and left for festivalgoers to fill — is finally, properly going. There are four happy women inside, kissing and hugging. Andrew, a guy in a harlequin outfit, has tired of kissing and waves around the booth's blackboard. He spruiks. He'd seen the booth empty and thought "why not?" It felt safe. The people here are a bit special: "No other festival I've been to has this vibe."

One of the final sets of the festival sees Donny Benet plays the tiny Fern Gully stage, under the canopy of pink jellyfish. He's good. All the music was good. The art was good. But what's the secret? The people — from the festival team to the audience — made this thing. Secret Garden runs on people power, and with numbers increasing every year, it's clear the teeny festival that could has a lot of love behind it — even with one of the heaviest police presences we've seen at a festival yet.

Images: Anna Warr and Jack Toohey.

Published on March 04, 2015 by Zacha Rosen

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