Words by David James Young – Freelance Music Journalist
On surface value, the city of Bathurst doesn’t inherently present itself as a permeable festival hub. Without the immediate facilities of a Sydney or Melbourne, nor the vast grounds of a Byron Bay or Phillip Island, a music festival in Bathurst had to start small – in fact, the first-ever Inland Sea Of Sound was quite literally a homemade effort.
“We had our first concerts in local backyards,” says Stephen Champion – the artistic director and executive producer of the festival. Having founded the festival in 2010, he enlisted the help of fellow employees at the Bathurst Memorial Entertainment Centre to get it off the ground. “The atmosphere was amazing,” he recalls.
In attendance for that first year of Inland Sea Of Sound was musician Sophie Jones, one half of Bathurst country-folk duo Smith & Jones. “I had just moved to Bathurst from Tamworth, so I felt like I knew all about music festivals happening in small towns,” she says. “This was just so different to anything else I’d been involved in. You would either go to the BMEC to see some incredible world music, or take a picnic and go to someone’s backyard that we’d spent all day decking out with staging and decorations.”
Across the 2010s, the festival expanded year-by-year – well beyond both communal backyards and Champion’s expectations. The director notes that despite the constant shifts and changes the festival has made, he’s attempted to keep some degree of connection to Inland Sea’s original intentions.
“The festival has grown from a niche event to a more mainstream one,” he says. “The programming reflects this, but the multicultural heart of the festival remains. I think it gives the community a more multifaceted identity. It gives them something else to present to the world apart from car races, important as they are to Bathurst’s identity.”
This sentiment is shared by Jones’ bandmate, Abby Smith. “I really believe events like this change the idea that the arts don’t have as wide a reach as sport might,” she says. “It makes me really excited when I see the community get behind it.”
“When we tour, people are starting to know about Inland. We’ll play Tamworth, Gympie, Melbourne, Sydney… they’re talking about Bathurst and want to get involved.”
Jones, who has performed at the last four festivals alongside Smith, agrees the festival has only grown stronger. “The biggest changes have been the way it’s grown in location, but also in vibe,” she says. “It’s gone from being a world music festival to being more of a folk festival, then really opening up with some bigger names.”
Such names include Bernard Fanning, Missy Higgins and Kate Miller-Heidke. These nationally-acclaimed headliners have all literally gone out of their way to perform, as well as giving a considerable boost to the local artists awarded the opportunity of performing alongside them.
As one of the acts in question, Smith & Jones have witnessed the growth undertaken in their immediate music community first-hand. “Soph and I have both felt really lucky to be living and working here,” says Smith. “We’ve had community support to run choirs, workshops, tour, record and gig. In a city or somewhere larger, we may not have had the opportunities or support.”
The rejigged Inland Sea Of Sound will be a six-day concert series. Having been held on Wahluu (AKA Mount Panorama) since 2015, Champion and co. have had to retool the festival in order to make it work within current restrictions.
“Not being on Wahluu has meant looking at the festival delivery from a different perspective,” he says. “We can’t return to the festival’s beginnings of backyard concerts, but we can emulate that feel by transforming the carpark behind the Fossil Museum into the city’s backyard.”
Veteran performers like C.W. Stoneking and Kate Ceberano will headline, alongside local singer-songwriter Andy Nelson and first-time performers as part of the Local Emerging Artists Program. Smith & Jones are co-ordinators of the latter: “We’re matching about 15 young local emerging artists between the ages of 13-25 to some great local venues in town and helping them rock their first gigs,” the latter explains.
Despite the setbacks and the loopholes that organisers have had to jump through, there is an excitement between Champion, Smith and Jones for Inland. After all, the road back has to start somewhere.
“It will be great to start the year with some incredible artists playing our hometown,” concludes Smith.