Curatorial Maestro Leagues O’Toole Chats To Totally Dublin Ahead of MusicTown 2024

Posted 5 days ago in Festival Features


Since its inception in 2015, MusicTown has stood at the forefront of fiercely original music generated across the island, thanks in no small part to curators Leagues O’Toole and David Connaughton of Foggy Notions. Ahead of this year’s music fest Adhamh Ó Caoimh talks to curator Leagues O’Toole about the festival’s evolution and what’s in store for this year’s programme.

MusicTown 2023 was this writer’s favorite musical occasion of the year. With a focus on collaboration and diversity, the 2023 programme was ‘a reflection of the diversity of Irish life itself.’ Three glorious days of impossibly beautiful performances, whether it be the rich sonic tapestry woven by Anna Mieke and her band, the unique alt folk of Junior Brother, or the singular sounds generated by my favorite act from these shores, Poor Creature.

This year, the ambitious festival has found a home in the grandiose environs of the National Concert Hall, which under creative director Gary Sheenan, has seen a couple of years of stellar programming. From the incredible Haunted Dancehall event last November to the always inspiring Metronome shows, its once inaccessible stages have played host to acts as diverse as noise ambassadors Sunn O))), the skewed folk of This Is The Kit, the legendary acerbic pop of Microdisney and Irish fiddle virtuoso Zöe Conway.

Since its inception in 2015, MusicTown has stood at the forefront of fiercely original music generated across the island, thanks in no small part to curators Leagues O’ Toole and David Connaughton of Foggy Notions.

Leagues says, “This year’s programme, we feel, is a radio dial of everything that is interesting about Irish music in this moment, as some of the most vital artists of this diverse and multi-cultural landscape fulfill new dreams within collaborative conversations.”

The man is not one for hyperbole. 2024’s line up boasts the ethereal Rachael Lavelle blending her off kilter avant pop with Crash Ensemble, who have long been Ireland’s most compelling orchestral association. Lavelle’s debut album ‘Big Dreams’ was nominated for the recent  Choice ‘Album Of The Year’ Award and she is a true maverick amongst her peers. Recalling artists like Bjork and Laurie Anderson in tone and delivery, Lavelle’s lyrics paint an otherworldly picture of the modern digital life and this, allied to a sparse, yet enthralling, musical backing make her an artist in every sense of the word.

In fact, Crash Ensemble are featured throughout the entire affair.

As Leagues says, “Crash feel like a real gift to me. I’ve never encountered such a fearless, open-minded entity. They never say no to any idea I’ve pitched to them. Kate Ellis (their Musical Director) is truly gifted. I wanted them to do a bunch of collaborations in the different rooms. Rachael Lavelle felt like an obvious fit for them, her natural inclination towards that sort of contemporary avant-pop writing style.

Less obvious is Mohammad Syfkhan, the sensational Kurdish artist based in Kerry. I approached Willie Stewart at Nyahh Records who looks after Mohammad to see if we could convince him to do a collab. Willie’s contribution to underground and experimental music in Ireland over the last few years has been nothing less than vital, huge admiration for him. But he was hesitant about Mohammad and Crash collaborating, making the point that Mohammad doesn’t listen to western music, nor does he speak English.

When Kate got on the phone to him they talked it out and came to an agreement. Kate would talk you in to anything, she’s so confident and reassuring. I’ve roped in my friend Diaa Lagan to translate, a fantastic painter/artist, who is Syrian and loves Mohammad’s music. Mohammad’s performances are joyous and actually, seeing how important and cathartic these performances are to Diaa and other Middle Eastern people living here is really moving.”

Syfkhan’s spellbinding ‘I Am Kurdish’ is a year end list album for me, overflowing with jubilant tones presented through remarkable musicality.

Elsewhere during the programme, Soda Blonde will see their infectious, hook laden rock paired with the National Symphony Orchestra. Hot off the release of their excellent Why Die For Danzig? with a new video referencing their rebuke of the SXSW war machine, the band have been an unmissable live act for some time now, and the opportunity to see them in this new context is a compelling proposition.

And the artistry expressed over the weekend is not only confined to sound. Harp Ireland have put together a multidisciplinary performance with  ‘MOODS’. This special performance brings together gifted harpist Aisling Ennis, Waterford born visual/sound artist Peter Power and contemporary dancer/choreographer and teacher Robyn Byrne. Attendees are promised a spellbinding set of original composition, reinterpretations of existing material and improvisations “centered around embodied performance”.

One performance this writer is in breathless anticipation of is that of Elaine Howley. Outside of her work with celebrated Cork psychedelians, The Altered Hours, Howley works as a songwriter, vocalist and producer who creates some gorgeous analogue landscapes. I caught her performance opening for The Bonk at their launch party for ‘Greater Than Or Equal To…’, and have been a devoted acolyte since. Her staggeringly good debut, The Distance Between Heart and Mouth has been predicted to be one of “the most influential Irish releases of the 2020s”.

MusicTown 2024 will see Howley work with Crash Ensemble, marrying their experimental approaches for new perspectives on her existing material, and presenting new work. Leagues says, “Elaine Howley is one of my Irish favourite producers/writers/singers of recent times. She just has that otherworldly magic she can draw upon to make something intimate and infectious.”

Somebody I discovered in the process of writing this article was Fermanagh born Róis, a truly idiosyncratic multi-instrumentalist working with jazz, folk and sean nós in a way that brings to mind the thoughtful majesty of the late Austin Peralta. Having been fascinated by the line “Her extended vocal technique is utterly remarkable”, I had to investigate, and can confirm, Róis  may just be challenging the mighty Iarla Ó Lionáird for his position as the best vocalist this country has yet produced. The performance will see her joined by one of Ireland’s most intriguing new composers, Muireann Ní Shé of Cork, who will perform on Uilleann Pipes and vocals, promising an exploration of everything innovative and vital in contemporary Irish music.

Irish hip hop is also faithfully represented by the enigmatic Yoruba-Irish experimental producer  and DJ, E The Artist. With an impossible to define musical approach that once echoes artists like Death Grips and Flying Lotus, his work “interrogates and reimagines contemporary and past African diasporic sounds, with reference points stretching from ultra-fast Footwork & Musique Concrète”.

This performance will see a once off collaboration with Crash Ensemble, bringing together disparate and complimentary world’s for the kind of musical adventure people will talk about for years to come.

Truly, MusicTown is always an occasion to celebrate, and Leagues was kind enough to enlighten us on how such a progressive and innovative festival began in our strange little city. “The MusicTown concept came from Ray Yeates, the Arts Officer at DCC. The idea was to create something… a festival, an umbrella, some entity, that could account for all the different types of music performed in Dublin.

It was an interesting but also tricky thing to do because your stake-holders are sort of everyone! And the landscape with music is changing all the time, globally, online, in Dublin, everywhere. So initially I was trying to think of how we perfect this. It was quite experimental, we tried open-call formats, multi-venue formats, the amount of box-ticking was immense, impossible in fact.

After a few years I realised trying to find the right formula isn’t the point, being reactive is more useful. So now, each year it’s different, it has a kinetic energy, and we accept and enjoy that. And massive credit to Ray and Sinead Connolly at the Arts Office because they’ve trusted us to do that, to capture snapshot stories of what music looks like in Dublin each year, constantly mutating in shape, look and feel.”

Words: Adhamh Ó Caoimh

Images: Ros Kavanagh, Sophia Felumaz, Willie Stewart, Cait Fahey

Programme of Events

Friday July 19th – Main Auditorium – 8.30PM

Soda Blonde + the National Symphony Orchestra


Saturday July 20th – Kevin Barry Room – 4PM

Róis & Muireann Ní Shé


Saturday July 20th – The Studio 5.30PM

E The Artist + Crash Ensemble


Saturday July 20th – Main Auditorium – 8.30PM

Rachael Lavelle + Crash Ensemble


Sunday July 21st – Kevin Barry Room – 4PM

Harp Ireland presents MOODS w/ Aisling McKenna, Peter Power & Robyn Byrne


Sunday July 21st – The Studio 5.30PM

Elaine Howley + Crash Ensemble 


Sunday July 21st – Main Auditorium – 8.30PM

Mohammad Syfkhan + Crash Ensemble

MusicTown takes place at The National Concert Hall Dublin from Friday July 19th to Sunday July 21st

Funded by Dublin City Council Arts Office | Produced by Foggy Notions with support from the National Concert Hall | Curated by Leagues O’Toole & David Connaughton


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