Darren Percival talks Woodford, The Singing Space and the power to heal through singing

Darren Percival has long been a favourite on the Australian touring scene and particularly at the Woodford Folk Festival, where he will be returning to this month. Ahead of the festival, we caught up with Percival to find out more about his personal affiliation and love for Woodford, his company The Singing Space and more.

You are a regular visit there [Woodford] – how long have you been going to Woodford for?

This’ll be my ninth year. My son’s seven and my daughter’s five, so both of them have grown up there. I mean obviously, they weren’t born on the site, but they’ve been there from the very, very start of their lives. That’s one of the great things about that festival; it is so family orientated, kids are so welcome there. I think that’s why families look forward to going after Christmas every year.

I can remember the Director saying to me, when I went to say thank you for having me after the very first year, he said, “We won’t see you for a while because we don’t have people back,” – most festivals, they don’t have people back year after year but I think, because we created The Singing Space, which is all about helping people, what we’re finding is that people at festivals all across the country (I think all across the world too, certainly in Australia), a lot of people are coming to festivals to see their favourite artists and they’re wanting to do more. They’re wanting learn something or take something with them when they leave beyond just seeing music and having that experience. These workshops are just in such high demand now, because people want to use the experience to open their hearts.

I went to Woodford two years ago for the second time and I think I may have missed you the first time I went, and I really was fascinated by seeing you take control of the crowd. You seemed really at home and I suppose it goes back to that idea of you making that a second home for you and your family. Making it this really interesting, wonderful place that is open to you. In a way [it’s] an experimental type of music making.

I’m celebrating the art of spontaneous vocaisation – that is what I do and I’m reminding everyone that this is in our DNA. We are from all these countries that nationally sing when you go there and we somehow forgot, in Australia, that singing is a massive part of all of us. Each and every one of us. From before we got here, with the millions of songlines in this country, to the point of view where we all sailed over here singing. At some point along the way, we forgot. I’m trying to remind everyone that, “Hey, you don’t need permission to do this, just start doing it. You’ll be amazed at the health benefits from it.” People flock to the gym and do yoga and do all these things but somehow, this ancient and incredible thing we can do so effortlessly, we can just do and the benefits are vast. I spend that week there reminding that audience that they can do it and they come back the next year and we talk about how they went.

Is this something you try and instil all year round, not only at Woodford?

That’s right. I’ve got a business called The Singing Space with my wife; I realised at a certain point, when I saw my children’s faces for the first time, that I really had to something other than trying to get on triple j, you know? I think there’s a lot of people, at a certain point of your career, I think you have to realise that maybe you’re here to do other things than what you set out to do. As a 17 year old, singing along to Bon Scott and having visions of being some rock star, I think at a certain point of your career you realise that you’re there to do other things. I’ve had my 15 minutes of fame, which I really enjoyed, but my attention now lies with helping other people.

Okay – so these workshops that you do with your company, what exactly spurred them on?

I’ve been doing workshops since I was 15 – I was accidentally thrown into it. I was at performing arts school and the teacher was sick and I was asked to take the junior class, which was made up of six year olds. I did an hour of it and I instrantly went, “Wow this was an amzing experience”. Teachers who you might speak to would say that there was a moment that clicked for them when they realised that they felt it was something they could do. I guess I’ve been teaching singing from a very young age – the company started 20 years ago and it’s really been powering in the last five years.

Woodford obviously is the first festival that we’ve engaged with in this manner and we’ve been doing more. The main thing we’ve been focusing on throughout this year is dealing with all our corporate clients and getting them to look at singing as a great benefit for mindfulness and health and happiness in the workplace. HR departments are there trying to work out what to do with their employees and to get them happy and healthy, and singing is key with that. We’re working with them too – it’s really expanding and it’s very exciting.

As well as utilising your voice, you do have a wonderful tendency to utilise looping to yur advantrage as well. It was a major feature of your album that was released many years ago, but you have looping workshops at Woodford too, which I find fascinating because I don’t remember that being there the last couple of years when I went last. Is this a new thing or have you been doing workshops in looping for a while?

We’ve incorporated that because I think there have been some really great people looping for a long time and then it’s become extreme, like with Ed Sheeran recently performing at Wembley with a pedal. I’ll go to schools now and they’re like, “Wow – that’s what Ed Sheeran does!” – now every second person has a looping pedal in their kit, we thought it’d be good to offer How To Loop workshops so that people can get an idea of how easy it is and then also obviously, how aware you have to be.

For a singer, looping is like base jumping – if you do it live, it really does open up all the possibilities of things that can go wrong and also emphasise all the things you don’t know, because you’re by yourself. You can’t rely on someone else playing the guitar or counting on a piano player or being with a band. You have nowhere to hide, so you have to get a handle on how your pitch is or how your time is or how well you know songs. You become a better artist and a better singer, a better musician, using a loop pedal. We’re helping people who are into it and also people who just want to be able to use it as a tool for teaching. There’s lots of great uses for it, other than what I do with it – we just wanted to offer that as well, just to get people into the movement of looping your voice and instruments.

We’ve kind of mentioned this a little bit already but Woodford, to me, sounds like your second home away from home. It’s something that fascinates me in the sense that there is that community aspect to the whole festival. What to you, outside of what you do at Woodford, do you find fascinating [about it]? Is there another kind of stage or anything else at Woodford that you find fascinating about the festival?

For me, Woodfordia the site, and the festival…to me, what happens there represents what is possible in the world. It’s that serious to me. What happens is, people go there and they co-exist on that site for a week together – thousands of people – in peace, connecting in harmony and instant happiness. There are rarely fights and there’s hardly ever any issues on the site and there’s lots of people there. There are lots of different age groups and lots of different demographics. Lots of different people from all over the world and so for me, from the moment that I arrive there, I just am amazed and can’t believe that I’m witnessing that with my own eyes and feeling it with my own heart. That is what it is to me.

There are lots of other festivals and I’ve played them and I’m not saying they’re not like them either, but for me, the one festival that I’ve done in Australia that represents that element of the whole movement of this collective self-conscience that is shifting at the moment, things like Woodford and that site represents that to me. I think it’s definitely what it represents to a lot of people, they might not be able to verbalise but they know they keep going back, they know what they feel. That’s what the world needs and I think that being a part of that is just doing my part. Like Ghandi says, be the change you want to see in the world, and I think that if you are doing that and if you are doing something as powerful as that, you’re definitely doing your bit. Sometimes it feels like, ‘What am I doing to help?’.

I watched Leonardo DiCaprio’s documentary the other day, Before the Flood, and I was thinking, ‘What’s my part? What am I doing? Am I doing enough or am I doing anything?’. Being involved with The Singing Space and moving away from the life I was living before in chasing this strange dream, in a way, or this created illusion of stardom, and just living in service to happiness and what that really means…that’s the bit I’m doing.

It’s an awesome time of year, particularly for the Woodford Folk Festival as well. The time of year additionally adds to that; a lot of people coming after a hectic year and trying to reflect on it, adds to that. The planting is also another way of adding to that as well but I find the time of year in particular adds to that effect you’re explaining as well.

Absolutely. It’s cathartic and it’s healing. For some people, it’s more than just going and listening to an artist and just jumping up and down. Not that there’s anything wrong with that because that has its merits too, obviously, that’s why it’s been around for so long. Woodfordia and the festival for me, means that you’re in the right place at the right time and in life, that happens rarely. If you’re at the birth of your child or if you’re at your wedding day and you’re lucky enough to be getting married to the person you love in this country; those moments.

If you’re in the right place at the right time in life, it’s really an incredible moment of many elements and I think that when you’re at Woodford, that’s what you are. I love going back to spots and as my wife says, ‘You have a great sense of occasion’ – we’ll be somewhere we’ve been before and I’ll sit there and be like, ‘Wow – what’s happened since the last year?’ I do that a lot anyway. Certainly there, you see the movement in people. I love hearing the stories. We do this thing at the festival workshop where on the last day of the year, we do a thing where people say, “This year, I…” and everyone gets up and grabs the microphone. We had about 1400 people in the tent for it last year, it was pretty exciting. It’s amazing to hear those stories. Then on the next day, the first day of the year, people say, “This year, I will…”. That’s become a thing. People just come to do that.

Amazing. I think it’s an awesome aspect of your performance and I think it’s a really good element that Woodford allows you to do that and gives people an avenue to do that as well, to come onstage and express it as well.

The Woodford Folk Festival runs from December 27th through until January 1st. For the full program, visit their website here.